Art galleries are wonderful places to visit, not just because of the masterpieces contained in them, but because something unexpected often grabs our attention while there. This is exactly what happened while I was visiting Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, Scotland. In one of the galleries there is an inscription on the wall, a quote from the Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro, which both captured my attention and became a point of reflection: “Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.” The quote was especially well-placed, as we were surrounded by the magnificent paintings of a multitude of artists. As we proceeded to view selections representing different artistic styles, I noticed that when I was unable to find beauty it was either because I did not understand the artistic techniques utilized by the artist or that it simply was not a style I prefer. I realized that just because we do not ‘like’ a style, it does not mean it has no beauty. Upon further reflection, there is a wider connection of this concept to the gospels: that is, (in our lives) we do not have to disingenuously like everything we see or encounter, nor should we see something and naively say it is marvelous when it really holds no appeal; and especially not if it moves us away from God, or worse still, is evil and thus, devoid of beauty – (anything evil has lost its beauty because it has stripped itself of God and godliness). At its core, this is not at all about taste; the concept here is actually what Jesus meant when He told us to love our neighbor, including our enemies. He was not saying that we should be inauthentic, nor was He conflating ‘love’ with ‘like.’ Rather, He meant that we do not have to like everyone, but that we are called to love, a choice we make to do what is kind, merciful, compassionate, and just. These are the characteristics of the holy, of those who see beauty.
Seeing beauty in others is not always easy for us, but for God it is. Scripture reveals that in the very beginning everything came from Him, the source of all Beauty. The writer of Genesis points out that after God finished working on each day of creation He “saw how good it was,” a statement which also implies that what He made was beautiful in His eyes. At the end of the process, as the ‘jewel in the crown of creation’ God made humans “in His image, in the divine image He created him; male and female He created them.” (Gen 1:27) The second chapter of Genesis provides greater detail about the creation of humans: God blew His own breath into an ‘Earth creature,’ fashioned lovingly with His own hands from the clay of the ground, (‘Adam’ comes from the Hebrew, ha adamah and means ‘the ground’ or ‘earth’), and then eventually divided it into male and female. This means that not only are we created from the divine image, which is Beauty, but that we contain beauty within us, the spark of divine love which animates our souls into the magnificent creatures we are meant to be. Thus, God will always see us as beautiful because we are His beloved creation, His work of art, as St. Paul wrote (Ephesians 2:10), created individually and uniquely, but all equally lovely in His eyes. It is not only our appearance that He sees; every aspect of our being delights Him.
Pissarro’s insight is deeply profound, but I also see it as both a challenge and a call to holiness since the saints can be characterized as are ‘those who see beauty where others do not.’ Part of what constitutes holiness is the ability to see beauty in the humblest people and places; to do so, the saints become humble themselves, shining with the beauty of God. Throughout history, many holy men and women have worked with the poor and destitute, seeing them far differently than did their communities. These saints imitated Jesus who saw the lepers as beautiful children of God, curing their affliction both to alleviate their suffering and so that others might see them as He did, that is, to see past illness and to see the beauty of the person. Jesus saw everyone, especially the poor, the widowed, the outcast, the leper, the sick, the alien, and all the marginalized, as beautiful people with something to offer the community as beloved children of God. The gospels are full of stories which demonstrate this. Nothing was too ‘ugly’ for Jesus, even those who were possessed. He saw the demons as interlopers who did not belong within the possessed individuals, casting them out so that the person would have the freedom they deserved, thus allowing their true selves to become visible again.
There are countless examples of holy men and women, such as St. Francis of Assisi, who when young was physically disgusted by lepers, yet found he could approach and kiss such a one, sincerely learning to see past their deformities and see the persons rather than the symptoms. St. Theresa of Calcutta felt called to some of the filthiest places in the world to care for the people lying in the gutters. She picked up everyone, no matter what their religion or nationality and no matter how fetid their condition. She called it “doing something beautiful for God.” There is no doubt that she saw these people as beautiful, beloved creatures and did not see their afflictions as that which defined them. Finally, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, a young man from a wealthy home, gave the poor all he could. He entered into the tenements and the hospital wards with the poorest members of society, bringing clothing, medicine, and food. As he lay dying of polio myelitis at age 24, his last act was to write instructions for delivery of some medicine to a poor man. Pier Giorgio contracted the disease that killed him from the very poor he served, yet he died joyously, though in great suffering. All three of these holy ones saw beauty where others did not. They were not seeking acclamation; rather, they were deeply humble. They acted as they did because the spark of beauty within themselves, the love of Jesus Christ, had been fanned into flame through their prayer and true desire to help the people they had come to love. They saw beauty in all children of God, and so they literally began to love with Christ’s own heart.
Last week we celebrated the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, that is, the celebration of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Jesus, the Son of God, took on flesh and blood at His incarnation, and on the night before He died, He intentionally left His Body and Blood as His everlasting presence offered to us. Every time we consume His Body and Blood as Eucharist, the spark of love within us, truly ‘lit’ at our baptism, is fanned into flame so that we might become more like Him. (The newly baptized receives a lit candle and is told, “Receive the light of Christ!”) Furthermore, what happens within the church is not intended to stay inside; this is why we are implored at the conclusion of Mass by the deacon to “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord with your life!” Our call is to take what we have received and to share it with others. This includes learning to see beautiful things in humble places, learning to see God’s beauty in those whose lives have either blurred their beauty such that it cannot be readily seen, or through no fault of their own, have been downtrodden by suffering, poverty, or the prejudices and preconceptions of society.
We do not have to be artists to learn to see beauty as God does. In order to see things that are not visible to the ‘untrained eye’ we must allow ourselves to be ‘trained,’ something remedied through prayer and by asking the Holy Spirit for the specific graces to do so. We can also appeal to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, (both feasts were celebrated at the end of last week), for the grace of loving more like they do. It is good to learn to see beauty in nature, in the arts, and in anything which leads us closer to God; it is blessed to learn to see beauty in humble places, in particular if it is within the people with whom we come into contact, and especially in those who might be outside of our ordinary comfort zone. Blessed are we when we love as Jesus loves! When we do, we uplift our brothers and sisters, and we enable others to see God’s beauty also; that is the very nature of discipleship, and it is at the heart of holiness.
May we ask the Holy Spirit to help fan the spiritual flame of love within us! May we ask the intercession of the Saints and Holy Ones to help us see beauty more readily! May we imitate Christ in our outreach to those who are in greatest need, learning to see beauty in the humblest, and learning to be humble from their beauty! May we turn to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, asking her to show us how to love as with her motherly heart! May we desire holiness and therefore turn more often to prayer so that we might grow in love of God and in turn share it with others! May we find the ultimate Beauty in the Body and Blood of Jesus, and with grateful hearts may we partake of this gift often and always! Let us continue to meet in the Sacred Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Next post July 15
1. I took this photo while in Cairngorms National Park in the Highlands of Scotland. Some may say that this is nothing but a dead tree limb, and that is actually true. But a dead limb can certainly be thought of as humble, artistically placed, an unusual bit of nature's idea of beauty. Thus, this photo seemed perfect to begin the entry.
2. More of Scotland, another of my photos: This is the garden at Dunvegan Castle. I was captivated by the rhododendrons, which are considered an invasive species by some, yet with a bit of intentional landscaping and care, they are quite attractive. Again, some things may be relative to one's preferences, but if we open our eyes to it, we can see beauty.
3. Julie and Ludovic-Rodolphe Pissarro Among the Flowers, painted by Camille Pissarro, (1879): How could I write a piece inspired by Pissarro and not include one of his paintings? I chose this particular one, however, because his wife and son who were the subjects of the painting. I loved that they were surrounded by their lovely garden, a humble place, yet filled with the grandeur of nature. You can find more on the artist at https://www.wikiart.org/en/camille-pissarro
4. St. Francis 'Neath the Bitter Tree, icon written by Fr. William Hart McNichols: I chose this because it depicts St. Francis of Assisi and is reminiscent of when he embraced the leper, an event which led to his ministry to the poor and sick, particularly those with leprosy. We still have our 'lepers' today, so I chose this as a challenge for us to pray about how we are called to see past the infirmities, or whatever we see as a 'stumbling block' to a relationship with them, so that we might reach out. https://fineartamerica.com/featured/francis-neath-the-bitter-tree-006-william-hart-mcnichols.html
5. My photo (cropped) of the stained glass at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston, Texas: I chose this because Jesus is holding the bread and wine which He offers now as His Body and Blood.
6. My photo of gorse on a hill in Scotland: Gorse is a plant which grows all over Scotland and turns everything into a blaze of bright yellow. It is seemingly everywhere, a humble plant which is indeed beautiful when it covers a hillside.
7. Heart of the Mother, by Fr. William Hart McNichols: I chose this because I loved the simplicity of the image. Mary is dressed in pale yellow and cream, and so her heart truly stands out. Mary is pure, without sin, conceived as such within her mother's womb in preparation for her assent to being the Mother of God. Her heart was always immaculate, and I believe this image truly captures that, as well as her humility. We need to turn to Mary's motherly heart often, asking for her intercession as our model of faith, humility, and love. https://fineartamerica.com/featured/heart-of-the-mother-252-william-hart-mcnichols.html
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Heart Speaks to Heart