Beauty Poverty and the Public Good

Recently, a colleague and I were talking about the planned Eisenhower Memorial in the heart of DC. Among many hotly debated questions about Washington’s newest memorial, my friend pointed out one sure thing: it will be expensive… not by the standards of the whole federal budget, but when you think of how many meals could be bought for the poor, houses that could be built for the homeless, medicines provided to say… Eisenhower’s surviving veterans.

It’s a classic debate: Beauty vs. “Utility” and an important one, one we should have frequently to keep us true.  True to what?  The balance of corporal and spiritual goods.  Caring for our fellow man is a moral imperative, to be sure… but so is the spiritual reality of reminding ourselves where we come from and what kind of world our fathers (including God our Father) wanted for us.  “Walking around” inside our father’s dreams for us guides us.  It also helps our self-understanding to transcend the limited life-span and circumstances we inhabit.

Last night’s PBS News Hour offered up a great example of this in Detroit.  Our neighbors to the north have struck a “grand bargain” to move their city out of bankruptcy.  As part of it, a consortium of non-profits, including the Ford Foundation, are donating money to secure public pensions AND to safeguard the Detroit Institute of the Arts.  Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation expounded beautifully that saving the Art Institute for future citizens of Detroit is not a luxury it’s a NEED for the soul of the city.  I would highlight the stunning premise here: that a community of citizens does indeed have a soul!

Jesus strikes this same balance in his ministry.  On the one hand he gives us an absolute command to serve the bodily good of our brothers and sisters in need.  But in John 12 he also blesses Mary of Bethany for pouring a year’s worth of aromatic ointment over his feet, washing them with her tears and drying them with her hair.  Extravagant?  Certainly… but Jesus blesses this extravagance.  I guess we could say that if the human body needs sober regulated nourishment for it’s health, the human soul needs extravagant love for its best good.  If our monuments, houses of worship and other public spaces serve that good, it’s well worth it.

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For more, consider listening to Fr. Saward’s marvelous talk (10/11/14) to The Catholic Arts Society