The Beauty of Holiness
Each year, on the first Monday in May, The Metropolitan Museum of Art partners with Vogue Magazine to host the Met Gala. The Met Gala is a black-tie benefit to raise money for the Costume Institute, essentially the Met’s fashion department. The event coincides with the Costume Institute’s annual themed exhibit.
And so, every year, 5th Ave is packed with celebrities and philanthropists who have come to see and be seen. Because this is a red carpet event hosted by the most famous fashion magazine in the world, there is an expectation that guests will arrive in couture, high fashion outfits that go with the year’s theme.
In 2018, that theme was “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” The exhibit was intended to explore the impact of theology and liturgy on the world of fashion. According to the New York Times, the exhibit was the largest in the Institute’s history, “stretching across three galleries...and approximately 58,600 square feet…[featuring] 50 or so ecclesiastical garments and accessories on loan from the Vatican, multiple works from the Met’s own collection of religious art and 150 designer garments that have been inspired by Catholic iconography or style.” It felt as though Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue and the Met tailor-made an exhibit designed specifically to get *me* to come to New York and see it.
On the night of the Met Gala, my Facebook and Instagram were inundated with pictures of celebrities in religiously inspired couture. Some of it was tacky. Some was sublimely beautiful. Among my friends - and especially among my churchy friends - the Gala was seemingly all anyone could talk about for a few days.
A few weeks later, I went to New York to visit a friend of mine and we agreed ahead of time that we would set aside a whole day to see this exhibit.
It was extradordinary.
The curators took these incredibly detailed, meticulously constructed garments and interspersed them throughout the medieval art galleries. This allowed guests to draw connections between these centuries’ old works of ecclesiastical art and the modern, high-fashion garments standing next to them. It took us over 3 hours to see everything.
It was all so beautiful.
Throughout the rest of my visit, we kept talking about what we had seen and looking at pictures we had taken. When I came home, I talked about the exhibit with practically anyone who would listen. Which, I suppose, now includes all of you.
Good art stays with you. It changes how you view the world and even changes how you view yourself.
Now I recognize fashion isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But all of us, even the most spartan and pragmatic among us enjoy looking at, listening to, experiencing beautiful things. It’s in our blood. It’s part of what makes us human. Our definition of what we consider beautiful may vary, but we are all drawn to beauty. We want to spend time with it. We have an impulse to surround ourselves with beautiful things. And we want to share beauty with others.
How many times have you seen something beautiful, taken a picture, and then shown it to someone. “Look what I saw!” Sharing beauty with another person increases our appreciation of that beauty.
Throughout human history, the very concept of beauty has been inextricably linked to the divine. St. Gregory of Nyssa once said, and this is a major paraphrase, that God is beautiful. And since God created the world, God left imprints of Gods beauty on the world. In the same way, a piece of art reflects something of the artist who made it. And we, made in imago Dei, in the image of God. This means we share God’s beauty AND are meant to mimic God’s creative impulse - responding to God’s beauty by creating beauty of our own.
But, despite that God-given impulse, despite that desire for beauty, many of us view the world and ourselves as if through a veil. Our view is often distorted.
Moses comes down from the mountain, his face reflecting the beauty of his encounter with God and the Israelites are uncomfortable - they make him veil his face, even as they yearn for connection with God. So we, cover up our own beauty, or tell others to do hide theirs. We live in a society that at once values and dismisses beauty as unproductive. Many of us struggle to see the beauty of God in other people. And I’m willing to bet that most of us struggle to see the beauty of God in our selves.
The more time we spend admiring and creating beautiful things, the more readily we can see the beauty of God in others. ...the beauty of God in ourselves. As Paul puts it, “And all of us...seeing the glory of the Lord...are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” You might swap out the word “glory” for “beauty” there.
I think that’s part of what Peter experienced on the top of that mountain. Jesus has taken his closest disciples - Peter, John, and James, to the top of a mountain to pray. And while they’re there, something amazing happens. The details are a little fuzzy. It’s not entirely clear what happened, But suddenly Jesus was different. His face changed. His clothes became dazzling. He seemed to emanate a warm light. And then Moses and Elijah appeared “in glory” and began discussing things with Jesus that the Disciples couldn’t even begin to understand.
Even though he doesn’t entirely understand what’s going on, Peter is caught up in the power, the beauty of this moment. “Master!” he says, “it is good for us to be here! Let us build three dwellings one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter is so struck by this experience, he wants to be able to stay there. He wants to be able to preserve the beauty of this moment and bring others to come and see.
If this had happened today, he might have pulled out a phone to try and take a picture to post on Instagram or Snapchat for the rest of the Disciples. Maybe he would have even taken a selfie. Selfies are, by the way, part of that same impulse to share beauty.
But standing there, at the top of the mountain, Peter and James and John encountered God made flesh. I have to imagine that had to have been one of the most beautiful things any of them had ever experienced. No wonder they wanted to stay and bask in the beauty of it all.
No wonder they wanted to bring others to see it. And no wonder they told everyone who would listen about what they’d experienced. (With all due respect, something tells me Luke’s wrong about that kept silent an.. told no one any of the things they had seen.” bit).
And it’s good they did! Because now we, by extension, can share in the profound beauty of their experience. And we, too, can come to know God a little better. Jesus revealed who he was to his disciples in the beauty of that night on the mountain top. In the unimaginable beauty of God fully unified with Humanity.
Most of us don’t have these kinds of mountain top experiences - at least not very often. We do, however, have constant opportunities to encounter beauty. God is making Godself known to us all around us. All the time. And the surest sign of our creator’s presence is the presence of beauty.
Think back to the last time you encountered something truly beautiful. A moment, a feeling, a view you never wanted to end. An experience you wanted to tell people about. Maybe you took a picture. Maybe you copied a quote into a journal or notebook. Maybe you simply sat and admired your own handiwork. Perhaps this encounter inspired you to create something beautiful yourself.
No matter what it was, in that encounter with beauty, you encountered your Creator. God revealed Godself to you. In that sunset. In the chorus of that Lady Gaga song. In the meticulous folds of a couture gown. In the pulsating beauty of a crowded street.
In the appearance of your own face in the mirror.
God is present in all of those things. And more.
Be bold as you seek and create beauty. For God is with you. All you have to do is stop, and pay attention. And allow this encounter with beauty change you.