Fr Conor McDonough
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8).
This beloved passage often comes to mind when I’m struck by a sudden and unexpected beauty. When the sky gives the quiet gift of snow: “whatever is pure, whatever is lovely”; when a piece of music launches my spirit upward with a crescendo: “whatever is honourable…if there is any excellence”; when I witness an upright human action shining bright against the slough of compromise: “whatever is just”; when words – of a poem, or song, or Scripture – reveal what had been hidden: “whatever is true”.
But St Paul is inviting the Philippian disciples, and us, to something more than just occasional, passive amazement. He is inviting us to become seekers after beauty.
In our contemporary context, he is inviting us to venture into the great outdoors, to visit art galleries and take our time in front of a painting, to listen to music instead of just hearing it, to savour good writing, to have eyes that are practised in the art of gazing.
All of this might sound highly idealistic, and far removed from our hectic daily grind. We might be tempted to respond: “What is true and pure and lovely can wait until after retirement; in the meantime I have 15 emails to reply to and a child to pick up and three meetings and shopping…”
Such a response underestimates the weight of the passage from Philippians. As St Paul writes this letter, he is not tucked away in a leafy suburb, listening to Lyric FM with a cup of Earl Grey; he’s in a dank prison, awaiting the possibility of a gruesome death. And yet he can say: “Whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely…think on these things.”
Seeking out beauty is not something to do when all our struggles are over, when the good fight has been fought; it’s necessary precisely to remind us why we’re fighting. We grow tired – as parents, as workers, as carers, as volunteers, as pro-life activists, as believers in a hostile public square – and such tiredness makes us susceptible to the cynicism and ugliness of the ambient culture.
We need the daily remedy of beauty to open our eyes again and again to the good we are fighting for: the good of our children, the common good of society, the good of the vulnerable human being, the Good News of salvation.
And we need the remedy of beauty to remind us to lift our eyes to the beautiful good that awaits us when our lifelong fight really is over: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived: what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9).
Make the most of Christmas: How to maintain an ‘Advent spirit’ while the world is pre-empting the Christmas feast? It’s the perennial December question for practicing Catholics. Here’s one idea: make a playlist of music that helps to prepare us for the Lord’s coming at Christmas. There are all kinds of possibilities available online: Gregorian chant, like the Rorate Caeli; well-loved carols like O Come, O Come Emmanuel, Gabriel’s Message and O Come Divine Messiah; and contemporary songs like Matt Maher’s Love Comes Down. Waiting for the Lord is a unique joy: let’s not pass it by this year.
The last day of November this year marked the 50th anniversary of the death of the poet Patrick Kavanagh. Few poets have insisted as thoroughly as he on the value of the ordinary and trivial.
To find beauty and significance we don’t need to travel to great metropolises like gawking provincials; everything we need is in the parish: the “heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges”, “secrecies of stone”, “the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking/Of an old fool”. “Love’s doorway to life/Is the same doorway everywhere” and this is true because beauty and significance aren’t manmade, but come from the omnipresent God who is “breathing his love by a cut-away bog”.