By using the elements of this world, Art reveals to us a depth which is logically inexpressible. It is in fact impossible to “tell” poetry, to “decompose” a symphony, or to “tear apart” a painting. The beautiful is present in the harmony of all its elements and brings us face to face with a truth that cannot be demonstrated or proved, except by contemplating it. – Paul Evdokimov
A while back, I suggested that the experience of Beauty was far more fertile ground for conversation (and conversion) than the various reasonings of what passes for theology. This is both true because the experience of Beauty, even for the non-believer, is less laden with warnings, hesitations and arguments than the traditional language of belief, as well as the fact that there is the possiblity for some level of mutuality of experience between believer and non-believer.
The immediate doubts and questions that some would raise: “What do you mean by Beauty,” etc, is actually an abandonment of the conversation and a return to philosophy and argument. Rather than argue about the meaning of Beauty, we can simply ask, “Describe an experience you have had of something beautiful.” More to the point, “Describe an experience you have had of something profoundly beautiful.”
It is a fertile ground for conversation (from an Orthodox perspective) because of the nature of Beauty itself. Orthodoxy holds that Beauty is a revelation and reflection of God. Within some of the Fathers, there is a Trinity of ideals: Goodness, Truth and Beauty. I have read treatments that use this to reflect on the Persons of the Trinity, but I will not pursue that here. Rather, I will offer this brief summary:
God alone is good and goodness only find its meaning within God. Truth is the Good presented for our understanding. Beauty is what Truth looks like.
In our modern culture, discussions of the good have become deeply fragmented and politicized making them difficult if not impossible. Truth is at least as strained. Beauty, however challenged and relativized, still offers possibilities for conversation: if not for the discussion of a particular object of Beauty, then at least for our common capacity to perceive Beauty. The conversation becomes even more fruitful if we eliminate more moderate experiences and concentrate on those that are profound. These are relatively few, but not so uncommon as to make conversation impossible.
The experience of the profoundly beautiful elicits from us a response that is not far removed from worship. Rudolf Otto’s classic, The Idea of the Holy, speaks about the experience of the numinous, the mysterium tremendum. His descriptions and categories could also be applied to certain experiences of Beauty.
I first heard Rachmaninov’s Vespers when I was in college (the early ’70’s). It was not nearly as well-known or ubiquitous as it is today. My wife and I were working in our apartment when the Vespers came on the radio. We stopped what we were doing and sat transfixed for the whole of the performance. I was no stranger to Church music, including the finest of the West, but I had heard nothing like Rachmaninov’s Vespers. I waited carefully for the end of the recording to hear the announcer’s description. I went out the next day to find the album (the old Melodiya recording by the National Chorus of the USSR – still the best performance I have heard).
Hearing the Vespers was an experience of profound beauty. I had tears. It awoke a hunger in me that, to some degree, has to be credited with my conversion to Orthodoxy decades later. Nowhere else have I ever encountered such beauty – in sound, in sight, or words. As St. Vladimir’s envoys said of their experience of Orthodox worship in Constantinople, “We did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth. But we know of a truth, that there, God dwells among men.”
The continuity between sound, word and image is a hallmark of Orthodox Christianity. The historical doctrines of the Church are generally stated in succinct aphorisms rather than in lengthy works of qualifications and nuance. Poetry often carries theology in a manner superior to prose.
Beauty has become detached from modern culture in general. It has not been abolished from our lives, but has often been isolated. It’s isolation reveals that we do not live our lives well. But the experience remains. The experience does not call forth words so much as silence. It has the power to draw us outside of ourselves. Beauty can create within us a deep sense of peace and wholeness as we participate in it, or, conversely, create a great sense of our own emptiness. But it does not leave us unchanged.
The witness that in Beauty we encounter God or something deeply united to Him, is an article of faith. It is not a point of argument – for the argument quickly distances us from the Beauty itself. Rather, the witness points to Who God Is when Orthodoxy speaks of God. At Pascha, the prologue of the Gospel of St. John is read and we hear the witness:
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth (1:14).
It is similar to the witness of the Temple Guards:
Then the officers came to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, “Why have you not brought Him?” The officers answered, “No man ever spoke like this Man!” (Jn. 7:45-46).
In part, the recognition of Christ’s divinity was found within the experience of His beauty (words, glory, goodness, etc.).
It is this union of the Christ of history and the experience of Beauty that draws from the mouth of believers, “My Lord and my God!” Believers bear witness that in Christ, they have encountered the very content of Beauty itself. As such, the very fact of His existence bears witness to the existence of God and the Goodness of God. If Christ exists, then God exists. And if Christ is God, then God is Good and Beautiful in all things.
But in our conversations, we need not be anxious and press others into the fullness of our own conclusions. In our day and time, it is often enough simply to stop and recognize Beauty and the union we have with one another in that mutual recognition. There is so much history of a tragic nature that shapes the heart of atheism. As I have noted elsewhere, the agnosticism and unbelief of many is entirely understandable and should not be judged. The ugliness that mars the lives of Christians makes the mutual acknowledgement of Beauty difficult for many. We do well to bear witness to the Light and offer fewer arguments. In the mutual experience of the Light we may find a human vocabulary in which Christ can be known.
The poetry of the Book of Job offers this observation of Beauty (in contrast to its many, many words):
Then Job answered the Lord and said: “I know that You can do everything, And that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You. You asked, ‘Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. Listen, please, and let me speak; You said, ‘I will question you, and you shall answer Me.’ “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, But now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, And repent in dust and ashes.”