You can’t judge a book by its cover, we say, meaning that no man should be judged by his clothes, or by a mere glance at his demeanour. Fair enough, as far as it goes. “What went ye out into the wilderness to see?” Jesus asks, referring to John the Baptist. “A man clothed in soft raiment?” (Matthew 11:7-8). We should think less about the trappings of life and more about its substance. “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matthew 6:28-29).
But when the Lord went up the mountain with Peter, James, and John, his clothing was the first thing they noticed about him: “he was transfigured before them. And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow so as no fuller on earth can white them” (Mark 9:2-3). No fuller could do it, but there is a lye that eats into the filth and the dross of our lives and makes our robes shine. “These are they which came out of great tribulation,” says the angel to the Apostle John, “and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14). When the Prodigal Son returns home and acknowledges his sin, his father clothes him: “Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet” (Luke 15:22). And we remember the man who came to the king’s feast without a wedding garment, and when the king asked him why, “he was speechless” (Matthew 22:12).
It is too easy for us to read such verses allegorically and forget the flesh and the robes. Some things are flashy, sure, but other things really are warm with light. Some people hide beneath a cloak of respectability, but others really do robe themselves with a nobility shining from within. We have no choice but to judge by what we see. The remedy for seeing badly is to learn to see well. The remedy for garishness is not the dull and slovenly. The remedy is beauty.
Something of the soul we wish to see will shine through and weave the lineaments of its robe. So it is with the blessed souls in CS Lewis’s The Great Divorce, who descend the mountains of heaven to invite lost souls to be born anew: “Some were naked, some robed. But the naked ones did not seem less adorned, and the robes did not disguise in those who wore them the massive grandeur of muscle and the radiant smoothness of flesh.”
In That Hideous Strength, Lewis has his hero Ransom dress in a blue robe and a gold coronet when he converses with the mage Merlin, “to do him honour”, he says, because in Merlin’s days “men did not, except for necessity, go about in shapeless sacks of cloth, and drab was not a favourite colour.” The robe reveals the reality within. So it is also when the women of St Anne’s dress for a banquet, and each submits to be robed by the others. The portly middle-aged Mrs Dimble dons a robe she would never have chosen for herself, but it is right and just: “For now this provincial wife of a rather obscure scholar,
this respectable and barren woman with grey hair and double chin, stood before her, not to be mistaken as a kind of priestess or sybil, the servant of some prehistoric goddess of fertility – an old tribal matriarch, mother of mothers, grave, formidable, and august.
“‘Am I awful?’ she asks, abashed. Her friend replies, ‘Aweful, in the old sense, is just what you do look.’”
Here I might talk about covers and raiment and splendour, as they bear upon forms of beauty proper to male or female; upon the innocence of children, to be revered, with reticence; upon the use of the human body for sexual love and the begetting of children; upon the difference between a mask and a veil, a “front” and a face; upon nobility, simplicity, clarity, exuberance, austerity, glory, and their impostors, the pompous, simplistic, blank, loud, mean and garish.
The psalmist longs “to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4). Our task is to raise a people who can feel that longing. It should be easy. We are parched and starved for beauty. Every one of the arts has betrayed its soul, choosing the ugly and calling it honest, when it is but hypocrisy upon hypocrisy, fawning at vice. Beauty should win the day when the competition does not show up.
Should; but we pay little heed.
Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Northeast Catholic College in Warner, New Hampshire