July 2011

Where there is no beauty there will be poverty

Are we at a special moment in history that is witnessing the slow awakening of new spiritual sensibilities? Can we consider the part places of beauty and light and peace might play in awakening spiritual sensibilities in our own time, asks Good Samaritan Sister Jill O’Brien.

BY Jill O’Brien SGS

During the 1960s I had the opportunity to make regular visits to a migrant camp where the newly arrived migrants from Europe would be placed until they could find other accommodation. The camp comprised rows and rows of Nissen huts. It was believed this basic housing would provide the incentive to find other accommodation fairly quickly.

On one visit I was welcomed into the ‘home’ of a Dutch family; to this day I have a vivid memory of the prints that were attached to the corrugated iron wall and the vase of flowers on a crudely constructed dining table. These simple measures to beautify a stark and strange environment spoke loudly of an aesthetic sensibility. It was not lavish or expensive; it was noble in its simplicity; it was welcoming; it was warmly human and somehow full of promise for better things to come.

The first Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages marked a special moment in history in that they were in contrast to the Crusades that were underway in the Holy Land fighting to reclaim holy places from ages past. The cathedral builders were new crusaders building beautiful spiritual spaces made holy by human hands joining in God’s work of creation. These large spaces of light, colour and beauty were for the people a contrast to the palaces and castles to which ordinary folk never had entry. There was a new awakening of faith. People gathered; they belonged to the community, to neighbours, to God, writes Jon Sweeney in Beauty Awakening Belief.

Reflection on this makes me wonder if we are at a special moment in history that is witnessing the slow awakening of new spiritual sensibilities. We will not be building large cathedrals of colour and light, but as a religious community called “to make hospitality our special care”, might we consider the part places of beauty and light and peace might play in awakening spiritual sensibilities in our own time?

In our cities we are bombarded by noise and bustle, the visual environment is cluttered with billboards and flashing neon signs, in a barren wasteland we are offered deals that will give us a new and exciting life. This is the environment in which our lives are lived together as religious today, so how can we offer hope and peace in a world that seems to be becoming more and more frenetic?

Perhaps some answers might be found in everyday things such as making our homes beautiful in their simplicity; by caring for everything as “the vessels of the altar”, by avoiding what is tacky and dishonest, by living so as not to denigrate the environment, by continuing to find ways of sharing with others what we value.

In 1965 the fathers of the Second Vatican Council addressed a greeting to artists, “This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty brings joy to the human heart …” In his 1999 “Letter to Artists”, Pope John Paul II quotes the poet Cyprian Norwid, who tells us that “beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up”.

All our work can do this, but in particular for Benedictines, beauty should be evident when we come together to celebrate the Work of God. This Work of God is the landscape in which the Benedictine’s life is lived. It is the work of the community coming together, in a special place, several times a day, to praise God in the singing of psalms, listening to the Word and praying for needs of the world.

If we are to remain enthusiastic for the Work of God, the integration of beauty is fundamental. Where might this beauty be found? In the noble simplicity of the place; in the dignity of the books; in the respectful stance of the gathered community; in the singing with one voice; in the attentive reception of the Word proclaimed; in the heartfelt petition on behalf of the world.

In the beauty of the Work of God we can be raised up and with us our world.

Jill O'Brien

Good Samaritan Sister Jill O'Brien is a graduate of the Liturgucal Design Consultants Program at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago. She has been involved with parishes and communities as they set about the task of building or renovating their worship spaces. Jill has lived in Broome since 2003 and seven of those years were spent as Campus Minister at the Broome Campus of the University of Notre Dame. At the request of the Bishop of Broome, Christopher Saunders, Jill is now engaged in guiding the processes related to the construction of a new cathedral for the Diocese of Broome.

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