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Dorothy Day, The World Will Be Saved By Beauty, and Notre Dame Cathedral

Killeen spent eight weeks last year as a part of the Summer Service Learning Program of the University of Notre Dame

Individuals, corporations, and even educational institutions like the University of Notre Dame have collectively donated over $1 billion toward the reconstruction of the Cathedral in the days following the tragic fire at Notre-Dame in Paris. The acts of benevolence have been lauded by some and harshly criticized by others. Among the tweets and statuses criticising the donations to the Cathedral, I’ve seen those which place the reconstruction of the Cathedral in opposition to social justice. One such tweet read:

“Speaking as a Catholic here… please don’t donate to help Notre Dame. The Church is worth $30 billion. Donate to help Puerto Rico recover. Donate to get the people of Flint clean water. Donate to get kids out of cages. Jesus didn’t care about stained glass. He cared about people.” (@Kristan_Higgins).

The words of Dorothy Day come to mind: “The world will be saved by beauty.”

During the summer of 2018 I lived and worked at Casa Juan Diego. On my first Monday, I opened the door to find a beautiful bouquet of flowers that had been donated anonymously to the house. While it was kind, I couldn’t help but find the gift totally useless. Why donate flowers when we were in constant need of adult diapers, baby formula, and medications?

Every Monday thereafter, we received a fresh bouquet.

A few weeks into my time at Casa, we were preparing for an inspection by the food bank and for immigration hearings. With all of this, along with the daily bustle of distributing food, running our medical clinic, and helping community members at the door, we were consumed by the often chaotic nature of poverty. That Monday, the flowers arrived at the door as usual, and in the evening we gathered together as a community, appreciating the bouquet at the center of our dinner table before moving it to its spot on our simple chapel’s altar. In the midst of suffering, brokenness, and poverty, the flowers were a small reminder of a more beautiful world. Despite ugliness, chaos, and injustice, they were a sign of the beauty we hoped for. We could always use more diapers, more formula, or more funding, but we were also in constant need of hope, kindness, and beauty.  As Louise remarked, quoting Dorothy, “Who says the poor can’t have nice things?”

I do not mean to say that beautiful churches or nice bouquets will eradicate world hunger. I am not so naive as to believe that breathtaking Gothic architecture and intricate stained glass will dismantle the unjust social systems of our world. But placing beauty in opposition to justice is a false and dangerous dichotomy. Let’s work to address the societal wrongdoings that perpetuate injustice. But do not abandon beauty along the way.

Unfortunately, beauty in the world has become a commodity. Precious works of art are housed in places like the Louvre, the Vatican Museums, or the Met, all of which require entrance fees and none of which clamor to welcome in outcasts of society. Even places like the U.S. National Parks and the Gardens of Versailles charge entrance fees, commodifying the natural beauty they preserve. The artwork preserved in churches, though, has not become exclusive to the wealthy. Churches remain houses of beauty, art, music, and prayer open to all – to outcasts, saints, sinners, rejects, steadfast believers, serial doubters, and the lonely. The Notre-Dame Cathedral has been a haven of peace and beauty, proclaiming hope for weary and forgotten souls, for more than 800 years. While the world commodifies beauty, it remains steadfast.

If all the world’s corporal suffering were eradicated tomorrow, we would still need hope, joy, and peace. We would still need beauty. It is as necessary to the soul as food is to the body; the poor person deserves beauty just as deeply as she deserves food, shelter, and education. To deprive her of beauty is to disregard her humanity in favor of her corporality. Beauty inspires hope, calls forth contemplation, and awakens childlike wonder even in the midst of suffering. Anyone who has set her eyes upon the rose windows of Notre-Dame, contemplated Van Gogh’s Starry Night, watched a beautiful sunrise over the sea, or listened to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony knows the indescribable song of the soul which beauty can evoke.

I will join you in working to dismantle the unjust systems which pervade our society. I will advocate with you for the people of Flint. I will journey with you to alleviate the sufferings of children at the border. I will support any effort to rebuild Puerto Rico amidst devastation. But Jesus cared about people, and people need beauty. Let’s save it, too.


Houston Catholic Worker, July-September 2019, Vol. XXXIX, No. 3.