There’s a common phrase we hear when discussing our faith. Perhaps you’ve heard it in class. Possibly, you’ve read it in a blog post. Maybe, you heard your favorite Catholic speaker lay claim to it, nodding your head and thinking, “yeah man, that.”
The good, the true, and the beautiful.
We’re asked to consider what makes things good, rediscover beauty, and proclaim truth. I’d be lying if, 11 years after first hearing my freshmen college philosophy professor use the phrase well past the point of cliché, I could give you a precise definition. I’m not a philosophy professor, a professional artist, or any kind of literature critic, but I do read a lot of poetry, including the poems written by convert Mary Karr.
There’s a lot to experience, read, and watch during Holy Week; from Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, to the agony in the garden, to Jesus’ final moments on the cross, we’re called to ruminate on the central tenant of not just our faith, but all existence: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life (John 3:16).
That’s not something you just gloss over, skim, or sparknote. Even for those of us prone to perpetual distraction and avoidance, the kaleidoscopic emotions (emptiness, guilt, helplessness, doubt, acceptance, joy) evoked by reexamining Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection call us to a kind inescapable self-reflection—and unimaginable awe for the mercy of God.
And that’s why Karr, whose carnal style of imagery, which shows and evokes instead of telling and preaching at, is the perfect poet to read during Holy Week.
In “Descending Theology: Christ Human,” she captures a moving image of Christ as both God and human—and as someone who pours his entire being into us, while calling us to pour ourselves to him and one another:
…The miracle’s not just
that you became us, but also
those breathed-in-instants allotted to us each
(even poor Brother Judas),
when one relinquishes self and will and want.
Then you’re laid bare in us,
and for some briefly gentle eyeblink
we bloom and are you.
Karr’s intensely personal description of Christ not only reminds us of the kenosis of Christ described in Phil. 2:6, but, when compared with her poems set on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, recalls then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s 2002 address on “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty.”
Another enthrallingly contemplative read for Lent, Cardinal Ratzinger’s address asks us not to put aside the importance of “precise” theological reflection during Holy Week, but to allow ourselves the opportunity to be “struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ,” rediscovering a form of knowledge that is “more real, more profound” than what we could arrive at by deduction alone.
Much of Cardinal Ratzinger’s message centers around the paradoxical beauty of Christ. Not to be confused with the feelings aroused by sentimentality or nostalgia, Christ’s beauty is that of a piercing arrow; it is both Christ as the “fairest of the children of men” (Psalm 44) and the condemned God who “had neither beauty, no majesty, nothing to attract our eyes” (Isiah 53:2).
In “Descending Theology: The Garden” we don’t just read of Christ in light of having “no majesty, nothing to attract our eyes,” but we experience his impending agony—and his unending mercy, in an intensely personal manner that is both human and divine. Karr shows us this paradoxical beauty in a way that hurts us—but also “strikes the heart” and “opens our eyes” to God’s very nature:
grieving on his rock under olive trees,
his companions asleep
on the hard ground around him
wrapped in old hides.
Not one stayed awake as he’d asked.
That pierced him like a sword.
Above him, the sky’s black membrane,
which he’d pass through
soon enough. He wished with all his being
to stay but gave up
bargaining as a child might. He knew
it was all mercy anyway,
unearned as breath.
As Cardinal Ratzinger reminds us, it is in the crucifixion that the true beauty of Christ pierces us and distinguishes itself as a higher form of beauty that leads us to Truth. It does so, however, in a blunt, matter-of-fact way that draws attention to the figure whom Cardinal Ratzinger called “the crushed and battered Man, in whom no external beauty remained.” Again, Karr’s poems capture this concept by way of raw imagery that evokes our senses and stirs our heart. Here she is in “Descending Theology: The Crucifixion”:
To be crucified is first to lie down
on a shaved tree, and then to have oafs stretch you out
on a crossbar as if for flight, then thick spikes
fix you into place.
Once the cross props up and the pole stob
sinks vertically in an earth hole, perhaps
at an awkward list, what then can you blame for hurt
but your own self’s burden?
You’re not the figurehead on a ship. You’re not
flying anywhere, and no one’s coming to hug you.
You hang like that, a sack of flesh with the hard
trinity of nails holding you into place.
We know the story doesn’t end there. Yet it’s one thing to hear someone say Christ is risen as some ubiquitous statement or greeting every Easter Sunday, and another thing to intimately experience what that resurrection means. What I love about Karr’s poems is that Easter Sunday is never disconnected from Good Friday and Holy Saturday—even between the paradoxical images of Christ as both the man who loves and hold us, and the God who is so savaged, beaten, and tortured by us, Karr inserts the mournful emptiness of death and waiting. And then, in a way that can only be described as beautiful, Karr’s “Descending Theology: The Resurrection” captures how Christ’s resurrection brings each of us meaning, hope, and love:
From the far star points his pinned extremities,
cold inched in—black ice and squid ink—
till the hung flesh was empty.
Lonely in that void even for pain,
he missed his splintered feet,
the human state buried in his face.
He ached for two hands made of meat
he could reach to the end of.
In the corpse’s core, the stone fist
of his heart began to bang
on the stiff chest’s door, and breath spilled
back into that battered shape. Now
it’s your limbs he comes to fill, as warm water
shatters at birth, rivering every way.
We all know the Dostoyevsky quote: “The Beautiful will save us.” But how many of us realize he was referring to the redeeming beauty of Christ? As Cardinal Ratzinger reminds us, and as Karr’s poems show us, our intimate contact with the paradoxical beauty of Christ—both in suffering and in triumph—gives us the freedom to truly know Jesus firsthand and “not only because we have heard others speak about him.” And, it is in this fact, despite the pain we see on Good Friday, that we find Truth and Hope.