Beauty is a deeply theological word. In both Hebrew and Greek, when God creates the world He says: “It is good (beautiful).” The word carries both meanings. I believe that to encounter Beauty is, in some way to encounter God, for it simply transcends our ability to comprehend, to challenge or even to recreate. I have always stood in marvel at artists (my youngest daughter is one). Watching them in their work seems magical to me. I check myself for envy, but it is mostly absent because I cannot imagine what it is they see or do.
For myself, as I’ve been meditating the last day or so, I realize that among the most profound experiences of Beauty that I have known was the trip I made last year to England. It was my first trip to Europe, something I had pondered for many years. There was a time in my life that I dreaded such a trip for fear that the very numinous quality of the ancient would overwhelm me. There was occasionally some of that, but the modern misuse and abandonment of the ancient had a way of robbing that power. I still believe that such places exist, I just haven’t quite been there yet.
But the sheer beauty of England, particularly outside any city limits (though their cities seem overwhelmingly beautiful when compared to the automobile-driven designs of our American urban landscapes), was overwhelming enough.
I always remind myself that when J.R.R. Tolkein imagined the Shire, he had England in mind. And it was the glimpses of the Shire peaking through or its echoes shouting back to me that brought Beauty at its best. The land simply evolved in a different time. I well imagine that all of Europe has something of this about it. To have a landscape that has been mostly shaped by automobile and bulldozer is one thing – our car frequently seemed out of place in England. Things were too small, too tight, not quite at home. And that was a good thing. I knew we were somewhere shaped by something else and some other time. And somehow that fact also carried an aspect of Beauty.
It is with a certain reluctance that I admit that our modern world is increasingly ugly – but based on my experience in England I would have to reach that conclusion. That beauty can be natural, evolved and less contrived seems too often to have escaped our American observation. I have visited some of the new towns that have arisen, where space is designed to be particularly friendly to people. They are a vast improvement over our normal suburbs, but need some centuries to acquire a natural quality (I suppose).
It is for these reasons that my retreats in America are always to seashore or mountain. The sea is the sea, and try as you might it is hard to obscure it or ruin it (though I’m sure it has been done). The mountains, so close here in East Tennessee, are a constant comfort, never out of view.
Beauty also has an intellectual component (at least for me). Strangely, one of my purest and sweetest memories, is sitting down in a beachfront restaurant in the Isle of Palms, South Carolina. Seated with me was Fr. Al Kimel (later the Pontificator). We were both Anglicans, trying to find our way forward. The afternoon was beautiful (as so many are on that island). We were looking over the ocean, drinking locally brewed beverages, and working away at a theological conversation. Fr. Al is a treasure-trove of information and reflection, and thus his conversations can be a meal in themselves.
I have sat in the same restaurant, even the same table any number of times since that day. Each occasion has an echo of that day, though part of its beauty is that it has just that echo.
England carried echoes of so many things – mostly things that had only been part of my imagination. That is a most surprising experience – to have had the imagination only to find its reality is not all that far away. I expect something of the same in Paradise. Not that Paradise will not overwhelm anything I’ve ever known, but that it won’t seem unlike anything I’ve ever imagined. And the theological conversations there will still bear an echo of some I have had here.
May Paradise consume us.