Beauty matters, for us and for God

Longwood Gardens, located west and south of Philadelphia near the Delaware border, is considered a botanical masterpiece. (Bo Hwan Wang/Pixabay)

The script that forms the title of Christie Purifoy’s 2019 work of non-fiction looks at first glance like the word “Peacemaker.”  So someone surveying the book rack might expect that this book will be about someone such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta or Nelson Mandela or Malala Yousafzai.

Flipping to the chapter titles — Citrus Grove, Honey Locust, Penn’s Woods, Norway Maple — tells the prospective reader that he or she had better take a second look at the title.  It turns out that it’s “Placemaker” with an “l” and the subtitle is “Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace.”  

The Season of Creation, declared by Pope Francis and many other religious leaders, officially ended on Oct. 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. The idea of “placemaking” seems to connect well with the spirit of the season. There’s a sense that care for the earth and enhancement of the homesteads, the lots on which we live, our work places and town squares and playgrounds are spiritual activities as well as pursuits that could land us on HGTV or DIY.  

Purifoy’s approach emphasizes the spiritual tone of “placemaking.” She recalls the cities, towns, and rural areas in which she and her family have lived and tells stories of how they worked to preserve and beautify the landscapes of their lives.   She intersperses stories of Texas, Chicago, Florida, and Pennsylvania with God-talk and inspirational quotations.  

Her two main points seem to be: 1) that God’s creation and the artistry we develop as we inhabit our earthly environments are themselves revelations of God — who is not only all-knowing, all-powerful, almighty, and all-present but also all-beautiful; and 2) that when we work to make places not only practical and habitable but also attractive and appealing, we point to what our heavenly home, with its “many mansions,” might be like.

At one point in “Placemaker,” she talks about Longwood Gardens, the expansive botanical masterpiece west and south of Philadelphia near the Delaware border. She raises a question about the du Pont family’s determination to create this fantastic estate and populate it with statuary and exotic flora while other Americans were suffering hunger and displacement during the American Dust Bowl days.  

“What business did he [Pierre du Pont] have spending so much money on limestone flowers, vases, and turtles? Was his placemaking a needless extravagance?”

This is something that has crossed my mind when I hear the stories about the construction of my religious community’s motherhouse chapel, which was named a minor basilica in 1989, on its 50th anniversary. 

What could have motivated a community of sisters ministering to the children of coal miners and destitute elderly widows and orphans to build an edifice that ended up in architectural journals?  

How did the sisters manage to get travertine marble, brilliant mosaics and stained glass windows, a specially designed crucifix, one-of-a-kind Stations of the Cross, elegant holy water fonts, and a baldacchino inlaid with the words “Adveniat Regnum Tuum” (“Thy Kingdom Come”) as people were struggling through the effects of the Great Depression and Hitler and Mussolini were propelling nations into World War II?  

One pragmatic observation is that the project of building what is now the Basilica of Saints Cyril and Methodius employed an incredible number of craftsmen, stone masons, artists, electricians, shippers and truckers at a time when work was most needed.  

Another practical note is that the sisters and resident students had rapidly outgrown their space and needed a larger place to worship.  On a more theo-economical note, we have to recount the way in which immigrant families and their fraternal organizations were motivated to make our chapel a monument to faith and culture — and to create a structure that would lead minds and hearts to God for generations. They saved and donated for it.

To return to Purifoy, we might agree with her that the human soul thrives on beauty and elegance as well as on the satisfaction of necessities.

When St. Thomas Aquinas treats the topic of Creation, he notes that one of the “works” of Creation is adornment. In Genesis, we hear how God adorned the earth. 

As God’s children, we also find ourselves motivated to construct Gothic cathedrals and to craft masterpieces of art and music. We are inclined by nature, by the fact of being creatures, to want to make places of refuge and refreshment, places that appeal to our senses, and thereby to invite peace and contemplation.

True enough, there can be homes, businesses, and places of worship that strike us as cold and merely functional. We’re not inclined to frequent them. But attractive places draw us back again and again. We don’t feel alone and abandoned in spaces where God’s presence seems to be built into the walls and furnishings. We somehow know that care and wisdom have lived there.  

The sisters I live with are incessantly engaged in collecting donations of food, clothing, furniture, and housewares — and also soliciting grants and cash donations — on behalf of the poor of St. Helena Island and the Beaufort area. 

 But they have also painted walls, replaced flooring, added valance curtains, purchased chairs with arms (easier for the elderly to rise from), and paid a young Hispanic art student to create a mural of St. Francis of Assisi in the center where they distribute food and take requests for utility assistance and home repairs. 

They have transformed their thrift shop, which provides goods at 1/10th — and sometimes 1/100th of what they originally cost — into something that looks like a well-appointed boutique.  

People respond. Kind words, offers of prayer, and humorous interchanges draw people. But so too do surroundings which honor and respect the clients who have fallen on hard times through job loss, medical issues, and the need to care for generations of relatives.  

The Book of Exodus tells of how the ancient Israelites, after years of wandering in the desert, appointed the Ark of the Covenant and the Meeting Tent with rare lumber and precious metals and gems for furnishings and vessels and used the finest woven materials and stitchery for hangings and vestments. Extravagant? Absolutely! God spoke to Moses of the importance of “glorious adornment.”  

We Catholics should readily understand why adornment and beautiful surroundings matter. They especially do in times of trial and even terror. We pick up physical ruins and ruined lives and somehow want to build memorials and legacies and retreat centers and spas. We are sacramental people.  

That means that we understand our God to be both transcendent and immanent — far above our comprehension and grasp and yet also very much present in the here and now, in the drudgery and nitty-gritty.  

Being sacramental people means that we connect with God through pure inspiration and revelation but also through water, bread, wine, anointing oil, and vows spoken. We celebrate with incense and music and liturgical colors.

The poet Richard Wilbur has said, “Love calls us to the things of this world.” 

We Catholics believe that the things of this world, rightly appreciated and used, rightly cared for and respected, also call us to the eternal God.   

Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM
About Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM 119 Articles
SISTER PAMELA SMITH, SSCM, is the Director for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the Diocese of Charleston. Email her at psmith@charlestondiocese.org.