By Peter Baugher
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Philippines 4:8).
In my year and a half at Franciscan University, almost every student I’ve met describes Austria in the same way: life-changing.
I assumed walking on foreign soil for a semester would influence me profoundly.
I assumed I’d become more independent, meet new friends and expand my understanding of culture and history.
I did two weeks in Austria to radically change my outlook on the world.
As a homeschooled cradle Catholic, I learned many of the truths of the Faith from a young age. From these truths, as well as a personal conversion in late middle school, I grew in the knowledge and practice of goodness and virtue through prayer, fasting and discipline.
However, there is a third way that man encounters God: beauty.
While I’ve walked on pretty hikes and seen beautiful churches, the East Coast of the United States offers little compared to Austria.
Already, I have strolled the streets of the old-world cities of Salzburg and Vienna, which are home to beautiful pastel buildings and clean stone plazas.
I have prayed in some of Europe’s oldest and most beautiful churches. I have seen snowcapped alps and golden valleys.
As God is the source of all things, in all this beauty, even without realizing it, I have seen reflections of my Creator and Redeemer.
I fully came to appreciate beauty’s influence on me at the Sunday night travelers’ mass in the Kartause, almost a day from the time of this writing.
As I sang the classic praise song “How Great is My God,” I reflected on my experiences in the past two weeks.
A God that can create a world like this and create beings that build structures of such magnificent beauty must truly be a great God.
Thus, because it brings us closer to God, beauty promotes ongoing conversion, a requirement for Christian life and a central Franciscan charism.
Beauty is also a tool for the initial conversation and evangelization. If beauty directs the human heart towards God, and if we as Catholics want to spread the faith, then we cannot abandon beauty.
You may now say, “Okay, yes, beauty is a means towards God and a reason to praise Him, but I can’t put an alp in the middle of the DMV, and most of us don’t have the money to build an imperial palace.”
To that I say, “Fair enough!”
If anyone knows any millionaires, or if one happens to read our humble school paper, I in fact call on them to follow the wealthy of old and sponsor art and architecture that gives glory to our Father.
However, even though most of us lack wealth comparable to the Hapsburgs, I invite all to join me in seeking to create beauty according to our means and abilities.
What is beauty? The art, architecture and natural beauty of Europe has taught me that beauty is that which raises the heart and mind to God without using the words, “Raise your heart to God!”
Thus, if we have a goal to know God more perfectly, we should all seek to fill our lives with those things that direct our hearts heavenward.
This will obviously look different for different people, but a good place to start may just be your dorm or your room at home.
Does your wall art direct you to God or away from him? Can you paint your room at home in a way that uplifts you?
If you cannot place beauty into your life, be intentional about placing yourself around beauty.
Make a pilgrimage to the churches scattered throughout the United States that are built in a way that gives praise to God. Seek out the beauty of nature where every you go.
At the very least, as you go about your life, make a small effort to recognize beauty in front of you. Notice the sunrise on the way to your 8 a.m. classes or the flowers around campus in the fall and spring.
One final note. In our culture, especially among conservative Catholics, there may be some conflation of beauty with femininity.
When you walk into a women’s dorm, chances are that you will barely know what color the wall is beyond all the decorations. When you walk into a men’s dorm, you’re unlikely to see anything more than a few posters.
All I need to do is to point you to the Sistine Chapel. Michealangelo was a man and is responsible for the most famous pieces of artwork in history.
Popes, kings and bishops spent exuberant sums of money to create beauty for themselves and the faithful.
Therefore, man or woman, I exhort all of you to seek out beauty in your lives and allow it to change your heart and deepen your unity with your Creator.