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Ordained in 2011, Father Friel served for five years as Parochial Vicar at St. Anselm Parish in Northeast Philly. He is currently studying toward an STL in sacred liturgy at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
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“In all this mediaeval religious poetry there is much that we could not use now. Many of the hymns are quite bad, many are frigid compositions containing futile tricks, puns, misinterpreted quotations of Scripture, and twisted concepts, whose only point is their twist. But there is an amazing amount of beautiful poetry that we could still use. If we are to have vernacular hymns at all, why do we not have translations of the old ones?”
— Fr. Adrian Fortescue (d. 1923)

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The Problem of Beauty
published 8 March 2015 by Fr. David Friel

AST WEEK, I wrote about beauty and its contemplation in the scene of the Transfiguration. Richard Clark wrote yesterday about Pope Francis, who recently remarked about the path to “recovering the allure of beauty” in the sacred liturgy. I would like to return again today to the topic of beauty, which I have considered often on these pages.

We are all familiar in some fashion with the “problem of evil.” This problem is frequently formulated as a question: why do bad things happen to good people? Why is evil permitted by a God Who is supposedly omnipotent & benevolent? These are questions that people of faith struggle to answer. They are questions that are addressed over and over again in the Sacred Scriptures, but never does the Bible offer a clear cut answer to the problem that is completely satisfying. Hence why it is called a “problem.”

Only recently did I encounter the concept of “the problem of beauty.” This problem could also be formulated as a question: if God does not exist, why is there so much joy & beauty in the world? This question is not a struggle for believers to answer; it is, rather, a problem for non-believers. What explanation can we give for the joys & beauties of life that have no demonstrable evolutionary benefit to man?

Is life really beautiful? Absolutely. The goodness of life can be confirmed by the natural human desire to prolong it. If life were not essentially good & beautiful, we would not experience death as such a tragedy nor speak of it as a “loss.” The beauty of life, moreover, is so incredibly gratuitous; we have no claim over any of the beautiful things we experience.

These thoughts were prompted by my reading of an excellent article by Joe Heschmeyer, a DC lawyer turned Kansas City seminarian. If the concept of beauty is an interest for you as it is for me, then I highly recommend that you give this piece a look.

In the article, Heschmeyer proposes that these two “problems” (evil & beauty) are not equal. He concludes that the problem of beauty is a much stronger argument in favor of God’s existence than the problem of evil is an argument against His existence. To understand why he makes this claim, check out his article.

Centuries ago, St. Augustine also saw the argument from beauty as a viable proof for God’s existence. In the inimitable Book X of his Confessions, he writes:

I asked the Earth, and it said, “I am not He!” I asked the sea and the deeps, and among living animals the things that creep, and they answered, “We are not your God! Seek higher than us!” . . . I asked the heavens, the sun, the moon, and the stars: “We are not the God Whom you seek,” they said. To all the things that stand around the doors of my flesh I said, “Tell me of my God!” . . . With a mighty voice, they cried out, “He made us!” My question was the gaze that I turned on them; their answer was their beauty. (The Confessions of St. Augustine, Book X, Chapter VI)

Beauty is, indeed, evidence of a loving, generous, and joyful God.