Philosophers and scientists have grappled over the centuries to define beauty. But in my experience, beauty is a transcendent quality that draws me into a totally selfless response to the good qualities I sense in another thing or person.
Today, I was blessed to see the small life growing inside of me on an ultrasound machine. A mother’s love for her child defies words. Every movement, every heartbeat is a moment of infinite beauty in a mother’s eyes. In fact, I don’t think I truly understood contemplation—prayer simplified to the gaze of love— until I had children. Their beauty pulls me out of myself completely to cradle a sleepy toddler in my arms, sit in a clover patch beside a curious kindergartener as she asks questions about the world and bask in the smile of my 9-year-old boy who still hopes to make his mom proud after a piano recital.
Humans instinctively recognize both internal and external forms of beauty. While animals may respond to the shine of an iridescent feather display or other exterior manifestations of genetic dominance, humans are drawn toward beauty in a more complex way that directs many of our choices. Think about some of the basic realities of human existence: eating, making our homes, friendship and teaching the next generation. Now, remove beauty from each category. Picture an unappetizing food presentation, a messy home, relationships reduced to using others or education that has become draconian or superficial and aimless. We are repulsed by such things. While it may be hard to picture beauty as an attribute of God, it is easier for us to see how his beauty can infuse the most mundane things in his creation with life and attraction.
I like to open myself to God’s qualities only enough that they don’t scare me too much. I like truths that make me feel good about myself, but I become defensive or dejected when I recognize one new flaw in my character or sinful habit. I love goodness as long as I am comfortably performing a select number of good deeds each day, but I find myself shying away from the purity of purpose and utter selflessness of the saints. And it’s tempting to like beauty when it is gentle and tidy like a calligraphy print of an inspirational quote that is too familiar to shock me into change. But when I look at the riotous beauty of my flower garden, the limitless joy of my children chasing a kite and the searing heat and light of the sun masterfully balanced in distance and angle so that we can enjoy a blazing sunset, I know that God’s beauty is not reduced to the momentary thrill of fashion trends and home goods patterns.
St. Augustine fully opened his heart to experience the power of God’s true self. He speaks passionately of God, “O Beauty so ancient and so new.” Do we pursue this fuller experience of beauty in our lives? I have to admit, sometimes I, too, have hesitated to embrace the fruitful beauty of Genesis, the ravishing beauty of the Song of Songs, the wounded beauty of the Cross. God’s beauty changes us. Augustine continues, “Thou didst send forth Thy beams and shine upon me and chase away my blindness…. Thou didst touch me and I have burned for Thy peace.” God’s beauty does not only deserve an inner response, but he yearns for us to reciprocate his love. He desires us to the point that his beauty can heal our broken perceptions of himself, ourselves, each other and the natural world.
Our pain and brokenness shuts out beauty the way Adam and Eve’s shame led them to hide from God in the Garden of Eden. They put on leaf-clothes; they were “dealing with it.” But they felt estranged from all that had once delighted them. When we become selfish, distrustful, hurt or fearful, it impedes our ability to see beauty. That’s why depression is often referred to as a darkness in our lives. This is tragic because beauty is intrinsically connected to finding meaning in our lives. Each type of beauty we experience reflects a Person who knows and loves us and our world. We have to pursue beauty, just like we pursue truth or goodness. Frequently, we need help to do this. If we’re in a dark place, we need therapy, life-giving friendships and the sacraments to help us in this process. And even if we feel that our lives are already suffused with light, there is always more beauty to be discovered. Pope Paul VI said, “This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. It is beauty, like truth, which brings joy to the heart of man.”
I picture beauty like a sweeping river. If we appreciate little touches of beauty here or there but don’t seek out its depths, it becomes a river with no boundaries, a flood plain. Our lives are comfortable enough, the things around us are nice, the people are easy to deal with and we think we know something of beauty. But this beauty is shallow, powerless, and can actually smother the life it should nourish in our souls. We’re afraid to be swept away by the strong currents that beauty is capable of if we expose ourselves to a beauty that challenges us.
When we search for beauty as a way of knowing God, we are open to new adventures, and our focus channels beauty into a rushing river. When water is given boundaries, it is powerful, useful and constant. It gives life and character to all around it and becomes a center around which human (or animal) community establishes itself. Its power changes the landscape and reveals the deep things hidden there as it carves the rocks and redistributes the mineral-rich silt. In a practical sense, this focus means I try to fill my home with books and art that startle me into spiritual reflection, like a painting of the “Conversion on the Way to Damascus” by Caravaggio. I recently joined a choir at church that sings hauntingly rich Latin propers for the Mass, full of Scripture and insight. And my family loves nothing more than to escape to the mountains to stretch our legs and renew our souls with a challenging hike. We wither without beauty in our lives, and the pursuit of it has taught me to know God, to understand how he sees me and to move step-by-step towards contemplation. His life-giving waters have dug deep into my heart and created fertile ground there for his Word to take root.
Pope St. John Paul II said in his 1999 “Letter to Artists,” “All men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.” Every human life is meant to communicate a facet of the beauty of God. In so far as we respond to beauty, we become beautiful. Today, look for beauty. Whether you see beauty for the first time in a sidewalk flower, the mirror or a Tabernacle, know that you are loved, you are known and you belong to Beauty.