Simcha Fisher, author of The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning writes for several publications and blogs daily at Aleteia. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and ten children. Without supernatural aid, she would hardly be a human being.
A short, unforgettable essay about beauty turned up the other day. It's by Marc Barnes, and it's an old one. I'm grateful that it happened to cross my desk now, because it helped me to unpack what Pope Francis said in Cuba this weekend to a crowd of sisters who serve the poor.
In Barnes' essay, "Humans Are Useless," he says:
Think of a few things which most human beings would agree to crown with the predicate “beautiful”. The Pieta, Mozart’s Requiem, the cool morning sun spilling through summer leaves, a fiery New England autumn, stained glass: What could we answer the man who asks us for the use of these things? We couldn’t, besides to babble an incoherent, self-contradicting set of phrases: “Its use is to be. It is for its own existence. It is here to be beautiful.”
We do not value them because they are useful for anything, but just because of what they are. He continues:
To appreciate a thing as beautiful is to appreciate it as useless, not because it is trash, but because it is real treasure. That which is beautiful is good in and of itself. We do not appreciate the beautiful in regards to how we can use it, change it, or by what it can do for us. We appreciate the beautiful for being, for presenting itself to our intellect — for existing.
He says that beauty is inextricably tied to love:
Love in its fullness adores the useless. I may claim to love a girl for her uses, her purposes, an emotion she grants me, or a pleasure, or a security. But when all is said and done, I either love her or I love not at all. This is not to say that romantic love should be without its gifts, gains, pleasures and glories, but that love would still adore the beloved if all these things were stripped away. When the poems are written, the flowers faded, and the faces wrinkled, love still desires the ultimate good of its beloved, the good of the person, beyond any conceivable use.
And finally, Barnes arrives at the realization that we are useless. We, as humans, created by God out of pure love, are inherently useless to God, who needs nothing in His perfection.
We are as utterly, incredibly useless as the Pietas and solar eclipses and Blue Ridge Mountains of this universe. We are useless, and God is love, and love revels and delights in the useless. What are we then, we of arms and teeth and hearts and hair? We are the art of God, his beautiful ones, for our whole worth lies in the fact that he loves us, as the whole worth of something as useless as Mozart’s Requiem lies in the fact that we appreciate it as such, that we appreciate it as beautiful, that we appreciate it as useless.
Let's keep this in mind as we turn to the extemporaneous homily Pope Francis delivered this weekend in Havana. It's about serving the poor, and why we do it.
A good many readers will, perhaps, roll their eyes when they hear "Pope Francis spoke about poverty." The word on certain streets is that our Holy Father is dangerously naive when it comes to anything having to do with money — that his theoretical ideas about what the poor really need are exactly the wrong message, both for the wealthy and for the poor to hear. In the United States, especially, we pride ourselves on self-sufficience and usefulness, and our sharpest insults are reserved for people who don't pull their weight — for those who are useless.
But Pope Francis has not come to tell us how to help the poor become more useful. He's come to tell us that they are useless -- and that their value comes in their uselessness. He says to the sisters:
[T]hank you to all the women ... consecrated to the service of the useless, because with them you can’t start a business, you can’t make money, absolutely nothing constructive is brought forward, so to speak, with these brothers and sisters of ours, with these least ones, with the smallest.
He has no romantic delusions about the sisters' lives serving the destitute. He speaks, with the concrete knowledge of one who has been in the trenches, of the glory of serving the useless, of receiving
the smile of someone with muscle spasms who doesn’t know how to do it. Or when they want to kiss you and they slobber on your face. This is the tenderness of God. This is the mercy of God. Or when they are mad and they strike you. Consume my life like this? With this “rubbish” in the eyes of the world.
He then makes it very plain to his audience why it is that they must continue to do what they do, serving the "useless" and the "rubbish" of the world: He says, "There Jesus shines forth and there my decision for Jesus shines forth."
When we minister to the useless, says Francis,
This speaks to us only of one person. It speaks to us of Jesus, who because of the pure mercy of the Father made himself nothing. He emptied himself, says Philippians, chapter 2. He made himself nothing.
This is the connection that we need to hear over and over again: we're not here, in this world, to get ahead. We're not here to prove how useful we are, and we're not here to use other people. We're not beloved by God because of how useful we are to Him! We're useless. We're beloved in our uselessness, because God is too big to fit into a simple equation of cost and benefit, debits and credits, loss and gain. We're beloved because we exist, and that's it. And if we want to meet God, we will find Him in service to others who can do nothing for us, because He came here in service to us, who can do nothing for Him.
Pope Francis says that God is in that place where we meet the ones the world sees as useless:
Where the tenderness and the mercy of God become a caress. How many women and men religious consume — and I repeat the verb, consume — their lives caressing ‘rubbish,’ caressing those that the world throws away, that the world despises, that the world wishes didn’t exist, those who the world today — with methods and new analyses that we have, when it’s foreseen that one can come with a degenerative illness, it’s proposed to “send them back” before they’re born. The smallest.
He's speaking not only about the poor, but about all of us — all of us needy, useless ones, whom God, who can have no use for us, has come to serve. And Marc Barnes, in his reverie about beauty, is speaking about all of us, too — the outwardly lovely, like Degas' models, and the outwardly grotesque, like the spastics, the slobberers, the mad. All of these, all of us, are God's beloved useless ones. Barnes says:
The whole reason for our existence is that there is no reason for our existence. The greatest compliment we can give a man is to embrace him and say: There is no reason for you! None at all. You are utterly useless, for you are begotten by Love. And our response to this fact can be none other than love for each other. For beauty should beget love, and humans are beautiful in their uselessness. We should likewise cease to use each other, for there is therefore nothing more contradictory to humans — who have no use — than to be used.
If we want to find God, we will find Him in service to the useless. That is where He is.