How to Be A Living Sign of Beauty in the Desert of Secular Culture

David Fagerberg on the Necessity of Asceticism and virtue for a Beautiful, Creative and Joyful Life...A Christian life.

I recently had the great pleasure of attending the annual conference of the Institute for Religious Life. There were many highlights. All the speakers were excellent and one in particular, stood out for me. Dr. David Fagerberg's lecture entitled Beauty and Asceticism was perhaps the best talk at an event of this type I have seen. It was inspiring and enlightening, theoretical and practical, and for all the weightiness of the subject matter, light and entertaining to listen to. 

Drawing on the ancient wisdom of texts written between the 4th and 15th century called The Philokalia - which means 'love of beauty' - he spoke of how the beautiful life is one that is transformed supernaturally in Christ. Through the Christian life we partake of the divine nature and are reborn; that is the Way of Beauty, a path of virtue and Christian asceticism. 


"Beauty is the flower on a stalk of living habits, habits which you cannot see but which are necessary for beauty to exist.  Something is beautiful when it is true and good. Untruth can never be beautiful; wickedness can never be beautiful. The pathway toward truth and goodness is simultaneously a beautiful pathway."

The audience was largely religious and so he had that in mind when he gave this talk. As he points out, all of us are called to live an ascetical life to some degree. We might not be called to a life as a hermit in the desert or on a mountain top; but rather to a life where we are in the world, but not of it - an urban anchorite praying to the family icon corner in his suburban skete (an apartment block or cul-de-sac maybe). What Dr Fagerberg does is point out the special role of the religous in the Church in cultivating this 'ascetic aesthetic'.

He gives us a image of the beautiful life as a flower on a stalk of virtue. This is flower power, but not an imaginary one borne of self-indulgence of the 1960s, but one rooted in the Christian life which has the force of the divine.

It is the liturgy and the culture that cultivates such a transformation and we are deified. That is how we become people whose lives and work speak beautifully of Christ and how we become creative artists of the New Evangelization.


Dr. Fagerberg, who is a professor in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame was kind enough to send to me the text of his talk, which I give to you here. You can Download a file with the text, here.

He writes:

In the 18th century two Greek Orthodox scholars, named Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain and Makarios of Corinth, compiled a collection of writings they found in the libraries of monasteries on Mount Athos. They selected from among texts written between the 4th and 15th century for the guidance and instruction of monks in the contemplative life, and they titled their collection The Philokalia. Probably even our rudimentary Greek recognizes the first half of the word: philia is one of the Greek words for love, alongside eros and agape. The second half of the word is probably less familiar to us: kallos basically means “beauty,” so they were calling this collection The Love of Beauty. What might it be about? What might five volumes on the “love of beauty” contain? What topics would you include? Would a convenient search on Amazon books for “beauty” give us a hint? I find a literature book that explains the lyrical vision of tragic beauty; I find a cookbook by ‘the beauty chef,’ who can tell us about food for radiant well-being; I find a pop psychology book on radical beauty whereby you transform yourself from the inside out; and I find a philosophy book treating beauty in art, nature, and the human form.

But when we crack open the Philokalia we find some unexpected sentences. Although this is a book about beauty, the first sentence of the first book of the first volume reads “There is among the passions an anger of the intellect, and this anger is in accordance with nature. Without anger a man cannot attain purity: he has to feel angry with all that is sown in him by the enemy.” The next book is by Evagrius of Pontus, who sketches his topic by saying,

Of the demons opposing us in the practice of the ascetic life, there are three groups who fight in the front line: those entrusted with the appetites of gluttony, those who suggest avaricious thoughts, and those who incite us to seek the esteem of men. [You might recognize the three temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, given in sequence 1, 3, 2.] All the other demons follow behind and in their turn attack those already wounded by the first three groups.

He offers these bits of advice: “Do you desire, then, to embrace this life of solitude, and to seek out the blessings of stillness? If so, abandon the cares of the world… .” “With regard to clothes, be content with what is sufficient for the needs of the body.” “Keep a sparse and plain diet, not seeking a variety of tempting dishes.”

Flipping back to the table of contents, we see this is not an ordinary book on beauty. John Cassian writes about the eight vices, Mark the Ascetic offers 200 texts on the spiritual law, Hesychios the priest speaks of watchfulness and holiness. Maximus the Confessor takes up the most space in the five volumes, and he begins by saying “Dispassion engenders love, hope in God engenders dispassion, and patience and forbearance engender hope in God; these are the product of complete self-control, which itself springs from fear of God. Fear of God is the result of faith in God.”

I hope I have startled you into appreciating the juxtaposition in my title: asceticism and beauty. (We might call it an ascetic aesthetic.) The spiritual and monastic tradition of both east and west have united the two, and so Makarios and Nicodemus title their five volumes dealing with fasting, vigils, self-discipline, constant prayer, contemplation, and the struggle between vices and virtues “a love of kallos.” Perhaps that word has a thicker meaning than our simplistic understanding of beauty. A Greek concordance reveals additional dimensions of the word, and, sure enough, kallos can be defined as

  • beautiful to look at, shapely, magnificent

  • good, excellent in nature, well adapted to its ends, pure

  • praiseworthy, morally good, noble, becoming

  • honorable, or conferring honor

  • affecting the mind agreeably, comforting and confirming

  • valuable, virtuous, fair

Philo-kalia is a love of these goods. And a quick online search shows the appearance of the word in the following Scripture verses, and I think you would agree with the translator’s choice to render kallos as “good”:

  • Matthew 3:10 that which does not bear good [kalon] fruit is cut down

  • Matthew 5:16 that they may see your good [kala] works and give glory to your Father

  • Mark 9:5 Rabbi, it is good [kalon] for us to be here

  • John 2:10 everyone serves the good [kalon] wine first, and then the cheaper wine

  • and, indeed, John 10:11 I am the good [kalos] shepherd

My purpose in calling out these examples from Scripture is to make us conscious of an additional meaning resonating in those verses. For example,

  • that which does not bear beautiful fruit is cut down

  • that they may see your beautiful works and glorify your heavenly Father

  • Rabbi, this is a beautiful place to be

  • and Jesus is the Beautiful Shepherd

Beauty, goodness, morality, nobility, honor, and virtue are inseparable from asceticism. Why would that be? I take this opportunity to try and think that through with you.

Let’s invite Chesterton to provide us with an opening metaphor. He was overwhelmed with the nihilism of his day while he floundered at the Slade Art School, which he describes in his autobiography with a chapter titled “How to Be A Lunatic.” The people he knew there all wanted to be avant-garde, so they pushed the boundaries of morality and virtue, mistaking unorthodoxy for courageousness. Chesterton describes the heretic as someone who “says, with a conscious laugh, ‘I suppose I am very heretical,’ and looks round for applause.” Chesterton knew just such a person from his school days, and records the conversation in which they clashed, and by which he found the escape hatch from this nihilism. Chesterton simply calls him “the diabolist.” The conversation goes like this, Chesterton beginning and concluding.

“I hate modern doubt because it is dangerous."

"You mean dangerous to morality," he said in a voice of wonderful gentleness.  "I expect you are right. But why do you care about morality?"

"Aren't those sparks splendid?"  I said.

"Yes," he replied.

"That is all that I ask you to admit," said I. "Give me those few red specks and I will deduce Christian morality. Once I thought like you, that one's pleasure in a flying

spark was a thing that could come and go with that spark. Once I thought that the delight was as free as the fire. Once I thought that red star we see was alone in space. But now I know that the red star is only on the apex of an invisible pyramid of virtues. That red fire is only the flower on a stalk of living habits, which you cannot see. … That flame flowered out of virtues, and it will fade with virtues. Seduce a woman, and that spark will be less bright. Shed blood, and that spark will be less red.”

I propose the following adaptation of Chesterton. Beauty is the apex of an invisible pyramid of virtues. Beauty is the flower on a stalk of living habits, habits which you cannot see but which are necessary for beauty to exist. Beauty is not as free as the fire, it comes from out of limits. And beauty can be more permanent than the flying spark of pleasure, soon to extinguish. Something is beautiful when it is true and good. Untruth can never be beautiful; wickedness can never be beautiful. The pathway toward truth and goodness is simultaneously a beautiful pathway.

This triad of truth, goodness and beauty corresponds to a triad of human activities. We know truth, we love the good, and we delight in beauty. They yield the triad of knowledge, morality, and art. Beauty is connected to reality as much as – and in the same way, and for the same reason – that truth and goodness are connected to reality. But such an assertion is met with skepticism these days. One has trouble enough arguing that there is a real truth, which would deny me my own private truth; and trouble enough saying there is a morality rooted in truth, which would deny me my personal moral judgment; but most troublesome of all, it seems, is saying there is a real beauty, which seems to deny that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But, as usual, St Thomas Aquinas thinks his way through the puzzle and gives us some help.

Here is a rough and ready way to distinguish two possible approaches: Is something beautiful because it gives pleasure, or does it give pleasure because it is beautiful? It’s not my original thought; I am referencing Augustine. The subjectivist, who is fairly common in our day, tends toward the former, and claims that beauty is in the eye of the beholder: something is beautiful because it gives me pleasure. The objectivist, more common in medieval and ancient days, tends toward the latter and says we experience something is beautiful because it has objective traits in the real world. Beauty is independent of our perspective and opinion.

Let me first offer a little help for the objectivists, the realists. Ask the same question of the other two terms in the triad. Is something good because it is desired, or is it desired because it is good? Putting it this way gives some more force to the objectivist’s position. Since we were children we have been learning that just because we want something does not make it good, or good for us. Or ask, is something true because it gives knowledge, or does it give knowledge because it is true? Since we were children we have been learning that some things we think we know turn out to be false. Summarize: If something might be false even if we mistake it for true, and if something might be bad even if we mistake it for good, then might not something be ugly even if our underdeveloped taste mistakes it for beautiful? Beauty dwells in the heart of things, in the heart of reality – the same reality that is desired by our willing and targeted by our knowing. This beauty reveals itself to the admiring gaze of those who look for it to come up from the depths of reality.

It may come as a surprise, then, to hear this definition of beauty by St. Thomas Aquinas: things are called beautiful because they “please upon being seen.” He defines beauty as Id quod visum placet – that which gives pleasure on sight. Did Thomas think beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the subjectivists say? In a certain sense he did, but not in the way they mean it. Most philosophers up to that point (even including his own teacher, Albert the Great) thought of beauty primarily as a perfection belonging to being. They distinguished three constituents of beauty, namely proportion, integrity, and a kind of brightness they called claritas, which is hard to translate. It means more than just being “lit up.” Claritas is the communicability of the essence of the thing; it is a kind of splendor; it is a brightness that shines forth. The philosophers had defined beauty as something possessing proportion, integrity and claritas, and Thomas agreed with this tradition, but being the great synthesizer that he was, he went on to consider not only the objective qualities of beauty, but also our experience. New attention was being paid to the perceiver, and this was a rather new step.

Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Yes. Beauty is that which pleases upon being seen. But the eye must be clear. For the eye to perceive harmony, perfection, and claritas, it must be healthy. Then there is a “matching up” of knowing, loving, and delighting with truth, goodness, and beauty. There is a pleasure found in all three: Truth is pleasing to our intellect, goodness is attractive to our desire, and beauty is delightful to our perception. The truth, goodness and beauty of reality is there to be seen, but only if the eye of the beholder is healthy, clear, unclouded, chaste, pure.

And now there is something more. A human being cannot only see beauty, he or she can become beautiful – but the same conditions apply. The beauty of a life must stand as the apex of an invisible pyramid of virtues ascetically attained. A beautiful life is the flower on a stalk of living habits. The life must be healthy, clear, unclouded, chaste, pure in order to be beautiful. And this leads me to say that achieving beauty is an ascetical accomplishment, once again underscoring the connection in my title. So I guess we had better try to define asceticism.

I am aware that this word has its challenges. Asceticism conjures up pictures of a bad-tempered Puritan, or holier than thou arrogance, or overzealous piety that cripples one from enjoying even innocent pleasures. One does not usually speak wistfully and enthusiastically of wanting to become an ascetic. But we can understand the word better if we look at its roots. Askein has to do with training, or discipline, and was first used especially of athletes. Later it was also used of philosophers, who tried to discipline themselves and train their mind. Asceticism involves self-discipline, but not for purposes of masochism. Rather, one disciplines one's appetites, one's regimen, one's body, even one's mind in order to attain a certain end. If the athletic ascetic trains in order to play the game, and the stoic ascetic trains in order to live the good life, why does the Christian ascetic train? Toward what end does Christian asceticism travel? The answer is holiness. Deification. Sin is a sickness unto death, and Christian askesis is in the service of life. It clears away the passions and vices for the sake of a greater good. Askesis refreshes the imago Dei, in the words of the Orthodox theologian Olivier Clement.

Ascesis then is an awakening from the sleep-walking of daily life. It enables the Word to clear the silt away in the depth of the soul, freeing the spring of living waters. The Word can restore to its original brightness the tarnished image of God in us, the silver coin that has rolled in the dust but remains stamped with the king's likeness (Luke 15:8-10). It is the Word who acts, but we have to co-operate with him, not so much by exertion of will-power as by loving attentiveness. …

Askesis appears negative only if we restrict our attention to the initial steps, when our clenched hands are being pried open. That’s the part of the therapy that hurts. The death of the Old Adam is usually strenuous. But ultimately askesis liberates – like a statue is liberated from the stone, like a butterfly is liberated from the cocoon, like an eagle is liberated from the eggshell. Resurrection is flight, but first comes the ascetical task of pecking through the shell.

Liturgical asceticism constructs beautiful people. If Thomas is correct and things are called beautiful because they please upon being seen, then we can think of saints as beautiful people who please upon being seen. And I am thinking not only that we are pleased when we see them, but primarily that God is pleased when he sees them. If we can please God when he sees us, then we are glorifying him, and that is why I snuck the word “liturgical” into our discussion of asceticism and beauty. Our beauty comes from participating in the Church’s liturgical mysteries. The Christian is a member of the Church-as-Bride. Christ wishes to reproduce himself in his bride, and each Christian is made beautiful in the Church. This is something that St. Ambrose saw. When he reads the Song of Songs, he finds the bridegroom speaking to a newly baptized. “Christ, beholding His Church … seeing, that is, a soul pure and washed in the laver of regeneration, says: ‘Behold, you are fair, My love, behold you are fair, your eyes are like a dove's’” [Song of Songs 1:15]. The baptized are beautiful for having the Holy Spirit now living in them, looking out from their eyes, so to speak; they are beautiful for being transparent to the light of the indwelling Spirit and showing forth the beauty of what the Church really is, as it is intended by God. Therefore, Ambrose concludes, “the Church is beautiful in them.” The Mystical Body glorifies the Father in the light of the Holy Spirit that shines forth from Christ upon his disciples. The Transfiguration a top Mount Tabor continues. But as I have been saying, this requires the liturgical asceticism that kills the Old Adam so that the New Adam can reside within.

This asceticism is both liturgical and personal. We cannot progress without the sacramental power bestowed in liturgy, but the liturgy cannot produce this ascetical beauty without our permission and cooperative work. What that work exactly consists of was researched by the first monks in the desert, which is why Makarios and Nicodemus turned to them. And these desert monks are the progenitors of all religious life. Some members of the primitive Church went into the desert to perform an experiment on the human heart and see what was required to conform it to Christ, the Beautiful One. This asceticism spread from the deserts of Egypt and Palestine into both the east and west, a point vividly summarized by Aidan Kavanagh when he says that Evagrius “stands at the fountainhead of Christian commentary on the ascetical life for … Moscow and Constantinople as well as for Monte Cassino and Rome.” The Rule of Benedict (a late-comer, appearing three hundred years after the rules of Basil and Pachomius) ends with a recommendation in the final chapter to turn not only to Scripture, but also to the rule of Basil and the Conferences & Institutes of Cassian. Evagrius was the single most important influence on Cassian. Liturgical asceticism is incumbent on every Christian because it is born in the waters of the font, but it was perfected in the sands of the desert as a gift that the religious ascetics give to their secular counterparts. Kavanagh’s words once again: “Ascetics blaze the trail all must follow, but they do not walk it alone.” “This is a life expected of every one of the baptized, whose ultimate end is the same supreme beatitude. It is a life all the baptized share, a life within which the professed ascetic is nothing more or less than a virtuoso who serves the whole community as an exemplar of its own life. The ascetic is simply a stunningly normal person who stands in constant witness to the normality of Christian orthodoxia in a world flawed into abnormality by human choice.”

The love of God requires practice until we get it right. I suppose that’s why we sometimes refer to ourselves as “practicing Christians,” the way someone “practices law” or “practices medicine.” The graduates of law school put their education into practice by advising in the legal system; the graduates of medical school put their education into practice by healing in the hospital; the Christian graduate of the catechumenate puts his baptismal formation into practice by pursuing the love of God. This love is never ending, so the spiritual tradition speaks about moving through various degrees within it. I could turn to almost any ascetical/spiritual author to describe those degrees, but I will offer you a lesser known writer who has recently caught my attention. Fr. Francis Libermann was the 19th century founder of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, established for missionary activity among natives in Africa and Haiti. The Holy See merged his Congregation with the Congregation of the Holy Ghost – the Spiritans – and he was made superior general in 1848. Libermann was an Orthodox Jew, son of the Chief Rabbi of Saverne, in Alsace, France. He converted to Roman Catholicism and wrote numerous letters of spiritual direction, and I am currently reading through a selection of them. Here is a letter to his 16 year old niece, Marie.  

Now, to enlighten you fully regarding the practice of the love of God, let me show you its various degrees.

The first consists in abhorring mortal sin. This is necessary for your salvation.

The second consists in abhorring even venial sin. As soon as you have an attachment to an earthly object, as soon as you cling to anything whatsoever that is somewhat opposed to God, as soon as you entertain in your heart a sentiment which God disapproves, you breach your love for God, you do not love God as much as those other things. …

The third degree consists of loving God above all things, even in things that are otherwise lawful. This is perfect love, the love of perfection. In this case we always prefer, from among good and holy things or actions, those we believe to be most pleasing to God. We then still love the things of earth — we still have a taste for, and a delight in creatures and in the satisfactions and pleasures of this world — but we do it with moderation and without offense to God. …

Finally, there is the fourth degree, which consists of loving nothing but God alone, and all creatures and ourselves in God and for God. This is the purest kind of love, the love practiced by the Saints. This love demands that there be no more affection for our own enjoyment and satisfaction. It requires complete mortification of our poor soul, a life of grace. All is holy in a soul that loves God alone. A person in this state loves God purely for Himself. … Such a love demands the complete sacrifice of oneself to God.

Karl Rahner defines Christian perfection by connecting it to the sort of love Libermann has described. Rahner says “Christian perfection consists simply and solely in the perfection of the love which is given us in Christ by the Spirit of God.” Is such perfection possible? Yes, it is the very beauty to which we are called. However, we presently stand on the far side of a canyon caused by the fault line of sin whose earthquake split paradise, and for us to cross over that gorge to perfect love a bridge must be laid down for us to walk over. It has been. It is the cross. And every baptized Christian spends his or her life walking across the lowered drawbridge of the cross toward eschatological glory. This involves a renunciation, says Rahner, but one done differently by the Christian in the world and the Christian who has left the world – by the secular Christian and the religious.

One day someone asks Jesus “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” He replied, “if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” When asked which ones, Jesus summarizes the law from Sinai. The young man says he has observed them, but still feels that he lacks something. So Jesus tells him “if you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” [Matthew 19:16-21]. That is the very gospel that Anthony of Egypt heard being read one day in Church, so he did it and became the “first monk.” Poverty is one of the Evangelical Counsels, along with chastity and obedience. Must all Christians obey the Counsels? No, says Rahner: “There is a Christian perfection in this world distinct from the practice of the Evangelical Counsels of poverty, celibacy, obedience. The Christian in the world does not have the ‘spirit’ of the Evangelical Counsels, and moreover should not have it.” No, says Francis de Sales: “A commandment obliges us, a counsel only invites us.” “God does not desire that everyone should observe all counsels, but such only as are suitable, according to the diversity of persons, times, locations, strengths, as charity requires: for she it is who is Queen of all the virtues … The councils are all given for the perfection of the Christian people, but not for that of each Christian in particular.”

But does this let us off the hook? No, says de Sales: we may not scorn these counsels and “everyone is obliged to love them all because they are all very good. Will you throw a ring into the dirt because it fits not your finger? We shall sufficiently testify our love for all the counsels, when we devoutly observe such as are suitable to our calling.” No, says Rahner: they are describing renunciations expected of every Christian. Renunciation means that one sacrifices a lower good for a higher good, and we do it all the time in the realm of nature. We renounce that second piece of pie for the higher good of fitness, we renounce that night of television to take our children to the park. But the peculiarity of Christian renunciation is that the higher good for which we renounce the world is a good that cannot be experienced yet. We renounce even the highest natural goods for supernatural good, and this can only be possessed by faith and hope.

Must everyone do it? Yes. Because the Church is a visible sign of the eschatological presence of God’s salvation. The Church is called to visibly manifest this eschatological love. Rahner says every Christian, including those in the world, will make this renunciation apparent at the end. “In death, man is really asked in the most fundamental manner whether he will allow himself to be disposed beyond himself into what is hidden, and thereby renounce himself.” And every day, since our baptism, we practice our dying in anticipation of our final death. Every day includes a death to self-love, and self-will, and self-esteem.

So if every Christian does it, why have people in religious orders? Because, Rahner answers, in addition to the hidden sacramental sign, God wills that the Church visibly manifest this transcending love. The Church must cause to appear what she lives interiorly. Notice that he has said “the Church must do this;” he did not say every Christian must do this. Some of us will live chastely, but the people who see us will not know if it is theological chastity, or if it is moral obedience, or cultural compliance, or sheer, simple cowardliness. It is real, but it is not so apparent. It becomes visibly manifest in the monk. The vowed religious person is a walking billboard for the eschaton. This is the witness – the martyria – of the religious, their intimacy with the martyrs.

If liturgy means sharing the life of Christ (being washed in his resurrection, eating his body), and if askesis means discipline (in the sense of forming), then liturgical asceticism is the discipline required to become an icon of Christ and make his image visible in our faces. The two in purposes of liturgy are the sanctification of man and the glorification of God, and the latter happens when the former happens. When God sanctifies us, he receives glory. Plato said beauty is the splendor of truth, coming from splendere, “to shine.” When truth shines, there is beauty. There is truth and beauty; now add to them goodness. Thomas said something is called good when it has the perfection proper to it. Sharp vision is the good of the eye, for example. But what is a good person? What is the perfection proper to human being? It is to be deified: to grow from the image of God into the likeness of God. And this pursuit of goodness is a pursuit of beauty, in truth. Ascetic aesthetics is the splendor of truth in a deified person.

That is why the Greek word kallos combined the ideas of good and beauty. We are drawn toward it if we have a philokalia – a love of that beauty and goodness – and we are drawn toward it because it pleases upon being seen. That is, it pleases if our eyes are healthy and our souls are whole. Liturgy is beautiful because it tells the world the eschatological truth about itself, i.e., how it should be done, and for what reason it exists, and what is a perfect human being. The beautiful goodness of an ascetical life tells the truth. It shines. It splendors. It glorifies God. Then the Church glistens, and the cosmos sparkles with sacramental potential, and man and woman become anointed priests and crowned royalty. And such beauty is worth the sacrifice.

Download a file with the text, here.

You can hear is talk on MP3 by connecting here to the IRL website.