Can one know what true beauty and goodness are? Is there an objectivity to these attributes, or are they merely what one perceives them to be? Let us focus on what God has created women to be and what society tells them to be. Does the truth lie in women being successful career women to the exclusion of their own feminine nature; in being dependent on the admiration of others for their self-worth; or in their being mere physical objects of pleasure? Or are they called to find the truth of their dignity in the model of Mary, Virgin Mother of God, who reflects and participates in the Divine Truth, Beauty, and Goodness of which all creation is called to reflect and share in?
The question of truth, beauty, and goodness is one that has intrigued men for centuries. The pagan philosophers seek to identify that which is True, Good, and Beautiful. For the Christian, however, there can be no other answer than that which affirms that the Triune God is the True, the Beautiful, and the Good. By His very essence God is all three. Everything else is so only by participation. We can know this because God has chosen to reveal Himself to us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church #2500 tells us that “even before revealing Himself to man in words of truth, God reveals Himself to (man) through the universal language of creation.” All creation reflects its Creator; therefore, we can see something of Beauty itself in creation. Truth, beauty, and goodness, which are called “the transcendentals,” cannot be separated from one another because they are a unity as the Trinity is One. Truth is beautiful in itself. And goodness describes all that God has made. “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good” (Gen.1:31).
Man is the summit of the Creator’s work, as Scripture expresses by clearly distinguishing the creation of man from that of other creatures. “God created man in His own image…” (Gen. 1:27). Thus, man was not only created good and beautiful, but he was also established in friendship with his Creator and in harmony with himself and with the creation around him, in a state that would be surpassed only by the glory of the new creation in Christ. The inner harmony of the first man, the harmony between the first man and woman (Adam and Eve), and the harmony between the first couple and all creation, is called “original justice.” This entire harmony of original justice was lost by the sin of our first parents. Created in a state of holiness, man was destined to be fully “divinized” by God in glory. But he preferred himself to God and disobeyed God’s command.
Thus, Adam and Eve immediately lost the grace of original holiness, and the harmony in which they had lived was destroyed. They were separated from Beauty Itself. God, however did not abandon mankind, all of whom share in the sin of Adam, since “by one man’s disobedience all were made sinners” (Rom. 5:12). In the fullness of time God sent His Son to restore that which had been lost. The Son, who is “beautiful above the sons of men,” came to restore us to beauty.
Thus, we turn now to beauty. Von Balthasar once remarked that when one is seeking to draw others to God, he should begin with beauty because beauty attracts. Beauty will then lead to truth and goodness. Hence, if one is going to begin with beauty then one must know what beauty is. I will make a distinction between two types of beauty, although only one of them is beauty in the truest sense of the definition. There is “seductive” beauty, which is often reflected in our current culture. This would entail whatever allures us to our self-destruction (morally or spiritually). It takes us away from what we were created for, union with Beauty Himself. This type of beauty I will return to, but first I want to establish a definition and proper understanding of what “true” beauty is. This is first and foremost whatever attracts us to our true fulfillment and happiness. In his book The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty, John Saward, drawing on the work of St.Thomas Aquinas, defines beauty as: “the gleaming of the substantial or actual form that is found in the proportioned parts of a material things.” In other words, while one can find beauty in the outward appearance, one must go deeper to the nature or the essence of the thing.
“Thus, in a material substance (such as man) there is beauty when the essence of a thing shines clearly through its outward appearance.” The beauty of one’s soul can be said to shine through a person’s countenance. For this to occur, three things are necessary -wholeness (integrity), due proportion (harmony), and radiance (clarity). It is important to note that understood in this definition is the fact that beauty is a reality in itself, it is not something that we produce by looking at a work of art or some other thing that attracts us. Rather, beauty radiates out of what we see. It radiates out because it is participating in Beauty itself. In regards to Jesus, “Christian Tradition – from Augustine and Hilary to Peter Lombard, Albert, Thomas, and Bonaventure – holds that beauty can be appropriated in a special way to the Second Person…”
St. Thomas says that all three marks of beauty are found in Jesus. Radiance is found in Him because He is the Word of the Father, and the Word eternally uttered by the Father completely and perfectly expresses Him. He is the brightness of the Father’s mind. Due proportion is found in the Son of God because He is the perfect image of the Father. As the perfect image, He is divine beauty. Jesus has wholeness because He has in Himself the whole nature of the Father. In begetting the Son, the Father communicates the whole of His divine essence. Thus, we have a Divine Person, God the Son, who without ceasing to be true God, has been made true man for us in the Virgin’s womb. When one sees the Virgin and the Child, one sees a witness to the Trinity. Pope John Paul II explains that this picture of Mother and Child “constitutes a silent but firm statement of Mary’s virginal motherhood, and for that very reason, of the Son’s divinity.”
It is as such a witness to the Trinity that allows Mary a special place in relationship to the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. The Blessed Virgin, said the fifteenth century poet John Lydgate, is the “Fairest Mother that ever was alive.” Many poets and artists have sought to express their praise and admiration for Her who is so closely united to Divinity. When Dante reaches Paradise, he finds the beauty of the Son of God most perfectly mirrored in Mary, of whom He was born. Thus, we will see how Mary is to be for all, but especially women, a model of true beauty, and thus, goodness and truth, as she reflects a sharing in the life of the Trinity. “All the beauty for soul and body that the Son of God brought into the world, all the loveliness He wanted to lavish on mankind, is summed up in, and mediated by the person of His ever virgin Mother, ‘a woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars’ (Rev. 12:1). If there is beauty, it is here.”
To understand Mary’s beauty, one must know of the gifts bestowed on her, and her response to these gifts, which put her in intimate contact with Beauty, Itself. Scripture, God’s revealed Word, tells us that “an angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph…and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he (the angel) came to her and said, ‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you! … Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call Him Jesus. He will be great and called the Son of the Most High…And Mary said, ‘ How can this be since I have no husband?’ And the angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.’ …And Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.'” (Lk. 1:26-38).
To become the mother of the Savior, Mary was given the gifts necessary and befitting such a role. Mary was greeted as “full of grace,” as if that were her real name. A name expresses a person’s identity. “Full of grace” is Mary’s essence, her identity, and the meaning of her life. Mary is full of grace because the Lord is with her. The grace with which she is filled is the presence of Him who is the source of all grace, and she is given over to Him who has come to dwell in her and whom she is about to give to the world. She is by a singular grace free from any stain of sin by reason of the merits of her Son. She possesses the harmony that Adam lost. Thus, she has the first two qualities of beauty: due proportion (harmony) and integrity (wholeness) because by the merits of her Son and the fullness of grace which she has been given, her nature is complete – unwounded and unstained by sin.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church proclaims that “Mary, the all-holy ever-virgin Mother of God, is the masterwork of the mission of the Son and the Spirit in the fullness of time…In her, the ‘wonders of God’ that the Spirit was to fulfill in Christ and in the Church began to be manifested.” Through Mary, the Holy Spirit begins to bring men, “the objects of God’s merciful love, into communion with Christ.”
Grace has been described as “God’s better beauty, the splendor of the soul.” And Mary, who is full of grace, radiates that splendor, that spiritual beauty. Grace (sanctifying grace) gives us a share in the Divine Life; it conforms our souls into the likeness of Christ. Mary in her abundance of grace is a reflected beauty of her Son. She possesses the “radiance” which is the third of the qualities of beauty. The great St. Bernard of Clairvaux declares that “contemplating the countenance of the Mother is the best way of preparing to see the glorious face of the Son.” Saward endorses this idea by pointing to the fact that Our Lord is conceived by the Holy Spirit without seed, thus there is only one human person whom He resembles in His humanity, and that is His Virgin Mother.
How does Mary’s beauty enable women of today to be an image of true beauty, and hence of truth and goodness also? Mary, the Theotokos – the Mother of God, the Mother of Infinite Beauty, who is herself beautiful, will guide women to that which is true and good. She shows the falsehood of “seductive beauty,” which we have noted above as being whatever allures us to our self-destruction (morally or spiritually), by holding up her own “true” beauty in contrast. Before showing the essence of Mary’s beauty, which meets St. Thomas’ requirements for beauty: wholeness, due proportion, and radiance, we will look at society’s claim of womanly beauty. Women today are told by society that what is good and beautiful is that which is glamorous and seductive. Beauty is separated from God, Who is disregarded and Whose goodness is exchanged for a “base mind and improper conduct” (Rom. 1:28), leading to both spiritual and often physical dissolution. The “truth” that they are taught is one which “considers the human being (and hence, the woman) not as a person but as a thing, as an object of trade, at the service of selfish interest and mere pleasure… this falsehood produces such bitter fruits as contempt for men and for women, slavery, oppression of the weak, pornography, prostitution…”
Thus, beauty is often seen as a mere physical quality. It lacks “due proportion” because only one aspect of the whole person is considered. Society emphasizes the physical to the exclusion of the spiritual. Flowing from this same type of mentality, we see that women are honored more for their work outside the home than for their work within the family. What is “seen” as attractive is a woman who is able to achieve the “good” of a successful career, which promises happiness and “equality with men.” In order to achieve this, women often times either renounce their femininity or become a mere imitation of the male role. They are in a sense trading in the quality of “integrity,” which is necessary for true beauty, for society’s limited claim of the beautiful. This “seductive beauty” which promises so much “good” gives rise to a hedonism that distorts and falsifies human sexuality and the true dignity of the human person. This leads not only to a lack of respect for what womanhood is to be, since the truth about their personal dignity as one who was created and redeemed by God is unknown, but it also hinders women from achieving the “fullness of grace” for which they were created. It leads to women’s spiritual destruction because they are not living a life of grace. They are not living for God.
Mary, who lived a grace-filled life, is, however, the model of redeemed woman. God Himself “manifests the dignity of women in the highest form possible by assuming human flesh from the Virgin Mary, whom the Church honors as the Mother of God.” The highest elevation of the human nature took place in the masculine gender, when Jesus, the Son of God, became man and male. The highest elevation of the human person took place in the feminine gender, in the Virgin Mary. Her divine maternity gives her an exalted dignity. She is “blessed among women.” Therefore, all womanhood shares in her blessing and is made radiant by her. “When the Virgin Mary is humbly honored for the sake of her Son, women will be honored…for she has revealed the true beauty of womanhood.”
Looking at what we have already said about Mary, we know “full of grace” reveals her essence, her identity. It is also the key to her reflection of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. It is the key to women discovering the truth of their own dignity, and hence, obtaining the divine life that is offered to them through a life of grace. This is a life that will bestow on them true goodness and beauty, which is a participation in the beauty of the Creator.
Because Mary is “full of grace,” she possesses the wholeness that was lost by Adam. Because of grace, she is “radiant as the sun,” showing in her very being the clarity of a life united with God. Such a union shines forth in a person’s actions; actions which are a reflection of God’s goodness. “The practice of goodness is accompanied by spontaneous spiritual joy and moral beauty” (CCC 2500). These actions, called virtues, “are acquired by education, by deliberate acts and by a perseverance ever-renewed in repeated efforts are purified and elevated by divine grace” (CCC1810). Grace affects every dimension of a person’s life. It is a gift of God that leads us closer to God. The closer we are to God, the more we reflect Him who is Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.
Mary is held up for us as the model of the life of virtue. She is a guide in living a life of faithfulness to grace. Due to space limitation, I will only briefly look at three of the virtues that Mary possesses and calls us to imitate. They are faith, obedience, and charity. The Church hails Mary as an “excellent exemplar in faith and charity” (Lumen Gentium 53). We see her faith when she entrusts herself freely to God at the Annunciation, believing and trusting the angel’s message to her that the son to be born to her would be the Son of the Most High, certain that “with God nothing is impossible” (Lk. 1:30). Her journey of faith continues in her responses to that which occurs in her life of union with Jesus. She flees to Egypt when Joseph is directed to go there (Mt. 2:13-15); she returns in the same manner (Mt. 2:19-23); and she faithfully perseveres in her union with her Son unto the cross (cf. LG#58, Jn.19:25-27), all the while believing and trusting in the wisdom of God’s divine plan. She believed that her Son, though crucified and buried, would rise from the dead. She waited in prayer (Acts 1:14). We, too, are called to be women of faith, believing what God has revealed concerning His plan for us and our salvation.
Flowing from Mary’s deep faith, she shows her loving obedience. Hers was not a servile obedience. Rather it was an obedience that flowed from humility. She knew the wisdom and greatness of God and therefore, sought to live in conformity with it. Being obedient to God meant responding in trust to His all-wise plan. Again, at the Annunciation, she replies in obedience to the angel, “Let it be done to me as you say” (Lk. 1:36). She obediently follows the directions that the angel gives to Joseph, trusting in God. Mary remained obedient to her role as mother even to the cross, where she obediently offers the full assent of her intellect and will to Him whose ways are inscrutable. As we seek to imitate Mary’s obedience, we will find that it frees us from the slavery of sin. Obedience makes us beautiful because it opens us up to God’s grace, to His life and love within us.
Mary’s faith and obedience allows her great charity to shine through. Mary, the Mother of Fairest Love, possesses a self-humbling love, innocent of all narcissism. “It is for Christ and to the glory of the Father, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, that our Lady is ‘all fair.'” She devotes herself “totally as a handmaid of the Lord to the person and work of her Son… she does this freely” (LG # 56). This acceptance of her role as “Mother of the Son of God (is) guided by spousal love, the love which totally consecrates a human being to God. By virtue of this love, Mary wished to always be and in all things given to God.” This love that remains faithful to her Son throughout His life, even to His cruel death on Calvary, extends itself to the brethren of her Son, those souls still journeying on earth (cf. LG #62-63). There is nothing more beautiful than charity, which we are all called to practice, and which inspires and animates all the other virtues (cf. CCC 1827). Charity, the form of all virtues “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14), one of the aspects of beauty.