Beautiful, useless things…


There is a beautiful little box that sits on my desk. It was a birthday gift from my husband. On the lid is a painting of the church where I was ordained and on the inside there is a lovely photograph of the altar. It is a work of art and it is precious, but it is just big enough to hold my rosary. For all intents and purposes, it is completely useless, and that is exactly why I wanted it.

I think it is time that we started defending and treasuring beautiful, useless things.

I learned so much from the rector of this parish during my brief time there as a young priest, but of all the things he taught me, the lesson that has endured the most is that beautiful things are to be treasured, simply because they are beautiful.

Little painted ceramic boxes, baroque vestments, ornate reliquaries, classical mass settings…these things have value simply because they are beautiful. God delights in beauty…after all, he invented it.

We live in a world where usefulness is an idol. We are taught to value things, even people, by their usefulness. What can I DO with this? Is this thing or person good FOR something?

I do it to myself all the time. I am never happier than when I have had a productive day. I love to feel useful and when I don’t, my self-worth suffers greatly. I regularly fall into the trap of making usefulness my greatest good. I think we all do from time to time.

Even the Church is guilty. I can’t tell you how many Diocesan functions I have been to where a parish’s value has been directly tied to how useful it is to the local community. We are taught over and over again that if we don’t provide some sort of service to society (whether it is a food pantry, a day school, or a shelter) then we don’t really have a reason to exist. We are told that our buildings are only valuable if they are useful.

But look at the world that is created when use means more to us than beauty:

We look at the mountains, and only see resources to be mined.

We look at empty land, and imagine how we might develop it.

We look at another person, and think of what they can do for us.

This is a world that has no use for the young or the elderly. This is a world that has no use for art and poetry. It’s a world that has no use for love. It’s a world that has no use for God.

I don’t want to live in that world.

This little box sits here on my desk as a constant reminder that I don’t have to live in that world.

I can live in a world filled with beautiful things that have value simply because they are beautiful, and for no other reason. I can live in world created by a God that delights in beauty. I can worship a God that creates beautiful things.

Maybe then I will be able to value myself, not for my usefulness, but simply because I am another beautiful thing that God created. Maybe I will be able to start seeing others that way too.

This little box and the little church painted on its lid remind me that there is something very holy about beauty. It cannot be used, only admired. It can only be loved, and nothing else. I wonder if God looks at us that way, like so many little beautifully painted boxes: something he has no actual use for, but delights in, simply because we are beautiful.

This little box also reminds me of the little alabaster jar that held the ointment Mary of Bethany used to anoint the feet of Jesus. The room was filled with the beautiful fragrance of that oil, but not all of the disciples appreciated it. “Couldn’t that costly ointment have been put to better use?” Judas asked. But Jesus defended the beautiful thing that she did for him. He could see the beauty in her devotion and she could see the beauty in his love.

Of course, as Christians we are called to care for God’s children in the world, but I do wonder sometimes if we are engaging in ministry because we recognize the beauty in others, a beauty we first saw in God; or are we simply trying to keep busy so that we feel useful? Are we worshiping the idol of usefulness and failing to raise our voices in praise of the God that loves beautiful, useless things?

In a world where ultimate sacrifices are made to the God of use and utility, don’t we have a calling to proclaim another way? Maybe a part of our calling as the Church, is treasuring the beautiful things that the world has no use for.

I think it is time that we started defending and treasuring beautiful, useless things.