What is the nature of things such that beauty should matter?
It is a commonplace in our culture to think that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” (rendering beauty completely subjective and relative), while at the same time making a cult out of the pursuit of “beauty” (in various guises). It is thus easy for Christians in the contemporary world to be cautious around the topic of beauty. Relativism generally has a corrosive effect on its surrounding culture – while the hedonistic pursuit of “beauty” is corrosion itself.
And yet, beauty holds a very important place in Orthodox theology and practice. I do not propose to offer a theological account of beauty – there are limits to my capabilities. Instead, I want to stand with others and wonder. There is a beauty to the creation, in its fullness, in its depth and in its surface as we see it, that simply staggers the heart. We are frequently distracted and fail to see the truth of what is. But, I believe, those moments when we are present to beauty, we are beholding something of the truth (and not in a relative sense).
In Greek, the word, kalos, carries a double meaning: it can mean “good,” and it can mean “beautiful.” The same is true of the Hebrew word tov. It is these words that we find in Genesis when God says that creation is “good.” I believe that the double sense of these words are both true. To know the goodness of creation is also to know its beauty (nor can they truly be separated).
I am deeply aware of the fallenness of the world in which we live. It is of the very character of sin that it seeks to distort and destroy beauty – just as it would seek to redefine goodness. I am struck, however, by the fact that despite the brokenness of the world and the presence of sin within it – beauty and goodness remain.
Christ on the cross manifests the transcendent goodness of God. Already on the cross, beauty is destroying sin and goodness revealing the emptiness and futility of evil.
The title of this website is taken from the last words of St. John Chrysostom. He died in exile. Falsely persecuted by his enemies, he was deposed from his bishopric and exiled to the extreme limits of the Byzantine empire. Always plagued by ill health, his sickness made his exile a torture. His letters from exile reveal a lonely and depressed soul who longed for his friends. However, the profession of faith on his deathbed, like the words of Christ on the cross, reveal a vision of the goodness of God. “Glory to God for all things!” carried the last breath from his body.
I recall a patient that I served as a hospice chaplain. She was a Pentecostal from the mountains here in East Tennessee. Most of her last days were marked by a morphine coma. But in her last hour she was awake. I recall standing by her bed and praying quietly. I remember watching her saying something and bent over her to hear her words. She had raised her hands (weakly), and was repeating, “Praise you, Jesus!” Beauty radiated from her face.
Hers is not the only such death I have witnessed. Like the words of Chrysostom, such moments are the Christian witness to the goodness of God – despite every attending circumstance. My belief is that every moment is utterly filled with beauty and goodness were we only present to the moment.
Beauty matters because it is the truth in the very nature of things. God said, “It is good.” Creation did not cease to be good, nor did beauty disappear with the entrance of sin. Glory to God for all things.