Beauty, the Assumption, and the Saints of August

August is vacation season for much of the United States and Europe – perhaps a time to leave serious purposes and endeavors to the side.

So, what to think about in August?

The Assumption, a wonderful solemnity, perhaps the most neglected holy day of obligation of the year? 

The other saints on the calendar this month?  St. Maximilian Kolbe, whose sacrifice at Auschwitz gives us yet another model of how to behave like an early Christian in a (literally) mad world?  St. Pius X?  St. Augustine or St. Monica or St. Dominic?

Maybe even St. Bernard, whom Dante placed so close to Mary in the final cantos of the Divine Comedy? (Given that TCT’s editor is a Dante scholar, writing about St Bernard in the Paradiso requires a certain care, attention, finesse – or recklessness.)

The confluence on the calendar of the Assumption and the feast of St. Bernard provides an excellent, non-coincidental subject for Catholics en vacances. The date and exact nature of the feast of the Assumption have varied in different times and places, but August seems to have been the most accepted month since the early centuries.  This was a month when those who, having worked so hard to plant in the spring, waited for or began the labor of the harvest. 

A chance, as in our own day, to spend some quiet time contemplating the highest things as the Church presents them at this point in the year. 

Instead of trying to finesse the subject, let me simply quote St Bernard’s prayer to Mary, as given by Dante, Paradiso Canto XXXIII (Hollander translation). 

Dante has by this point journeyed through the Inferno of the damned, and on through the Purgatory of the saved souls still being prepared for final gladness, to the heights of Paradise.  His earlier guides in his mid-life journey, the poet Virgil and his beloved Beatrice, turn him over to St Bernard for the final ascent.

After preliminary introductions, the great medieval contemplative comes to the matter at hand, Dante’s quest for the final truth, beauty, and goodness of God:  “But since the time runs short that readies you for sleep. . . .let us fix our eyes on Primal Love, so that, looking up at Him, you penetrate, as far as may be done, His brilliance.”

      Dante Alighieri by Sandro Botticelli (1495)

Bernard warns Dante that if by beating his own wings – relying on his own vain efforts – he should fall back, “you must gain your grace through prayer.”  He then addresses the Queen of Heaven and Seat of Wisdom on behalf of the poet-pilgrim:

Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son,
More humble and exalted than any other creature,
fixed goal of the eternal plan,
you are the one who so ennobled human nature
that He, who made it first, did not disdain
to make Himself of its own making.
Your womb relit the flame of love –
its heat has made this blossom seed
and flower in eternal peace.
To us you are a noonday torch of charity,
while down below, among those still in flesh,
you are the living fountainhead of hope.
Lady, you are so great and so prevail above,
should he who longs for grace not turn to you,
his longing would be doomed to wingless flight.
Your loving kindness does not only aid
whoever seeks it, but many times
gives freely what has yet to be implored.
In you clemency, in you compassion,
in you munificence, in you are joined
all virtues found in any creature.
This man who, from within the deepest pit
the universe contains up to these heights
has seen the disembodied spirits, one by one,
Now begs you, by your grace, to grant such power
that, by lifting up his eyes,
he may rise higher toward his ultimate salvation.
And I, who never burned for my own seeing
more than now I burn for his, offer all my prayers,
and pray that they may not fall short,
so that your prayers disperse on his behalf
all clouds of his mortality and let
the highest beauty be displayed to him.

Our times resemble, more and more, those of the early Christians.  They call for a response like the one early Christians gave, the same essential response of Bernard and the saints through the ages.

We have at our disposal, though, some advantages that the early Christians lacked:

  • the body of doctrine and the Magisterium as it has developed over 2000 years;
  • the fruits and graces of the saints who lived and died for the Church during those two millennia;
  • and, often overlooked, the treasury of humanly derived beauty – poetry, music, art – devoted to God throughout the lands and times of Christianity.  There is no better example than the Divine Comedy.

August is a good time to consider and be thankful for that beauty, to contemplate a few examples of it during a month that brings repose, and to resolve to attend more fully to the beautiful during the rest of the year.

In doing so, we can pray like Dante that our years of work, rest, and prayer in this life will be the prelude to our seeing the “eternal Light.” 

In its depth I saw contained,
by love into a single volume bound,
the pages scattered through the universe:
substances, accidents, and the interplay between them,
as though they were conflated in such ways
that what I tell is but a simple light.

Joseph Wood is an itinerant philosopher and easily accessible hermit affiliated with Cana Academy, Walsh University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Notre Dame Australia, none of which bears any responsibility for his errors or missteps.