Within the bounds of propriety I will pose the following question: Where have you encountered Beauty and how did it relate to God? I’m just interested in hearing some stories. Be reasonable about length. But bear witness to what you have seen. I’ve written about “music from another room,” my first encounter with Rachmaninov’s Vespers. I could add to that my first encounter with a couple of famous icons. In each case, my heart ached for something that seemed to be behind or within the sight and sound. These encounters with Beauty were palpable encounters with God. I could only weep and pray.
May God bless your sharing.
In the Catholic Church of my childhood. In the first Orthodox church I ever set foot in, when I was just 16, and in every other one since then. In the sunsets of the Catskills, and the sunrises of New England. In the mountains of Vermont, and the rolling hills of Upstate New York. In the ancient towns of Germany, the ones constructed when man still had a sense of harmony with his place in the world, and in the German forests that are maintained for the pleasure of walkers. And in my newborn children, and the smile on a bride’s face.
I have been blessed to encounter beauty in children — my own, of course, but all children possess this beauty that I believe is the very essence of the image that God created in humans. It is not in physical appearance, necessarily, but in their eyes, their movement even when sitting still, their rapt wonder and attention at all that is going on around them. They are alive to every moment and in every moment.
Outside of the human race, I truly enjoyed walking through the gardens of Keukenhof in Holland. At each step I found myself praising God that I had eyes to see the amazingly beautiful flowers and plants that He created for us.
The first time I visited the Orthodox church where I am now a member I thought, how beautiful! All the icons, the music, the prayers! Truly this is where God is worshipped in Spirit and Truth. I could begin to see how someone would live at the temple as recorded in the Bible. How wonderful to be so close to where God is continually worshipped. God is showing me that He is ever present and that my heart and life are to be just as beautiful. He is ever merciful and truly the lover of mankind.
One evening, when I was nine or ten years old, I had already gone to bed but my parents were listening to the radio in the living room. Suddenly the radio began to play a piece of music that held me utterly transfixed by its beauty. I even had a sort of “vision” of the musical tones as golden beads moving on a chain. I decided that I would find out what the name of that music was and learn to play it on the piano. The music was J.S. Bach’s “Jesu, Meine Freude,” (Jesus, My Joy,) somewhat inadequately rendered into English as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Obviously, I did learn the name of the composition and I also learned to play it on the piano.
However, that experience of the exquisite beauty of music was one of the events in my early life that pointed me toward God. It was the first experience that caused me to doubt the scientific materialism that was all around me, including within my family. I could not believe–and still do not believe–that the “random forces of the universe” somehow led to the evolution of J.S. Bach or the development of “Jesu, Meine Freude.” To me the beauty of music has always seemed to almost be proof of the existence of God.
So many places, so many people have shown beauty in my life, but one in particular keeps coming back to me. I went to a small college in northern Illinois. The campus was in a section of rolling hills east of the town between a cornfield and some woods. There was a knoll that sat overlooking the main entrance road into the campus. I would go there frequently to watch the sun set over the town. There was an almost Medieval feel to it some evenings. Many times I went there with my girl friend and we’d just sit in quite enjoyment of the beauty. So because of the beauty I had experienced there, I went there again in the middle of winter at a time of pain in my life. The winter landscape was also beautiful and the solitude was comforting, but I needed more so I cried out for God and Jesus came and the knoll became a place of peace.
Late one winter night while driving through New Hampshire my boyfriend and I had to stop by the side of a highway to study a map. We were surrounded by forest. On that particular evening the forest was illuminated by a magnificent full moon. While my boyfriend studied the map I took a few steps away from the car and discovered a magically beautiful place, a small lake with a small island in the middle. The surface of the lake perfectly reflected the light of the moon directly upward, like spotlights at a movie opening night. The lake had become a perfect mirror. The beauty of this was breathtaking–sheer perfection, but, the sound was even more striking. I couldn’t hear a single sound: no manmade sounds of traffic, no wind through the trees of the forest, no bird or animal moving anywhere. I experienced the purest, sweetest SILENCE. The SILENCE itself became a sound. My eardrums experienced pure peace, and, in the absence of sound, I thought I could hear a kind of resonance something like a harp perhaps.
The stillness of the water, the perfect reflection of the moonlight back up into the sky and the utterly beautiful SILENCE was something that I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay there indefinitely, of course, it was, in fact, terribly cold and I had to go back to the car, but, there was a very strong sense of a PRESENCE there. I think God allowed me to sense His presence in the stunning beauty of the place.
A blue heron standing on one long leg in silence at the edge of the foggy lake on an early morn.
My floppy eared hound dog racing full speed out of the woods when I call her home for supper.
The colorful gardens and the sisters’ smiles at The Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, PA.
The Holy Cross Chapel in Sedona, Arizona, is one of the most profoundly Beautiful places I’ve encountered. It was constructed on a redrock outcropping, with broad glass windows behind the altar overlooking the vast desert landscape. The interior design is very minimal. One can go in and sit on a plain wooden bench to pray or light a candle. (The Chapel is a Catholic parish, though it serves as a tourist attraction during the week.)
I have cried every visit while praying and being with God there. Many other visitors are similarly touched. The New Age-y folks have tried to claim this part of His creation as a Vortex of cosmic energy. Perhaps our Lord has decided to use this Chapel as a reminder that His Beauty is far much greater than we can control.
I’m a first time commenter here, but have been reading for quite a while. Thank you, Father Stephen, for your inspiring words.
Some of my most treasured memories of beauty take place in the biology labs of my university. The first time, I was examining the inner parts of a Queen Anne’s Lace florescence under a microscope– the tiny symmetry of the flowers, the exquisite detail, too small to see with the naked eye, moved me to tears. I pulled away from my microscope and wept.
Another time, I sat in a genetics lecture while the professor spoke about the interactions of genes– and I was stricken by the knowing that our genes are less like computers and more like the dances of fairies. Our God constantly surprises us with the elegance in His creation.
There’s a place at Oral Roberts University where you can sit under a tree and watch the sun set across a field. I’ve never seen a sunset as stunning as any of those.
I’m known to tear up at first communions, whether adult or infant. The sight of our Lord receiving someone into His bosom for the first time, sheltering and protecting them in the context of the community of the Church, is beautiful.
Holding my daughters and watching them sleep.
When I was four, in the dense forests of Austria, I looked down into a clear stream and saw golden pebbles under the water, lit by slanting beams of light. It was the first time I consciously said to myself, “This is beautiful.” Previously my enjoyment of nature had consisted of what I could do with it — run through it, climb on it, swim in it. Then, though, I was content that it simply was.
A few days ago (many years later!), my heart was broken by the beauty of a Mark Knopfler song called, I think, “Baloney Again.” Seriously. Listen to it. If the narrator is a real person, he will be waiting for us in Heaven, wearing a crown of gold.
Let me add how beautiful everyone’s comments are. I had goosebumps reading all these posts. What a great Creation we live in!
After reading your comment, I downloaded Rachmaninov’s Vespers off of iTunes to listen to in a long drive I have later today. But, for the life of me, I’m having trouble getting a hold of the libretto in English (to glance at as I listen so I have some notion of what is being sung). Do you or anyone here know where I can find this?
I’ve searched as well for a quick set of lyrics. They are the traditional hymns and psalms from the All Night Vigil (Vespers and Matins together). But I haven’t found a set together. The listing of the hymn titles are given on Amazon, I’ll see what I can do.
I actually did a series on this awhile back, “Visions of paradise”, which if you’re interested is one of my categories on my blog, likewise “beauty and art” which has the “visions of paradise” series and some others.
Take care &God bless
Found a set and have emailed them to you. Enjoy, and watch the road.
What is it about all of these comments that I find so moving?
St. Nicholas Cathedral in DC during vespers the night before Theophany 2006. I was not yet Orthodox, nor had I ever been to the church at night. The smell of incense, and all the gold from floor to ceiling shining solely from the glow of many candles…nothing has compared to it before or since! It was a turning point for me.
For me it’s the simple witness to beauty, where many of us find a witness to God, but it has a gentle way of sneaking up on you unlike an argument. Also, I think we don’t hear enough of such conversation these days.
Wow, I didn’t expect to be so out in left field, but for me it was the Lord of the Rings books. Beauty is the strongest bridge between the physical and the spiritual, and those books made that first connection in my soul. That connection enabled me to see the beauty in the good things around me, and the good in the beautiful things around me. I learned then how God and His Church are beautiful, and that beauty helped me to truly love them.
I see beauty when my daughter dances or sings. I see beauty when I get to help behind the iconostasis.
I also see beauty in mind when when I think of the hard-won pieces of knowledge I have earned after I’ve gotten tired of my own selfishness and dishonesty. Usually it comes in the form of knowing God’s love.
In those moments I know that I’m just a little child who wants to dance near his Father.
Not in left field at all. Rivendell and Lothlorien seem, somehow, like real places to me, or that they ought to be. The “Baptism” of the imagination was real for Tolkein and Lewis. Tolkein, of course, is just sheer genius. My wife, who was a Eng. Lit. major and the most avid reader I know, thinks that the Tolkein novels were the best literature of the 20th century. Not that she doesn’t read all the “high brow” stuff too. But I feel reassured that Tolkein is on the top of her list.
The moment I felt the first flutter of movement when pregnant with my son 27 years ago.
The moment I felt my daughter pass through the birth canal and I beheld her small figure. Her tiny hand curled around my finger.
Four years ago..I saw beauty at the moment when I was seated on a deck at the edge of a silent lake. It was Autumn. I was so angry with God and in the throws of despair. Crying, I told Him I wanted no parts of Him anymore if life was going to be as it was. In the silence of my tears, a single soliatry leaf fell from a very large tree. I heard it. It hit every single branch on the way to the ground. And then another fell. And then several more. They sounded like the tree was crying with its leaves. I knew in that very moment, God was speaking to me, telling me He had not abandoned me in my despair and encouraging me to continue on because from Autumn comes Winter…and then Spring. Less than a year later I was received into the Church.
Another moment of beauty was when I was chrismated. On my knees, with my spiritual father’s stole covering my head, the Nave was packed with people (it was the Feast Day of the Elevation of the Cross), I felt the weight of his hand as he prayed. In a moment, a blink of an eye, I was engulfed in a bubble. I felt the presence of so many around me. The silence was deafeningly loud. It was the most peaceful moment of my entire life. I experience this nearly every time I receive confession and Communion.
I experience a moment of beauty when I gaze at Blessed Fr. Sophrony’s photo in my icon corner. Also when I look at a picture of my spiritual big brother Fr. Seraphim, spiritual son of Fr. Sophrony.
I could go on and on. How blessed we are!
I agree. Beauty is it’s own “argument”. It’s much more persuasive, too.
There’s something about the stories here…
Thanks, Fr. Stephen, for reminding me of Rachmaninov’s Vespers. I have a Melodia recording of them recorded by the USSR Culture of Ministry Chamber Choir.
My favorite is “Now Lettest Thou Depart” (Kiev Chant). Words fail here… it’s just my favorite.
Learns Slowly: That’s my New Hampshire. I’m blessed to live here. 😀
Chuck: Rachmaninov wanted that “Now Lettest Thou Depart” sung at his funeral. It wasn’t done, probably because no one could get together the kind of choir that could do it justice.
Bach used to be my favorite composer, but Rachmaninov has been gaining on him steadily, and just this year, passed him (by the skin of his teeth). Really, it’s like comparing Lutheranism and Orthodoxy (what, you thought I was gong to say, “apples and oranges”?!). 😉
I think of beauty as visual, but once, years ago, it was audible. I was at St. John Monastery in Hiram, Ohio, on the night before Christmas. I don’t know which service it was (monasteries have a lot of them), but we sang a couple songs over and over. One started, “Today the virgin, gives birth to the incomprehensible One,” the other started, “Thy nativity, O Christ our God.” Words cannot describe what it felt like to be there that night.
An unexpected consequence of my brush with beauty: I no longer enjoy Christmas carols the way I used to. After hearing the words in those hymns, carols seem childish in some way. Or maybe it’s just the rhyming that ruins them.
The 5th movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony. I discovered it in my early teenage years and spent many nights lying on my bed listening to it with headphones. To this day it can still bring tears to my eyes.
Beauty was found in the birth of my children and in their tiny hands curling ’round my finger.
Beauty was found in the Roman Catholic Mass of my youth and in the lving smile of my first grade teacher, Sister Brigit.
Beauty was found in the Autumn of 2003 at the edge of a lake listening to the sound of a single leaf fall from a bare tree. This followed a tearful, angry and despair-filled cry to God telling Him how angry I was at Him for life’s circumstances. That leaf and a few others after it seemed like God telling me He had not abandoned me and that though things seemed dead, Spring was not far off. Less than a year later I was received into the Holy Orthodox Church.
Beauty was found at the moment of my chrismation, while on my knees, neck bowed, head covered by Father’s stole, his hand heavy on my head while he prayed. The small mission church was packed with worshippers. It was the Feast Day of the Elevation of the Cross. As I knelt there, I felt encased in a bubble. Sound was muffled. I felt so alone. Yet I felt so NOT alone. I felt so protected. Yet I felt so exposed. I felt His Presence and that of His Saints. It was and still is beyond any words I could give it.
I see beauty in Shakespeare. All the characters are complex, and the sheer beauty and complexity of the language, revealing each character, also reveals the beauty (and, strangely, even joy) of God’s creation, even when the subject matter (Like “Richard III” or “Titus Adronicus”) hints at the depths mankind has fallen to and what he has fallen away from.
Mary: Titus Andronicus? Really? I hadn’t heard of that one til I saw the Reduced Shakespeare Company. As far as aesthetics of the plot, I find that to be one ugly story — even if perhaps Shakespeare put it to his characteristically good and moving poetry.
Yes, even “Titus Adronicus”. You’re right. One ugly story (some critics say Will was in a very bad mood when he wrote that one. And the 1999 film is truly revolting). Yet there is Lavinia’s innocence. There is a sense (because of all the depravity of the villians) of what could have been, if Titus’s pride and stoicism hadn’t gotten in the way from the beginning –and contributed to the situation.
And yes, I also meant that in Shakespeare’s skill at verse I have seen a unique beauty that assured me of a loving God, even if only because the glory of such verse exists at all.
“Wow, I didn’t expect to be so out in left field, but for me it was the Lord of the Rings books.”
Yeah!! they were beatiful!!! Still are, and infact the struggle over good and evil in that story still brings me to tears. the story, the descriptions the characters…very beautiful. quite profound.
I am surrounded by the beauty of Christ daily by being at home with my children, teaching them & growing them up in the Lord. He reminds me of His beauty every time my little girl laughs & every time my little boy gives me a hug. I am amazed daily!!
It was when I was dating my bride. I had to go to the airport and pick her up after a trip she had made to her hometown. As I rounded the corner, she was standing on the sidewalk outside of baggage claim. When she saw me, she smiled a smile that almost brought me to tears. To this day, that smile haunts me and brings me joy.
I once had a significant conversation with an avowed atheist, a bright and educated young man, quick witted and sharp. I told him I believed in God because I loved Him and that beauty would save the world (to paraphrase Dostovevsky). He responded that “beauty” meant something different to everyone.
But I responded that it was the concept itself that was salvific. The very fact that the idea of beauty exists leads one toward God. He was silent.
When I was twelve years old, we were at Yellowstone staying at Mammoth Hot Springs. I got up before everyone else (which was unusual for me) and walked out the spring terraces as the sun was rising. The rainbow of colours glowed in the early morning light. I was moved to worship and pray.
One night walking on a seawall in Wales, I got a hint of what the Psalmist meant saying, “When I consider the heavens…” There was total darkness around me and every star in the sky was so close I could reach out and touch it. I have never again seen a field of diamonds on black velvet like that night.
But, really, there is so much beauty everywhere in God’s creation. I think about the first time I saw the Scottish Highlands or Snowdonia or Harlan County, Kentucky. I’ve seen it in the sun disappearing into Georgian Bay when camping in Ontario and in the evening light on the spires of a medieval cathedral as I sit in my back garden.
Wherever I see it, I can’t help but wonder how there are atheists.
My eight-year-old son’s mischievous, full-of-life smile is captured in a picture that sits on my desk. The beauty of my six children is made more poignant when juxtaposed with the voice of an ICU doctor telling me that my (then) sixteen-month-old son may not live to see another day.
The evil and ugliness of the world set apart the good and the beautiful making them even more good and beautiful. This has always been perplexing to me – the question of good existing apart from evil, beauty apart from the ugly. I’m not sure it can be understood in this life.
Perhaps, Fr. Stephen you could comment on this.
Thank you, so very much for your words. I don’t comment much but read almost every day. We (me and my family) are not yet technically catechumens in the Orthodox church but a week before Pascha we started attending a local OCA parish. Your Orthodox vision communicated here has played no small part in the path we are on. Thank you for you beautiful blog.
p.s. I would love to have a copy of the English lyrics to Rachmaninov’s Vespers as well as your suggestion to the best rendition on CD available today (there are three versions on iTunes).
In the simple things and simple gestures of people I encounter everyday–at work, in my home or even the strangers on the street that would smile or nod at me.
I have a picture of my son while being annointed during his Chrismation. Although he was only 40 days old his eyes look deep in thought. They are so intent on Father Gabriel. Zach looks like he is watching and learning and graciously accepting the gift that was being bestowed upon him. The expression is very hard to describe and not one that you would typically see on an infant. The light in the picture makes the chrism gleem on his forehead and his body is bathed in the light coming from the window. It is very hard to tear myself away from the photo. Not of this world beauty for sure….
Sojourner — I’ve got 5 or 6 recordings of Rachmaninov’s ‘Vespers’ and have probably listened to another 5 or 6 additional ones over the years. My favorites are:
The USSR Ministry of Culture Chamber Choir under Valeri Polyanski, on the Melodiya label. Full, rich, lots of natural reverb and deep bass — very ‘authentic’ big Russian cathedral sound, despite coming from a chamber choir. Polyanski chooses slower tempi throughout, and this turns out to be one of the longer available performances of the Vespers. Some folks don’t like the slower rendition, finding it creates a ‘darker’ mood, but as Vespers is an evening service, I actually find this a plus. This choir’s recording of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Liturgy’ is fantastic also, and is my personal favorite recording of that work.
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, under Stephen Cleobury, on the EMI label. Notable for its use of boy sopranos instead of females, which adds a distinctive, lovely feel to the thing. Very well performed and recorded in all other aspects as well. Quicker tempo than Puzakov, which combined with the boy singers, gives this version a rather bright feel, but not overly so, IMO.
Choir of St. Nicolas Church, Tolmachi, under Alexei Puzakov, on the Boheme/Artistotipia label. This one has a smaller choir sound, but one that is still very full and rich — a real Russian church choir with an actual priest doing the solo parts. A very spiritually committed performance and a great recording. (The only place I’ve seen this one is on the Musica Russica website, where it sells for $17.98)
And of course you can’t really go wrong with what’s become the standard Western recording, the Robert Shaw Festival Singers on Telarc — great heartfelt singing and a gold standard recording.