[I pray these 1000 words are worth your time]
God is joyful … you’ve got to remember, God loves being God … we learn our joy by being drawn into God’s joy. — Rowan Williams
This week, I gave a talk about what it means to “lead with beauty.” A friend of mine, who is the leader of a non-profit, suggested that theme. In fact, what’s best about his suggestion is that I believe he embodies that phrase, and so considering what that might mean began simply as a reflection on him.
Though I don’t feel I in any way did justice to the depth implied in such a vision of leadership, it set me thinking long about the importance of beauty in life. And of joy, which is beauty’s close companion.
I argued in my mini-workshop that beauty was the experience of delight in seeing truth and goodness align. I defined truth as the correspondence of the mind to “what is,” to reality, and goodness as the correspondence of reality to “what ought to be,” to the flourishing of a thing. Which means that true beauty is not merely in the eye of the beholder, wholly subjective, but must be judged by the objective truth of good and evil.
As I thought on that, I considered why it is that beauty seems to be present somehow also in the grotesque, the distorted, the broken, even the evil. Well, I think when you can see beauty in what is grotesque, distorted, broken or evil, it is only because (1) goodness has somehow been revealed in the very judgment that something is those things, and (2) somewhere within the darkness you see stirring the redeeming power of light.
As I thought specifically about leadership as beautiful, I thought mostly of the virtues that leaders are meant to exercise as they seek to rightly influence others to cooperate in the pursuit of common goals. Leadership is principally about influencing other to do good, to bring order out of chaos, wisdom out of folly, success out of failure, and so on.
Then I saw that virtues, which are our cultivated powers to do the good, are the prime mediators of beauty into the world, just as vices are mediators of ugliness. Virtues like patience and courage, kindness and justice, compassion and consistency, truthfulness and magnanimity, competence and perseverance, reverence and equanimity, gentleness and love allow leaders to protect and promote a shared experience of goodness, the common flourishing of each and all.
All you need to do is imagine each virtue’s opposite being present in leadership to see how quickly beauty can be banished when virtue recedes.
And so, I thought, virtues are priestly! Why? well, they mediate by creating a symmetry, a participation between us and God, allowing us to be divinized by the God who is the perfection of all virtues. God’s truth is goodness and His goodness is truth, and so we say God is beauty itself. And the manifestation of that beauty in creation is what we mean by the word “glory.”
Each glory, each beauty we perceive in this world is, though, only an inkling of God’s own beauty. Beauty is, in a sense, why we pray. Prayer exists to permit greater reception of this perception, to grow our inklings, which then allows us a greater capacity to manifest that beauty in our lives. The unveiled vision of God’s glory in eternity will be the cause of supreme delight and joy!
I have mentioned before here a priest I knew back in the late 1980’s, Fr. Albert. He was in his 90’s and in a nursing home. A really remarkable man, as testified to by so many who knew him over the years. Over the course of one summer, I visited him every weekday morning for Mass at 6:00 a.m. He and I alone in his room, with the Holy Sacrifice being offered on his food tray. Those were absolutely remarkable days for me that exercised an enormous influence in shaping me into the man I would become.
I remember one day during the consecration, Fr. Al was overcome with emotion and paused for at least two minutes after he set down the chalice. He said, “Oh, your love! How you love. How I love you! I could die of joy…” I felt embarrassed to be there, such a terrifyingly intimate moment. Then I thought of his 55 years in active ministry before he was forced by a stroke to retire. How much he had seen, endured. And after all that time he was like this. Not callous, bitter, cynical, apathetic — but joyful, in love.
I also thought of the words that moved him so. The words of consecration in the Mass — my Body broken, my Blood shed — are words of the most extreme love. In that moment, he made me feel that truth viscerally. He led me in beauty.
I wrote in my journal from that summer,
When I’m around Fr. Al, I can sense what it means to say ‘God is love.’ And sense the joy of proximity to God, a God who can’t keep anything to Himself. Like an excited child who can’t contain the joy of a new discovery. Father Al’s proximity became my proximity. I want what Fr. Al has, but I know it’ll take a lifetime to acquire. A lifetime like his, keeping nothing for himself, even the most intimate moments with God.
Now that’s a priestly life, the mediation all of us are called to live out every day, bringing beauty into the world.
He made me want to remain with the God who loves being God. And more, the God who wants us, by means of our sustained proximity to Him in prayer, to learn to love being ourselves. Imagine such a thing, i.e. sanctity. Awash in beauty, afire with joy, alight with hope.
Thank you, Fr. Al, for leading me nearer there. Your great soul encompassed the Beautiful Three, even if in a wearying frame. May I do the same for others in the beautiful Mystery of Their love…