Why We No Longer But Still Could Have Beautiful Things
“Glorious Folk Art
I‘ve come to see the medieval cathedrals of Europe as the most glorious works of folk art the world has ever known. For that’s what they are. They rose up as a lofty expression of the piety of ordinary people, the work of hundreds of men’s hands, digging the deep cavity for the foundation, hewing and setting delicate half-ton stones without mortar, mixing colors for paint or the glazing of windows, searching the forests for the tallest oaks to fell and to carve into beams to span a roof; far more kinds of work than I know and can name.
And it was in the most obvious sense a work of faith. The funds were sure to run out, and then many years might pass during which the building remained incomplete. Raising up one of those structures required trust in your grandson to complete what you worked on and what your grandfather began. We have nothing comparable now.
And they put themselves into those buildings. I mean that literally. You will see many a window featuring ordinary workmen: bakers, weavers, smiths, coopers, carpenters. There was a homely and healthy town rivalry in their enthusiasm, too. Everybody wanted a church that was finer and taller than the one in the town up the river. Sure, that meant also that a steadier stream of pilgrims—for medieval man was a pilgrim, not a tourist—would come to your town, and they would need food and drink and lodging. But of course the vast expense would never be recovered by the same people who contributed at first, and nobody expected as much. To ask, then, why they did such a thing, rather than keep their gold hidden in a hole in the floor, is to ask what is beside the point. They did it because they loved doing it. They were free.
I intend that word in its old Germanic sense. To be free is not, O modern man, to be rid of all claims upon your love, your duty, your person, and your substance. If that were true, then Charles Dickens crafted a truly blithe and free spirit in the unregenerate Ebenezer Scrooge, crouching alone in his dismal flat and eating gruel gone sour. If you are talking about freedom and you are not talking about love and devotion, then you are not talking about freedom at all; you are talking about moral license, or a permission guaranteed by statutory law, that you may in some regard do exactly as you like, which may include gazing endlessly at evil pictures on your computer screen, and thus transforming yourself, cell by cell and pulse by pulse, into a thing, an automaton. Even at Magdalen College, where by the ineffable mercy of God I now teach, one of my students expressed surprise that I did not define freedom in this negative fashion. “What can freedom then be?” he asked, genuinely wanting to know.
I gave him a definition that every poet and thinker in the Middle Ages would have accepted, and likewise every Christian, whether Catholic or Protestant, in the Renaissance. I said that freedom is the unimpeded capacity to attain to the perfection proper to the kind of creature you are. But since man is made in the image of the God who is a three-personed communion of love, his perfection, the enlargement of his soul, can only come by means of a gift, by the gift of grace from God, which enables him to make of himself a gift to others. There is no truly human freedom without grace, and the love that is its proper response . . .
The Three Reasons
The three reasons are these: We do not have beautiful things because we have been taught to value things and even persons mainly for their utility. We do not have beautiful things because our sense of beauty has been reduced to the decorative and pretty, or to garish scenes on an advertisement for tourists; beauty is a commodity, cheap or expensive, depending on whether your taste runs to costume jewelry or diamonds from De Beers. We do not have beautiful things, because we have forgotten how best to give praise to God, who is himself Beauty.
Let us take these reasons, which are related to one another, one at a time . . .”