by Margarita Mooney on March 25, 2020

The current COVID-19 crisis, while fortunately not [yet?] affecting my health or financial livelihood—has certainly provoked in me worry and fear of uncertainty. My daily routine of starting my day with a visit to my local coffee shop, morning Mass, and going to the gym before starting my work day has been halted. I am under orders from the Governor of New Jersey not leave my house unless it is to seek out provisions for survival. My mind, body and soul have felt adrift, missing all the anchors of my daily routine, and my sacred practices in community.

After a frenzied week last week trying to set up online reading groups for students and launch a YouTube Live interview series on the love of learning, I asked myself one morning: How can I return to some daily routines for mind, body and soul? What exactly is the work I am supposed to do right now, as all my meetings and events are canceled and I’m literally not allowed to gather in person with co-workers or students? How am I going to find joy while confined largely to the four walls of my own home?

Finally, with a sense of joy that comes from stimulating the creative intuition we all have, I picked up once again Roger Scruton’s masterful short book on beauty. In the preface he writes, “Beauty, I argue, is a real and universal value, one anchored in our rational nature, and the sense of beauty has an indispensable part to play in shaping the human world” (p. xii). Lest we confuse what he means by beauty with merely sensual pleasure of one kind or another, the very first line of the book states “beauty can be consoling, disturbing, sacred, profane; it can be exhilarating, appealing, inspiring, chilling” (p. xi).

In my research and writing on resilience, experiences of beauty in the midst of suffering seemed to provide many people much more than a coping mechanism for pain. Experiences of beauty can become moments of self-transcendence, where we realize that we are not alone in this world, that we didn’t create ourselves nor did we create the world around us.

For example, as part of a project in which I interviewed young adults who had experienced some form of trauma, I met twice with a 26-year old white man in a small town in northeast named Jason. With a colorful flurry of curse words, he told me about how his struggles with addiction to alcohol and heroin that had gone on for more than 10 years. Alongside his crazy experiences and his see-saw between despair and hope, he at times had moments of inner peace. The times he had experienced inner peace it did not come from within himself, which he pointed out many times is so messed up. His words exemplified a transcendent experience in which a mysterious encounter with something beautiful serves as a reminder that there’s more to life than what we often waste our time on. In so many cases I heard about, transcendent moments remind people that chasing the next high or pleasure does not bring lasting happiness.

This brief example may help motivate some of the larger questions that intrigue me, questions that matter for how we think about education, especially in a time of crisis. For example, how might understanding beauty as a response to utilitarianism and pragmatism, namely the emphasis on pleasure and problem-solving as highest ends of humans? From a utilitarian point of view, many human lives are never economically productive. Most of our lives are utterly not productive at this very moment. For many people, their long-term prospects for economic productivity are likely to be greatly diminished after this crisis.

But other questions about the relationship between beauty and suffering keep emerging: What is the relationship between beauty, suffering and individual flourishing? Is we are all going to die someday, how can the highest good for humans really to eradicate suffering? What does it tell us that as humans we can find beauty even in death, decay and suffering that is unavoidably part of the nature world? Why do I find a kind of intriguing beauty in learning about others’ suffering? Is the fact that we all glued to our devices to find the latest news about COVID-19 simply a pragmatic reaction to prevent our own illness or could it express a human desire to accompany others who are suffering?

During this third week of March in 2020, my thinking about these questions from a scholarly perspective has been interrupted so many times by the great difficulty I have in writing about beauty. Is the longing for beauty in the midst of crisis a distraction from the real task at hand—to solve the many problems we face like ensuring our families have sufficient provisions for survival and health? Wouldn’t character be enhanced more by embracing this situation as a chance to grow in the virtues of prudence, patience, simplicity, and poverty than by growing in our appreciation of beauty? 

Wouldn’t it be more useful for me to study something I can actually understand and therefore control and manipulate to make myself feel better in times of uncertainty than to provoke more fear and anxiety with big questions? But if beauty is so hard to write about why can’t I forget about it as the world deals with a crisis? Is it possible that our attraction to the beautiful is something that will intensify during this time of crisis? If we take some time during this crisis to educate that attraction to the beautiful, if we interrogate it, sit with it, examine it, could we expand our awareness of the many gifts of everyday life that we often take for granted, thereby living every moment of our life with a great sense of vocation? 

When I look back on other times of crisis in my life—such as my father’s unexpected death just before 9/11, and the death of a young student I loved like a son in May 2019—feeling my pain during those times helped me to later see that I have a calling from God. As I discussed in my two interviews on the Eric Metaxas show in early 2020, memories of certain moments in prayer when I felt God speaking to me—either through a soft whisper, the miraculous appearance of an angel, or an incredible view in nature—have given me the courage to go on when the circumstances seem impossibly difficult. (Watch the interviews here and here).

I spoke of those miraculous moments in my life not because they happen often, but because the very fact that they are so rare makes them clearly transcendent: if it was up to me, I’d have much more of those experiences and fewer experiences of desolation. The mysterious nature of those divine encounters reminds me that I am not always in control, but I am always loved.

We can learn through suffering to depend on God, especially in the darkness. We can’t avoid the darkest times of life because, whether we are immediately aware of it or not, they often teach us something about our calling. It’s a temptation to despair, to want to journey in the darkness alone rather than let our pain open our hearts to God and others. We have to look for the light, or better yet, learn to wait patiently for that light and to follow the everyday promptings towards the beautiful, good and true that I know are trying to reach us.

As I have learned, when we feel we been called to do something by God, our courage is met with God’s grace. God won’t run our lives without us; but we can’t run our lives without God. When we learn to see every moment of our lives as a gift, we can express gratitude to God even in the midst of hardship and suffering.

Living through this crisis will not be like the joys we get from a walk in the park, a visit to the museum, hearing live music, or cheering at a ballgame. But there is beauty to be found in our minimal surroundings, in our reaching out to others in their suffering, in the silence and stillness of our minds, and in our dependence on God when we are deprived of even the basic Christian communal life of worship and sacraments.

With regards to my specific vocation of education, the educational system has been turned upside down overnight. Perhaps paradoxically, the many disruptions and distractions caused by the crisis may allow us to get back to one of the foundations of education: our contemplative nature. Our minds are neither just supercomputers nor passive vessels of pleasure; our minds allow us to engage in contemplative appreciation for the created order of all reality. Although reading great texts, building character and virtue are all important aspects of a classical liberal arts model of education, educational practices also need to foster awe, wonder, open-mindedness and curiosity in all fields of learning. Incorporating the aesthetic dimension of the human person is about much more than entertaining students or escaping challenging learning expectations. Learning a contemplative approach to education is about fighting the many distractions to using our minds well.

The intellectual rigor that is required to not only learn from past traditions of knowledge but also exercise the open-mindedness and curiosity that leads to new knowledge requires a holistic approach to educational curricula, educational settings, and teacher-student interactions. Education should not stop at producing quasi-robots who have lost the passionate desire for connecting the material world with the sublime. A good education reveals to students how things work and also guides them to perceive the beauty behind all things that points to the logos, the beginning and end of all creation. Right now, in this online education environment we have all moved into, the people interacting across the screens have not ceased to be full human beings. The medium is different but the messenger and the recipient are human beings.

The present moment is indeed a crisis. But moments of crisis are moments for reflecting on the basic questions of who we are as humans, and how we answer that question can help us find beauty even in the challenging circumstances of our minimal surroundings and online classes.