“How beautiful it would be for someone who could not read.” That was Chesterton’s witty response to the blazing advertisements and gaudy lights of Times Square. As ostentatious as the square may have been in Chesterton’s day, I can only imagine what would be his reaction to the spectacular explosion of brilliant LEDs that shine from every storefront today.
Since the visit of the great ironist, not only has the square increased its wattage, but it has also added, in 1937, a giant stone cross and bronze statue. In my wanderings this past weekend, I stumbled upon the granite memorial, illuminated by the glow of booze, cola, and movie ads. On its front stands a statue of Father Francis P. Duffy, Catholic chaplain to the Fighting 69th Infantry and pastor. Father Duffy’s bronze face is turned towards the downtown tower of dancing lights, his back to a tourist bleacher.
The irony would have delighted and annoyed Chesterton. In a square zoned to order man’s passions to products, a man is memorialized who surely preached that they should be subject first to God.
Chesterton saw better than most that beauty, if it be true to its vocation, must be at the service of the honorable. The honorable is not always attractive. It does not exercise the sex appeal of the hot new smartphone nor does it pull on the appetites like the ice-cold beer. All the more important is it then that the attractive power of beauty be placed at the service of the virtuous and the honorable.
In his day, Chesterton found beauty’s power misplaced in Times Square, but if he were to find himself there again, he may read something beautiful after all. It is written, not in light, but in stone, “Francis P. Duffy / Catholic Priest / Chaplin . . . A Life of Service / For God and Country.”