Learning to appreciate Michelangelo’s Pietà and cafeteria food
Unless we know what something is and what it is meant for, we won’t appreciate it. Reflecting on a thing’s formal and final causes is a great way to renew our sense of gratitude for things.
My oldest daughter, a senior at the University of Portland, is experiencing the mild ennui of a college student approaching the end of her academic career. She loves her school, but what was once an expansive world to discover has become predictable — and, in particular, her enthusiasm for the university cafeteria has faded with familiarity.
It is only fair to note that this cafeteria excels at serving nutritious and appetizing food. It accommodates a wide range of dietary preferences while providing variety. Where many cafeterias offer sugary sodas, Bauccio Commons offers attractive containers of chilled water infused with fresh rosemary and cucumber. Nonetheless, students can be forgiven if, after four years, they find it a bit boring.
This lack of novelty might seem a weakness. If we look closer, though, it is actually a strength.
Understanding the four ‘causes’
St. Thomas Aquinas observed that, to properly appreciate a thing, we need to understand its four “causes.” For example, a statue like Michelangelo’s Pietà has a “material cause”: the marble of which it is made. It has an “efficient cause”: the work of the sculptor who made it. It also has a “formal cause” that defines what it is meant to be: an image of Mary holding Jesus after the Crucifixion. Lastly, it has a “final cause” for which it is destined: in this case, to help us understand the incredible sacrifice made by our Lord and his mother.
Properly appreciating the statue requires understanding the formal and final causes. If we just looked at the statue in terms of the quality of the material and how well the sculptor cut the marble, we would miss some of its most important dimensions. For example, some might complain that Jesus’ face shows no signs of his crucifixion and that Mary looks too young to be the mother of a man in his early 30s. Are these “bugs” or mistakes in the design? No, they are “features” that serve the final cause of the statue. Michelangelo is communicating the beauty and purity of these sinless ones who suffered for us.
We can think similarly about the college cafeteria. The food served and the skill of preparation reflect the material and efficient causes. Nutrition reflects the formal cause. Then, it gets particularly interesting when we consider the final cause. If college is preparation for the world, the final cause of food at college is nourishment for that journey to adulthood.
Considering this, a little lack of novelty in the food served at college isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. It should nourish. It should be pleasant. But, it should also leave students wanting a little more so that, rather than being tempted to linger at school, they are motivated to continue their journey.
Thinking about last things
In a similar way, as our liturgical year winds to a close, the church encourages us to think about last things. Considering our formal cause reminds us we are made in God’s image. Our final cause, for which we were made, is to be drawn into the life of the Trinity. In the same way that a good university is ordered toward its final cause of preparing students for life outside the university, creation is oriented toward preparing us for life in heaven.
Consequently, in the same way that seniors in college shouldn’t expect their university to fascinate them in the same way that it did when they were freshmen, the more we learn about the world, the more that we should expect it to leave us unfulfilled. God did not create the world to satisfy us. He created it to perfect us, to move us toward him.
This says much about how we should look upon the good things of this world, like family, friends and work. Unexpectedly, the ways in which they disappoint us are not bugs, but features. Rather than frustrating us, these disappointments should drive us forward toward our destiny with our Lord, who never disappoints.
Northwest Catholic - November 2018