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.