In our culture, we are facing many problems that revolve around a major crisis, which has widely gone unnoticed, the explosion of beauty. We are seeking and sometimes fighting for many important things today, in order to better our lives. Yet, are we going about this search correctly? We seek freedom, but do we take the time to live in it? We want joy but do we go where it is found? I find myself searching for answers to these questions. Yet, I search in vain because I go where the answers are not found.
Sometimes, we do not know we are in need of something until we have experienced that very thing. For instance, someone who only eats junk food is unaware of their need and the great benefits of eating well. Not only weight but mood and energy are greatly affected by what is consumed. When finally being introduced to healthy food, this person realizes what was missing in their lives. This is where we are with beauty today. We need beauty, yet, we do not fully realize it. We do not prioritize it. Worse, we even go as far as to remove it from our communities. Although I am an artist who looks at beauty often, I too didn’t realize how ‘starved’ I was of authentic beauty until I came to Europe. Twisting and winding on my bike through the tiny Italian streets, I often come to a stop at the towering façade of the Cathedral of Santa Maria el Fiore. It never fails at taking my breath away. Everything about it captivates my wandering heart. It’s colors of white, pink, and marbled green harmonizing with the intricate details of sculpted saints and ornaments, leave me in awe. Its’ gigantic doors seem to say: “All are welcome to enter and behold the divine”. If I truly pause within my spirit, I find a sense of peace to behold this glorious structure. My soul is being fed, deeper then I realized it could be or even needed to be.
How are we not aware of such a great need? Our culture offers solutions to overcome struggles that seem helpful but are not the solution. That which is beautiful is easier to come by in Italy, but Italy has also been affected by this crisis. Often, today our world seeks to forget and numb the problems verses striving to be truly liberated from or transformed through them. Yet, a consistent encounter with authentic beauty has the power of freeing us from all that weighs us down. Dietrich Von Hildebrand explains it best in his book titled Aesthetics. He says: “ People have grown accustomed to the elimination of poetry of the world, to the mechanization of life, to the expulsion of beauty; [...] but this does not mean that our nerves escape unscathed from all this cacophony. It is easy to see the greater decrease in human happiness today, and the great increase in the number of psychopaths, suicides, crimes, disorders, revolutions, protests, etc. Are these not unambiguous symptoms of unhappiness, of an unfulfilled hunger for happiness? ” He goes on to say that “Beauty is not only a central source of joy it also possesses a great significance for the development of personality, especially in a moral sense. Genuine beauty liberates us in many ways from the force of gravity, drawing us out of the dull captivity of daily life...There are people who flee from the boredom and dullness of the prosaic into the sensational. Sports games, films, and night outings are all means of escape to the everyday humdrum of life. But are they able to pull us out of where we are? They give us a sensational high and help us forget for just a little while, yet they don’t give us wings like beauty can.” (220-221) When I first read this quote by Dietrich Von Hildebrand, I was taken aback. So many times I do ‘busy’ things to distract myself from the angst inside but it is so true that they have yet to offer freedom. With rich resources here in Florence, I challenge myself to soak up authentic beauty but still struggle with the dint of life and the common push to numb issues verses being truly renewed.
“[Beauty is an] intermediary realm between eternity and earthly life.” Hildebrand describes sharing why Beauty is so powerful. It is because it gives us a taste of the heavenly! Hiking on the edge of the sea from village to village in Cinque Terre, I was brought into this transcendental reality. The sky lay gently across the teal sea. The cliffs cut securely into the depths of the water as colorful flowers delicately adorned their sides. The towns, which were skillfully built within the mountains, framed this intermediate realm between heaven and earth. Harmony, harmony, harmony, seemed to be what creation was singing. The journey wasn’t effortless as the climb was steep, yet, each turn and twist brought a further uncovering of the enchanted and somewhat magical beauty that lay within the simple and the natural. Joy rose and joy sung out, emerging within me as a newfound strength to face that which lay ahead. The poetic and the beautiful shine the majesty and the mystery of God and gives us strength. Furthermore, even more so, the encounter with metaphysical rather than mere physical beauty offers us an unending joy. For instance, When we adore Christ in adoration, we are in the presence of true beauty Himself and are being offered the most real response to our desire for joy.
I challenge you to choose beauty first when we find ourselves in a spiral of sadness or troubles. let us turn to this divine gift. Let us find ways to sit in contemplation of the wonder before us. You need not venture to Europe to find this escape. Beauty is in every crevice of the world, if only we take the time to see it and be still in front of it. Furthermore, let us strive to cultivate a life of beauty in our homes and communities. Invest in real art, our walls are not simply spaces to fill but when adorned with love can feed the souls of all who are surrounded by them. The music we listen to shouldn’t be just sounds to erase the silence, may they be truly enriching. Instead of hours on Netflix, choose to go to an opera, a ballet, watch the sunset, or gaze at the stars. Let us no longer starve ourselves from these small tastes of heaven that have the ability to give us wings and remind us that this life is taking us to our Home with God where joy and freedom abounds.
Reference: Aesthetics by Dietrich Von Hildebrand
"Woman, why are you weeping?"
These words of Christ to Mary Magdalen show the depth of encounter, and as we celebrate the feast of the Ascension today, this image of Christ’s appearance is something to ponder and take to prayer.
In this painting by Alexander Ivanov, light and dark is at an interplay, and Christ seems to be a source of radiance. Mary seems to be confused, shocked, and in awe of the reality before her. There is a beauty of movement in this image, as Mary goes to her knees and reaches out to Christ. And Christ, in response, is pointing out to her to not do so as He has not yet ascended to the Father (John 20:17).
Encounter. On Easter Morning, Mary Magdalen was at a place of vulnerability as she experienced the feeling of the loss of Jesus. Not once, but twice in John’s Gospel, it mentions that Mary was asked why she was weeping (John 20:13-15). Mary was a woman who felt deeply the loss of Christ because she loved Him so deeply, and in this loss, she had one of the most profound encounters with the Risen Christ revealing Himself to her. It is as though there is this “beauty of empty” that is happening in this encounter.
In John’s Gospel, it points out that at first Mary did not recognize Jesus in her grief. Jesus asked, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?" (John 20:15) Like Mary, we all probably have something precious that seems to have been taken away from us, and God wants to enter in if we let Him. What have I lost in which God is asking this of me? Whether it is in the loss of someone dear to me, a job, or most especially in something I have found my identity in, the loss of that particular thing is a call from God. It is a real opportunity to feel the pain of that lack to go deeper. These desires of your heart are pointing to the root of all your desires. Like Jesus responded to Mary, He presents the same question to you, “Whom do you seek?”
In this painting of the appearance of Christ, the gaze of Jesus and Mary Magdalen is remarkable. A woman in fear, shock, and confusion seems to find herself in this gaze. There is a radiance and a beauty to Mary as she looks upon Christ and He calms her fears. In the rawness of the many emotions she is experiencing, Jesus meets her and calls her by name. It is in this calling of her name, of being seen and noticed by Christ, that Mary recognizes Him.
As you take this image to prayer this week, like Mary Magdalen, Jesus presents the same question to you, “Whom do you seek?” Praying with this image, ask, “What is the situation in my life in which I feel an immense loss, and many of the same emotions, and yet, where God wants me to encounter Him most? Can I ask for the grace to encounter Him in these moments?”
On today’s feast of the Ascension, let us pray for the grace to be like Mary Magdalen, the apostle to the apostles. May we encounter the risen Lord to go forth and share the good news with those around us.
(The image, "Christ's appearance to Mary Magdalen after the Resurrection" by Alexander Ivanov is found at the website: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alexander_Ivanov_-_Christ%27s_Appearance_to_Mary_Magdalene_after_the_Resurrection_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg )
St. Rita of Cascia, a wife, mother, religious sister, and daughter of God. The feast day of today images to us women what it is like to be a daughter of the Father, a woman sharing her “feminine genius” with the world, even with life’s unexpected turns.
Rita was born in Italy in the 1300s, and married a man named Paulo Mancini, with whom she had two sons. Life had its own messiness to it, as tragedy struck the family with the death of her husband. Paulo was murdered due to political divisions of the time, and Rita’s sons sought to avenge their father’s murder.
And yet, in this place, time, and amongst these people, God chose Rita to be a witness of His love. He radiated His goodness to others through her unique gifts, especially her forgiveness and sensitivity to others amidst life’s struggles. And these gifts of hers are a witness to us even today.
At the death of her husband, Rita probably experienced much fear and anger in regards to the evils done to her family. By the ill-will of other people, her husband was killed, her sons were without a father, and she had to care for her family as a single mother. She probably experienced the many emotions and feelings of grief at that time, and yet, was able to make room for the others in her life, especially her own children.
Nurturing the well-being of her sons and desiring that they not give into hatred, Rita encouraged them to forgive the men who killed their father. Less than a year later, when her own two sons died, she was consoled by the fact that at least they did not separate themselves from God by acting in revenge.
Rita received the stigmata of Christ's thorn in her head, showing in particular her deep union with others in their suffering. She is an image like that of Mary at the foot of the Cross, living out the life, death, and Resurrection of Christ by her own life. Due to her own prayers and actions, a form of her spiritual and physical motherhood, the political divisions and hatred ceased. It was in the midst of the wounds and pains of her own life that Rita found her call to heal the wounds of others.
Rita is a passionate example to us of what it is to be a woman in love with God. Her life was anything but ideal, and yet, she allowed God to enter into that. She allowed the circumstances of life to be encounters with God, pointing to her deepest desires for Him. In such situations, she was open and receptive to God’s love for her, and in doing so was able to radiate that to those in her life.
On today’s feast, we have a witness of what beauty in femininity looks like - how it is unique, and also so beautiful when lived out to the fullest. As we celebrate a woman on fire with the love of God, even amidst difficult circumstances, let us reflect on our own feminine gifts which are unique to each one of us. Today is a day to ask ourselves, “Do I try to change the circumstances of my life, or do I strive to encounter God in the difficult situations and people He puts in my life? How can I share the gift of my spiritual or physical motherhood today with those under my care?” On this this feast day, may St. Rita intercede for us to share our sensitivity to the needs of others with those around us!
A young woman, 14 years old, in worn clothing and barefoot. Her body posture shows some hesitancy, some fear. And yet, her face shows a quiet confidence and beauty.
This image is the “Annunciation” painted by Henry Ossawa Tanner. It is his reflection on what he thought this special event in salvation history looked like, and yet, it might be different from what we always picture it as.
Often, we can see Mary as a supernatural being, unlike the rest of us, and yet, in this piece, she looks so very human. She is young, definitely about the age that is often attributed to her according to tradition. She is often a far distant being to many of us, one who can be hard to relate to. And most especially, one we can rarely see ourselves striving after.
And yet, this painting, this piece of sacred art, causes us to pause, ponder, and reflect. Mary does seem so approachable. She looks afraid, and we have been there too. She is confronted with a call that has many doubts and questions. Have we not experienced the same? The thoughts come to her…“How can this be?” and yet, she is reassured, “ Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30-34). How many times does God do this in our lives?
In this moment, Mary is radiant in who she really is. She is confronted with a call from God, but even before that, she is a daughter of the Father. She is precious and valuable, and is receptive to receive that gift from God. This image reflects to us the value and beauty of womanhood, to be created in God’s image and likeness as a woman, and like Mary, to share that gift with the world.
And Mary did share that gift, and the result was that she carried and bore God made Man through the Incarnation. Likewise, we can receive God’s love and bear Him to the world through our particular uniqueness.
This image tells us a story. It gives us something to pray on and ponder in light of our own lives. Can I receive the gift that I am like Mary radiates in this image? Do I see the beauty in such open receptivity to the Lord?
We encourage you today, and throughout the week to gaze upon this image and to take it to prayer. What is striking you about this image? Ask the Lord to reveal why this is so and how it applies to your own life and the living out your feminine gifts. In this month of Our Mother, may we ponder and reflect on the ways that we can live out our own “feminine genius”, as she did at the Annunciation. Mother Mary, pray for us!
(The image of the Annunciation is found at the website:
Who would dare take such a deep gaze- to really see what lies at the heart of a woman…that place where so much mystery resides?
Only one who lived and died by these words of Christ: “Be not afraid.”
St. John Paul II led the way into the feminine heart by setting time apart throughout his life and pontificate to gaze and study the heart of woman deeply. What did he find there? He called it the feminine genius.
Just as one would ponder the wonders of a starlit night sky, or the fathomless depths of the sea, our Holy Father was given a glimpse of her glory, as God revealed to him the deep mysteries of what it is to be a woman. The numerous addresses, letters, and recognitions of the role of women in society are consistent in their message. What corresponds to what is specifically unique to women is an exceptional intellectual and creative power.
And why did St John Paul II see the need to describe the feminine in this way? Because he knew the world was becoming impoverished without recalling it. He spoke, taught, and proved in action that her true gifts are essential to keep humanity from falling.
He saw the world offering women a different narrative for her power. In the world’s view, she would be the same as men. She would follow his fall in the Garden. She would dominate, ignore her charisms, and strive to use her freedom to be egocentric. She would define herself as she saw fit, without interference or responsibility to anyone, even if that meant abandonment of family, sexual license, and/or loose and conditional relationships.
She would grasp the apple again in the Garden, and define herself in her own terms. And our world was rotting at the core.
Never did St. John Paul II neglect to mention how woman got here. Her dignity had been ignored, her deep heart wounded. She was doing all this to protect herself, but was losing herself in the process. And so, he offered woman a gaze from the Heavenly Father- to remind her of who she was.
This is the feminine genius: receptivity, sensitivity, generosity, and maternity. These are the gifts that are unique, but also complementary to men. Only woman is the one to receive, conceive and give birth! And her motherhood, biological and spiritual, is necessary in every aspect of culture and society. At home or at work, in marriage, mission, or religious life, this is her true path to be whole again, and so to be holy.
The feminine genius affirms woman’s strict equality with men in the dignity of being persons made in the image and likeness of God. This was revealed to us in Genesis, the beginning, when God made the human person, male and female, in his image. Woman’s beauty and glory was reaffirmed by Jesus Himself, in countless Gospel stories. His was a strikingly revolutionary treatment of women- one of deep respect and the reverence of a daughter of the Father.
And so St. John Paul II gives women the truth of who they are: equal but not the same. Perhaps this new definition of feminism will take time to be received. After all, the gift of receptivity in women is essentially what has been wounded- by culture, by affronts against our dignity perpetuated by others, and by the lies we have believed and which we have allowed to penetrate our hearts.
Once again, St John Paul gazes deeply into the heart of the feminine and patiently teaches us to reject the age-old lie accepted by Eve. Then he points out a new model for us.
Contemplating the purest woman to ever live most likely gave John Paul his insight. To the all -beautiful Mary, the New Eve, who showed him her Immaculate and feminine heart, he learned that to “serve is to reign”(Letter to Women, 10). Self fulfillment as a woman would come with these few words uttered to the Creator: “Be it done to me according to Thy Word” (Luke 1:38). Mary said this with all freedom, and now all generations call her blessed.
Mary knew that it is in the gift of self that we find our true meaning, in communion with with others. Sensitive and generous, she received the motherhood of God. Her “fiat” bore the True Fruit of her womb, Jesus Christ. Her communion with God gave us the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
This is the height of exceptional intellectual and creative power. This is feminine holiness. This is the true feminine genius. And it shall not be denied to any woman who opens to receive the gaze of the Father into her own deep heart.
St John Paul II, pray for us!
This evening I sat with a friend on a few large rocks which extended out into a flowing creek. We remained in silence for several long minutes, pondering the scene in front of us: water, rocks, and trees. There was such beauty as the water flowed through the rocks, the green branches canopied around us, and the sound of the rushing stream calmed the soul. In my mind, a message rang true: this is a gift; this is for you.
There is clearly Someone behind the gift of beauty in tonight. That creek has been flowing for years, even on days when no one has been there to appreciate it. Yet, from all eternity, this divine Giver has been preparing my heart to receive the beautiful scene today.
My experience this evening is a small echo of what happens in the human heart every day. It reflects the many manifestations of beauty we find in our lives. Each time we encounter something beautiful, whether it be a painting, a flower, a poem, or an infant’s smile, we experience a gift. What better way to encounter a gift than to receive it wholeheartedly?
As women, we have been graced with a special gift of receptivity. The woman’s heart is open and ready to receive. This gift enables the woman to love and nurture. Even the small child identifies that the mother is there to receive both his wounded, scraped knees and his colored works of art. It is this gift of openness that enables us to recognize and notice even the smallest details of beauty. The woman’s heart is ready and yearning to receive the glimpses of beauty that penetrate so deeply into her being.
Perhaps, the feminine heart is also attracted towards beauty because not only does it allow her to fulfill her desire to receive but it further pushes her beyond herself. Beauty offers her the opportunity to encounter the Infinite, for whom her soul ultimately longs. In a letter to artists, Pope Benedict describes this reality:
“Beauty, whether that of the natural universe or that expressed in art, precisely because it opens up and broadens the horizons of human awareness, pointing us beyond ourselves, bringing us face to face with the abyss of Infinity, can become a path towards the transcendent, towards the ultimate Mystery, towards God” (Pope Benedict XVI, Meeting with Artists)
Often we encounter the gift of beauty and love simply in existence. A flower comes to mind. While growing in the garden, the flower’s existence offers delight and joy. As a woman, I want to gaze at its beauty; I find joy in its color, in its freshness, in the scent, in its simplicity and order. I receive these qualities as a gift, often subconsciously, but receive them nonetheless.
The same happens when the woman gazes upon a beautiful painting. The colors, strokes, and images speak to her heart and she receives the joy in gratitude. In this situation, just as in the creek mentioned above, God is at work; He works through the instrument of the artist. He delights in offering such joy through beauty to His beloved, feminine hearts. Let us receive and take delight in the gifts of beauty we encounter today.