“Beauty will save the world” (Dostoyevsky)
School is one of those love-hate relationships we have in life, at least for me. More often than not, I love it. Sometimes, however, being cooped up all day can be trying. Yes, I am speaking from personal experience here. I’m referring to a specific day a few weeks ago. A series of unfortunate events unfolded, as the sun ceased to shine, I was stuck inside all day working, and worst of all, my chocolate chip cookies had stuck to the pan that night during baking, despite my thick layer of cooking oil. Truly, it was…the worst.
I took a break to bring the trash out and get some fresh air. As I walked outside, trash in hand, I couldn’t help but to look up at the night sky; and I completely forget my grievances as I gazed at a beautiful night sky full of stars. Kansas, for all its quietness in comparison to Chicago, does have some of the most beautiful night skies around the Midwest. Isn’t it funny how often we forget to wonder at the natural beauty surrounding us? I know I did – and still do. There’s something in us that can’t help but be moved by a beautiful sunrise, or a dark night sky filled with stars.
Beauty is something to which we are attracted by our human nature. One of my friends from school often talks about “a pilgrimage to beauty”, drawing from the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. This pilgrimage to beauty is something that we’re all not just called to, but drawn to by our very nature. We’re drawn to beauty as human beings made in the image and likeness of God, with an imprint of our Creator on our souls. God is Beauty, right? If so, then we have an imprint of that Beauty upon us by our human nature.
Having the imprint of Beauty upon our soul, we can’t help but long to return to It; rather, to Him. Think of something that you think is Good. I don’t mean just an ordinary hamburger (although those are quite good), but someone or something that to you is a physical embodiment of goodness. This person or thing doesn’t need to be perfect (nothing in life is), just good. Why are you attracted to that person or thing? There’s something beautiful about it; and I don’t just mean aesthetically pleasing. No, there’s something more than that. Imagine a puzzle. It’s missing a few pieces, and doesn’t seem fully complete. Or, if you’d rather, a half-eaten pie on display. It isn’t nearly half as satisfying as a whole pie, sitting out to cool.
I use this analogy not to raise the question if you’re a half-eaten pumpkin or apple pie, but to make a point about our human nature. If God is Beauty Itself, the essence of beauty, then the perfection, or completion, of beauty must be found completely within Him. As we search for Him throughout life, we oftentimes find hints of that beauty spread around us: in people, art, food, literature, and so on. Think again about that person or thing you found good. There’s something about that person or thing that was, and is beautiful, insofar as it reflected the goodness and beauty of God. But most importantly, we can most easily see this beauty in the natural world around us, and in the people around us. Yes, I am referring to that one person you can’t stand. I’ll address seeing beauty in people at another time.
Pope Francis put it rather eloquently in his late encyclical Laudato Si, stating “The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.” As we look at this beauty, we experience, in a small way, the touch of a loving God. From the star-studded sky above, to the valley spread out below, we are given an opportunity to enter into a conversation with the Creator, a conversation of joy and gratitude at the gift we have been given: a gift of love that constantly overflows. This gift of love, given to us in the beauty of the natural world around us, waits for us to encounter it.
Anthony Esolen, professor at Providence College, alludes to this idea in an article for First Things here. Drawing upon the imagery in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Esolen pointed out the souls that were ascending the mountain of Purgatory. They’re singing, eyes pointed upwards as they race to their heavenly home. There’s an excitement, an anticipation in their race upwards to Beauty. However, their awareness of that beauty becomes heightened through love. Esolen writes:
“Love opens our eyes, allowing one contingent being to reveal the mysteries of beauty to another. But it also gives us wings, prompting the intellect to soar in contemplation of that beauty. Throughout the Divine Comedy , Dante’s beloved Beatrice has been preparing the pilgrim for the ultimate and yet infinite flight, to see the Beloved face to face.”
An appreciation for beauty, nurtured through a sense of wonder, calls us out of ourselves. It calls us to something more, to look to the heavens, towards transcendence. Even as we continue on this pilgrimage to beauty, we retain a sense of anticipation, a sense of hope in the goal. It’s like the marathon runner, who knows that he’s almost made it as he sees the finish line ahead.
How many times have we forgotten to look up and wonder? I know I have – I was doing it the other night just before I took out the trash (what a mundane task, too!). But humans, made with the imprint of Beauty upon their souls, are made for more than just looking down. They’re made to look up and wonder. We’re made to look up and wonder. Can we not help but wonder at this wonderful gift of creation given to us by a loving God? Next time you take out the trash at night, look up and wonder. Don’t just stop there – do it every night, every time you wake up, every breathing moment you have. A simple way I’ve found that helps is to write down three things I’m thankful for at the end of the day (repeats are not allowed). It’s easy to forget to be thankful and wonder at the beauty surrounding us. But when we rediscover how to start wondering again at the ordinary, therein do we find the extraordinary. If you never stop wondering, then you you’ll never stop falling in love with Beauty; and I promise you will be better for it.