Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky once wrote, “Beauty at low temperatures is beauty.” His point was simple enough. If one can find beauty in the harsh barrenness of low temperatures, then something must be truly beautiful, for only beauty can counterbalance the immense discomfort of frigidness and thus be called truly beautiful. Similarly, it is from Dostoyevsky that we learn that “Beauty will save the world.” Once again, we see at work the notion that there is something about beauty that is redemptive. In beauty there is harmony, in harmony there is order, and where either of these is found, and all the more where both are found at once, there is peace.
It was the poet John Keats who wrote, “Truth is beauty, beauty truth.” Hardly a novel idea, but lacking novelty it is no less true. Keats touches upon an idea that has almost become a cliché, this ancient understanding that truth, beauty, and goodness are all one, that there is something both eternal and transcendental about these three conditions. We know, however, that the truth is not always good, at least in the Disney sense. To quote from Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard Address, “The truth is seldom pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.” How, then, can something bitter, even if it is true, be good or beautiful? Simply put, it is entirely because it is true, that it is good and beautiful. To suggest that the truth is not always good or desirable is to suggest that there is goodness in lies. There is no goodness in lies; a liar is not a hero, but a villain.
So it is with faith, that it is born less on the sunlit uplands of the privileged and pleasured life, than in the vale of tears, shrouded in mist. Far from being a bitter message from a bitter man (neither of which is true!), this is actually a pattern borne out time and again in scripture and echoed across the ages by men and women of seemingly infinite spiritual and intellectual wisdom. The trouble is this message of redemptive suffering conflicts with our Western sensibilities, whereby we associate as if by muscle memory “the good life” with privilege, pleasure, material abundance, and safety. So strong is this erroneous link that many will orient the whole of their lives towards gaining only that which can be quantified, even to the point that their understanding of self becomes nearly inextricably tied to their satisfaction with life. Life, then, becomes a matter of possession itself. What these woeful men and women fail to realize, or choose to ignore, is the simple truth that in the material world, all that can be gained can be much more easily lost.
Faith is not something to be possessed, but something to be cultivated; but its cultivation requires sacrifice and difficulty and dare I write, pain – all of which run as entirely contrary to modern life as poor eating habits is to physical health. Our liberalist order is predicated on making every man his own king, and in later days, his own god (at least in self-perception). As individual god-kings, man quickly and happily submits to the two-headed beast of consumerism and materialism. We find more ways to subsume by modern convenience our own responsibilities to family, friends, neighbors, and ourselves to the point that we come to believe that we are helpless and destined for destruction without them. Life existed before the cell phone, hard as it is to believe, but we have chosen either to forget this truth or to ignore it entirely. Instead, we give ourselves mind, body, and soul to the material. But material requires the means to acquire it, so we take work that increasingly alienates us from the world of which we are apart. Our work no longer reflects our role as steward of the natural world, but rather suggests our role as a marauder. The modern world ravages the natural, even as it claims to defend and value it. So it is, then, that material wealth, which does not strictly mean financial though it is impossible to possess without financial means, is orders of magnitude more of a hindrance than a helper to faith.
Faith is developed, rather, when all other avenues of opportunity and availability have been closed. A man will not understand the goodness of God’s providence if he has never experienced a season of need, nor will he ever fully experience God’s loving companionship if he has never been deserted or betrayed and left completely alone. It was not through ease and plenty that Abraham became the father of many nations, but through faith – a faith that would not have existed without pain and suffering. Had he refused God’s call to leave his own father, or to withhold his own son from sacrifice, Abraham would have been lost to the annals of time. It was not through ease and plenty that Joseph son of Jacob came to his profound faith in the goodness of our God but through faith. Having been betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, and slandered against.
Or consider the later Joseph, guardian of our Savior and husband to our Lady. What a dark night of the soul it must have been as he turned over in his mind all the myriad meanings of his wife being with child, and the message of the angel, and the forced fleeing into Egypt. With this Joseph, we have a particularly interesting case. He is one of our most highly revered saints, a bulwark of the faith, and yet the role he plays is so seemingly inconsequential. He barely speaks. He just goes about his business and does as he is told. And yet, he is one of our greatest men. Why? It is because of his faith – strong, steadfast, and resolved. God would not have chosen him to be his earthly father had he not the resolve to be of the virtue necessary to protect and serve our Lord, and yet scripture tells us that when Joseph first learned of Mary’s pregnancy he had resolved to divorce her quietly. Theories of this aside, we see Joseph choose not to divorce our Lady because he chose to heed the angel’s message. He, therefore, exercised his faith in God’s goodness and grew in his faith because of it.
We live in a time of spiritual weakness and moral vacuity. This is not new, it has been a very long time coming, and we were warned. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn walked into the heart of American elitism in 1978, 40 years ago this June, and told those who were destined by family name to be the future leaders of American society,
“A fact which cannot be disputed is the weakening of human beings in the West while in the East they are becoming firmer and stronger… Life’s complexity have and moral weight have produced stronger, deeper, and more interesting characters than those generally produced by standardized Western well-being.”
And later in this same address, he continues by wondering aloud how the once mighty West came to be then so weak (and now all the more). Continues Solzhenitsyn,
“… we turned our backs upon the Spirit and embraced all that is material with excessive and unwarranted zeal. This new way of thinking… did not admit the existence of intrinsic evil in man nor did it see any higher task than the attainment of happiness on earth. It based modern Western civilization on the dangerous trend to worship man and his material needs… Merely freedom does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and it even adds a number of new ones.”
These days are ours, and it is in the midst of such days that we must discern how to live faithfully. It is also in days such as these that the temptation to despair of the faith, to surrender it for the sake of easier passage to the end of all knowing, is growing and has already begun the processes of cultural germination. This temptation to doubt and to despair, then, is our darkness.
It would seem that the life of faith is hard and unpleasant. Yet, we are told and made to believe that it is good. It is the honest man who tells you all the reasons not to do the thing that he wants you to do, and why? Because he knows that this thing is ultimately worth all the difficulty and suffering likely to be incurred, and knows that if one shirks away at the mention of difficulty, one lacks the courage and fortitude to take on the task itself. Sacred Scripture can, in a certain light, be read as a list of reasons to avoid living a life of faith, and one is called to faith in the same sentence as a warning of persecution and death. Only something supremely good, and true, and beautiful not only motivates the start of a quest, but also provide the strength and wherewithal to endure to the end.
Quoting Tolkien, “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,” and this he says (through the character Gimli) at the outset of the Fellowship’s quest to hell-on-Middle Earth. It is in this spirit that Brodsky said, “Beauty at low temperatures is beauty,” and it is in this same spirit that we may say that faith in the darkness is faith.