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On Beauty

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Note: This sermon was preached on April 14, 2013, at the chapel of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Mrs. Gardner was a parishioner of the Church of the Advent and a patron of the Society of St. John the Evangelist (the Cowley Fathers). Currently the parish and the brothers alternate leading the annual service that she asked to be celebrated on her birthday. Normally this service is a requiem, but this year, it being a Sunday, we simply remembered her in the proper mass of the day. 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

From the portion of Psalm 33 that formed today’s Introit: “The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord, alleluia: by the word of the Lord were the heavens made, alleluia, alleluia.”

Perhaps it is fitting that I select that brief and obscure part of today’s readings to begin my sermon. For is that not what we do today? We gather in relative obscurity to observe a little noticed aspect of the life of this museum and the woman who built it. Amidst the grandeur of this space there stands this little chapel — not even a chapel, really, but the end of a room with some choir stalls and an altar stuck in it. I wonder what the average visitor thinks of this little space. How quaint, they might say. Isabella Stewart Gardner was a religious woman. One more piece of information about her complex and interesting life.

Such is our age, of course. Everything in its place. Religion, like politics, should keep out of the arts. And so, we are told, the rightly ordered existence — liberated from all external limit — is one in which we shut off any possible vision of the whole so that we can look at details. That is, is it not, the main intellectual current of our day, whether in the hard sciences or in the “human” sciences, as they are called: to disavow any overarching narrative and focus on the particular. There we can relish in comprehensible truths, in certain knowledge; there, too, we can play, with all the delight that nature gives us, within the sphere of our own tastes and interests.

But again: “The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.”

The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord. Surely in that verse we can see something of the vision of Isabella Stewart Gardner. Here was a woman who could not stop seeing beauty and sharing it, not just in her magnificent interest in art, but in all kinds of human flourishing, from the monastic cloister to the baseball diamond. It is not just that she had diverse interests, it is that she did not see them as disparate. For her it was not idiosyncratic to support both the symphony and the Church, both the poor and the world of high art. In all these things she saw, I think, the same beauty at work, the same God “by whose word they were made.”

And this is not, mind you, because she held a vague or simplistic sense that to do good, or to see beauty, was to know God. Would it be too much to suggest that we look here, at this small world she created, to catch a glimpse of her vision of the whole created world? Here is a world in which the true, the beautiful and the good are one. Here is a world where every little thing gives a glimpse at transcendence, where beauty is both captivating and transporting. There is no division here between “secular” and “religious,” between the universal and the particular. Need I point out that in this museum, even behind seemingly mundane and “secular” works of art, often lurk the signs of the sacred? An old priestly vestment hiding behind a portrait, a cathedral choir stall sitting next to a dinner table.

Good people, this chapel is not an obscure corner of Mrs. Gardner’s world. It is a glimpse into the heart of that world. The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord. Not just goodness, not just beauty, but the goodness and beauty of the Lord. It is the divine beauty of the Holy Trinity that charges earthly beauty with meaning, because it is in that beauty that all beautiful things participate, and to that beauty that they lead us.

Because of that — because of that eternal beauty which is God’s very nature — we can find, like Mrs. Gardner, that earthly beauty is meant to be shared. Her generosity to so many of the people and institutions of this city, I think, stems from her understanding of the generosity of God. The world is not necessary, from the divine perspective. It is purely gratuitous, purely gift. And so beauty is not something to be hoarded, as if it were a limited commodity. Earthly beauty, if it remains only that, is not even that, for it passes away. Earthly beauty is defined by its limitedness, by its rarity, its scarceness. But the rarest beauty of all, the divine nature, has no limit, no finitude, no termination. And if we give ourselves, and all of the beautiful things he has given us, back to him, we will find them transformed, like the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist, into the divine glory. We will find that there is no reason to be anxious about the fleetingness of the things in the world, because they “are full of the goodness of the Lord.” We can rest, with Isabella Stewart Gardner, in the knowledge and love of the God who will make all things new, who fills all things living with the light of his glory.

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