on beauty

This essay is the second of three talks I recently gave to retreat groups. You’ll find the first, “on stability,” last week. Next week I’ll post the final talk, “on joy.”

I had a friend in seminary who was, you might say, quite a character. His enthusiasm for his latest interest—animal, vegetable, or philosophical—carried him on in a tsunami of breathlessness. He was so changeable and so delighted by his own flightiness that we, his friends, found it easy to dismiss whatever latest craze or opinion had caught his fancy.

His favorite mantra whenever he became caught up in a new enthusiasm was “it conveyed me to myself.” He applied this phrase as equally to a meal at the new ramen place on the corner as to a painting he’d seen at a recent show. It conveyed me to myself.

Much as we all laughed at this friend’s use of superlatives and exclamations, this phrase worked itself into me. I have never forgotten it, and it has come to me in very profound and very ordinary moments. Such, I think, is the heart of any mystical experience or apocalypse, in which the veil that normally lies between our eyes and the divine radiance all around us is lifted, for a fraction of a second, and we know all to be love and to be held in love. Such moments convey us to ourselves. Something outside, something of profound intelligence and otherness, looks us in the eyes, actually sees us, and in that mutual gazing, we are known.

Often, perhaps even always, these experiences are experiences of beauty.

It’s dangerous to talk about beauty in our contemporary context. We are so often obsessed with the so-called beautiful, young things. We want to be or to remain one of them—young, trendy, popular, rich, powerful—basically, immortal. Here we would do well to make a distinction between the colloquial use of the word “beauty” and its truer and deeper meaning. When we talk of the “beautiful young things,” we are really talking, not of beauty but of glamor. Dorothy Parker is said to have quipped that “beauty is only skin-deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.” The sort of beauty she refers to is really glamor.

Glamor distracts us. It is always shiny, new, and seemingly flawless. Think of the gym-toned bodies, or the perfect homes, or the right jobs the advertisers promise us if we’ll only buy this or eat that. No matter how lovely and attractive it seems on the surface, glamor is always rotten at the core, because it is really ugliness papered over with a symmetry and order that speaks to our desire to fly away from these impoverished human bodies. Glamor promises us an escape from ourselves and our lives and our world. We often think it promises happiness and contentment, but actually it offers a kind of numb oblivion, a severing of contact with the deep centers of knowing and feeling within us and, therein a corroding of our ability to know and to choose the good. The great hawkers of glamor—the advertisers and pornographers of our time—want nothing less than our total enslavement to the gnawing hunger and fear within.

Beauty, by contrast, conveys us to ourselves and deepens our connection to the feeling, knowing center within.

In his sprawling trilogy The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy writes of beauty that, “Where Beauty was, nothing ever ran quite straight, which, no doubt, was why so many people looked on it as immoral.” Beauty often covers itself with seeming ugliness, disorder, or disarray, because it elevates the ordinary, the human, the flawed and draws out the line of holiness crouched therein. That is why artists and writers and mystics have always been so threatening to the political and ecclesial powers that seek to control and contain. Think of Stalin’s Great Purge or the McCarthy trials or Cardinal Spellman’s efforts to destroy Dorothy Day. Those who see the line of beauty in the ordinary world and who draw it forth for others to see invite a revolution of awareness and understanding in those they touch. Because they see the divine radiance illuminating the ordinary, even the ugly, from within, they fracture the foundations of an ordered but unthinking society. Often that society must destroy them in order to maintain its own self-righteous homogeneity.

Rather than immoral, though, true beauty opens us to the world of the deeply moral. It feeds the soul with the truth that there is nothing and no one severed from the divine radiance of love and compassion and mercy. There is no place empty of God.

The most beautiful face I ever saw was that of a very old woman. She sitting on a bench outside the Rodin Museum in Paris. Her face was so wrinkled it folded in on itself in crags and valleys. Her skin was dappled with brown, like a forest with the light poring through. Her nose was a bit hooked, and her lips thin and drawn. She didn’t smile or laugh, but as I gazed on her, a deep knowing emerged from within, a knowing that drew me more fully into myself. I became more whole in the moment of my gazing.

Such is the power of beauty to convey us to ourselves. True beauty reveals itself to those who have the patience to wait and to watch. It requires something of us. And rather than inviting us to betray ourselves, as does glamor, beauty repays us with a deepening sense of the holy within and around us.

Perhaps you know the poem called “The Bright Field” by the Welsh poet and Anglican priest R.S. Thomas:

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Beauty invites attention. Slowing. Stopping. It is a shy lover that will not reveal itself to the quick or demanding gaze. It often comes at us sideways, like a faint glimmer at the periphery of our vision, teasing us to turn aside from whatever self-important task we had been about. Beauty asks us to set aside our sense of ourselves and to surrender to the demand of the now and the here. In return, beauty opens a doorway to eternity.

Several years ago, I heard a sermon on Good Shepherd Sunday that pointed out that the word we translate into English as “good” carries in both Greek (kalos) and Hebrew (tov) a double meaning. It means “good” as we understand it—meaning both desirable and morally sound. And it also means “beautiful,” as in pleasing, attractive, excellent. Taken in these layers, the word “good” refracts Jesus’ image like a prism refracts light. Not only is Jesus good but he is also beautiful, lovely, attractive, captivating.

Perhaps, as so often happens, the wisdom of language precedes us. Maybe “goodness” and “beauty” are not two different meanings of one word. Maybe they’re shades of one another. Maybe Jesus’ goodness is his beauty, lying hidden in the field we pass on our morning walk. Perhaps his voice is the glint of the sunshine, whispering to us to slow down, to pay attention, to allow the radiance of our life to emerge around and within us. The shepherd’s voice is a whisper in a crowded marketplace. We’ll never hear it by straining with our ears or grasping with our rational faculties. This voice speaks to the ear of our heart, and it’s there, in that center of knowing and identity, that we must settle down and listen.

Matthew offers us the image of the shepherd that leaves the 99 sheep to search for the one lost sheep in the hills. (Matt. 18:12-13)  I heard once, I can’t remember where, that such a shepherd was the perfect image of foolishness. No wily shepherd would leave 99 sheep exposed to the wolves in order to find one little ewe that had wandered off. Any real shepherd would know that sheep wander off all the time, that you lose some, that that’s part of the calculus of tending sheep. Listening to the voice of the beautiful shepherd calling us back, though, we hear a different note. Perhaps the shepherd who leaves the 99, foolish though he may be in worldly terms, understands that wholeness is worth the risk, that wholeness is worth everything, because that is where love lies.

Here we see another dimension of the loss Paul writes about to the Philippians: For [Jesus’] sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him. (Phil. 3:8)

It is only in letting go of everything we cling to, which includes our wants and needs, our sense of how the world should be, our beliefs and convictions about God and God’s justice, and our allegiance to our hurts and wounds, even our deep and passionate loves that we have enough space to gain the one thing necessary—Christ. In that finding, we are found. In that knowing, we are known.

In God all things are held together. The mystics testify that in giving up everything, we receive it all back again, but more whole, more full, more real than it ever was before, because then the life that is in us is Christ’s life as our life. In its power to arrest us and to comprehend us, beauty is one avenue of surrender.

If true beauty emerges in and through the contrast of the ordinary, human flotsam with the radiance of divinity, then of course Jesus—fully human and fully divine—is the icon of a beauty that is moral, good, and attractive to both body and soul. In reconciling the human and the divine—or, rather, in showing that there is no contradiction between them, that, like light and darkness, the human and the divine give shape and body to one another—Jesus shows us the way to deeper wholeness and reconciliation in God.

We need this vision of a reconciling beauty now more than ever. Dostoevsky famously wrote in The Idiot that “beauty will save the world.” How, we might wonder?

We need only open our eyes and look around. War, yes. Plague, yes. Devastation, yes. But also the crabapples in their peerless bounty, and the love of our families and friends, and these fragile precious eyes we have.

The light of Jesus’ resurrection does not banish totally and completely the darkness that fills our world. But it does provide us with the contrast to see that world more fully, to know its beauty and in that knowledge to be known as God’s hands and God’s feet and God’s beating, broken heart in this world.

In her book Hope in the Dark Rebecca Solnit writes that “someday all this may be ruins over which pelicans will fly, but for now it is a place where history is still unfolding. Today is also the day of creation.” (Hope in the Dark, p. 114) If today is also the day of creation, then today is also good, and today is also beautiful. We may not be able to end the atrocities in Ukraine, or stop the resurgence of fascism throughout the world, or mend the broken hearts of those struck down by addiction and despair, but if we ourselves are more whole, then the world is, too. If we love more, then the world is that much more loving. If we can turn away from violence and death in our own hearts, then the world is that much more alive.

To paraphrase Paul, we are to become “living epistles, known and read by all.” (2 Cor. 3:2-3) Our action for and with God in the world means absolutely nothing unless we ourselves are afire with love, unless and until we can say and actually mean your will be done. Not my interpretation of your will. Not what I wish your will were. But your will be done.

We practice this renunciation of self-will not only through ascetical practices, but also through surrender to beauty and surrender to joy.

9 Replies to “on beauty”

  1. Thank you, Aiden. This piece is beautiful in its invitation to open our eyes to the beauty hidden (or not so hidden) in the ordinary.

    Like

  2. The world seems so turbulent now, and I was feeling the loss of spiritual connection, like i was getting swallowed up in that turbulence.
    Thanks for putting out your hand and reaching out to us. You can look into the face of a flower to find radiance.

    Liked by 1 person

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