Over the past 10 months one of my favorite sayings has been “making a virtue out of a necessity.” I heard this phrase a while back in reference to how Richard Nixon would take situations that were thrust upon him and make them look like they were actually the best possible option. I thought of that this week as we began the second semester off-campus and as I looked at twenty-five faces staring back at me during Zoom classes. What constantly went through my head was, “well, at least I can see their faces, and none of them look like they are about to mug me.”
To some that may seem like small consolation, but these days I’ll take what I can get. I am optimistic that we will be back in the classroom next week, but you never know, and so squeezing as much as we can out of our leftover 2020 lemons might be our best option as we try to make a decent 2021 lemonade.
Because of the shortness of class time in the first semester and the bridge week before getting back on campus I decided to have my seniors focus their asynchronous time this week on the film Life Is Beautiful. Like the last guest on a late night talk show, this film was left in the green room as we ran out of time in Christian Manhood, and so its theme of the beauty inherent in the sacrifice made on behalf of loved ones will be the perfect transition to the Paschal Mystery class (read: making a virtue out of a necessity).
For those who have not seen Life Is Beautiful I don’t want to spoil it in the least and so all I will say is that the father, Guido, is a Christ-figure whose entire focus is on the selfless love that he offers to his wife and son. There is, of course, a price to be paid for that love, but that is what makes it beautiful. Thus, after watching the film, each senior is asked to react to what he saw using the line “beauty will save the world,” a line from The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
In 1970 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gave a lecture at the ceremony honoring him with the Nobel Prize in Literature, and in it he discussed this famous line written by his countryman and published one hundred years earlier. Opening with, “For a long time it seemed to me simply a phrase. How could this be possible? When in the bloodthirsty process of history did beauty ever save anyone, and from what? Granted, it ennobled, it elevated—but whom did it ever save?” he went on to discuss the role of the writer in not only bringing beauty into the world, but in helping to save it.
He continues by saying that “The simple act of an ordinary brave man is not to participate in lies, not to support false actions…But it is within the power of writers and artists to do much more: to defeat the lie!” And in so far as he goes, Solzhenitsyn is correct, but had he gone further he would have gotten to the very core of the issue: God is the ultimate writer and artist, the story He wrote is the Gospel, and the work of art He crafted is the Incarnate Logos, Jesus Christ.
The Paschal Mystery – the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus – is the beauty that saves the world. This was truly the one and only time in “the bloodthirsty process of history” that beauty did save – it did so much more than ennoble and elevate, it defeated the lie and saved the entire world.
For our seniors, most of whom are taking their last course ever in Catholic theology, this topic is itself the perfect bridge as they make their way towards life after high school. There is absolutely nothing more important in the history of humankind than what happened during those short hours from the beginning of the Last Supper to the moment of the Resurrection – and nothing more necessary to save us from our sin.
It is in no way hyperbolic to say that the Paschal Mystery, that total outpouring of the selfless love of God, is the ultimate and perfect expression of beauty and that it saved the world. The horror of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross could only be turned into such beauty by a God who can accomplish all things – including making a virtue out of the most dire necessity.