In 1940, a Dante scholar named Uberto Limentani was on the cruise ship Arandora Star, steaming west off the coast of Ireland with 1,000 other people. When a German torpedo struck, half the passengers filled the lifeboats and the other half went down with the ship. Limentani was one of the unlucky people who missed a spot on a boat and so was left to fight for his life in the water. About 500 people drowned that day, but he was not one of them.
Years later, when asked how he managed to find the strength to swim for so long and not give up, he said, “I began reciting a poem to myself…Alessandro Manzoni’s ode on the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, Il Cinque Maggio…that was what kept me going.” Poetry probably isn’t high on the list of most useful items to survive a shipwreck. And yet, for Limentani, that poem shone like a lighthouse. It’s beauty helped him find the shore because it reminded him that life is worth contending for.
The author of the poem, Alessandro Manzoni, says he wrote it to commemorate the death of Napoleon. “His death shook me,” he said. “It was as if the world were missing some essential element.” He turned to the most practical outlet for grief of which he knew — he began writing. While his wife played songs for him on the piano, he wrote Il Cinque Maggio. In his sorrow, Manzoni immersed himself in beauty, which helped him transfigure his pain.
Beauty is often treated as a nice extra, but the real work in life, we are told, is earning money, building practical skills, making measurable progress, facts, programs, efficiency. Even in our spiritual lives, we fall prey to this syndrome. Spirituality and worship is often viewed as merely practical, as self-help.
Beauty, though, is not extra. Beauty is its own form of knowledge. You were created by God not to be productive cogs in a machine or accomplished only in the limited sphere of this world — you were created to live a beautiful life, a holy life, a life that reaches out like a poem to connect heaven and earth. The Mass is the greatest of all poems, the source of beauty and thus the source of our humanity. This is why the spiritual life begins and ends with the Mass.
Beauty points beyond our limited physical existence and reveals our true nature, because as the only creatures who are endowed with a soul crafted in the image of God, we have but one foot in this world. The other is already upon the rung of Jacob’s Ladder.
We’ve all been worried and uncertain. The ups and downs of life, the challenges our families face, the uncertainty of the future, it feels like drowning. It feels like a great hero has died and left us alone. Uberto Limentani recited a poem to himself to survive. Alessandro Manzoni composed a poem to process grief. For us, too, beauty makes all the difference.
Father Michael Rennier is pastor of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis. A former Anglican priest, he was ordained in 2016 under a pastoral provision for the reception of Anglicans and Episcopalians into full communion with the Catholic Church. He and his wife, Amber, have six children.