Beauty, Truth, and Goodness: Discovering the Sacred in Daily Life
“All that is good, all that is true, all that is beautiful brings us to God.” Pope Francis
We’re here this weekend to talk about God, to see how we can discover Him in our daily lives. But first of all, consider how we discover anything: we look for clues, for evidence. For instance, why do we believe in dinosaurs? Because paleontologists (and plenty of ordinary citizens) have found countless fossils – bones, teeth, fossilized footprints, and eggs – all over the world, even right here in our own backyard. When the first dinosaur bone was discovered in the 1600’s by a British museum curator, he didn’t know what he’d stumbled upon. It wasn’t until the mid-1800’s that this new class of animals – the dinosaurs – was finally identified. Now, with every discovery, we learn more and more about them – what they looked like, their habits, what they ate, how they moved, and so on.
But let’s go back to our original idea. How can we possibly hope to “discover” God, whom we can’t see, or touch, or hear? Well, it’s obviously quite different than a scientific discovery; it’s a discovery of the heart. We can’t put Him under a microscope or examine physical “evidence,” but God is every bit as real and present as any dinosaur ever was – more so. And He’s left clues to His existence virtually everywhere.
Word of God speak
To be honest, when I was first invited me to speak at this retreat, I had no intention of accepting. But then I hit upon this idea of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness (totally the Holy Spirit!) and decided to give it a try. But, I’m not a philosopher, or a theologian, or even a professional speaker. I’m a wife and a mother, and this weekend I want to speak to you as such – from the heart and from my own personal experience. If you read my bio, you know that I’m a convert. I entered the Church in 1986 when I was just 20 years old. It was the culmination of a lot of searching, soul-searching, I guess you’d say, which began in my early teens. I had grown up in a Christian home (we were Lutheran) and received all the sacraments. But I had never had a personal experience of Christ and began to wonder what life was all about.
I remember it like it was yesterday – I was standing in the kitchen one night while my mom cooked dinner, and I was asking her so many questions: Why am I here? What’s the purpose of my life – what’s it all about? Is there really a God and, if so, what does He have to do with me? She didn’t know what to say. I know she must have been really confused. But so was I – it was my ‘existential moment’. Why did I exist? No one seemed to have an answer.
Catholic speaker Matt Fradd says we all have an “irrepressible desire, yearning, and wonder for ‘I know not what.’” Has this happened to you? Do you remember this point in your life? My teen years were so tumultuous I think because I was searching for meaning and purpose but in all the wrong places. I have a feeling this is where a lot of young people are today – searching for meaning and purpose, for their identity, but not knowing where to turn.
Now here’s what’s interesting – when Matt Fradd expressed his longing as “I hunger for I know not what,” he was actually quoting St. John of the Cross, a 16th-century Spanish mystic. What do you and I, and Matt Fradd, and a 16th-century Spanish mystic all have in common? We ask the same questions. Every one of us comes to a point where we want to know the purpose and meaning of our lives – why we exist. We want to know if there’s more to life than what we can see – the here and now – you and me and so much stuff.
When I finally discovered the Catholic Church, something just resonated with me. Growing up in the Bible Belt, I had visited LOTS of churches. But this was different. The beauty and mystery of the liturgy just drew me in. I was mesmerized by the Mass – the prayers and rituals that called down God’s power and might. Not that I understood a lot that was happening at first, but God seemed more present somehow, wrapped up in the beauty I was witnessing. It touched something deep inside of me and made me want to know more.
That’s how it all began for me – my journey to the Catholic Church. But my 25-year-old son has a much different story. Though we raised him Catholic, he would say that it wasn’t until he went to the seminary that he truly began to grow in his faith. He had his own questions and, thankfully, found convincing answers, especially in philosophy. (The word philosophy, incidentally, comes from the Greek meaning “love of wisdom”). The truths of Christianity spoke profoundly to him. Like pieces of a puzzle, it all began to fit together; it just made sense.
For my oldest daughter, it was undoubtedly reading about the lives of the saints – their witness and example, all the good they did – that really influenced her life. People like Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, Mother Teresa, and Padre Pio. She found their stories so compelling and honestly credits them with her conversion.
You see, none of us is denied the opportunity to come to know God, to have our hearts and minds touched by His presence. Yet the precise way that He comes to us is unique and personal. For me, it was through Beauty that I first encountered God, for my son it was through Truth, and for my daughter, through Goodness. Which makes perfect sense, because as so many Christian philosophers, Church Fathers and countless saints can attest, Beauty, Truth, and Goodness are attributes of God. God is all-powerful: He is Beauty itself; He is all-knowing: Truth itself; and He is all-loving: Goodness itself.
When I speak of Beauty, I mean…wholeness, completeness, nothing lacking – perfection.
When I speak of Truth, I mean…what “is” – seeing things as they truly are, in accordance with reality.
When I speak of Goodness, I mean…how well something or someone fulfills its purpose…the perfection of being. Catholic philosopher, Peter Kreeft, would say “Right Response to Reality” – which is essentially moral goodness.
Why Does this Matter?
Why should we care about this? Does our modern world still value Beauty, Truth, and Goodness? Yes, I believe it does. Beauty, Truth, and Goodness still matter because they are universal and timeless; they go beyond us, beyond the here and now, transcending every time and place and culture on earth. You might even say that Beauty, Truth, and Goodness are the “universal aspirations of all humanity,” placed in the human soul by our Creator.
Whether we realize it or not, such principles continue to guide and impact our lives. We “use the lenses of truth, goodness, and beauty to evaluate a subject under consideration.” And we do it all the time without even thinking, almost instinctively.
For instance, we might say: “Look at those beautiful flowers.” Or, “This sandwich doesn’t taste very good.” We hear a story and think That can’t be true. We want to get to the bottom of it. The truthfulness of something (or lack thereof) changes our entire perception of it. I hesitate to use the word “judge” here because it’s filled with moral implications, but it’s what we do and must do. We evaluate and judge all that is around us. Otherwise, how could we make sense of anything?
Remember James Frey, the author who made up the “story of his life” (A Million Little Pieces) and tried to pass it off as truth? The public was incensed, completely outraged that he would do so. People felt betrayed, duped. Oprah Winfrey had raved about the book, even featuring it on her Book Club list. But after an investigation by the Smoking Gun, when the truth came out, she “hauled the author back on her show to explain himself.” Yes, the truth still matters.
What this has to do with you
Right about now you might be wondering, “What does all this have to do with me??” Well…everything. Beauty, Truth, and Goodness are the means that God uses to reveal
Our God-given senses were made just for this purpose – to take in everything around us. But it goes deeper still. What these ‘identifiers’ of God tell us is that He’s so near, right under our noses. At first, God might seem hidden, elusive. But, over time and with His grace, we begin to see Him everywhere and in everything. All things participate in God’s Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, owing to their “divine origin.” Everything in the known world shares in these attributes to some degree.
BUT “Beauty, Truth, and Goodness are not ultimate realities – they each point beyond themselves to God. G. K. Chesterton put it so well, “God is not a symbol of Goodness: Goodness is a symbol of God.” Beauty, Truth, and Goodness are symbols which tell us something about God. They are reminders of Him, pointers to Him. This is why we should we love them.”
God gave us the means to find Him
There’s a long-standing Catholic tradition of teaching the transcendentals (such as Beauty, Truth, and Goodness) because they give us a vision of what it means to be human. We, humans, have a special ability, beyond any other creature, to sense Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, and to connect with these realities.
For instance, a receptor of Beauty is the imagination. What is the imagination? It’s the “ability to form images, ideas, and sensations in the mind without any immediate input of the senses, such as seeing or hearing.” “It allows us to explore ideas of things that are not in our present environment, or perhaps not even real.” For instance, I could tell you right now to close your eyes and imagine a beautiful scene, and you could do it. Maybe we should try it. What each of you sees is so different. The point is, the human imagination is unique. Only humans can perceive and be impacted by Beauty – no other creature has this ability. Animals simply respond to a stimulus. Which is why your dog doesn’t care if your house looks nice or is a wreck. He’ll just step over (or on) everything to get to his food.
Now, what about Truth? How can we know it? Through human reason – our rationality. We can think through different arguments and ideas and weigh them in our minds. We can also think abstractly – about thinking and other ideas, like freedom, love, patriotism, or sin. Again, only humans have this ability.
And finally, what about Goodness? We perceive goodness through the human conscience, that part of the human psyche that tells us right from wrong. What’s interesting is that no one can pinpoint precisely where each of these faculties resides, but we know they are very real.
For instance, we couldn’t cut open a body and say, “Yep, there it is. I see it now…there’s the imagination (or the conscience…).” No, each of these systems, or abilities, is a gift from God. It’s what separates us from animals, along with the human soul. What’s more, they exist regardless of beliefs or values, whether you’re a Christian or not – they are common to all humanity (though, because of sin, they will always be somewhat distorted).
Developing a Philosophy of Life
It’s been suggested that all great civilizations were founded on the ideals of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness – ancient Greece and Rome, for instance, the Persians, and of course the Israelites. How do we know? A love of goodness was enshrined in some kind of moral code; a deep appreciation of beauty was reflected in their artifacts – the physical objects they left behind; there was a love of truth – and a serious search to find it – as represented in their writings, religion, and philosophy. Ancient indigenous cultures such as the Mayans and Aztecs also contained many of these elements.
But what about us today, and more importantly, what about the future? Our modern culture tells us that everything is relative, subjective, temporary. That nothing lasts forever. The world today proposes a distorted sense of beauty, a self-serving busyness that’s harmful to our souls, and so much “truth” which only leads to fear, confusion and distrust. But God has something much different in mind. He wants so much more for us. What ideas will shape and guide us? Will we live lives marked by Beauty, Truth, and Goodness or will we “resign ourselves to a world where nothing is of value, where anything goes”? Beauty, Truth, and Goodness always call us to something higher; they enlarge and expand our worlds.
In our retreat this weekend, we’re going to contemplate Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, “divine threads” that are woven through the universe. But I want to make sure that I don’t leave you with just a bunch of abstract ideas…That would be a mistake. Ultimately, Beauty, Truth, and Goodness are a means to God that, once woven together, make up the fabric of our lives, our personal story.
I believe we all have a conversion story (why else would you be here?), though many of them are still being written and only God knows the ending. Yet the one thing every story has in common is this: a desire for Beauty, for Truth, and for Goodness. Our restlessness and dissatisfaction with the things of this life prove there’s something more, this “alluring and transcendent Good we call God.” As St. Augustine once famously said, “Our hearts are restless, O God, until they rest in You.”
– Kelley Holy