Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Beauty, anyone?

IT IS said that there are only two kinds of men: men who admire those who are beautiful and men who think they are beautiful. I’m astounded at how more and more obsessed our world has become with beauty. Add to that how we take for granted that obsession. I’m equally amazed at how more and more sophisticated people have become in making themselves look good or better. Again, add to that how that preoccupation could be regarded a thing so natural it’s taken in the same league as breathing, eating or drinking, or a goal so fundamental it’s regarded by so many as a sine-qua-non of the pursuit of happiness. Isn’t it amazing how some people think not being beautiful means not being happy? In fact, I’m amazed that I’m amazed.

But let me drop these rambling thoughts and get down to the business of reflecting.

First, it’s at least clear to me that the ancient thinkers have different perspectives on beauty. Socrates once said that beauty is “a short-lived tyranny”, possibly because beauty, say in a woman, can make her the cause of a variety of afflictions in people, particularly in those under her spell, from having to carry its possessor’s luggage to committing graft or even murder on that person’s order or wish, if actual events were to be our gauge. But, perhaps fortunately, physical beauty is characteristically ephemeral and yet, let’s face it, the fact that beauty fades in time, even if somewhat slowly in a few, is the agony of people whose number is beyond counting. As Mėrė once declared: “Beauty is the first present nature gives…and the first it takes away”, evidently an extension of Plato’s earlier opinion that “beauty is a privilege of nature”. In a word, though it does not come to a person by way of merit, its possessor gains an incomparable edge in the society of all-too-flawed humans such as ours. Of course, we say in no way is beauty on the same footing as achievement. A man or woman who has a successful career—for instance, as a lawyer, doctor, accountant, artist or writer—by logic has more reason to feel proud than a man or woman who simply possesses beauty or a handsome appearance. Still, in real life, we all know how physical beauty can so enthrall or even possess people that it becomes a veritable source of power and influence for its owner. The ‘artistas’ and people in showbiz are a perfect example. People with beautiful faces, handsome appearances and crisp well-chiseled bodies could, to repeat Socrates, become tyrants, if often unintentionally, simply because they command people’s attention and adulation, despite sometimes not having the talent or competence in any given endeavor they get themselves into. All the more reason we are not surprised when Aristotle, even in ancient Greece, already said that “beauty is better than all the letters of recommendation in the world”.

On the other hand, we realize, sooner than later, that physical beauty alone, though admittedly a form of power over others, is only “skin-deep”. Genuine beauty, our finer instincts tell us, has deeper roots.

In fact, lesser known thinkers already lead us to these deeper roots. For example, Quarles said that “the fountain of beauty is the heart”. Bacon, as if in response, asserted: “The best part of beauty is that which no picture can express”. But I am most taken by the words of Bovee to the effect that “when a graceful figure is the habitation of a virtuous soul—when the beauty of a face speaks out the modesty and humility of the mind, it raises our thoughts to the great Creator…”

All these confirm the insight that genuine beauty is within and involves the heart and one’s inner attitudes and conduct, though admittedly external physical beauty helps. But the really profound observation is that beauty takes us to God himself. Ironically Pinoys find it funny when, to the question of “Is she beautiful (Maganda ba sya?)”, they hear the answer, “She’s kind (Mabait sya)” in an apparently polite way of saying, “No, she’s not beautiful” and a deft way of not having to say the ‘U’ word (if you, dear reader, want to know what that is, please don’t ask me). In the process we miss the deeper insight that ‘kindness’ is at the heart of true ‘beauty’, bearing in mind Pope John Paul II’s teaching that the “heart of God is compassion.”

This is where Mama Mary comes in. When St. Juan Diego saw the Blessed Virgin Mary whom we call now Our Lady of Guadalupe he saw, in his words, “a lovely lady dressed in Aztec dress”. We wonder how Mama Mary’s beauty could be so unfading, what with two thousand years having passed. But from the angel’s words we clearly hear of God’s action in her and, no wonder, it is a touch of beauty. Bovee’s words quoted above are a reminder of a universal sense among human beings that when physical beauty is coupled with virtue, such as modesty and humility, it becomes a powerful sacrament of God. In his words, “it raises our thoughts to the great Creator”.

When the archangel Gabriel declares to Mama Mary God’s plan of making her the Mother of his Son, he calls her kecharitomene. Earlier translated as “full of grace”, later scholars render it (the) “favored one”. ‘Grace’ indicates not only Mary’s beauty in its fullness, both physical and spiritual, but especially its character as a gift from God, which is also clear in the concept of ‘favor’ being showered on Mary, a name which in Hebrew means “excellence”. Although the physical beauty of Mama Mary is often not stressed in her apparitions, it’s also just as factual, and this we gather from visionaries of her in Lourdes, Fatima, Lasalette etc. But it’s also true that in the gospels, attention to the physical beauty of Mama Mary is beside the point. Rather what we read and hear about is the beauty of her heart, her total innocence when she asks the archangel Gabriel how she is going to be a mother in the absence of a man’s intervention (a remark that some early Fathers of the Church interpreted to mean Mary’s intention not to get married), her indomitable hope and courage at the foot of the cross, her deep humility in regarding herself as merely the “handmaid of the Lord” but, most of all, her faith and obedience apparent in her surrender to God’s will, i.e., “Let it be done to me according to your word”.

This is what makes Mama Mary truly beautiful. By her humility and obedience Mama Mary easily makes herself the perfect dwelling place of God. And indeed she is the ‘new ark of the covenant’ because in her God the Son dwelt even as the angel declared, “The Lord is with you”. Now, when someone is filled with God, she must be the most beautiful creature in the whole world for, as St. Augustine once said, God is “Beauty ever ancient, ever new”.

Now here’s the best part: This is a beauty everybody, male or female, can possess. That is, if, with God’s grace, we could also imitate the virtues that make Mama Mary the quintessence of true beauty.

Then the matter of distinguishing those who admire the beautiful and those who are beautiful wouldn’t matter anymore.