Concerning Good Taste

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       The Gospel teaching often encourages us to deny ourselves. John the Evangelist writes in his Gospel: “Do not love the world or the things in the world.”1 The tradition of poverty within the Church helps us to purify our basic human impulse to seek great comfort in material things. The teaching of Christ invites us to guard ourselves against a false reliance on comfort and attachment to material things. We can be inclined, unfortunately, to forget our primary spiritual nature and eternal purpose. It is easy to see how our materialistic culture groans under the weight of attachment to things like alcohol, smartphones, fancy clothing, shiny cars, and even a surplus of food in spite of the poor around us.

We must make sacrifices. This involves a great effort in becoming detached, in a very real sense, from the “things of the world.” Attachment to material things must be purified in a radical poverty of spirit. Hence, so many religious figures, including the desert fathers and saints like St. Francis of Assisi, have taken the call of Christ to heart. We have to continuously seek God and His will above all else. For St. Francis, this meant giving all of his possessions away completely.

Now, while this radical poverty is a literal imitation of the lifestyle of Jesus, most of us simply are not called to such an intense detachment from material things. We live and move and fulfill our Christian mission within the world. We need necessities like houses, clothes, and food. Thinkers like Dietrich Von Hildebrand believe that we also need a healthy relationship with beautiful things in this life. We desire those things that give us joy and comfort. And we can rightly enjoy these gifts from God in an ordered and appreciative way.

We are supposed to delight in creation, even from a detached spirit of poverty. Philosophers like St. Bonaventure have explained to us that the material world has the ability to show us, in a sensible and truly real way, the lavishness, beauty, and splendor of the One Who created them.
Hildebrand knew that there was virtue in enjoying the finer things of life, and he had unabashed good taste. Take a look at his memoirs. Even in the midst of his intense battle with Nazism, Hildebrand took the time to write about the little things that pleased him:

“I drank a strong cup of coffee and turned to my preparations.”2

“As I looked upon the charming old furniture with its ornate metal fittings, with the afternoon sun streaming into the room, I breathed the very particular air of the Dutch world.”3

“Gilson’s wife was very likeable and friendly. One of his daughters—I think her name was Claude—was very beautiful. I told him so, which pleased him immensely, and I could see how much he loved her. The food, and especially the wine, was excellent.”4

“I was greatly impressed by the beauty of the celebration, which was enhanced by the magnificent space of Notre-Dame.”5

“The dinner had been excellent, a rich demonstration of the culture of France.”6

“What an entire world of unbelievable beauty, greatness, and nobility! The house was a fine building, not a magnificent Baroque palace, but about a hundred years old and defined by simple, elegant lines. Nothing in the construction was distasteful, and a great elegant stone staircase lent a stately quality to the whole.”7

Hildebrand spoke of Italian villas in Florence, his beautiful home in Germany, great wine, good music, lively conversation, profound liturgies, and breathtaking Churches. He knew that the great things in life, even if they are material, seek to enliven us with an appreciation for God’s beauty. We have the creativity and ability as humans to listen, taste, touch, smell and feel. Cultivating taste with a true appreciation for the beauty of created goods is indeed a virtuous pursuit.

In the spirit of Hildebrand, we really should not be ultimately satisfied with anything that is in poor taste. It is putting to use the taste God gave us to decorate our homes, paint ceilings in the Vatican, or even prepare a fine meal. These beautiful things have a special place in motivating our work, evoking goodness within our culture, and inspiring us with profound value.  

Having radical poverty of spirit does not mean having bad taste. Hildebrand knew quite well how to enrich his life and the lives of those around him with good things. Being an authentic man or woman of virtue includes knowing God’s beauty when you see it. So, seek to cultivate good taste. God wants to enrich our lives in beautiful ways, if we let Him.

1)      John 2:15.
2)      Dietrich Von Hildebrand. “My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich.” Presented by John Henry Crosby and John F. Crosby. Image: New York. 2014. Page 56.
3)      Ibid, 61.
4)      Ibid, 64.
5)      Ibid, 67.
6)      Ibid, 68.
7)      Ibid, Page 111.

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