Beauty and God

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This is a reprint of an article from earlier this year. I found it worth re-reading.

Everything is beautiful in a person when he turns toward God, and everything is ugly when it is turned away from God.

Fr. Pavel Florensky

I come to the end of a day that has been filled with other activity and little time for writing. But in my reading at bedtime I came across the above quote. It obviously contains a world of truth, indeed, from a certain perspective it contains the whole of the Gospel. It is both commentary on how we see the world (as beautiful or ugly) or how we are within ourselves. The ugliness of sin is one of its most important components – and the inability to distinguish between the truly beautiful and the false beauty of so much of contemporary life offers a profound diagnosis of our lives and culture.

To say that God is Beautiful carries with it also profound insights into what we mean by knowledge of God. “How do we know God?” is a question on which I have posted several times of late. If we ask the question, “How do we recognize Beauty?” then we have also shifted the ground from questions of intellect or pure rationality and onto grounds of aethetics and relationship (communion). The recognition of beauty is a universal experience (as is the misperception of beauty). But the capacity to recognize beauty points as well to a capacity within us to know God. I would offer that this capacity is itself a gift of grace – particularly when we admit that the recognition of beauty is subject to delusion.

In a famous passage from The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s Dmitri Karamazov has this to say on beauty as well as delusion:

Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it has not been fathomed and never can be fathomed, for God sets us nothing but an enigma. Here the boundaries meet and all contradictions exist side by side. I am not a cultivated man, brother, but I’ve thought a lot about this. It’s terrible what mysteries there are! Too many mysteries weigh men down on earth. We must solve them as we can, and try to keep a dry skin in the water. Beauty! I can’t endure the thought that a man of lofty mind and heart begins with the ideal of the Theotokos (Madonna)  and ends with the ideal of Sodom. What’s still more awful is that a man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not renounce the ideal of the Madonna, and his heart may be on fire with that ideal, genuinely on fire, just as in his days of youth and innocence. Yes, man is broad, too broad, indeed. I’d have him narrower. The devil only knows what to make of it! What to the mind is shameful is beauty and nothing else to the heart. Is there beauty in Sodom? Believe me, that for the immense mass of mankind beauty is found in Sodom. Did you know that secret? The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”

Dostoevsky’s paradox, that “beauty,” for the mass of mankind, is found in Sodom, is a paradox that can hold two meanings. Either it can mean that even the corrupted “beauty” of Sodom can be redeemed (this is not Dostoevsky’s own intention) or that our heart can be so corrupted that we perceive the things of Sodom to be beautiful (closer to Dostoevsky’s point). We can also bring in a third – that of Florensky quoted above – that the “beauty” found in Sodom is corrupted precisely because it is turned away from God. It’s repentance can also be its restoration of true beauty.

I prefer this third thought (which is more or less the same as the first) in that it carries within it the reminder that when God created the world He said, “It is good (beautiful)” [both the Hebrew and the Greek of Genesis carry this double meaning].

We were created to perceive the Beautiful, even to pursue it. This is also to say that we were created to know God and to have the capacity, by grace, to know Him. Consider the Evangelical imperative: “Go and make disciples.” What would it mean in our proclamation of the gospel were we to have within it an understanding that we are calling people to Beauty? The report of St. Vladimir’s emissaries to Constantinople that when they attended worship among the Orthodox they “did not know whether we were on earth or in heaven. We only know that of a truth, God is with them,” is history’s most profound confirmation of this proclamation.

St. Paul confirms the same when he describes the progressive work of our salvation as “the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” If we would have our hearts cured of the illness that mistakes Sodom for the Kingdom of God, then we should turn our eyes to the face of Christ. There the heart’s battle will find its Champion and beauty will find its Prototype.

Comments

  1. Robert says

    Fr. Stephen,

    This delusion that mistakes Sodom for true beauty reminds me of what Jesus said about the eye: “The light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light; but when thine eye is evil, thy body also is full of darkness.” Luke 11:34

    ————

    The concept of beauty is quite amazing: it speaks of a certain “luxury” beyond necessity and utilitarianism. We are overwhelmed with this “unnecessary” beauty all around us – in the exquisite fragrance of a rose or the smile on a child’s face. It is also powerfully demonstrated in Christ’s first miracle when He turned water into wine.

  2. says

    In my own further reflections on this topic, it seems to me that the pursuit of Beauty is closer in kind to the pursuit of God than is anything that I could put in a “rational” category. Beauty, like God, has an indefinable character and yet we know it when we see it – though some see things and call them “beautiful” that are not at all “beautiful” just as people worship false gods, or substitutes for the true and living God.

    I also do not want to insinuate here that I am speaking of “Beauty” as an abstract. We do not encounter Beauty in the abstract but only in concrete instances. There is something about Beauty that has the capacity to pierce the heart, to leave us speechless, or to be the occasion for risking life and limb.

    It is also true that if you have lived life in its “ugliness,” the discovery of Beauty is itself a conversion a promise that life can be other. This is not about wealth and poverty. I have seen Beauty in the midst of poverty and ugliness in the halls of the super-rich.

  3. Robert says

    Yes those are some excellent post-script reflections, Fr Stephen. It is also fascinating to note that beauty is all around us. This must be because He is Beauty. And then some :D

  4. Victor says

    Robert,
    When you talk about beauty as an “unnecessary luxury” you’ve linked it to the important theological theme of freedom. This, in my mind, is part of the wonder of Orthodoxy. Themes weave together wonderfully and while we do not try to innovate, there is always a ‘freshness’ and immediacy when we experience this ‘working together’ of the fundamentals of the Faith.

  5. Greg says

    “if there be anything beautiful other than absolute beauty it is beautiful only insofar as it partakes of absolute beauty” (Phaedo, 100c)

  6. Karen C says

    My maternal grandmother, stooped with osteoperosis, joints mangled with arthritis, feet so flat they resembled flippers, skin and flesh wrinkled and sagging with age (she lived to be 85), hard of hearing, and minus her own natural teeth for all the years I knew her, became in her old age the most radiantly beautiful woman I have ever known. I credit whatever ability I have developed to recognize, internalize or reflect the mercy of God to others largely to my early experience of her love. Unfailingly generous of spirit, she bestowed on all her family the rare gift of a pure, childlike and unconditional love–the fruit of walking humbly with her God through the many losses, sorrows and joys of her life. She had that rare quality of a complete lack of pretense or guile. It was always abundantly clear to me that she loved and delighted in me, not because of anything I achieved, nor for what I did for her, but simply because I was hers. I will never forget the light in her eyes, delight in her smile and tone of voice, and her arms flung open for an embrace every time she greeted us. When I grow up, I want to be just like her.

  7. says

    May God make it so. Beauty is indeed radiant and gives joy and lightness of heart. And it is so far removed from what the world measures as beauty. In the Fathers, the beauty of Adam and Eve was the fact that originally, in Tradition, they were clothed in light – the uncreated light of God.

  8. Mrs. Mutton says

    I wonder how many of us left our former faith traditions when they ceased to be beautiful, and/or came to Orthodoxy because of the initial impression of beauty. I’m familiar with the quote from St. Vladimir’s emissaries when they encountered worship at Hagia Sophia: “We cannot forget that beauty.”

    This is much on my mind due to a recent conversation with my priest on the subject of ecumenical activity. I see a great danger in ecumenical services (not in non-Orthodox attending Orthodox services, but those services in which non-Orthodox and even non-Christian clergy participate), because it’s so easy to be beguiled into thinking that something is beautiful just because it’s Different — and next thing you know, you are mired in a state which is not beautiful at all, and getting out is incredibly difficult. I wish I could grab every cradle Orthodox and say, “Don’t be blind to the great beauty of your own tradition! Guard it and preserve it at all costs!”

  9. says

    Mrs. Mutton,

    I am not aware of what takes place across the entire Orthodox spectrum, but I have been taught that there are to be no Orthodox services where non-Orthodox clergy participate. I’ve heard of exceptions, and no of priests suspended for a short time as a result. In the OCA, this is not commonly done, nor am I aware of efforts to do things otherwise. May God hear your prayer and protect you from fear. May He keep the Church.

  10. Damaris says

    The line in the liturgy that gives me the most hope is, “Sanctify those who love the beauty of your house.” That’s me.

  11. katia says

    “There lived in Constantinople a young man by the name of George, about twenty years old.  All this happened in our lifetime,** in our own memory.  He had a handsome face and in his walk, his bearing and his manner there was something ostentatious.  Owing to this, people, who see only what is on the surface and, ignorant of what is hidden inside each man, come to mistaken conclusions about others, made various evil suppositions about the youth.  He made the acquaintance of a certain monk, who lived in one of the monasteries in Constantinople, a man of holy life.  Revealing to this monk the innermost secrets of his heart, he also told him of his ardent desire to save his soul.  The good father, after some needful words of direction, gave him a small rule to follow and a book of St. Mark the Ascetic in which he writes on spiritual law.  The young man accepted the book with as much love and reverence as if it had been sent to him by God Himself, and conceived a strong faith in it, hoping to gain from it great benefit and much fruit.  He read it through with much zeal and attention and received great help from it all.  But three paragraphs made a particularly deep impression on his heart.  The first was: “If you seek to be healed, take care of your conscience (listen to it), and do what it tells you: this will profit you” (§ 69).  The second: “He who seeks (hopes to receive) active grace of the Holy Spirit before practising the commandments, is like a slave bought for money who, the moment he is bought, expects his freedom to be signed, together with the payment of his purchase price” (§ 64).  The third: “He who prays physically, without having yet acquired spiritual reason, is like the blind man who cried: ‘Son of David, have mercy on me’ (Mark 10: 48).  But another man who had been blind, when his eyes were opened and he saw the Lord, no longer called Him son of David, but worshipped Him as the Son of God” (John 9:35, 38) (§ 13, 14 On the Spiritual Law).  These three paragraphs pleased him greatly and he believed that, as the first paragraph asserts, by attention to his conscience the ills of his soul would be cured; that he would be made active by the Holy Spirit through obedience to commandments, as the second paragraph teaches; and that, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, his inner eyes would be opened and he would see the ineffable beauty of the Lord, as the third paragraph promises.   And so he became wounded by love for this beauty and, though as yet he did not see it, conceived a strong longing for it and sought it assiduously, in the hope of finding it in the end…”

    By the Venerable Simeon the New Theologian