No one knows how to build another Chartres Cathedral. As time takes its toll on brick and mortar, and vandals and arsonists destroy, the wonders of Christendom slip away. We Catholic lovers of tradition stand by helplessly sounding forth the lament: “Jerusalem remembers in the days of her affliction and bitterness all the precious things that were hers from days of old” (Lam 1:7). It would seem that the restoration of beauty in art and culture is a cause now entirely lost.
Christ Who knows all things, knows that those faithful who seek the restoration of beauty do so not as aesthetes or antiquarians but as the bride who went about the streets in the dark of the night seeking Him Whom her soul loved (Song 3:1-2). The Bridegroom does not hide away from the bride forever. Even in his Lamentations, Jeremiah states, “The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul that seeks Him” (Lam 3:25). Our tears are warranted, but we must now dry them and go about the business of tunneling through the barricade called Modernism that stands on the road to restoration. Truly, Christ has left a way for us; it just happens to be a very little one.
Countless souls have embraced the so-called Little Way of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux in the practice of moral virtue and advanced to sanctity as a result. The Saint describes her Little Way succinctly: “It is the little way of spiritual childhood, the way of trust and absolute self-surrender.” But just as the moral realm contains abundant potential acts of love like low-hanging fruits ready for harvest, so the material realm contains opportunities for small victories of beauty. All too often, well-meaning Catholics give up on the material realm entirely and, while living virtuous lives of great spiritual beauty, they allow material ugliness to pervade their homes, their attire, and their churches. This apathy towards the preservation and promotion of beauty in the material realm is against the will of God Who specifically placed man as steward of material Creation. Perhaps we can’t embroider vestments like the nuns of the Visitation or compose Masses like the monks who produced the Kyriale, but we can lovingly care for altar linens and do our best to learn the art of Gregorian chant. Likewise, we can’t build a Gothic cathedral, but we can at least make our homes places of beauty. In the quest for restoration, we must become spiritual children humbly content with the small works of children, never too tired to cheerfully do our best and never dreaming of giving up the fight.
As an eight-year-old girl, Thérèse wrote with bubbling enthusiasm to her sister Pauline, “If you only knew about St. Domitia’s Day. Aunt put a pink cincture on me, and I threw roses to St. Domitia.” Years later, at the height of her spiritual insight, she seamlessly continued the floral theme likening her good works to strewn flowers: “But how shall I show my love since love proves itself by deeds? I, the little one, will strew flowers, perfuming the Divine with their fragrance.”
Thérèse used the scattering of petals as an illustration of good works with the presupposition that anyone would be well-acquainted with such an image. Alas, today we hardly ever see religious processions with this kind of devotion. The wealthiest countries in the world are too parsimonious to buy a few roses for the Eucharist. In addition to showering Our Lord with spiritual petals of our good works, we must, quite literally, shower Him with petals. We must doggedly resurrect and sustain the old customs that were so simple and beautiful. We must make altars in our homes, and plant beautiful gardens, and dress well, and paint, and sing, and bring ceremony and dignity back to the act of dining. The list of little things we can do in the churches and homes is endless, and if we live the liturgical year to its fullest, we will find ourselves always busy preparing for the next feast. In all this, we practice the Little Way of Beauty wiping away the grime that has obscured the mirror that is Creation and allowing it to once again reflect the Image of God.
Now some will rightly point out that Thérèse’s historical context, the Belle Époque, was suffused with sentimentalism that manifested itself in terrible kitsch that is not only not the way through the barricade of Modernism, but perhaps even one of the maladies that paved the way for the rise of the sum of all heresies. The vapid pastels, the bloated plaster statues, the dusty, effeminate clutter of that saccharine era sickened many a virile heart and caused a disordered backlash towards the empty “clean” of minimalism that still reverberates in shockwaves of iconoclasm today. Kitsch comes from a hurried desire to “do things up” in order to obtain a pleasant effect on the emotions. How different are the machine-embroidered angels dancing about on a polyester altar frontal from the meticulously hand-stitched red crosses on traditional altar linens! To avoid lapsing into kitsch, we must slow down and allow the tradition of our faith to form our taste and saturate our artistic pursuits. No one who prayerfully ponders a Giotto fresco will come away with the inspiration to make a Children of the World stole. The fact that devotion may sometimes come up against the dead-end of kitsch does not excuse us from pushing ever on towards restoration. As we light up the road with tiny glimmers of true beauty, we will help to guide ourselves and our fellow travelers away from false paths.
Of course, after embracing all the delights of little red crosses and home altars and rose petals, we might stand back and ask, “What are these small beauties among so much ugliness?” just as the apostle asked Our Lord of the loaves and fishes, “What are these among so many?” (Jn 6:9) But it didn’t please Our Lord to explain His miracle then, and it likely won’t please Him to explain just how or when He plans to use our loaves and fishes now. A key facet of the Little Way is blind surrender of our efforts to the Hand of God. Whether our efforts yield anything greater than a home altar before the trumpet sounds is irrelevant. Our Lord desires to feed His people with beauty lest they faint along the way. He asks for our loaves and fishes. Let us not be defeatists like the Apostles, but simple and confident like the child who presented his five loaves and two fishes. If faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains, then beauty the size of a rose petal can inspire another Chartres. We need only pray with St. Thérèse:
I know well that this fragrant shower, these petals of little price, these songs of love from a poor little heart like mine, will nevertheless be pleasing to Thee. They are but trifles, it is true, yet Thou wilt smile on them. The Church Triumphant, stooping towards her child, will gather up these scattered rose-leaves, and, placing them in Thy divine hands, that they may acquire infinite value, will shower them on the Church Suffering to extinguish the flames, and on the Church Militant to make her triumph.
Blessing of the Wheat in Artois – Jules Breton (public domain).
Altar linen photos courtesy of a sister of the Filiae Laboris Mariae.
 Thérèse of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face, Story of a Soul (Baronius Press, 2015), 207.
 Saint Thérèse of Lisieux General Correspondence Volume I, trans. John Clarke, OCD (Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1982), 143.
 Story of a Soul, 181.
 Ibid., 182