Beauty and the Face of God

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

+++

In thinking about darkness and light – and their role in our apprehension of the truth – I cannot but think about Beauty, which is a primary place in which the light of God is made manifest among us (if rightly perceived). The heart that is full of darkness cannot truly perceive beauty: the heart which is full of light, cannot help but perceive it. Perhaps a measure of our heart can be found in how we perceive the world around us: is it primarily a place of beauty or darkness? It is difficult in the fallen world to maintain a witness to beauty. And yet those places where it is made manifest to us are so poignant, so piercing, that I think we cannot and should not remain silent about them. Perhaps they should be shouted from the rooftops! This article is a meditation on beauty and its role in our lives within the Kingdom of God.

The quote from Pavel Florensky 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 insights into what we mean by knowledge of God. “How do we know God?”  is one question. But 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 (if Florensky is right). 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  or 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.

24 comments:

  1. 2 Corinthians 4:6 King James Version

    6 For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of

    the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

  2. Beauty! That is what struck me 1st & foremost the 1st time I entered an Orthodox Church with the colors, icons, candles, incense & chant. I was overwhelmed with beauty in all my senses. This was very different from the barrenness & plainness of the Western churches.I was accustomed to from very early in my youth. The beauty of the physical for the Orthodox was part & parcel of the beauty of the spiritual; the “very good” physical was not to be diminished nor discarded & creation too will ultimately will be transformed/renewed. And yes, to stay with our topic on the perception/misperception of Beauty, the beauty I have found in Orthodoxy (the beauty of the love of the Holy Trinity) & thanks to Orthodoxy (the innate beauty of the creation of the Holy Trinity) puts to shame what the rest of the world considers to be beauty.

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen!

  3. I am reminded of the Dostoevsky quote, from “The Idiot” —
    “The world will be saved by beauty.”
    I am not a Dostoevsky scholar by any means but what you have written here about beauty brings this together as we strive to understand both our Source and our Destination.

  4. Your whole blog post is a blessing, but especially these last sentences hold truth for my heart, “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.” Thank you!

  5. I think I will always remember the words of an mature Methodist lady at the end of a tour of our Temple that I conducted some years ago. We had completed the formal tour and she asked me if she could just sit and look at the icons. Of course, I said yes. Then she said: “My friends told me I would not like them. They were wrong, they are beautiful.” She said the words with such relief and longing all roled into one tha they have been imprinted on my heart.

    Yesterday after Divine Liturgy I was looking at the faces of my wife and son. Ordinary faces, but transfigured by their experience with a particular beauty, especially my wife.

  6. Here Dr. McNamara says that “something is beautiful when it reveals its ‘ontological reality’ to us.”

  7. Father, Bless.

    Elder Paisios taught that there are two types of people: bees and flies. Bees seek and see only the beautiful and sweet. To a fly, there is only garbage, corruption, stink and ugliness. We are free to choose to be bees or flies.

  8. Today I was presented with this quote as I stumbled into the spiritual experience and beauty of the Norman Lowell Art Gallery in Anchor Point Alaska :

    “Lord there is no beginning nor ending to your beauty -Just Beauty”

    The author, Norman Lowell, is an amazing Alaskan artist now well into his 80’s who has an incredible ability to manifest this Beauty in the many hundreds of paintings in the admission free gallery he built in 1996 to share this beauty. He is there each day with his wife driven to give away what he has so freely been given.

    I loved his poem

    The Artist

    The brush in the hand of man does not make him an artist :
    But his bent toward his Creator,keenness of his eye,
    Sensitivity and perception of his mind,
    And the honesty of his heart.
    You the viewer may be an artist by the same reasons:
    What I see – you may see;
    What I feel – you may feel,
    For we are made of the same earth, received the same life, and walk the same land

    And this quote:

    I owe something to every man and every man owe’s everything to one man – The Christ!

    Father Stephen…I found it very easy today to connect what you’ve written to what I saw both in his paintings and in the sparkle of his eyes

  9. Sacramental acts of daily beauty…while making the bed this morning I mused on the beauty of daily little acts of order and beauty. Not unlike the Japanese Tea Ceremony, small, calmly carried out daily acts can add much to the beauty of our lives. God can enter into our hearts and minds–and surroundings–when everything we do is filled with His Presence. Perhaps paying more attention to such little things is one way that beauty will save the world! Making beds, preparing a nice meal and eating it at a nicely-set table…little things. Things we can do if every moment and every act is seen as a prayer–not something trite that must be gotten through so as to go on to “important things.”

  10. And I this, if I may:

    “Heaven is beautiful, Earth is ugly,”
    The three-dimensioned preacher saith;
    So we must not look where the snail and the slug lie
    For Psyche’s birth. . . . And that is our death!

    (Kipling R., Butterflies, Traffics and Discoveries, 1904)

  11. Andrew,

    Is that a fair statement to make? That heaven is beautiful and Earth is ugly?

    Perhaps I am defining the statement improperly, but it seems to me that it is saying “That which is spiritual is beautiful, that which is carnal(or physical) is ugly.”

  12. Nicholas,

    Looked at as a whole and in the context in which they were written, I would say that these are exceedingly beautiful verses, steeped in wisdom and depth. To go beyond that, to make a judgment on their propriety, would be to miss the point entirely — the subject of another post, perhaps!

  13. Andrew, I think I perceived the intended meaning from the poet here and got the opposite message from what Nicholas understood, but I agree it’s a little difficult to read without the whole context. I wonder if the whole text of the poem is available somewhere online. It might be helpful. Just a thought . . .

    Nicholas, the statement about heaven and earth is in quotes and I think what we are to make of it hinges around what the “three dimensioned preacher” to whom this statement is attributed represents for the poet. I suspect he represents someone whose perception is not very spiritually attuned to say the least.

  14. Karen,

    As you suggest, Kipling’s Butterflies is reproduced below:

    Eyes aloft, over dangerous places,
    The children follow the butterflies,
    And, in the sweat of their upturned faces,
    Slash with a net at the empty skies.

    So it goes they fall amid brambles,
    And sting their toes on the nettle-tops,
    Till, after a thousand scratches and scrambles,
    They wipe their brows and the hunting stops.

    Then to quiet them comes their father
    And stills the riot of pain and grief,
    Saying, “Little ones, go and gather
    Out of my garden a cabbage-leaf.

    “You will find on it whorls and clots of
    Dull grey eggs that, properly fed,
    Turn, by way of the worm, to lots of
    Glorious butterflies raised from the dead.” . . .

    “Heaven is beautiful, Earth is ugly,”
    The three-dimensioned preacher saith;
    So we must not look where the snail and the slug lie
    For Psyche’s birth. . . . And that is our death!

    Enjoy!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.