Travel Log: Medieval Spain, a lesson in all beauty


Sir Roger Scruton’s recent and untimely death inspired my new philosophical hunt into matters of aesthetics and beauty. After all, real beauty is a fine art unto itselfScruton said once, “Beauty has fallen into disrepute … There has been a huge cultural shift, an almost deliberate attempt to expel beauty from the place in human life that it naturally occupies, which is the center. 

Beauty’s expulsion from society and religion is part of the parasite devouring modern society, because man no longer pursues beauty, goodness and truth as transcendent absolute values. All three are now subjective for the postmodern mindset, regardless of ontological categories.   

We are an historically Protestant nation. If you have travelled to the northeastern states, you know how those little towns and churches possess a quaint and Genevan bleaknessThis WASP culture was never very friendly to anything remotely Catholic. I tend to think of this as the seeds of the postmodern being sown into our soil, as citizens of the New World became further and further distant from the Catholic and European. 

Granted, Europeans are now very much postmodern and post-Christian like we Americans are.  Europe, however, has the privilege of having been Christian for over 1500 years, so that completely stamping out religion is likely impossible. When certain cultural habits are that deeply rooted into a people, they will never be completely lost. But, that is a debate issue for another day (and another columnist).  

Part of restoring beauty to the center of society naturally requires bringing back the religious to the center as well. The deeply religious nation wants to give its best and most beautiful in order to glorify God. Let me explain how I got this idea.  

I had the privilege in June 2019 to spend two weeks in Spain. Jetlagged and weary on day one, my brother and I wandered the medieval roads of Tolédo to attend the Corpus Christi Thursday liturgy at the archdiocesan cathedral. Two hours inside a medieval cathedral is never enough to absorb everything it has to offer its pilgrims and worshipers. While the Archbishop of Tolédo, who is the Primate of Spain, chanted the ancient Mozarabic prayers and litanies, vacillating between Latin and Castilian Spanish, my eyes gazed into the apse beyond the high altar and rood screen to behold the vivid and colorful medieval retable depicting the Passion of the Christ.   

Couple that almost mystic glimpse I had into the heavens with the unspeakably majestic procession which took place after the Mass had ended. The Eucharist was displayed in a monstrance like I had never seen before: it had to be at least the size of a Chevy pick-up truck, and the clergy had it mounted on a float decorated with flowers and flowing tapestries. Running around the medieval streets once again with my brother, we passed beneath various regional Spanish flags hanging from apartment and business windows as citizens showered down rose petals and rang bells at the sight of the procession. 

Here was the moment I realized how in our public religious exercises – liturgies, processions, etc. – we ought to sacrifice and offer the very best of decoration and most beautiful material objects so that they can lift the mind and soul to God and show outward respect for that which is holy.   

To us who are Catholic, these things should be obvious. The question now is: Why should beauty also be the center of secular society? 

Beauty is a necessary need for the soul. At once, there is a complexity with which it meets the human eye, but a simplicity with which we receive its glow. Souls must be formed and trained in aesthetic wonder and symbolism in order to process the ideas and tenets of natural law. Where these things lack, the entire society has committed suicide. I dare to conclude that in real beauty, humanity is forced to acknowledge the existence of another world and admit that here on Earth we have no lasting city. That is why beauty is erased and why we must take it upon ourselves to restore it to the center of civic life.   

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