“Too late have I loved Thee, O Beauty, ever ancient, ever new!” St. Augustine was in his forties by the time he penned this personal lament. As readers of the Confessions know (and the Confessions has been a universal must-read for 1600 years), Augustine wasted himself for 30 years before he finally embraced the Lord in the greatest conversion story ever told. Throughout his retrospective, he refers to beauty, the need for beauty, the search for beauty. His wanderings away from the faith of his mother were intimately bound up with a search for beauty. He did not find beauty in his catechesis, nor in his early education, so he sought it in the wild passions of love and friendship. Eventually, Augustine found the Lord by realizing in very painful ways that other beauties disappointed when they were mistaken for real Beauty.
In his praise of the Lord, St. Augustine connects love and Beauty, for they are correlatives. Love is aroused by what is beautiful, beauty inspires love. We need to be inspired by what is truly beautiful, to be passionate about what is lovely. And to enjoy in the objects of natural affection a suggestion, a reflection of the Beauty that never passes.
Our nation’s Puritanical past might lead us to think that to be religious is to deny ourselves what is beautiful, but the opposite is true. The Danish movie,Babette’s Feast, provides a parable about a small fishing village that has driven out all that is beautiful in life in its misguided following of Christianity. The loss of beauty leads to a loss of joy and friendship. The humble cook, who is really a refugee French chef, wins a lottery fortune and uses it to prepare a sumptuous feast to celebrate the founder of the community. In the course of the feast, the village is re-awakened, re-evangelized and re-united.
Catholic schools have a joyful duty to present what is beautiful to their students. At the center of the school, the chapel and all religious services should present a feast for the eyes, the ears, the mind and the heart. Classrooms and hallways should be tastefully decorated; students will imbibe fine works of art over the course of their years at a school. Tasteful, rich, clever visual presentations should be an important factor when considering textbook series.
Beauty has an important place in the central activity of teaching and learning. Learning certainly requires discipline, but deep down it is a feast for the mind and heart. An ancient expression describing what it means to be beautiful is, “What pleases merely by being seen.” What is beautiful does not have to be possessed, consumed to please us; merely a look is sufficient to delight us. When we hear this, we immediately think of paintings, faces, the visible things seen by the eyes. But in a more profound sense, what pleases the mind by itself, without reference to possessing something, is truly beautiful.
Many of us who teach know what this means. As young men and women, we were enchanted by our subjects and fell in love with them. Our great desire has always been to share that enchantment with our students. None expressed this desire better than the great entomologist, J. Henri Fabre. The man honored by Darwin as the “Inimitable Observer” realized the crucial importance of inspiring a love for the insects whose habits he wished to make the object of their scientific interest.
And why should I not complete my thought: the boars have muddied the clear stream; natural history, youth‘s glorious study, has, by dint of cellular improvements, become a hateful and repulsive thing. Well, if I write for men of learning, for philosophers, who, one day, will try to some extent to unravel the tough problem of instinct, I write also, I write above all things for the young. I want to make them love the natural history which you make them hate; and that is why, while keeping strictly to the domain of truth, I avoid your scientific prose, which too often, alas seems borrowed from some Iroquois idiom.
Dr. Paul Lockhart expresses the same, heartfelt desire in his Mathematician’s Lament, in which he mourns the fact that most students never get a clue in twelve years of schooling as to why mathematicians love what they do.
There is no question that if the world had to be divided into the “poetic dreamers” and the “rational thinkers” most people would place mathematicians in the latter category. Nevertheless, the fact is that there is nothing as dreamy and poetic, nothing as radical, subversive, and psychedelic, as mathematics. It is every bit as mind blowing as cosmology or physics (mathematicians conceived of black holes long before astronomers actually found any), and allows more freedom of expression than poetry, art, or music (which depend heavily on properties of the physical universe).
I recently received a lament from a graduate student in classical literature at a prestigious graduate school, one with which graduate students in all fields who entered their programs in love with a subject can sympathize:
I’m frustrated by what I see of academia. I rarely get to consider a text as literature – I feel like there’s always a huge emphasis on socio-historical context or the validity of manuscripts – and so often classes center closely around the professors’ rather obscure interests….I enjoy when I can spend a day reading Homer or Ovid. I’m just learning that Classics is not really about doing that.
Teachers of literature must ensure that they spend less time training students to recognize metaphor and simile than they do inspiring them to feel the power of the beauty of the stories and poems they encounter in their classes. Of course, no teacher will succeed with every or even most students, nor can he neglect his duty to pass on things that need to be “known” about it. But he should take every opportunity he can to manifest the beauty of a subject to which he has given his own heart. When he succeeds, he has given his students something which will make a greater impression in their lives than any test they might ever pass. For, as St. Augustine also realized, every encounter with a beauty is really a meeting with the Beauty that is the goal of all our longing:
And I replied unto all the things which encompass the door of my flesh: “Ye have told me of my God, that ye are not He; tell me something of Him.” And they cried out with a loud voice, “He made us.” My questioning them, was my thoughts on them: and their form of beauty gave the answer.