Beauty is the glory of the body. Yet there are many ways of perceiving it and too often we fail to grasp the types of beauty that, like treasures, are buried deeper within. What’s more, many consider Catholic morality as suppression of beauty, rather than a celebration of it. This isn’t helped by the fact that the idea of beauty has been distorted and consistently reduced to meaning “sexy.”
As a result, sometimes we aren’t sure what to do with beauty or sex. To simplify things, it might seem easier to go at it with a basically moral, practical approach: “you can do such and such; but you can’t do such and such”. Again, this helps for clarity and practical guidelines are indeed necessary.
Still, if we aren’t able to transmit a much richer and complex vision of beauty, many people – especially the youth – will get the impression that the Christ came to build fences rather than to lead us toward life’s fullness. A good friend once compared our culture’s vision of beauty to a piece of chocolate at the Dollar Store, while what the Faith offers us is Godiva chocolate (I prefer Lindt chocolate myself, but you get the idea.). The first might taste ok, but God has given us a so much more!
Now, we Christians are daring folks: we dare to affirm that the bodily characteristics of a person and sexual encounters are not the culmination of beauty in our lives. We do so, however, because beauty fascinates us and, as such, so does purity. For with pure eyes, we can celebrate both the beauty of the skin and beauty of the heart. But we can do nothing but mourn when the latter is divorced from the former.
So today I would like to offer a few thoughts on 5 types of beauty (make sure you click on *Go to next page), each one deeper than the other. My proposal is that our eyes were made for beauty, but for types that go much deeper than the sexualized versions (sexualized in a very banal sense, in another, all kinds of human beauty of sexualized in the sense that they are feminine or masculine) that we typically see in advertising. To this kind of beauty, we must not only look, however, we much change how we look. It takes sacrifice and determination but, as one wise man said, beauty will save the world.
With this, I hope to offer a few thoughts and images that will help to illuminate this very positive path of beauty which our faith invites us to walk. These thoughts are based on Xavier Lacroix’s, Il corpo e lo spirito.
1. Plastic Beauty
Here we gaze upon the simple harmony of forms and volume. The level of pleasure and attraction that it generates will depend on personality, history, and cultural background. For women, for example, a luminous, unblemished complexion and things like large eyes, a small nose, and fuller lips might be all considered traits of a beautiful face. Such beauty is most certainly worthy of being appreciated and it is an important, enchanting part of our lives.
Some say that such traits (symmetry, luminosity, etc.) to be beautiful in that they relay biological signals of health and fertility. Unfortunately, beauty and life, in many respects, have been divorced today. While true beauty not only attracts but also transforms the admirer (thus a man who falls in love becomes a husband and father, thus a giver and not only a receiver), today we make great strides to gorge ourselves in this attraction while abandoning any and all transformation (pornography, no-risk relationships, etc).
That said, this kind of beauty is quite similar to the kind of beauty that we find in an object of art, a statue perhaps. It is a beauty that is almost anonymous (a beauty that is independent of a who), storyless, something ephemeral that is quickly generated with the passing of a Photoshop brush or the scalpel of a plastic surgeon. (Image source)
2. Sensible grace of Expression
Something different appears when we gaze upon the face in a different way. The face is, above all, manifestation, revelation. It is something that we receive. More than the manifestation, however, we receive the expression. Put simply, here we are not perceiving an object, rather a subject.
The sensible beauty here lies in the ability to express. Some are more expressive than others. Why? Very difficult to know. That gift known as charism, that simple joy of living that irradiates intelligence, humor, lightness, agility and which exercises an almost gravitational pull on others is ungraspable and mysterious.
Certain faces are simply “blessed” and others cannot help but appreciate such charm. Still, sometimes it is this charm alone that is beautiful and basing a relationship on such foundations alone can bring about tragic consequences.
3. Irradiation of a presence
Continuing along our path towards the depth of beauty, we reach a mode of beauty that goes beyond any kind of pleasurable, plastic beauty or even the sensibility graceful kind. Here, the admirer’s gaze goes beyond (without, of course, despising) the form and the charm in order to grasp a kind of event in which a presence is manifested.
Perhaps the symmetry is lacking and wrinkles abound. Perhaps the expression is reserved and timid. It matters little. Here the gaze falls upon a person, a living presence, full of dignity and mystery that lies in front of us. Certain presences appear to be more luminous, others more obscure. Nevertheless, here we perceive the beauty of a subject, of a person, of a story. Wrinkles aren’t to be abolished, rather celebrated and narrated. Asymmetry becomes beauty because it is her asymmetry, her story, the beauty of being her, that woman that stands before me.
4. Hidden glory
Sometimes a presence can be hidden, veiled behind not only a lack of symmetry rather by the presence of disfiguration. Certain faces reveal scars, deformities, tumors… perhaps they passed through the hell of war, or the claws of violence. Perhaps they suffered the simple misfortune of being born as such.
A banal and habitual gaze might feel repugnance, aversion, distaste. Those who suffer the miope of superficiality will never discover the glory present here. Those who can’t see it have never listened to the Little Prince when he said: “Here is my secret. It is very simple. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
There are those, however, that, filled with certain exuberance that can only come from the spiritual life, embrace this glory. It is the glory of being unique, absolutely unique. It is the glory of being made in the image and likeness of God. It is a glory whose light shines even more strongly because it is hidden to the eyes of most. It is a secret glory, a mysterious beauty, like that of Christ’s beaten face on the cross.
5. Transfigured Face
The final beauty presented by Lacroix is that of a secret glory that becomes sensible. The occasions are rare and holy. One can’t help but think of Moses when the “skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him” (Ex 34:30). Or Christ, before his apostles, when “his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light” (Matthew 17:2).
Here, we are speaking of an almost divine beauty as we find in 2 Cor 3, 18: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.”
While rare, it is not necessarily impossible to see this kind of beauty. Have you ever witnessed a certain kind of luminosity in the face of some? It is that sort of glowing joy emitted by an old monk, or by the young sister who has just taken her vows, or by a mother who has just given birth to her newborn child.
It is a gift to perceive this kind of beauty, but it is also the horizon of each one of our Christian lives. In fact, in one sense, the universal invitation to do apostolate, to share Christ’s message means that each one of us is called to transmit this kind of beauty to others.
Finally, I would like to share a beautiful quote from Bishop Fulton Sheen’s book, Three to Get Married.
“Beauty of the body attracts the eyes; beauty of soul attracts God. Man sees the face; God sees the soul. Mary’s beautiful purity must have been such that it attracted less the eyes than the souls of men. No one would have loved her mind or soul because of the beauty of her body, but they would have so loved the beauty of her soul as almost to forget she even had a body. It is very likely that a human eye, looking on Mary, would scarcely have been conscious that she was beautiful to the eye. When one is overjoyed by the beauty of the picture, he does not pay much attention to the frame…
The cult of the body can be understood in two ways: one after the fashion of the world, and one in the light of Mary. Both are agreed that the body should be beautiful. The one beautifies it from without; the other beautifies it from within. One adorns the body that it may be attractive through what it has; the other adorns the body with the reflections of the virtues within. It was only after our first parents sinned that they perceived they were naked. When the soul lost its raiment of grace, the body lost its attractiveness. The less beauty the soul has, the more it needs to decorate the body. Excessive luxury of dress and vain display of external beauty are signs of the nakedness of the soul. ‘The beauty of the King’s daughter is from within.’
The blind always have kindly faces, probably because they are less materialized by the things the rest of men see. An inner radiance seems to shine through them. Those who are naturally ugly, such as St. Vincent de Paul, become very attractive once they become saintly, as he did. The only ones who are truly beautiful are those who look beautiful when they come in out of the rain. That kind of beauty comes from the inside out, not from the outside in. It is the product of Virtue, not makeup; it is not skin-deep, but soul-deep.”