“A Plan of Surpassing Beauty”

St. Cyril of Alexandria comments on the Gospel of John in these memorable words: “In a plan of surpassing beauty the Creator of the universe decreed the renewal of all things in Christ.” (Breviary, Thursday after Epiphany) Cyril does not say that the universe itself is “beautiful”, but that the Creator’s “plan” for it is “beautiful.” Pope Francis seems to call most things “beautiful.” But we are unused to hearing that “ideas” or “plans” are “beautiful.” We are wont to call them “true” or “coherent.” And further, Cyril is not talking of Creation itself but its “renewal” in Christ.

If we are to posit order in the Godhead itself, which we do, we must relate a universe that God created to one that He “renewed” in Christ. Clearly, we need not “renew” something that requires no restoration. Furthermore, how was it possible that something went wrong with the “original plan”? Or can we say that, from the beginning, there was only one “plan” that included, for reasons we must examine, the possibility of its needing to be “renewed”? Moreover, things cannot be renewed by just anyone, but only by Christ. This possibility seems to be rooted in Christ’s own relation to “the beginning.” We read in John’s Gospel that “In the Beginning was the Word.”

Back in the 1970s, a popular song, which became a kind of hymn, by Ray Stevens was called “Everything Is Beautiful, in Its Own Way.” This song is mindful of the philosophic discussion of the transcendentals – ens, res, unum, verum, bonum – concerning whether we can also say that “Omne ens est pulchrum?” – everything is beautiful? Interestingly, the song adds “everything is beautiful in its own way.”

Obviously, some things are not beautiful. Ugliness is not just an illusion. But it does seem that something beautiful, pleasing, delightful, can be found in every existing thing, if we see it, look for it. This “seeing” would not deny the fact of deformity, physical or spiritual.

We live in days of much slaughter and disorder. One of the definitions of beauty has to do with form, how things fit together. How can we talk about a divine “plan of surpassing beauty”?

"Last Judgment" by Hans Memling (c. 1467) National Museum, Gdańsk, Poland
“Last Judgment” by Hans Memling (c. 1467) National Museum, Gdańsk, Poland [click to expand]
Recently, I saw mention of the famous Christmas truce during World War I, when German and Allied soldiers, most of whom were Christians, greeted each other. Someone then goes on to suppose that two soldiers shoot each other the next day. Both land themselves in heaven and remain friends for eternity. Not a few want to parlay this scene, which is quite conceivable, into a universal salvation for everybody, no matter what anyone did. In this case, the divine “plan” would have been so constructed that everyone gained his eternal destiny, no problem, no evident need of goodness.

But, of course, there is a problem. It is the problem of the limits of mercy in the light of justice. Plato dealt with this problem. One of the ways that Christ “renewed” all things was by introducing into the world the notions of repentance and forgiveness, including divine forgiveness. The advantage of this understanding is that it does not reduce the evil of our actual deeds to nothing. They remain what they are, evil. But this status is not the end unless we make it so. We make it so by choosing not to acknowledge the disorder in our deliberate acts.

Maritain, in Scholasticism and Politics, stated that we are, in our wills, to finish what is the order of our given nature. This “completion” is essential to the “surpassing beauty” of the divine plan. In Tolkien’s Silmarillion, the God kept weaving discordant themes into harmony. Part of this weaving included the free participation of finite beings in the order. John Paul II, in his comment on divine mercy, said that God would forgive everything that could be forgiven. Does that include everything? Everything but what cannot be forgiven. What cannot be forgiven? What is not acknowledged.

But why not just say, on God’s part, “forgive and forget.” This is what God does say. What even God cannot do is to make a free creature not to be free. All He can do is to weave the unacknowledged sin’s consequences into the occasion for someone else’s good. This happens all the time. We just do not much notice.

We call this “plan” one of “surpassing beauty” because all being within it reaches its end, including those free creatures who are judged according to their thoughts and deeds. Deeds follow thoughts. And thoughts are about “knowing ourselves,” as we choose to be forever. We are to “finish” the order of our given nature willingly. What remains when we reject the order is the one “willing.” This is why even hell falls within the plan of “surpassing beauty.” God allows us to be what we choose to be.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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