Right Living as a Fine Art

We are not surprised therefore when we see that as man’s arts and industries go toward perfection they go toward beauty. Carry the coarse flax up toward beauty and it becomes strong cloth. Carry the cocoon of a worm up to beauty and it becomes a soft silken robe. Carry rude Attic speech up to beauty and it becomes the language of Homer or Hesiod. Carry the strange face or form tatooed upon the arm of the savage up to beauty and it becomes a Madonna or a Transfiguration. Carry a stone altar and a smoking sacrifice up to beauty and it becomes a Cologne cathedral or a Westminster Abbey. Indeed, historians might use the beautiful as the touchstone of human progress. The old milestones of growth were metals. First came the age when arrows were tipped with flint. Then came the iron age, when the spear had a metal point. The bronze age followed, lending flexibility to ore hitherto unyielding. Later came the steel age, when weapons that bruised gave place to the keen edge that cuts. Perhaps the divinity chat represents our era will stand forth plated with oxide of silver.

But his ideas of beauty would measure man’s progress quite as accurately. In that first rude age beauty was external. Man twisted gay feathers into his hair, painted his cheeks red or yellow, wore rings of bright shells about his neck. But our age is high because beauty has ceased to be mere personal adornment. Man now seeks to make his books beautiful for the intellect, his library and gallery beautiful for taste and imagination, his temple beautiful for worship, his home beautiful in the interest of the heart, his song and prayer not simply true, but beautiful with praise to the unseen God. If in rude ages beauty was associated with physical elements, the glory of our era is that beauty, unfolding from century to century, is now increasingly associated with those moral qualities that lend remembrance to mother and martyr, to hero and patriot and saint.

To-day, fortunately for society, this world-wide interest in art is becoming spiritualized. From beautiful objects men are passing to beautiful thoughts and deeds. We begin to hear much of the art of right living and the science of character building. Having lent charm and value to column and canvas, to marble and masterpiece, beauty now moves on to lend loveliness to mind and heart. For it seems an incongruous thing for man to adorn his cottage, lend charm to its walls and windows, make its ceilings to be like the floor of heaven for beauty, while within his heart he cherishes groveling littleness, slimy sin, light-winged evasions, brutal passions. He whose body rides in a palace car must not carry a soul that is like unto a savage. Having lingered long before the portrait of Antigone or Cordelia, the young girl finds herself pledged to turn that ideal into life and character. The copy of the Sistine Madonna hanging upon the wall asks the woman who placed it there to realize in herself this glorious type of motherhood.

When the admirers of Shakespeare bought the house in which their hero was born, they planted in the garden the flowers which the poet loved. Passing through the little wicket gate the pilgrim finds himself moving along a perfumed path, while to his garments clings the odor of violets and roses, sweet peas and buttercups, the columbine and honeysuckle–flowers these, whose roots are in earth indeed, but whose beauty is borrowed from heaven. From these grounds men have expelled the poison ivy, the deadly nightshade, all burdocks and thistles. And the soul is a garden in which truth, purity, patience, love, long suffering are qualities whiter than any lily and sweeter than any rose, whose perfume never passes, whose beauty does not fade. And having succeeded in transforming waste places into centers of radiant beauty, man encourages the hope that he can carry his own reason, judgment and ambition up to full symmetry and perfection.

What a transformation man has wrought in matter! Nature says, here is a lump of mud; man answers, let it become a beautiful vase. Nature says, here is a sweet briar; man answers, let it become a rose double and of many hues. Nature says, here is a string and a block of wood; man answers, let them be a sweet-voiced harp. Nature says, here is a daisy; Burns answers, let it become a poem. Nature says, here is a piece of ochre and some iron rust; Millet answers, let the colors become an Angelus. Nature says, here is reason rude and untaught; man must answer, let the mind become as full of thoughts as the sky of stars and more radiant. Nature says, here is a rude affection; man must answer, let the heart become as full of love and sympathy as the summer is full of ripeness and beauty. Nature says, here is a conscience, train it; man should answer, let the conscience be as true to Christ and God as a needle to the pole. Marvelous man’s skill through the fine arts! Wondrous, too, his handicrafts! But no picture ever painted, no poem ever perfected, no temple ever builded is comparable for strength and beauty to a full-orbed soul, matured through a widely trained reason and a sober judgment–mellow in heart and conscience, pervaded throughout with the spirit of Jesus Christ, the soul’s master and model.

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