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Briefly Reviewed: March 2024

Let Beauty Speak: The Art of Being Human in a Culture of Noise

By Jimmy Mitchell

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 204

Price: $17.95

Review Author: Mary Brittnacher

The subtitle of Jimmy Mitchell’s book, The Art of Being Human in a Culture of Noise, indicates it is a book for our time. What could be noisier than the constant barrage of 24/7 news cycles, videos at gas-station pumps, incessant hold music, background music in virtually every store, and ever-present TVs and cellphones? But Mitchell’s targets go way beyond the actual definition of noise. The “noise” we encounter everywhere is an unrelenting clamor, a distraction from the important and beautiful things. Noise is the enemy of peace; it harasses us and irritates us. In the Bible, our Maker says, “Be still and know that I am God.” God reveals Himself as a still, small voice, but He cannot be heard over the noise.

The 10 chapters of Let Beauty Speak offer remedies for the ills of our distracted culture. Starting with wonder, Mitchell channels G.K. Chesterton to bring back the healing power of being awed and thrilled at the circumstances of our daily existence. Wonder opens the door to appreciating the beauty around us, which we often take for granted. Though Chesterton focuses on homey, everyday things, like a blade of grass, Mitchell takes us to New Zealand and other exotic locations for out-of-the-ordinary experiences, like searching for glow worms. The visits he describes to beautiful cathedrals surely sparked wonder in him, although such trips are outside the lived experience of many. Chesterton’s focus on making the ordinary extraordinary seems to get closer to the heart of what wonder really is.

Mitchell’s discussion of freedom relates to the personal rather than the political. Today, a distorted version of freedom is seen as a green light to do what we want without limitations. Pope St. John Paul II, in contrast, said that “freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” Chesterton has much to say on this topic also. He argues that the epitome of freedom exists within boundaries, and he likens freedom to a school playground surrounded by fences. Mitchell rightly indicates that this is the freedom engendered by self-discipline. He applies the lessons he learned in sports, especially football, to depict real freedom. “True freedom is built on joyful self-mastery,” he writes, and “built of self-denial and sacrifice.” This kind of freedom, rooted in virtue, is “our only rock-solid foundation for the intellectual, moral, and political freedom necessary for human flourishing.”

Another remedy for our ills is friendship, a dearth of which exists today. Loud, ostentatious, shallow “friends” prevail. True friendship rises above incessant distraction. In Sirach 6:14 we read, “Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter; whoever finds one finds a treasure.” Verse 16 continues, “Faithful friends are life-saving medicine; those who fear God will find them.” Friendship is a gift that heightens awareness of the goodness and joy of others. Friends inspire excellence and the pursuit of higher goals.

Mitchell naturally enjoins prayer as another way to drown out the noise. Our souls need prayer the same way our lungs need oxygen. Prayer provides the peace everyone seeks. In prayer we learn that we are infinitely loved by an infinite God. There are many types of prayer: thanksgiving, praise, petition, and intercession; they all lift our minds and hearts to the Creator. Mitchell encourages praying with the Church, the central liturgy of which is a preview of Heaven. The beauty and depth of the eucharistic sacrifice, done with reverence and joy, cannot be matched by any other prayer. But mental prayer also is “vital,” he says. It is informal conversation with God, including listening for His answers. St. John Henry Newman’s motto expresses this relationship perfectly: Cor ad cor loquitur (“Heart speaks to heart”).

Understanding Mitchell’s treatment of leisure involves a little-known meaning of the word. The popular meaning usually refers to activities that are not work-related. But Mitchell approaches it another way. “Our deepest identity has less to do with doing and more to do with being,” he explains. “Leisure is rest, an interior stillness that fights against noise and activism.” He calls it “a posture that conditions us to encounter truth, beauty, and goodness” and “a disposition of soul that connects us with reality, reminding us that life is precious and that our infinite desires will be stilled only in eternity.” Mitchell calls the reader to use leisure time to reject the ugly and to be discerning about the beautiful. It is a simple principle but not always easy to put into practice.

Another category Mitchell explores is suffering. True Christians know that in imitation of our Lord, each must patiently carry his cross. Pope Benedict XVI, in Spe Salvi, writes, “It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love” (no. 37). Mitchell continues his look at suffering by delineating mission in these words: “The greatest callings in life are born out of the greatest sufferings.” The life of St. Ignatius of Loyola exemplifies this. He was wounded in battle and spent many months healing. Out of this recuperation time came the founding of the Society of Jesus. Suffering imparts a new sense of priorities to those who have the time and inclination to contemplate the reality of love and truth.

Mitchell reveals that his desire to evangelize was stymied until he discovered a secret of the saints: to be constantly aware of the ineffable beauty of God and His creation. He eventually realized that “beauty points to the divine.” He rhapsodizes, “What is more captivating than the light of Christ shining out from great music, timeless art, and the faces of the saints? The re-evangelization of the West depends on it.” With this, he states, “what we need most are heroic Christians living the fullness of the faith and captivating others with the beauty of their holiness.” True as ever.

The Irish call the places where it is possible to encounter the transcendent God “thin places.” The categories in this book are all pathways to the “thin places,” to encounters between Creator and creature. Here the beauty of God brings us closer to His world as we bring His beauty into ours.

 

©2024 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

 

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