Pursuing Beauty In Our Immediate Spaces
"Together we can do something beautiful for God." – Mother Teresa of Calcutta
My grandfather, who turns 92 this year, has lived most of his life on the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee, in a middle-class suburban home nestled amid three acres of land. He has a tree-lined creek at the edge of the backyard, and the neighborhood houses – simple, yet varied in architectural design – serve as artifacts in a sense, reminding us of the beauty of uniqueness in times past. Indeed, in this day and age, large yards and neighborhoods brimming with structures of varying shapes, sizes and designs have gone out of vogue. As a result, many of the cookie-cutter housing and commercial developments popping up in our communities are impoverishing our sensitivity to beauty and preventing our neighborhoods from serving the sacramental function of drawing us closer to the Divine.
Recently, my wife and I began searching for a newly built home in a middle-class neighborhood where the environment is mostly natural, lot sizes are larger than an eighth of an acre, houses are not uniform throughout the block, and there are a few big trees in the area. Our search for a home within these parameters has been difficult. In the 1960's, Joni Mitchell sang in Big Yellow Taxi, "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot." Today, where my wife and I live and in many other suburban areas, they paved paradise and put up townhomes (at least Mitchell's line has the delight of alliterative iambic pentameter).
Thomas Aquinas, one of the great philosophers and theologians of the Medieval period, believed beauty to be one of the five pathways to God. During the Medieval period, while many private homes were basic and practical, cathedrals and other public buildings were extravagantly constructed. Architects looked upon the world as a great sacrament, a channel to God in all its splendor of beauty, and they reflected that sacramental nature in painstakingly creating beautiful architecture, which lifted the mind to God and assisted in the onlooker's eternal salvation. Few of our homes and neighborhoods reflect the sacramental outlook of Medieval artists and architects. The reasons for our desensitization to beauty and the desacramentalization of our communities are numerous, but I believe they are symptomatic of a materialism manifested in cost-efficiency, uniformity and a lack of natural green spaces.
In the construction of homes, cost-efficiency ranks high in importance. Real estate is expensive and governmental regulations have restricted how much space developers are given to build on tracts of land. This usually leads developers to pack in as many units as they can to make as big a profit as possible. Of course, developers will build only what buyers want to buy, or are willing to settle to buy. Be that as it may, the small yards might be pardoned if homes were more unique from one another in architectural design. As it is, the mass-produced, materialistic feel of so many neighborhoods seems to stem from a people who value money more than they value beauty and beauty's connection to the Divine.
In his 2003 Lenten Message, Pope John Paul II connects today's monomaniacal quest for money and the impoverishment of humanity when he says, "The quest for profit at any cost and the lack of effective, responsible concern for the common good have concentrated immense resources in the hands of a few while the rest of humanity suffers in poverty and neglect." Although the pope is referring to a poverty of basic material necessities resulting from unbridled capitalism, this outlook contributes to desacramentalization and the loss of aesthetics in our neighborhoods.
Carrie Rollwagen, in her book The Localist, writes of how behemoth, "big box" corporations, along with consumers' obsession for getting the best deal in the most efficient manner possible, aid in vanquishing beauty from our natural landscape. Rollwagen writes, "Wal-Marts aren't surrounded by trees, ponds and walking paths; they're surrounded by boxy architecture so bland that what used to be our communities can now be confused with a line of cereal boxes on the discount aisle. As most any designer or architect will tell you, this kind of monotony affects our psyches. A world devoid of curves and plants is bad for us as people, and putting efficiency and practicality before beauty has led to an ugly landscape."
Is it possible, then, to prevent our further desensitization to beauty and to create homes and neighborhoods more sacramental in nature?
I think so, but before we can save our communities with beauty, we must first save our souls. To that end, we must strive to become more virtuous, more holy – and thus better sacraments – ourselves. "Unless souls are saved, nothing is saved," Fulton Sheen writes in Peace of Soul. "Nothing happens in the external world that has not first happened within a soul." And when we are on our way to becoming better channels of God's grace, even though we may not all be real estate developers or government leaders, we can start doing three simple and practical things to aid in the beautification of our homes and communities.
First, we can scale back our busy lifestyles so that we have time to cultivate a deeper appreciation for our yards and to landscape them with more trees, shrubs and flowers. For those of us living in apartments or condominiums, we can at least landscape our porches or balconies with pots of flowers and plants. It doesn't cost much or take much time, and it gets us outside more, where we might interact with a neighbor and breathe fresh air.
Second, we can beautify our neighborhoods by shopping at local businesses and farmers' markets rather than big chain stores. In the long run, this will pave the way for the opening of more local businesses that provide unique services in unique aesthetic spaces. Although buying local sometimes costs more, frugality should not always trump beauty.
Third, we can keep abreast of proposed developments in our neighborhoods through local media outlets, which often report agenda items to be discussed at city and county planning commission meetings. These meetings often allow time for community residents to speak up about proposed commercial zonings and businesses trying to gain footholds in the community. City and county commissioners take our feedback seriously and, if enough residents speak out against a proposal, commissioners will take heed and vote against it.
If we start doing these simple things – no matter if we live in the city, suburbs or rural area, or are a common citizen or politician – we can begin to make an aesthetic, sacramental difference in our homes and neighborhoods. But if we merely settle for a dearth of natural and architectural aesthetics around us, our sensitivity to beauty and to God's presence is at risk of being further impoverished. So let us return to the Medieval project of building a sacramental world and pray that our desire for beauty ultimately proves stronger than our desire for Mammon.
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