Wednesday 21 July 2021

O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness

We Catholics speak a lot about beauty. The beautiful decoration of our churches, the nobility and adornment of the vestments, the carefully organised gestures of the solemn Mass are all expressions of the beautiful. The reason we take such care over beauty in church is not on account of some self-indulgence or effete sensibility. It is because, however faint, it is a tangible expression of the beauty of heaven, of God’s own beauty, to whom we draw close in the Mass, that action which is the supreme act of the whole virtue of religion. Beauty in church is always placed at the service of the eternal.

There is, moreover, another kind of beauty which is at the service of the eternal, which is a tangible reflection of the beauty in God, which is even closer to us than the artistic glories of the Church — the beauty of holiness. The wonderful hymn by John S.B. Monsell which takes this notion as its title expresses the sentiment well. Just as the Magi laid their gifts at the feet of the Infant in the manger, just as our forebears and the pennies of the poor built churches adorned with sculpture and gilding to glorify God, so we must bring to the altar of God the beauty of our lives. It might seem a very lofty notion, but that is precisely what grace does: it beautifies us, it makes us graceful in the measure that we grow in the virtues which God wants of us.

There are times when the imperfections of our lives can dent our confidence. We can doubt our ability to be saints, or even to grow very much in virtue — it is hard work and there are so many things to knock our faith. The great challenge, however, is to accept that God loves us even on account of our faults and failings, and his grace is made perfect in our weakness. The third verse of that hymn encourages us, where Monsell writes: “Fear not to enter his courts in the slenderness of the poor wealth thou wouldst reckon as thine: Truth in its beauty, and love in its tenderness, these are the offerings to lay on his shrine.”

Every sculpture, every masterpiece of the painter’s art has a flaw, a scuff, or a fault in the gilding. Our lives may be imperfect but what the Lord wants is to lead us on from the good where we are to better. Our spiritual wealth may indeed be poor, we may be knocked by the buffetings of life, our faith may feel small, but “truth in its beauty and love in its tenderness” are the offerings our Lord wants of us. They are the beginnings of holiness, and the first steps on the way of perfection. They will always surprise us and will always make us free.