I. You probably know the Handel chorus; it belongs in the suite from Messiah that they play—yes, even They—every year around Christmas. It begins with the alto line, bald, plain, unpretentious, but doggedly determined, with the accent on the glory: And the glory, the glory of the LORD! And of course, with LORD, all the voices sing together, like all the nations aftermentioned, and indeed, His glory is revealed.
If one's got to have a thing stuck in one's head, I must say that "The Glory of the Lord" isn't a bad choice. Is "stuck" even the right idiom? The phrase may be familiar; but it lends the wrong impression. The tune has been not so much permanently present in my mind this past week or two, as persistently revisiting it, sometimes at the most unexpected moments.
In part I blame the Balthasar reading. Our literary critical theory professor is giving us rational beings as well as Marxists and feminists to read; and so his course includes a week of "theological aesthetics," and a long chapter from von Balthasar's Herrlichkeit, a title which is translated into English as The Glory of the Lord. My study of the text would then seem to explain one or two visitations of the ghostly melody, but not all: "Is a puzzlement!" as the King of Siam would say.
II. It was during that class on theological aesthetics that I asked Dr. N to elucidate his somewhat cryptic Balthasar quotation, the claim that "even the friction between true and good can be resolved by the mediation of the beautiful." Dr. N's answer (I paraphrase) was that (in Balthasar's view, at any rate) emphasis on the True can become extreme to the point of secularization and rationalization, while emphasis on the Good can degenerate into (the phrase is Dr. N's, but not—I will hazard a guess—to be found in Balthasar) "wishy-washy religion." Hyper-rationality and sentimentality caged within a single culture ... the 19th century, anyone? Or for that matter, in a different way, our own. The way to save the True and the Good is (again, paraphrasing Dr. N's paraphrase of Balthasar) by means of beauty; the Beautiful "gifts the Good and the True with a form" that prevents their degeneration into those extremes.
I must have made a doubtful face—the instinctive cautionary reaction from an absolutist in a relativist culture on crossing what remotely smells like the critique of a couple perfectly decent transcendentals—because Dr. N. gave one of his broad grins, told me I "didn't have to like it," but added that the last two popes were rather about this sort of thing. It left me almost wanting to redeem my opinion of Balthasar via the term paper; but it remains to be seen whether introducing feminist theoretics into Flannery O'Connor might not be the more tempting topic. (We know who'd win that one, no?)
III. Of course, Dr. N was right: in their own way, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI were "about beauty." Without abandoning the defense of doctrine, they made great strides towards showing the world how that doctrine sits with man: happily, fittingly, beautifully, well. It helped in the case of John Paul II that he looked like a friendly pope; whereas Benedict—God forgive me (I am fairly sure the pope himself would)—looks more like a Rottweiler than the German Shepherd from which the faithful took his nickname.
We are fond these days of insisting that the old are beautiful, or the ugly; and I will not deny that sometimes they are. Certainly it is a healthy thing, in a culture saturated with sins of the eyes and addicted to the idea of perpetual youth, to recognize physical beauty inherent in people with big noses, or crooked ears, or bad complexions, or one or two wrinkles in an inconvenient place. But, comprehensive notions of beauty aside, I do not think we do well to claim that someone or something which isn't beautiful is: that's shooting ourselves in the foot. What does do—what we should do—is to insist that beauty can inhere in more subjects than one. That is after all the whole point of "Beauty and the Beast" (Perrault's version, mon frères). And while I would be the last person to deny the bewitchment of physical beauty, I will be the first to insist that, simply as an artistic effect, it is much more impressive to begin with a person unimpressed by their outside, only to discover, or have it revealed to you, that inside they are altogether other.
God likes to work in this way; he is Augustine's chiaroscurist painter, or Chesterton's "vulgar artist"—He likes to surprise. You come across some ordinary line of a thing, bald, plain, and doggedly unpretentious; and you're just growing used to its plainness, when out breaks the Glory of the Lord.