Poverty and Beauty

Last weekend, I found myself in the town of Tivoli, 25 miles east of Rome.  We went to see this beautiful town on the high hills from which you can see Rome in the distance.  The “main attraction” is the Villa d’Este, which at first I thought had something to do with the fact that the villa was to the east of Rome.  Actually, the villa was built in the 1500’s by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, governor of Tivoli during the time of the Papal States.

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Ippolito d’Este utilized the artistic skills of the star architects, sculptors and painters of his day.  It was begin after 1560 and finished before the cardinal’s death in 1572.  In 1605, Cardinal Allessandro d’Este, the brother of Ippolito added other flourishes to the villa, including the water organ, which is up above the fountains (we heard it play…a bit of a let-down).

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As I walked around Villa d’Este, I was struck by the beauty of the place.  It is a breathtaking beauty in which I felt “at home”; I was made for this and for the Beauty that this beauty points to.  The mixture of natural beauty with man-made beauty speaks to the harmony that exists between the mind of God (author of nature) and the human mind (architect/artist).  This co-operation of man and God continually blows me away here in Italy.

As I walked among these beautiful gardens, fountains and sculptures, I asked my friend Father Mike with whom I was traveling, “Does being a poor Church for the poor mean that we can’t have beautiful things anymore?”  The question brought me to a bit of a crisis as we walked through the home of a cardinal-prince, but led to a wonderful discussion of beauty and poverty.  What do the two have to do with each other?

We are called to have the same mind as Christ, “who though He was in the form of God did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.  Rather, He emptied Himself, and took on the form of a slave.” (Philippians 2:6)  In the season of Advent, we prepare ourselves for the encounter with the child Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem: poverty takes on flesh in Christ, who “though He was rich, for your sake became poor” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

There are so many ways in which this poverty is expressed, in the different vocations and at different times in history.  Pope Francis has called for a poor Church for the poor, which means much more than only material poverty, although it does mean that.  Who of us could imagine the uproar (both inside and outside the Church) if today a bishop or cardinal built himself a villa like the one in Tivoli?

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The call to poverty that we hear from both Pope Francis and from our Lord Jesus is a call to a new relationship with things, just as the vocation to virginity is a call to a new relationship with people.  In poverty, things are not for me but for the Kingdom of God.  Things (or people) are not meant to be grasped, and so in some concrete way I teach myself, educate myself, to poverty: by giving things or money away to those who do not have them.

I propose as one way of resolving–but not dissolving–the tension between poverty and beauty, that we can imagine beauty as a gift, the charity of beauty.  Who of us would want to receive an ugly Christmas gift (unless it was an ugly Christmas sweater–those are cool now)?  Who of us wants to walk into a church to see it dirty and disordered?  The beauty of a house or an office or a church is a charity for the other people who use that place.

But there are some people who do not have a place of their own, who have nothing to “clean up”, who cannot even find a place to clean themselves or wash their clothes.  I often run into these people around churches, and I think: the church is one place people can go that is beautiful, a beauty that does not “belong” to anyone but that is for everyone, especially for those who have nothing.

The few times I have visited Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, I have been blown away by the beauty of the place and by the amount of homeless people who sleep in its pews.  Yet, the beauty of that place is for the poor as much as it is for anyone else.  It is a form of charity.

In his recent Apostolic Exhortation on evangelization, Pope Francis speaks about the need for beauty in the Church’s preaching and teaching:

Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the “way of beauty” (via pulchritudinis). Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendor and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties. Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus.

“Even in the midst of difficulties,” beauty can fill our life with joy and purpose.  Hopefully this is an experience we have all had, of beauty giving us back our breathe in a suffocating circumstance.  Hopefully, we can find ways to give this experience to others.

I don’t think cardinals should build huge villas like the one in Tivoli.  I still don’t know what is the right balance between using our money to make the places we live and pray more beautiful and using our money to relieve the suffering of the poor (and the lack of beauty is also a suffering).  The tension that exists can lead to creativity, and must be met with prayer and discernment.

As Father Mike and I continued to talk, we rested in the fact that “the poor Church for the poor” envisioned by Pope Francis is lived out in many different individual circumstances.  It is a question each of us can ask ourselves.  Does the way I spend my money build up the Kingdom of God?  Am I being educated to a less “grasping” relationship with things and with people?

In this season of Advent, as we are preparing to meet the poor Messiah, we are also rushing around to find the perfect gift for our loved ones.  What can we do to make someone’s life more beautiful?  Have I experienced something beautiful that I can share with others?  How can we give the charity of beauty?

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