Where I Saw Beauty

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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.

21 comments:

  1. Sacred beauty chased you down the path of Orthodoxy and Fr. Al to Rome, and yet to God’s heart in Christ, you both fled, as to home.

  2. Father,

    For the ignorant among us (me) where does the invocation “May Paradise consume us” come from? It’s the first time I’ve seen it, though a quick Google search reveals it’s not your own creation. It’s intriguing and I love it!

  3. It was a favorite saying of the Elder Cleopa (of Romania) a very famous 20th century monk. He frequently greeted people with it or with the phrase, “May Paradise consume you!” It’s a very poignant phrase.

  4. Fr. Stephen,

    I visited the Eagle and the Child in January of 2006, when in Oxford for a conference. I felt something of the same feelings about England, though I did not describe them quite so well as you. Perhaps Shakespeare felt something of it when he put these lines from John of Gaunt in Richard II:

    This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
    This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
    This other Eden, demi-paradise,
    This fortress built by Nature for herself
    Against infection and the hand of war,
    This happy breed of men, this little world,
    This precious stone set in the silver sea,
    Which serves it in the office of a wall,
    Or as a moat defensive to a house,
    Against the envy of less happier lands,
    This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
    This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
    Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth

  5. I too have found a glimpse, or perhaps just a hint, of completely unfallen natural beauty in Merry Old and the Low Country. And, I highly recommend Beech Mountain in the summer, when the skiers are both and the cool, mile-high breezes require a jacket or sweater!

  6. Father,

    I’ve been struggling with how to think about the importance of physical beauty in a human being. Certainly, This Age makes way too much of it, but I feel that those in the church either make to little of it or are disingenuous in their condemnation.

    I say this because given the choice or opportunity, everyone I know would prefer to appear as beautiful as possible, and given the importance of beauty and the role of all of creation to “be God’s love to us”, I don’t feel comfortable with the standard, “It doesn’t matter what you look like.” Of course, I understand the point of that, and I affirm an individual’s value regardless of outward mishaps- even handicaps, but if I may push it to an extreme, that is the point of my question: every parent would wish that a cosmetic defect (regardless of continued functionality) could be repaired on a child. There are ministries that do that very thing. So, to some degree we all affirm the importance of appearance. Ought this to not carry over for as appreciation for the sometimes breathtaking beauty of an individual? Is beauty not worthy of comment or appreciation because it occurs in a human form?

    My question isn’t simply theoretical. I have five daughters and wish to teach them the truth in this regard. The world has its message; I’m confused about what the church’s message is or ought to be.

  7. Do tell about your visit to the Bird and Baby. Were the cider and beer really so good that the very name would be a madness to reveal?

  8. I’m glad someone had a good time at the Foul and the Foetus. I won’t bring the tone down too much by describing the last time we were there.

    I wonder if the beauty of England has something to do with being a visitor. I know that I was much more enamoured with it when I was an interloper rather than a resident. I’m not saying there aren’t many beautiful places and things here, but after a while and upon closer inspection there is the same ugliness that can be found anywhere. That’s the difference between England and Paradise.

    So maybe Paradise is like always being on holiday.

  9. Dave,

    Maybe being on holiday allows us to see things better – don’t know. Please note that I did not describe England as Paradise, only that I had echoes of it there.

  10. Phil,

    The question is a very good one, but I think it has much to do what pushing a little further what we mean by beauty. To say it doesn’t matter what you look like is not correct but it is incorrect if what we mean is that mere outward looks is the sole criterion of beauty.

    There are several famous “beauties” running around hollywood today who seem to me to be less than beautiful, to their lasting shame.

    Beauty, in the last analysis, is relational in character, and is not simply objective, except when viewed by the most shallow. Thus 1Peter 3:3-4 recognizes an inward beauty of holiness, without which, in my opinion, outward beauty simply fails.

  11. Phil,

    The question is a very good one, but I think it has much to do what pushing a little further what we mean by beauty. To say it doesn’t matter what you look like is not correct but it is incorrect if what we mean is that mere outward looks is the sole criterion of beauty.

    There are several famous “beauties” running around hollywood today who seem to me to be less than beautiful, to their lasting shame.

    Beauty, in the last analysis, is relational in character, and is not simply objective, except when viewed by the most shallow. Thus 1Peter 3:3-4 recognizes an inward beauty of holiness, without which, in my opinion, outward beauty simply fails.

  12. Thank you for your response, Father.

    Would it be correct to summarize it in this way: the human body, like all the rest of visible creation, can be described as beautiful. Like mountains vista’s, artistic artifacts, etc it achieves its power from a relational convergence, whether intentional or “coincidental,” of the parts that make up the whole- symmetry, balance, harmony of color, etc. These relationships of material creation are meant to be fingers pointing to the immaterial God whose beauty consists in an eternal relationship of love. In addition to this material beauty, human beings are capable and called to directly image the beauty of the interpersonal relationship of their Triune God. This is a “brighter shadow” than material beauty, and as such has priority over it.

    Those with eyes to see “reality” know that this is true. Those who are “blind” have nothing to pursue but physical beauty. When this occurs even the allure of physical beauty is contaminated and lost, because the truth to which it was meant to point is denied. When the light that makes the gemstone glitter is extinguished, you’re left with a dark, cold stone.

    The ability of communicating the truth to which it points is so much greater in inward loving beauty, that perhaps we should give it a different name when found in human beings. If we say that “beauty” is that uttermost quality of a creature to reflect the Glory of God, then “beauty” is rightfully applied to material qualities in the rest of creation because that is the “most” that their calling is capable of. In the case of men and women, “beauty” would need be applied to qualities of communal relationships, because it is in those that mankind most fully reflect his calling as a creature. This means that another name must be found for that trait that we rightfully refer to as “beauty” in the rest of creation. Maybe “prettiness” would do.

    All of this would mean that we are not to treasure or appreciate physical beauty (or prettiness) less; rather we should treasure and appreciate inward beauty more. As with all “reflecting goods,” inward beauty often requires that we forgo attention to its lesser image- prettiness.

    The problem is idolatry. We’ve mistaken the “finger that points” for the the object, which it was meant to draw our attention to. We don’t believe that ultimate reality is Loving Community. We don’t believe that true glory and power- true beauty- looks like Christ.

    I’m sorry for the length. I’m very concerned to get this settled in my mind. Thank you for your help.

  13. Father Stephen,

    I didn’t know you hailed from East Tennessee. My wife grew up there, and we go back to visit often. What is the name of your church (I’d love to visit some time)?

    Your thoughts on England are not far from my own (though more mature) – my wife and I just returned from a trip there for our five year anniversary. It is stunning to me the beauty that the loving hand of man can accomplish over hundreds of years. I wonder if it’s our lack of vision today, more than any presence of technology that makes our world so ugly. Here in America we have a utilitarian world that often reduces beauty to sentiment and a near-dualistic church that lacks a sacramental vision of the redemption of the body.

    I wrote some reflections on this when I was living in the Chicago suburbs, after visiting Mont St. Michel in France. I think a sacramental vision that anticipates the new creation is the cure that would inspire us to shape our world to mirror the beauty of the Lord.

  14. Phil,

    I would be hesitant to make too strong a distinction, for even in the “outer” beauty, or “prettiness” as you suggest, there is the reflection of that which is true Beauty. It is our heart that distorts. My hesitancy is caused by the almost manichaen tendency within some forms of historic protestantism to despise all outer things as “idolatrous.” This is iconoclasm, something foreign to Orthodox Christianity. We must learn to rightly honor all things that are honorable (without giving to anything that which alone belongs to God). It is quite possible to do this, but quite difficult without the living discipline found within Orthodox Christianity. Or so my observations seem to indicate.

  15. Again, thank you.

    I believe I understand what you are saying. I’m sure you’re familiar with Charles Williams’ summary of our interaction with Creation. He wrote that we can point at anything and affirm to God: “This also is Thou; neither is this Thou.” To deny the first is Iconoclasm- Gnosticism, really. To deny the second is idolatry.

  16. Perhaps the disillusionment with “beauty” or the apparent temporary nature of it – we see it and it soon becomes common place and loses its luster – is that we are beholding the creation rather than the Creator. Creation gives us glimpses of the Creator and says something about Him but are no substitute for seeing Him. Matthew 5:8 says that the pure in heart are blessed because they will see God. The word for “pure” is the Greek word “katharos” from which we get catharsis. Could it be that the “pure in heart” are those whose hearts are being purified so that they can see God – not just in an eternal future but in the everyday stuff of life?

  17. We must learn to rightly honor all things that are honorable (without giving to anything that which alone belongs to God).

    Fr. Stephen,
    That is beautiful!.

  18. Ok, Out of Ergyng, (the British may have better Blog names than Americans), I’ll cede the point on America and its sense of place. It is a beautiful country, which is also why so many of us are also critical of the many ugly things we’ve built here. I’m a native South Carolinian, and like James Taylor (“In my mind I’m goin’ to Carolina – although he was going to North Carolina).

    Part of the Beauty of England for me, is that it looked like a fairy tale – particularly in the Cotswolds (though I know they have cultivated that look). But I also found Essex truly charming, though I understand that in Britain that is not a universal sentiment. But I saw echoes of Tolkein’s Shire and more. I was also aware that I was in the land of my ancestors and thought much about that. My family has only been in America since 1730.

    Also, we have almost nothing like a pub. The Eagle and the Child is one thing, but more charming were the little pubs in small villages that were obviously also the family restaurant.

    And, strangely, I found the people more hospitable than even the legendary South. I could be specific, but it was wonderful.

    Now it is also true that my first week in England was spent in retreat at the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex which may have set me up to see beauty everywhere.

    Someone needs to write, “O Beautiful for Fog and Rain,” and you’ll have it made. “A rainy night in Georgia…it feels like it’s raining all over the world” could surely be adapted for singing in several places in those beautiful islands.

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