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
Florensky is among the more intriguing Orthodox writers of the 20th century. A brilliant mathematician, as well as a priest, he refused opportunities to leave revolutionary Russia and follow the path of many other members of the intelligentsia. He taught math (eventually winning the Lenin Prize) but insisted on wearing his cassock at all times (to the great consternation of the revolutionary authorities). He was eventually shot in one of Stalin’s camps in the 1930’s.
His writings on beauty are among my favorites. The quote given above 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 numerous times. 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. The recognition of beauty is a universal experience (as is the misperception of beauty). But the capacity to recognize beauty points to a capacity within us to know God. I would offer that this capacity is 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.
…whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are beautiful, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things (Philippians 4:8).