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.