The first day or two that we were on pilgrimage in Rome, the students were entering church after church with necks that craned heavenward. It was the natural response to the beautiful architecture that we were encountering. They took pictures galore, marveling over magnificent domes and intricate mosaics that adorned the walls. Our hearts were overflowing with beauty. My students from South Dakota were encountering some of the greatest artists the world has ever had to offer.
By day three, however, they were growing bored with the church after church schedule, regardless how beautiful they were. One of the girls that seemed quite invested in photography went from executing creative basilica photo shoots to nonchalantly sitting in a pew during a stop in another church.
“Isn’t it funny how quickly we get bored of all this beauty?” I asked her as I watched other students mill around aimlessly.
“Yes!” she replied, perhaps noticing for the first time how much her response had changed to the loveliness around her.
And we spoke for a few minutes about how amazed we all were the first day and how quickly we were tired of what had been novel only a couple days before. My tiredness didn’t match the students’ expressions, but I did have to remind myself to keep looking at the churches with wonder and not simply let my eyes glaze over.
Too much beauty–is there even such a thing?
I want to say that there is no such thing as too much beauty. But what would perhaps be more true is to say that sometimes we lack the capacity to fully enter into the beauty we are offered. Whether it is a dozen grand churches one after the other or a more ordinary sight of fresh flowers on a table, we are all capable of overlooking the beauty that is set before us. Some views are objectively breathtaking–the Grand Canyon or the Swiss Alps. However, one could stand before those same views and insist that they aren’t moving.
Beauty takes time. I don’t mean hours and hours in front of one painting. But there is something about lingering in front of the beautiful that allows us the opportunity to actually take it in. To meet the beautiful means to pause, even if only for a couple beats, and receive greater depth.
When I visited the Grand Canyon a couple of years ago, I didn’t expect to be so enraptured. Yet for the limited time I was there, my mind mostly just managed to think, “Wow!” I could have spent all day there, just gazing at its depth and breadth. In National Lampoon’s Vacation, Clark Griswold spent a mere three seconds looking at the view–not nearly enough time to truly take in the beauty. There is a necessary patience involved in embracing the lovely.
Beauty is something we allow to have a power over us. If permitted, beauty can transform us. Beautiful music, literature, movies, conversations, friendships, nature, architecture, and the like all can change and transform our hearts. When we meet beauty, we are always given the choice to let it in or reject it. To authentically let beauty inside requires that we draw nearer to Beauty Himself, becoming in some small way more like the beauty we embrace.
The power beauty can have over us can be limited by our capacity to receive it. My students, in general not prone to patiently pause before the beautiful, found their capacity to receive beauty was quickly filled. In just two days in Rome, they were no longer interested or captivated. The places we were going were still just as beautiful, but the impact was lost on many of them since they weren’t used to such experiences.
How do we increase our capacity for beauty? The same way we increase the distance we can run, the amount of time we can spend underwater, or the number of trips we can make through the buffet line: practice. By repeatedly placing ourselves in the midst of beauty or giving ourselves permission to see the beauty around us, our hearts widen to receive more beauty. Invest in good art for your home, read profound poetry, discuss good literature with friends, and spend time in the simple elegance of nature.
Someday, God willing, we will be in the Beatific Vision, where our attraction to the lovely will never diminish. Let’s prepare now, by seeking the beautiful here on earth as a foreshadowing of the Beauty that is and is to come, that beckons us to be in intimate relationship with Him. As we draw nearer to the Source of all Beauty, may our hearts widen, expanding exponentially in our ability to embrace the glorious. May our seeking never bore us, but rather may it plunge us deeply into the heart of the God-man.
Lord, grant us the grace to see the beauty you place around us and praise you for your generosity.
St. Mary Magdalene, you who encountered Beauty and let Him completely transform you, pray for us on your feast day.
(All photos by me.)