Beholding the Sacred: Why Beauty Matters
What is Beauty?
We begin with beauty. First of all, what is beauty? Just take a look around you, at this idyllic setting in which we are so privileged to live. We are surrounded by beauty, immersed in it. In fact, because we see it so often, we might not appreciate it or even notice it. So, when it comes to beauty, I’m obviously not telling you anything you don’t already know…
But if we had to come up with a definition, we might say it’s:
- Perfect form, proportion (balance), colour, shape, or order (i.e. unity).
- Also, characterized by light (natural or divine) – clarity or radiance
- That which “catches the eye, or the ear, or the mind, and makes us want to perceive it again.” I love that. To me, that definition sums it up best.
Beauty may be difficult to define, but we know it when we see it – an exquisite flower, a stunning sunset, or a majestic creature (my husband, the hunter, would say, a moose or a herd of elk). There’s obviously so much beauty in creation, in the natural world, but let’s expand our definition a bit. We also find beauty in…
- Human activity/accomplishment/creativity
- athleticism, such as the perfect golf swing or shooting form, or a perfectly executed play (Have you heard people say that? “Wow, that was a beautiful shot!”)
- a musical piece performed with precision and clarity (that can bring us to tears)
- a well-done drama production or a good book (that leaves you pondering so many ideas long after the curtain has closed or you’ve closed the cover)
- Art and architecture – humanly created marvels which impress us with their use of colour or detail, their sense of proportion and scale (e.g. Seven Wonders of the World – Great Pyramids, the world’s cathedrals). When we see something like this, we’re impressed – as we should be!
- And, of course, Beauty is certainly a part of our everyday lives – a beautifully baked pie, a perfectly organized pantry, etc. (or possibly a sign of neurosis!). Thanksgiving is coming up, and most of us will celebrate with a special meal and make the table beautiful, too, with candles, flowers, or nice tablecloth.
It’s difficult to explain, but we have an innate sense of beauty; we understand and appreciate how important it is, especially as women. Hence, the fascination with looks/our appearance.
Some of the things we do for the sake of beauty: planting a garden, hanging a picture in our homes, even painting our nails. And just look at the number of home decorating shows on TV these days – people obviously want their homes to be beautiful!!
I think it’s also why we love to travel so much, our obsession with it – that desire to experience the beauty in the world in all of its manifestations. At my daughter’s parish in Denver, they’ve decided to renovate the church – not just to make it more efficient, but as a reflection of God. The pastor, Fr. Brian, said that from his perspective, it was necessary…in order to save souls. Like the builders of the world’s great cathedrals, he understands that beauty matters.
Why Beauty Matters: It Leads us to God
Beauty is important because it lifts our minds from the ordinary and the mundane to the extraordinary – the supernatural, or divine. It catches our imagination and inspires us.
Scale a high mountain and take in the glorious scene all around you. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more convincing argument for the existence of God. Why is nature so awe-inspiring? I think it’s because we don’t have the ability to re-create it. It wasn’t made by us – by human hands. Try as we might, we don’t have the substance, the raw materials. Scripture reminds us that “heaven and earth are filled with (God’s) glory.” But to be clear, He is not beautiful; He is Beauty. All that is beautiful in some way reflects God, “acting as a kind of icon which is a pale reflection of who He is.”
Russian novelist Fyodor DOSTOEVSKY once famously declared that Beauty will “save the world.” I think he was on to something. According to Bishop Robert Barron, the best way to evangelize is begin with beauty, “something non-threatening, something winsome and alluring. It’s hard to resist the power of the beautiful to draw you in and to change you…. You begin to say, ‘I want to conform my life to the beauty I’ve seen. I want to participate in it.’ Which means a change in your life. Rather than someone telling you what to do, the beautiful works on you and changes you from the inside. Hans urs Von Balthasar, one of the great theologians of the 20th century, said the beautiful seizes you, it changes you, and then it calls you and sends you. You want to participate in that world and you want to tell people about it.”
There’s one question that invariably comes up when discussing beauty in the Catholic Church: Why don’t we sell all the art in the Vatican and give the money to the poor? Because its value transcends the here and now. Long after we are dead and gone, the beauty of the Pieta or the Sistine Chapel will still speak of God, will reveal His presence to future generations. That’s its true value. Few visitors look at the Pieta and ponder the greatness of Michelangelo. No, they ponder the greatness of God – that “He loved us so much that He sent His Only Son…” (And thankfully some wise Church Father figured all this out hundreds of years ago and preserved such treasures as a testament to God’s transcendent beauty.)
We can learn this same lesson from Nature: “First the flower, then the fruit.” I was on a hike with my kids when we came across some raspberry bushes and I was showing them where to look for the fruit. It occurred to me that the fruit always grows from the same spot where the flower is. Beauty attracts us, pulls us in, then produces something good in us. The way that God works in our souls through beauty is so gentle, so unassuming, and yet so powerful. When the world has become skeptical and cynical about most everything else, beauty continues to speak to us.
The Power of Beauty
I want to share a story with you. In the 1930’s, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin embarked on an unusual plan: he wanted to showcase Soviet power and ingenuity to the world. But strangely enough, his plan had nothing to do with military might or weaponry. Rather, it was the construction of the Moscow subway system. In his mind, it was to be the most efficient and beautiful subway system in the world. If you’ve ever seen it, you’d agree that he succeeded. Forget what you’d normally expect from a subway: cramped, dark, and dirty conditions. It’s honestly one of the most amazing structures I’ve ever seen. Many of the stations are more like palaces or museums, complete with gleaming chandeliers, artwork, and inlaid tile floors. But it begs the question: Why would any government go to such effort and expense? Under Communism, it made perfect sense. It was all for the people, the “common man,” who would be using it every day. Of course, Stalin’s plans were a bit more subversive than that – he wanted to promote Communism, to indoctrinate his country’s citizens with Soviet ideals. But one thing we can say for sure – he understood the power of beauty!
Images are so powerful because as Catholic author and philosopher Peter Kreeft points out, we have no filter for them. We see something and are instantly affected, for good or for bad. He suggests that
Images lead to…
Thoughts, which lead to…
Actions, which lead to…
Habits, which lead to…
Character (on which we will be judged).
Think about why stories are so effective – because they create a picture in our minds. They stick with us – we remember them more easily. Which is probably also why Jesus used parables to teach His disciples.
But there’s a danger in beautiful things, and I don’t think I need to tell you what that is. How easy it is for us to become fixated on beauty and turn objects into idols – our homes, cars, and other possessions. If we’re not careful they can begin to possess us, to enslave us. OR, the other tendency – we begin to objectify people – they become mere objects to us, something to be used for pleasure or personal gain. We see a person (this “thing”) and we want to possess it, or worse, throw it away.
Make no mistake, Beauty is seductive – it can lead us to God or lead us astray. Because we are drawn to the beautiful in such an inexplicable way, we must be so careful to guard our senses.
Which is why Jesus tells His disciples, “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna…” (Mark 9:47-48). Yikes! It’s SO important to keep “things” in their proper place, to help us keep our priorities straight. Have you ever seen a picture of a monk’s cell? It’s practically bare – so that there’s no distractions or temptations.
I distinctly remember an image after the Oklahoma City bombing that was shown a lot on the news, and it touched me deeply. It was a firefighter holding a little girl amidst the rubble. Devastation lay all around them, on every side, but in the midst of the terror and horror, there was beauty. When I think of beholding the sacred, some of the most sacred moments are when life comes into the world, or when it goes out. Have you ever heard someone use the phrase “a beautiful death”? We must pray for it. Or, what about this image of Mother Teresa, caring for a dying man? I can’t think of a more beautiful image.
Nothing is more beautiful than a healing look, to be seen with eyes of love, a look of acceptance, compassion, and mercy. This is True Beauty, found in the merciful face of Jesus. Christ was obviously THE master at this. Remember the woman caught in adultery? She was caught up in a life of ugliness and sin. Until she met Jesus, she couldn’t see a way out – that there was any other life for her. But Jesus gave her hope, a vision for the future. That’s what beauty is meant to do for us – to give us hope, an ideal to work towards. And that is why beauty matters.
Whenever we experience Beauty, we must remember that it’s NOT the end; it is a promise of what’s to come. We were made for more, so much more. Flowers fade, mountains and monuments crumble. Everything in this life will pass away. These things are mere signs on the journey. They point us to God, but they aren’t the end, our final destination. While we enjoy the things of this earth, we must keep our eyes fixed on Christ, the object and fulfillment of all desire. We must train our eyes to look deeper, to find the Beauty (God) in each and every situation.
– Kelley Holy