In his autobiographical account of his youth and his conversion to the faith, Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis relates the almost inexplicable mingling of joy and sorrow he felt when he first read of the Norse myth of Balder, the handsome and large-hearted god who was slain by a trick practiced upon him by Loki. “Balder, Balder the beautiful is dead!” cried the poet, and the young Lewis fairly wept. He was swept away from himself and his unhappy life at school. Many years later, walking through the woods in the evening with J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, Lewis would recall the myth of Balder, and his friends suggested to him the possibility that the bittersweet tale was a kind of “good dream,” an intimation among the pagans of the truth.
A man who wishes to remain an infidel, Lewis later said, had better be careful what he reads. I know this from my experience as a teacher of ancient, medieval, and Renaissance literature. Almost before a student has any real sense of the complexity of thought to be found in Augustine or Boethius or Dante or Milton, he is confronted with the dangerous power of beauty. “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want,” cries the psalmist, with stark and simple confidence. “For you have made us for yourself,” says Augustine, meditating upon the mystery that a mere part of creation should seek to praise the Creator to which all things are as naught, “and our hearts shall never rest, until they rest in you.” “O you who govern the world with perpetual reason,” sings Lady Philosophy, praying to God that her charge, the unjustly imprisoned Boethius, condemned to die an agonizing death, will come to understand the goodness of providence. “Ma qui la morta poesi resurga!” cries the pilgrim Dante, just escaped from hell and now waiting on the shores of the mountain of Purgatory, in the deep blue of the hour before the dawn, “But here let the dead poetry arise!” Satan is surprised by two stripling cherubs as he tries to whisper evil dreams into the mind of the sleeping Eve; but worse than his being caught is his confrontation with angels still holy, and therefore still lovely:
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
So spake the cherub, and his grave rebuke,
Severe in youthful beauty, added grace
Invincible; abasht the devil stood
And felt how awful goodness is.
The student finds himself at such moments — and loses himself in wonder.
The converse is also true. If the sudden irruption of beauty threatens to pull heaven down about us, then one good way to ensure that a human soul will be armored against the divine is to cultivate the drab, the slipshod, and the ugly. Eventually the people subjected to such an anti-culture will be unable to appreciate beauty at all, or will sneer at it as mere ornament. And this is one of the fine strategies of the Evil One. In Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, the diabolical “Uncle” confesses that not all the research of the demons below has sufficed to produce a single genuine pleasure. The trick is to lure people into sin by giving them pleasure gotten in an illicit way, and then to give them less and less of it, as they become more and more inescapably bound to having it. The trick with beauty is similar. The devils lure us with beauty mingled with the tang of sin, with beauty preyed upon by that parasite, until we grow weary of it, and turn either to the perverse and the hideous, or, in the bind of spiritual torpor, the simply drab. We will become the sorts of people who are embarrassed by beauty, even contemptuous of it, just as cynics cannot abide the presence of innocence and joy.
This maxim may be one of those things that is too big and too near to see. We could consider the folk ballads of old, like the lilting Loch Lomond — arranged in subtle four-part harmony for community singing clubs that once filled the halls of many a town with music. Then we could compare them with our contemporary counterpart, those sneers and sublingual grunts mass marketed for teenage boys wearing their pants around their knees, like people suffering from some hitherto unknown bone disease. We could talk about whole genres of poetry that have disappeared: not only the epic, which after Milton was pretty much set to rest, but also the ode, the dramatic monologue, the ballad, and the long narrative. We could ask why no one even bothers to argue that a mass-produced chair is worth anything after ten years or so, while an antique rocker with carved or pressed design is appealing still, beyond the pull of nostalgia. Even so lowly an art form as the animated cartoon has seen the golden age of Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett pass by.
But the drab that we use is as nothing compared with the drab that we are. I pick up an old book written for boys trying to understand the tumultuous feelings that surge up within them during the difficult years. The writer says that when the boy reaches the age of 16, he begins to want to look spruce, and to play the part of the chivalrous knight. I pick up another old book, written circa 1850 by a woman for the benefit of her fellow wives, and read that women should treat their husbands with gratitude for their often backbreaking labor in the fields. Or I pick up still another old book, and read the advice that a certain young fellow wrote for himself, on remaining respectful and not too talkative in the presence of elders, on bearing himself with mingled dignity and affability, and I wonder what George Washington would make of our loud, boorish, and ignorant self-assertion.
Yes, I do know that people of past ages were sinners, too. That is not my point. I mean to assert that while those people often failed to live up to some genuinely beautiful ideals, at least they had those ideals to which to aspire, while we have next to none. A friend of mine, a convert who is fascinated by the unraveling of social groups, notes that the word “professional” has largely replaced the word “honorable,” and he has the linguistic graphs to prove it. Our words manhood and womanhood have been eviscerated. Our popular art, which is nine-tenths mass-marketed junk, is snide, sleazy, crude, coarse, not terribly artistic, and not genuinely of the people. Anyone who supposes that such crudity is but what the common people have always lived with does not know the difference between the merry, the earthy — even the bawdy — and the heartless and joyless sneering peddled to all classes by what is tellingly called the entertainment industry. If the testimony of the old Canadian author Louis Hemon is to be trusted, and even if he forgave the faults of his beloved countrymen, there was more courtliness, more beauty of language and gesture, more hospitality and celebration in a peasant home of old Quebec than in our neighborhoods now with all their material wealth and spiritual isolation.
What the Church must do for such a people is not to meet them in the mud, or in the glass and steel cubicles of the modern bureaucratic state, but to invite them to climb up out of that mud, or take an elevator ride back down to a world of grass and trees and dogs and children. We must preach the beauty of Jesus Christ, that beauty so often difficult for man to see, because he is also the suffering servant, the dying savior on the cross, the man laid to rest in the tomb. But He is our beauty; for we have beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten Son of God. And of His glory have the saints partaken, so that we look up in wonder at the beauty of the athletic Pier Giorgio Frassati, ministering to the plague-ridden of Turin, or the seraphic eyes of Thérèse of Lisieux, suffering and in love with Jesus.
When a lost soul wanders into the silence of one of our churches, it should not feel to him as if he had walked into a doctor’s waiting room, or the department of motor vehicles, but into a new world, mysterious and true. And, sinners though we are, something of the glory of Jesus should shine through our persons, as light through the colors of a stained glass window, so that those who meet us on our pilgrimage may say to themselves, “I want to go on that journey, too.” Let us pray that Jesus will conform us to His beauty, so that in all we do we may be a decorous testimony to Him.