Why Should Beauty Matter?

IMG_0529Reflecting on my last two posts, The Nature of Things and Our Salvation and Beauty and the Salvation of the World, I have a question:

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.

18 Responses to “Why Should Beauty Matter?”

  1. Wesley J. Smith Says:

    Fr. bless: I remember when I was working my way through law school as an appliance salesman at JC Penny, a co-worker’s wife got liver cancer. She and I had never gotten along at all, but all of that was forgotten as she grew weaker. She was a devout Christian and clung to the cross as she entered her final days. I went to her death bed a few days before she died to visit with her, and I have never, before or since, felt the presence of the Holy Sprit so strongly as in that room with her. It was physical in its strength. And it was pure love. She had lost all fear and was calm and ready.

    I think the prayer in the Liturgy for a good Christian ending is precisely what, by the grace of God, she received.

  2. katia Says:

    Father bless,

    The Greatest and Most Wondrous
    Polyelaios in the Entire Universe and the
    Renewal of the Whole of Creation
    Commentary by St. Nicodemos on II St. Peter 3:13

    “…Therefore, God, the all-knowing master craftsman of this brilliantly illuminated and most wondrous world, seeing that it has been made according to his design, which He predestined in his Divine plan before the ages, will be glad and rejoice, because the copy and image has become like unto the Prototype, and the creation has gained likeness with the Creator.

    For while God saw, at the beginning of creation, that all of his
    creations were good, as the Holy Scriptures testify: “And God saw all
    the things that He had made and, behold, they were very good,” (Genesis
    1:31), yet He was not glad nor did He rejoice over them, because they
    had not yet received their final restitution. Indeed, He sorrowed over
    the corruption that they had taken on. When they will be restituted
    and renewed on the last day, then the Creator will be glad and rejoice
    over them.
    Such did the prophetic eye of the Prophet-King David forsee, crying out:
    “The Lord shall rejoice in His works” (Psalm 103:22). And
    consider the fact that he did not say, in past tense, that “He rejoiced,”
    or, in present tense, that “He rejoices,” but rather, in future tense, that
    “He shall rejoice,” showing thereby that only then, at the renewal and
    final restitution of the world shall He be glad, as we said. Not only God, but also all of the Angels and all of the righteous people, upon seeing the exquisite splendor and the marvelous harmony and beauty of this wondrous polyeleos,will rejoice with one accord and will marvel, such that from their great gladdness and exceeding wonder, they will glorify God, the great master craftsman, with countless doxologies, Who has fabricated this most won-drous world, and with infinite thanksgiving will thank him unto the ages of ages.
    But the demons, the impious, and the sinful people will also mar-
    vel at the exceeding beauty of this new and resplendent world, to
    such an extent that they will grieve eternally, because the wretched
    ones were deprived of the enjoyment of this most exqusitely beautiful
    spectacle. “

  3. Romanós Says:

    I’ve pondered the nature of beauty all my life, including the idea that “the world will be saved by beauty,” and the only idea I found plausible is that beauty is what God has created and is “as it must be” (in other words, not infected by sin). Hence, the beauty of the sun bursting through an embankment of thunderheads on the western horizon an hour to sunset, or the beauty of the stillness and vastness of a remote mountain valley. In words, beauty that speaks the truth, in relationships, beauty that arises from honesty.

    Beauty is not necessarily what attracts people anymore; in fact, many are repelled by it and hasten in another direction. Still, when we see them with their pierced and tattooed bodies and sculpted hair, it’s hard to believe that anyone could really hate beauty that much, to defile what God has made them, falling into such aberrations. Perhaps I shouldn’t have written this, as it makes it appear that I despise people—I do not—but I do admit that I pity them, and also others whose hatred of beauty isn’t so extreme and visible. And I pity myself, too, when I have fallen, and sometimes still do, into ugliness, deliberately choosing what is not, in place of what is. Christ have mercy on us all.

  4. fatherstephen Says:

    Romanos,

    Even when our hearts are distorted, there is still a search for beauty. Though tattoos are not canonical for Orthodox Christians, still, I understand that many who have them are seeking beauty of a sort, though misguided. One of the haunting qualities in Dostoevsky’s novels is his ability to portray beauty in places not usually expected. The prostitute Sophia in Crime and Punishment, for instance. She is a woman of great soul despite the sin. Despite our every effort, Beauty is inexorable. God so created the world – and without Beauty – the world would cease to exist.

  5. David Says:

    I grew up distrustful of beauty.

    My previous tradition (my father most vocally) considered beauty a neutral power, but tainted in the way of the considerations of all powers (that they corrupt and that those that seek them are by disposition more corruptible).

    So “power” became “who would seek it except to abuse it” so then all beauty was suspect (anything other than the accidental kind in nature or the ordinary kind in a sort of Shaker-mind). Beauty could lure the mind away from truth. Beauty was the tool of the flim-flam man in his dapper-suit and the pornographer and his vice.

    What a shame! For so many years I was robbed of life itself. Life is not full without beauty. And so I did not live.

  6. Ioannis Freeman Says:

    Your reflections on the limited and constrained view(s) of ‘beauty’ as individualistic led me to ponder on beauty from a collective perspective. For example, I thought about the phrase “classical beauty.”

    The Venus de Milo in the Louvre (Αφροδίτη της Μήλου) came to mind, because the ‘beauty’ of movement in stone stems from a so-called classical age of art. Not only the period of art called classical, but also the class of art into which the Venus de Milo fits, exemplify a collective perspective.

    Even still, the beauty of a deathbed profession of Christ resists such singularity in qualifiers as individualistic and collective. For example, the deathbed profession of Christ and transparent radiance on the face of the Pentecostal-Christian, whose profession of Christ you depict, transforms the face of suffering. Such transformation, while both individual and collective in experience among Christians, contains and yet eludes these labels in description.

    Another label that ‘beauty’ contains and yet eludes is moralistic. Dostoevsky entered the recesses of depravity, with Christ, to redeem ‘beauty’ from the idolatry of moralism. In particular, Dostoevsky redeems ‘beauty’ from idolaters in the Church who would substitute moralism for the ‘beauty’ of morality in Christ.

    I continue to struggle against these weeds of moralism in my thoughts. As I see things today, my own thoughts about moralism are nothing more than chaff for a kernel of Faith in Christ. May Christ increase and break these constricting thoughts so that Beauty is manifest.

  7. Mary Says:

    Father Stephen,

    why is it that beauty often causes a feeling of sadness, a bittersweet-ness, even a pain of heart in us? Is it because of our fallenness? Because beauty on this earth is fleeting? Since my childhood, I’ve always wondered why beauty “hurt”. Thank you for your thoughts.

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    Mary,
    I suspect (as a suggestion) that we experience beauty, and then step back from it and it becomes a thought (and thus fleeting). The Fathers would call this a “logismoi” which are always drawing us to the past (sadness) or the future (anxiety). It’s staying present with the beauty that is difficult but not sad. But I would have to know more of your experience to say whether this classical understanding actually fit.

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    David, on being distrustful of beauty,

    May God forgive them and teach your heart how we should participate in Beauty (for I think ultimately it’s a participation like our knowledge of God rather than something else).

  10. fatherstephen Says:

    It is interesting to me, that when you begin reading Scripture with beauty in mind – particularly the Psalms – it is far from neutral. One of my joys in reading Matins each morning, are the Praises, which keep an element of thanksgiving for the goodness and beauty of creation present in the service. It makes a huge difference in my day to simply work at being personally present to the words and to creation as they are chanted. It is a strong affirmation of life and an affirmation that creation is with me and not against me. Creation is not our enemy nor is it even neutral. The enemy is our enemy and he hates creation. He only uses it in order to distort it and us.

    For instance, our cultural fascination with “beauty” is almost nothing of the sort. It is a cultural fascination with lust or other passions which can be manipulated by the improper use of certain forms of beauty. I watched a pre-school child recently, as her parents took pictures, (it must have been in airport on my trip home). This pre-school girl knew moves and poses that I think are foreign to any of my daughters, including those who are married, and can only have been taught her by adults, who were pre-maturely, and improperly “sexualizing” her beauty. It is child abuse plain and simple. I prayed and grieved. Our culture rewards this behavior rather than censuring it. Thus it contributes to the destruction of souls. The modesty taught by the Church should be treasured by our members. It helps us to reveal true beauty.

  11. katia Says:

    Father bless,
    again i could not stop myself to share this explanation of beauty:

    Serge Verhovskoy writes, “The substance of Christianity is the union of people with God, between themselves and with all beings,” we read in the beginning of the first article (p. 277). What draws us to God? “In love, in understanding and creativity we can rise above life’s problems. The understanding of nature and the contemplation of its beauty creates in us the ideal image of the world. Relationships with people…open to us the depth of man’s spirit. In science and art we express all the riches of knowledge and beauty through which man is capable of living. If man could limit himself to spiritual riches which he finds in himself and in the world, he would not even begin to think of God. But in spiritual life man is never satisfied with his own accomplishments… Who of us will say, without falling into dull self-conceit: I love enough, I am holy enough; I know enough, everything beautiful is open to me, I am perfect!… In this consciousness of our limitedness, which appears to us on our endless road toward perfection, God is revealed to us; He is that All-Complete Being, to Whom we aspire; in Him is accomplished all that we seek…” (p. 278). [Here an observation must be made: is it really true that hunger for that which is greater than what is in our possession leads us to God? Is it not rather often the opposite; does it not lead us away from God?]
    The author sees man’s good in the attainment, during life, of Truth, Good, and Beauty. “In God we attain our Desire: Truth, Good, and Beauty,” (p. 281); the triad of “Truth, Good, and Beauty,” is used by the author on every page, but especial attention is allotted to Beauty. “There is only one Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one good, one truth, one beauty in God” (p. 283). “The beauty of the outside world and the inner beauty of man leads us to the ideal beauty, in which we see primary shapes of beings, as they exist in God, for God placed within the universe not only wisdom, but also beauty” [page unknown, ed.]. “Whether we unite in the way of love or morality, knowledge of beauty, ideals, or creativeness, the summit of our way will be in God… Only a general living love for the one living God, only a general faith in absolute Good, Truth, and Beauty can completely unite people in the one and all-sided ideal of man’s life” (p. 300). “Every individual Christian recognizes the truth from one angle, even though the Truth stands wholly before him in Christ. But Truth is fully open for the unity of all. The same can be repeated also concerning beauty. One should not forget that in multi-unity, i.e. in a complete unity of singleness and multitude, of originality and sameness, lies the foundation of good and truth and beauty, and of Being itself, and that is why God is the complete Tri-Unity” (p. 304). “Why are we so persistently speaking of good, of truth, and of beauty? Isn’t there here a poor abstraction? No, the whole irreplaceable and necessary value of good, truth, and beauty consists in the fact that in them we are united with reality itself, i.e. with God, people, and the world… The perfection of life is revealed to us in beauty, more than in anything else. The perfect is always beautiful. It follows then that in beauty we also enter into communion with Reality itself — with God and everything existing… For this reason the Kingdom of God can be but a Kingdom of good, truth, and beauty” (pp. 306–307).

    Is This Orthodoxy?
    by Father Michael Pomazansky
    Or Modernism, Subverting True Orthodoxy, and Unacceptable for the Orthodox Conscience?
    A review of the book: Orthodoxy in Life. A collection of articles edited by S. Verhovskoy. Published by the Chekhov Society, New York, 1953, 405 pages

  12. fatherstephen Says:

    I’ve not read Pomazansky’s review so I don’t know what conclusions he means to draw. I would probably, for technical reasons, have stated Verhovskoy’s observations slightly differently (I don’t tend to speak of “general faith”). But Fr. Pomazansky was a very different sort of Orthodox theologian than Verhovskoy – far more one to follow the formulas of the 19th century Russian manuals, which had the weakness of being modeled on Western scholastic manuals – though still Orthodox in content, though not in style. Verhovskoy, was certainly among those who had influence from the Russian community in Paris, and was thus far less bound by the “manual” tradition. Indeed, like a number of the Parisians, he was concerned for a recovery of Orthodoxy in its non-Western forms. It is unfortunate that these various Orthodox writers in the West often spent time distracted by the other (mostly the distraction was spent in attacking the “Parisians”).

    Every century and period has much to offer us of Orthodoxy, and will also have some winnowing that is required. Thus God gives the Church the Spirit of discernment. I know a number of former students of Verhovskoy (may his memory be eternal) all of whom speak of him with great reverence – and all of whom (they are my seniors) I hold in the deepest regard. I have no doubt of his Orthodoxy. Beauty, which did not find much of a place in the 19th century manuals, was far too ignored as an important theological point. Verhovskoy and others were returning us to something that has a huge place within the language and insight of Orthodox liturgical texts, as well as Scripture. We are in their debt.

  13. katia Says:

    Father bless,

    trying to explain to myself what is true beauty (we all know the external) and why should matter to us this is what i ‘think’:

    contrition of heart, tears to wash our sins, repentance, praise and thanksgiving to God for everything, good deeds and take part of the Church Mysteries = true internal beauty, and this beauty MATTER because leads to the true aim of our Christian life which consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.

  14. John Says:

    Father Bless. Beauty- There are many times in our lives when we are brought to beauty. Or, when something of beauty is brought to us. I recently have been blessed by GOD in becoming a grandfather for the very first time. And I see the beauty in which GOD has made me a further steward of. I believe it is a great sin for us not to acknowledge beauty. Because it is not something we have or they have but, something that is given to us freely. It is our task to see it, ackknowledge it, & take care it. Even in death, as the young man saw in the woman. We are responsible for knowing it. Not for thinking we have it. Beauty is all around us. We just need to sometimes wake up & smell the roses. Thank you Lord for what we have & have not for YOU truely know what are needs are.

  15. fatherstephen Says:

    John,

    I share being a “young” grandfather (my grandson will soon be one year old). And he is indeed beautiful – along with his parents! And his grandmother!

  16. Carl Says:

    Father,

    Have you read David Bentley Hart’s “The Beauty of the Infinite”? He is an Orthodox theologian and scholar, and while I haven’t finished the book yet, I think it matches up exactly with what you are saying here. His writing is very erudite and engages with the best of Western scholarship in order to challenge it with the Beauty of the Cross.

  17. fatherstephen Says:

    I have read him. Very thick, but quite beautiful.

  18. Andrei Baciu Says:

    Excellent article. Thank you!

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