The Case for Beauty on College Campuses

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

I received my bachelor's degree from the University of San Diego, a school renowned for its beautiful, Spanish-Renaissance-inspired campus. And upon revisiting it over Memorial Day weekend, I found myself struck by the aesthetic improvements made to campus, just in the time since I graduated in 2015. The highlights of the transformation over the last four years include an ornate nursing practicum building, a new quad on the west side of campus, and a few new seating areas (one of them featuring a pair of comically-sized Adirondack chairs, which seemed an admittedly superfluous addition; see below). Though it was hard for me to imagine when graduating that the campus could possibly get any more beautiful, somehow it has managed to become so.

Gorgeous as it is, the school sometimes catches flak for its appearance. I've heard people wonder, for example, why the university would spend tuition dollars on surface improvements when there are surely other things that need attention, or else murmuring about the privilege represented by the campus environment. And I can see where they're coming from. In some ways, perhaps it seems irresponsible for universities to spend so much money on trivial concerns when there are scholarship funds to attend to and student services to enhance. 

But the cultivation of beauty is not a sin. Rather, I believe it is a virtue, and so did the founder of USD, Mother Rosalie Clifton Hill.  

Per the USD website, Mother Rosalie Hill believed that having a beautiful campus would not only inspire students to perform well academically, but to seek after goodness and aspire to the Lord's truth: 

"'Beauty will attract them; goodness will lead them; but the truth will hold them,' she said.

This has been interpreted to mean that beauty will initially attract people who come to the campus, and when they are here, they will encounter people in whom they find a certain goodness. This, in turn, will lead them to the truth, which will hold them. For Mother Rosalie Hill, the search for truth was the purpose of the university (History of the University of San Diego)."

The University of San Diego's beauty ultimately propels its students to seek its source, the Lord.

The reading from today's Mass reinforces the idea that beauty is vital because it points us to Beauty Itself. In Acts 17:26-27, Paul says, "[The Lord] made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for Him and find Him, though indeed He is not far from any one of us.

The phrase "ordered seasons" in this passage seems to act as a synecdoche for all of the natural processes and beauty signified by the world around us --  a single phrase that represents the myriad intricacies and wonders that populate the planet and echo God's creative genius. And Paul reminds us that each of those things, from the smallest blade of grass to the highest mountaintop, points us back to Him, the one who gave everything to us to begin with. Beauty, Paul agrees, leads us to seek God, to seek the truth of His existence and our being.

As Pope St. John Paul II would add centuries later, in his "Letter to Artists," man-made beauty allows us to reflect the image of God and share in the sacredness of His creative work:

"God therefore called man into existence, committing to him the craftsman's task. Through his 'artistic creativity' man appears more than ever 'in the image of God,' and he accomplishes this task above all in shaping the wondrous 'material' of his own humanity and then exercising creative dominion over the universe which surrounds him. With loving regard, the divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of His own surpassing wisdom, calling him to share in His creative power (1)."

In other words, even carefully tended college campuses, stewarded and shaped by human hands, can share in the divine creative mission that calls hearts and minds heavenward. They signify a partnership between humanity and the Creator who fashioned them, and allow people the opportunity to echo His creative work. Those who are attracted to the beauty fashioned by human hands out of the raw materials God supplies will ultimately find in such beauty a reflection of the divine, which in turn causes them to keep seeking truth.  

Seen this way, beauty on college campuses is not only permissible, but admirable and necessary, as it  signifies something greater than itself and encourages us to seek the truth of the One who "gives to everyone life and breath and everything" (Acts 17:25) -- including aesthetically pleasing learning environments.

Because the beauty that exists within the boundaries of a university doesn't stop there. It keeps us yearning and searching for the source of that beauty. And then we build lives that do the same.

And that... well, that is something to be celebrated.

Inner Critics and Inherent Goodness

Monday, April 29, 2019

Photo by Nick Scheerbart on Unsplash

I named my inner critic Marv.

Marv never has anything interesting to say, but that doesn't stop him from following me around 24/7 and commenting on all of my decisions, achievements, and challenges. He's clingy that way.

Marv wears a pinstriped suit that ends just above his skinny ankles and dark-rimmed glasses around his watery eyes. He speaks in a nasal voice.

Marv discourages me from exercising my creativity and scoffs when I make a mistake. He thinks that my worth is defined by what I do and how well I do it, and he keeps relentless score of my days. He believes he knows what everyone else is thinking about me -- always negative things -- and delights in telling me so.

I wouldn't tolerate this kind of behavior from a real, substantial human being who behaved this way toward me, so why do I give Marv -- a mere figment of my imagination -- the time of day?

Well, he can be pretty convincing. Sometimes he disguises himself really well and sounds just like... me. And that's hard to ignore.

"That isn't you," my counselor reminded me during our session today. And then she asked me, "Who are you without that voice?"

In answer to her question, I reflected on Genesis 1, where, after creating humankind and the entire world, God looks everything He has made and calls it "very good" (Gn 1:31).

That means me, too.

I, too, am "very good."

Underneath Marv's voice, which tells me otherwise, there is this deeper, singular truth: I am good. 

And the One who speaks the truth of my goodness is gentle and kind. He smiles when He says my name and sings my identity over me in the sweetest of lullabies. He loved me into and holds me still in existence because He has entrusted specific work to me for the flourishing of His Kingdom -- souls to meet and hearts to help transform.

And He calls me very good.

Dear friend, I hope you, too, believe that you are very good, and that you let the promise of new life this Easter season usher you into a greater realization of your worth and His mercy.

You are loved.

And you are good.

We are the Brave.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

I've been wrestling with this word for a while now:


And its twin, a noun:


I've been trying them on for size, seeing how they feel, struggling to become fluent in their cadences, to settle into their rhythms, to discern their nuances.

I'm a student of literature. I spend a great deal of time attempting to wrangle words into submission as I probe, analyze, and describe themes and theories. And when I can't find the words for something I want to say? When my sentences and the meaning they hold feel clumsy and confused? When there's no clear through-line between the emotion stirring inside me and a definition to give it shape?

I find it frustrating, to say the very least.

That's how I feel about the words brave and courage -- and it's compounded by the conviction that if I knew exactly how to define them, then I'd know exactly how to live them.

Because I'm in a season. A season of not knowing, exactly, who I am or where I'm going -- of feeling that I am, to quote St. Padre Pio, "a mystery to myself." And after nearly a year of therapy, I can't say that I'm necessarily any closer to solving that mystery, per se... though I do think the terms of it, and the fullness of my own complexity, have become clearer.

And there are things I am learning about myself, things I want to hold with care and share with others, that I am only just finding words for (those pesky words again!). But diving into the intricacies of my own story and giving someone else the book to read, unedited, are two different things.

And sometimes, the only word I have for that process is that it's just... hard. It's hard, and I don't have much patience, honestly, for the in-between. I preach the gospel of vulnerability and openness and honesty but am only just learning of the real courage that goes into sharing our hearts. And that it may take a while to develop.

And that's okay.

See, I've always regarded courage as something I either have or I don't. I'm either courageous or I'm cowardly. No middle ground. But when I voiced this to my friend Aura Lee over generously foamy chocolate chai tea lattes last week, she looked confused.

I was telling parts of the story, telling her some of what's been troubling me, line editing for concision and statements that get at the truth but don't probe too deeply, because it was all I could do in that conversation. And I was concerned that I was being a coward for not laying my whole heart bare on the table between us.

"No," she insisted, vigorously shaking her head. "When was the last time you accomplished anything meaningful right away?"

When I couldn't think of a single instance, she provided a poignant example: learning to read started with learning the alphabet, and the sounds that the letters made, before assigning meaning to single words and then, entire sentences.

She continued with something more pertinent to my current state in life: would I ever have dreamed of getting my master's degree in a single weekend, or even after a single class?

Her point being: it takes time to learn how to courage. It is born by degrees.

And the baby steps look like sharing bits and pieces here and there, and acknowledging that sometimes, there are things we aren't ready to share just yet. There are things that are perhaps, right now, only meant for quiet conversations with the Lord. And that's okay.

It's still courageous. It's still brave.

And so, I hope you remember this, the next time you are wondering if you are brave.

I promise, you are.

We are.


New Year, New Soundtrack

Monday, December 31, 2018

Photo by Josh Boot on Unsplash

Well, just like that, another 365 days have come and gone. And honestly, 2018 was a challenging year for me. These nine ditties are the ones guiding me into the new year with hope, love, and courage. I pray they will do the same for you! A link to the full playlist on Spotify is available at the bottom of this post. 

"Open Up Let the Light In" by Steffany Gretzinger

The six words in the title of this song also happen to be its only lyrics, sung meditatively in repetition. It's a beautiful call to action at the beginning of a new year, inviting me to cast out whatever darkness is lingering from 2018, and open myself up to God's love and light ahead.

"Fear" by Ben Rector

I learned to dance with the fear that I'd been running from.

I've been trying to mature in my relationship to fear for some time now, wondering if it's really possible to ever be fearless, or even (more realistically) face my fear and do the dang thing anyway. I'm learning that courage without vulnerability is just bluster, and that, as Brené Brown says, "Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we will ever do." I'm starting to realize that owning our stories looks like acknowledging the presence of fear -- even understanding that it likely won't disappear completely. And that's okay, because real courage simply requires learning to dance with fear, leading it in the dance, instead of letting it own me.

"Glorious" by Macklemore (feat. Skylar Grey)

I feel glorious, glorious -- got a chance to start again. I was born for this, born for this. It's who I am, how could I forget? I made it through the darkest part of the night, and now I see the sunrise. Now I feel glorious, glorious..."

This power jam, in addition to making me feel like rolling down my car windows and singing at the top of my lungs (which I would 0/10 not recommend in subzero Colorado wintertime temps, in case you were wondering), also speaks to the beauty of strength, resilience, and living your life's purpose. This year, get. it. done.

"Not Home Yet" by The Gray Havens

All of your days, if it's well understood, will be working together, forever, for good.

I discovered the Gray Havens about a month ago and have more or less been listening to their album, "She Waits," on repeat ever since. This song in particular resonates with my current season, though, because for one thing, it testifies to the power of changing direction and starting over new. The line I've quoted above also provides some reassurance to me in particular, who has wondered, more than I'd like to admit, if I've been wasting my life. If I should have "arrived" wherever I'm going by now. If the pain has a purpose. The promise that all of my days have been working together for my good is everything my heart needs to hear as I wrap up the year.

"Freedom" by Francesca Battistelli

Break open the doors; You made me for freedom.

Marching into 2019 with the solid sense that I am made for freedom -- not for anxiety, sadness, and fear -- gives me the courage to push through those struggles as they arise in the future.

"Flashlight" by Hunter Hayes

It's funny when I realize all the places that Your miracles can hide. 

I honestly feel as if this song was written for me. One of the things that never ceases to amaze me about God is how He relentlessly pursues my heart, capturing it even when I'm ready to give up on Him, even when I'm doubting and confused and frightened. He is still there, always, shining His flashlight, illuminating things that somehow always lead me back to Him in praise and thanksgiving.

"Trip a Little Light Fantastic" by the cast of Mary Poppins Returns

So when life is getting scary, be your own illuminary, who can shine a light for all the world to see...

This playlist was pretty much done... and then I went to see Mary Poppins Returns with my mom and my sister when I was home for Christmas last week. And I knew I had to add the film's eleven o'clock number. Without risking too many spoilers, I'll share that this song is sung when things are looking pretty bleak for our protagonists. Not a problem, though, when they have a lamplighter for a friend, who can belt this out while literally lighting the city of London with all of his lamplighting friends. Not too obvious of a metaphor about how we should light up our own lives when we've stumbled upon hard times, though, right?


The time has come to make a choice, and I choose joy!

Honestly, I feel a little weird about adopting well-intended mantras like, "Choose joy!" Because sometimes, when I'm feeling sad, joy is the last thing I want to choose. Moping around in sweatpants and eating all of the chocolate sounds like a much better option. But I think the reluctance I feel comes from equating joy with simple happiness, and the two are quite different. Happiness is often a fleeting emotional state, caused by circumstance. Joy, on the other hand, is a way of life that comes from trusting that God is good, no matter what. Now, I'm not saying that happiness doesn't have its place, or that I've got the whole "trust in God" thing down pat. I frequently fight sadness and anxiety, and I want to get better at reminding myself, in those moments, of God's faithfulness -- so as to build a joy that lasts.

"Something Big" by Shawn Mendes

Something big, I feel it happening.

I'm not sure what 2019 will bring. But I am sure it will help me grow into myself even more. And that feels... well, pretty big, honestly.


Here's a link to the whole playlist -- hope you find these songs as empowering, encouraging, and energizing as I do! Happy New Year, all! 

Merry Christmas (We are Loved)

Monday, December 24, 2018

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

I don’t always “get it,” Lord.
            But tonight, I did.
            Tonight, I got it when Fr. Joe spoke of the dual nature of gift-giving at the heart of our Christmas celebrations. Of Mary gifting our humanity to God by giving Jesus a physical body, and of God gifting Himself to humanity, so that they might share in His divine, blessed life:

God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Savior. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life. (CCC 1)

            I don’t often permit myself the space to roam this mystery, to wander the halls of its significance, to feel the weight of its life-changing implications settling, soothing, over me like a sweet perfume.
            I do not have to exist.
            And yet.
            I do.
            And not as if by happenstance. God willed me to exist. He has always wanted me.
            In a plan of sheer goodness, I’m told.
            And He loves me so much that He wants me to return to Him, wants me to give my heart back to Him.
But He doesn’t force me. Quite the opposite.
He comes as a baby, meek and mild, so needy He who is so needed, dependent on others He upon whom we depend for the very breath in our lungs.
He came that we would know Him.
Born to die someday.
And still, years later, at the Last Supper with His disciples, He gave of Himself. Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.
He does so still.
In the Eucharist at every Mass, He willingly mingles His divinity with our humanity, humbling Himself again and again, hundreds of thousands of times each day in parish churches around the world.
All for the sake of knowing us, of loving us.
In the words of Fr. Joe, it’s awesome.
And I cannot, will not, keep silent about this reality.
I want to sing it from the rooftops:
We are loved, we are loved, we are loved!

Merry Christmas, dear reader. I hope you feel loved and hopeful today.  

No Use Crying Over Spilled Tomato Soup.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Photo by Heather Schwartz on Unsplash

...Even when you spill it all over your beautiful Blessed Is She planner.

Because it was lying open on your coffee table and you just couldn't wait until after lunch to watch the 2017 finale of the Great British Baking Show on Netflix.

I'm embarrassed to admit how angry I got with myself for my over-confident bowl handing. I leapt up, grabbed a paper towel, began desperately rubbing the stains out of the pages, all the while saying many unkind things to myself.

"How could you do this, Sarah?!"

"Dangit, Sarah. You're such a spazz."

For the next seven months (I'll get a new planner in August), I'll have to write on pages rimmed with orange, all sad and waterlogged. And all because I'd forgotten Mom's cardinal rule to be extra careful not to spill red things. To keep superfluous items off of eating surfaces.

I could have kicked myself.

But then.

I remembered how my therapist has been speaking with me recently about self-compassion -- about learning to be kind to myself in those moments when I move automatically toward self-criticism.

Moments like, um, this one.

So I changed the way I was talking to myself.

"It's okay. You're only human, and sometimes humans spill things! Besides, you can still write in it. And, you know, you do write a lot of things in it, but you only spend a few minutes with it at a time. This isn't something that will ruin the rest of your life." I even tried to laugh at myself.

And it's not like it brought about an instant transformation. But I can't change the past. I can only change the way I speak to myself about a completely human mistake.

And -- I also thought of this: God wants to meet me in my mess, in a general sense. But usually I don't want Him there. So sometimes He has to force Himself in in a very literal way, I guess.

God wants to meet me in the ordinariness of my daily life, which is one of the reasons I was drawn to a Catholic planner in the first place. And what could be more ordinary than tomato soup splattered on its pages?

Long (melodramatic?) story short, I'll be okay.

I'll even try to smile when I open my planner every day for the next seven months.

Because God is still there, in all my mistakes and humanness. And He's there for you, too.

Be Still and Know.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Photo by Namroud Gorguis on Unsplash

From the ages of about two to four or five, I would listen to a cassette tape each night while falling asleep. Because I lacked the punning capabilities and wordsmithery I currently possess as a young adult, and because the tape was chock-full of songs my mom sang, I called it "Mommy's Music".

"Mommy's Music" featured many songs from the Catholic Mass -- a variety of what my family has affectionately termed in the years since, "Catholic Top 40." If you attend Mass regularly, you likely know the ones I mean:

Here I Am, Lord. Blest Are They. Canticle of the Sun. City of God.

Since well over twenty years have passed since those days, and since cassette tapes are more or less archaic by now, I have these songs in my iTunes library now. And there's one I find myself returning to every time I need a gentle reminder that I am loved.

It's called "By Name I Have Called You," by Carey Landry. The prelude, refrain, and the first verse go like this:

Be still, be still 
And know that I am your God.
Be still, be still
And know that I am with you.

By name I have called you,
By name I have saved you.
By name you are mine,
you are precious to me.

By name I have called you,
By name I have saved you.
Forever with you 
I will be.

Before you were born
I knew you.
Within your mother's womb
I formed you.
I appointed you to speak
in my Name.

I get chills thinking about how this reminder was sung over me every night as a small child: these words of the Lord, sung by my mother, a lullaby of my worth and belovedness and purpose, gently inscribed in my heart.

But these days, I've forgotten. Mistakes and secret shames and imperfections and other struggles have squirreled away into my heart, burrowing into the space God longs to inhabit, stopping Him at the door when He knocks. "Uh, God, are You sure You want to come in? I'm a mess."

I frequently find it hard to just... let Him love me. To let Him sing over me again. To listen as He calls to me still.  

Because still, I am called. Saved. Chosen. Precious. Known. 

And Beloved.

Be still, friend. Be still a while, here, with me. 

Be still and know that the same is true for you. 



You are so loved, dear reader. Remember that today.