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Beauty cannot save the world

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Charles DeReuil II - published on 09/26/23

I had been living life backwards. It wasn't the beauty of Rome that turned me around, but watching someone pray.

The year was 2016. I was finishing up my junior year of high school, and I found myself in Rome surrounded by most of my classmates on a 10-day pilgrimage throughout the Eternal City. The liberal arts had always interested me, and Rome had a trove of artistic, architectural, historical, and cultural treasures. As I made my way from monument to monument, instead of finding myself fulfilled, I felt disappointed. I was still enjoying myself and I was certainly impressed by what I was seeing, but the inner existentialist in me found it all to be pretty pointless. 

The palaces and basilicas of Rome, the vestiges of the Church’s former temporal power, proved a stark contrast to the current state of the Church, which in many ways seemed to be slowly declining into cultural irrelevance. Moreover, my hopes of aesthetic fulfillment were not coming to fruition either. I found it all quite impressive and beautiful but in the face of inevitable death and decay, these architectural masterpieces seemed as meaningful as a mere game — fun, but ultimately pointless. 

I probably wasn’t as nihilistic as that sounds, but I had had high expectations, and while in some ways they had been met, my life wasn’t changed in the way I had hoped it would be.  However, all was not for naught.  

Towards the end of the trip, our group had adoration of the Blessed Sacrament followed by benediction. It started with a brief reflection given by the chaplain of the pilgrimage, followed by some time for silent prayer intermittently interrupted by a schola singing various pieces of polyphony. 

I remember listening to the schola singing a latinized version of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Ave Maria. As I was listening to the music I was “praying” — by which I mean predominantly watching the priest pray. I was struck by how enveloped he was in his prayer and there was something about watching him pray that made my entire experience of Rome make sense.  

What had caused this sudden clarity was initially evasive to me, but I eventually realized I had been living life backwards. 

This entire time I had been seeking out beautiful and impressive things hoping that they would convince me of the veracity of the Catholic faith or that they would reveal some meaning to life. But the medieval French did not build Chartres in hope of finding God; they built it because they had found Him! 

It seems to me that art, architecture, music, any of the products of human culture are in a way pointless when confronted with their inevitable end; however, as a joyful response to an encounter with the eternal divinity, they make perfect sense.    

~

This is part of the series called “The Human Being Fully Alive” found here.

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The Human Being Fully Alive
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