Carrie Gress has a doctorate from the Catholic University of America and is a philosophy professor at Pontifex University. She is the author of Nudging Conversions: A Practical Guide to Bringing Those You Love Back to the Church, and Ultimate Makeover: The Transforming Power of Motherhood. Carrie is the co-author with George Weigel of City of Saints: A Pilgrims Guide to John Paul II’s Krakow. A homeschooling mother of four, she and her family live in Virginia. Visit her blog at www.carriegress.com.
There is a well-known Dostoevsky trope that says, “beauty will save the world.” The famous Russian is usually taken to mean the beauty found in the material arts. Music, architecture, and sculpture are rightfully being plumbed for their world-saving abilities, particularly how they lead a soul back to God. But there is one stone that has yet to be unturned when considering the role beauty plays in saving the world: women.
The desire to be beautiful is deeply embedded in a woman’s soul. Each year, American women spend roughly $11 billion on cosmetic surgery, $24 billion on skin care, $18 billion on makeup, $38 billion on hair care, $15 billion on perfume, and somewhere between $20-45 billion on weight loss. The average woman spends 17 years of her life on a diet. While we can scoff at all of this with Qoheleth and say, “Vanity of vanities!” (Ecc 1:2), perhaps there is something to this that goes deeper than vanity. What if God has put that desire into our hearts for a reason? For even the smallest girl will tell you she wants to be as beautiful as a princess. This isn’t just cultural conditioning, but something universal that sits squarely in the feminine heart.
While researching my book The Marian Option (due out in May), in every apparition of Mary that I encountered the person who reported seeing Mary said she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Initially, I found this detail rather mundane — of course, Our Lady is beautiful — but then the greater importance behind her beauty finally hit me. Yes, the beauty of Mary is important because it is the outward expression of her complete perfection, but Mary’s beauty points to the beauty all women were meant to have. She wasn’t the only woman made to be beautiful.
While this may sound trite – that women are called to be like Mary — the meaning behind it is rich, expansive, and relevant to the life of every woman. Mary has been called by the saints the “neck” or the “ladder” linking heaven and earth. And every woman is called to be a bridge between her family and heaven. Women are called to spark the flame of the divine in the souls of the men and children they love. Women are called to reveal the best of God’s love and give those around them the means to find that love. Christianity is full of saintly women, such as St. Monica, St. Helen, St. Cecilia, and countless and nameless others, that led their husbands, sons and daughters to embrace the faith — even in the face of martyrdom.
Pick up any women’s magazine today and one might get the distinct impression that beauty is meant solely for the superficial: to allure men, impress your friends, or hide the ravages of age. The notion that the beautiful should point beyond itself to the source of all beauty – the Creator – is far, far away. This hollowed out beauty makes women like “whited sepulchers, which outwardly appear to men beautiful, but within are full of dead men's bones, and of all filthiness”(Matt 23:27). We can fixate 17 years of our lives on a diet for the external, but how much time to we spend on the internal, firming up the soul? Are we asking the question, “Do I have a beautiful soul?” or even, “What is a beautiful soul?”
To partially answer this second question, we can look at what men say about women (when they aren’t afraid to reveal what they really think). We have millennia of poetry, music, and literature revealing what it is in a woman’s soul that moves men, such as Solomon, Dante, and Petrarch. Even music from a man who likely considers himself a feminist, James Taylor, taps into the surprising aspects that make a man’s soul soar:
There's something in the way she moves
Or looks my way, or calls my name
That seems to leave this troubled world behind
If I'm feeling down and blue
Or troubled by some foolish game
And I feel fine anytime she's around me now
She's around me now
Almost all the time
And if I'm well you can tell she's been with me now
She's been with me now quite a long, long time
And I feel fine
Every now and then the things I lean on lose their meaning
And I find myself careening
In places where I should not let me go
She has the power to go where no one else can find me
Yes and silently remind me
The happiness and the good times that I know, but as I had got to know them
There is nothing in these lyrics that sync with the qualities our culture teaches women to value and strive for. But these are the sort of qualities that can save the world: peacefulness, patience, listening, presence, and perseverance in love. How much more so the qualities of the beautiful and good Beatrice who inspired and guided Dante through his epic, The Divine Comedy?
Arriving at true beauty is one of those ironic qualities that populate ancient story telling – it arrives as soon as it is no longer sought. The truly beautiful woman knows that her real goal isn’t superficial beauty. And it is the wise man that knows that this woman must exist and is worth seeking. Sadly, such women are not easy to find. As a result, men are left with surrogates that may briefly satiate the body, but that will never satisfy the soul.
Yes, the beauty of women will save the world far more quickly than any painting or sonata. The real battle is to remind those made to be beautiful to embrace it at its Source. It is not found in any cosmetic surgery, diets, or facial cream. Nor is it in seduction, sarcasm, cynicism, narcissism, greedy ambition or power – as our culture would have us believe. It is simply in lovingly pouring ourselves out for others. It may not always be glamorous, but it is always beautiful.