Friday, January 1, 2016

Building an appetite for beauty. . .

Dr. John Patrick, spent the better part of his career in the third world developing a protocol to rehabilitate starving children. Children would come to his clinic for treatment in advanced stages of starvation, with skin loose on bones and internal organs shutting down. Dr. Patrick developed a rehabilitation protocol which resulted in over 95% success, and it wasn’t complex, though it confounded the basic instincts of other doctors until that time. The principle is simple; instead of immediately stuffing these children full of nutrient rich solutions, feed them watery broth first. As the child regains appetite, add substance to the broth, but always allow the appetite to come first. When the appetite is fully engaged, then let the child eat as much as he wishes. Today Dr. John Patrick’s method is used throughout the world to save countless children’s lives.

I found this fascinating both for the history of the good doctor and the applicability of his method to the church.  The sad truth is that we have developed an appetite for vulgarity that threatens to consume us.  From movies to news, from internet to print, we see more vulgarity and barbarism than almost any age before us (save for those who spent most of their time in the grisly affairs of war, disease, famine, and plague).  It has colored our minds and tainted our hearts.  We do not merely see naked images but view the erotic in everything from advertisements to media.  There is little that is left to the imagination.  We watch the explicit images of horror in the reality of news that no longer seems to shock us and in movies that are so real they equally dull our senses to the terror of what they convey.  Our conversation is filled with vulgarity -- from the private words whispered out of view of the ears of others to the public oratory that we cannot but hear.  Once we compared such salty talk to a drunken sailor but walk down the hallways of the average public middle school or high school and perhaps even drunken sailors might learn a few choice words.

Art and image that claims beauty has sought to shock rather than inspire.  From the much celebrated pornographic and offensive art of a Mapplethorp and to the famous crucifix in urine of Andres Serrano to the harsh and stark slabs of concrete, glass, and metal that adorn too many of our cityscapes, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder but absent without leave.  While it is easy to dismiss the great artists and artisans of the past as quaint, it is difficult to find many modern examples that idealized the world and life the way the sculptor's chisel and painter's brush once did.

The problem is not that we no longer are surrounded by beauty -- that would be easy to correct.  Instead the core of the malady is that we have lost our taste for beauty.  It has to be slowly and carefully restored.  You cannot cram beauty down the throats of the uninitiated and expect them to appreciate or desire it.  Love for beauty and the desire for that which is noble and virtuous must be learned in steps.

So it is that we cannot suddenly thrust upon people the beauty of liturgy, music, and architectural setting and expect them to know what it is or desire it with their full  heart.  It has to be taught.  This is the domain of the parish pastor.  He is the teacher of beauty.  The stark walls of warehouse buildings cannot be quickly replaced by paint, sculpture, or glass without patient and earnest instruction in beauty.  The sound of worship that mirrors the radio cannot be replaced with Gregorian chant or Lutheran chorale without deliberate and painstaking teaching.  Such instruction does not end but continues endlessly as generation after generation learn to love that which inspires and ennobles in visual and aural form in a manner consistent with the very words of the Gospel itself.

So I urge you to a long pastorate and to patient teaching if this is your call.  I know this from experience.  It takes a generation to teach and but a few months or a year to destroy the thirst for that which is good, right, true, beautiful, and majestic.  But it is worth it.  We fight not merely against the poor choices of those before us but a culture consumed with the base and vulgar all around us.  Step by step and little by little we wage a war against the devil's curse -- giving us the stark, the worst, the cheap, and the shameful and then teaching us to love and desire only these.

A new year begins on our calendars but the same old quest is before us -- we have to learn what beauty is, learn its taste, learn to savor its aroma, learn to desire its goodness... and then we will move not only to appreciate the forms of art that inspire but to create that which honors the legacy of the finest in the past and adds the best of this moment.  The Gospel is worth it -- worth our best, our noblest, our greatest beauty in response to God's greatest treasure freely offered in His Son.  Happy New Year!

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