Beauty for its own sake

What do Toulouse-Lautrec, The Feast the Presentation and a doctor of Canon Law all have to do with one another?  No it’s not the start of a bad pulpit joke, it’s just my day today.

Today is, after all the feast of the Presentation.  It happened at the end of the days of purification; Mary and Joseph took the newborn Jesus to the Temple to present him to God the Father according to Law and custom.  Why?  Because they needed to?  Certainly not.  The eternal Jesus was already well-acquainted with his co-eternal Father… and Mary certainly needed no purification, having been preserved from original sin.  So why?  Because the Law was a beautiful thing, a gift from God beautiful in and of itself, worthy of observation…. in the same way that Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan to fulfill all righteousness.  It wasn’t “necessary,” it wasn’t “useful,” but it was worth doing.  Here we stumble upon the concept of aesthetics: doing the beautiful simply to do the beautiful.

Today at the Phillips Collection, I’ll be getting a sneak peek at their new exhibit “Toulouse-Lautrec Illustrates the Belle-Epoque”  The drawings of this famed French illustrator were not exactly high art in the vain of Michelangelo, but they are said to have captured the spirit of their time and place.  Like so many other works of, let’s call it “day-to-day” art, Toulouse Lautrec’s illustrations are still with us because they have a certain beauty all their own, irrespective of any usefulness.  One enjoys looking at them just for the sake of saying, “Wow, there are beautiful things in the world and man is part of them.”  Indeed, art – as an extension man – is an extension of the only creature on earth created for its own sake.  Man serves no useful purpose.  God did not need to make us to praise him.  He made us purely from love as an act of unadulterated non-utilitarian beauty.

Later in the day I’ll go to a mass of thanksgiving and farewell celebration for a friend of mine, Father James Bradley who departs these shores for his native England, doctorate of Canon Law in-hand.  Father Bradley is a master artist when it comes to music and his awareness the Church’s most sublime musical form, chant.  During his time in Washington, he’s brought a really luminous enthusiasm to so many masses, days of recollection and countless other encounters he’s been part of.  It’s not the kind of stuff we use on a daily basis… and in that sense not, useful… but to have been touched by it is to have experienced something of heaven.  I’m so grateful for my friend, his discipline and zeal.  Utilitarian, perhaps not (at least not by post-modern standards), but I feel closer to heaven for having experience his love of beauty for its own sake.

Looking at the world with eyes of faith, how much time do I spend experiencing beauty for its own sake?