The Beautiful 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

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Florensky is among the more intriguing Orthodox writers of the 20th century. A brilliant mathematician, as well as a priest, he refused opportunities to leave revolutionary Russia and follow the path of many other members of the intelligentsia. He taught math (eventually winning the Lenin Prize) but insisted on wearing his cassock at all times (to the great consternation of the revolutionary authorities). He was eventually shot in one of Stalin’s camps in the 1930’s.

His writings on beauty are among my favorites. The quote given above 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 with it also profound insights into what we mean by knowledge of God. “How do we know God?” is a question on which I have posted numerous times. 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. The recognition of beauty is a universal experience (as is the misperception of beauty). But the capacity to recognize beauty points to a capacity within us to know God. I would offer that this capacity is 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 (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.

…whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are beautiful, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things (Philippians 4:8).

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15 Responses to “The Beautiful God”

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  2. Michael Bauman Says:

    One of the saddest symptoms of our spiritual difficuties is to see the desecration of beauty in the last century as well as a turn from genuine asthetics first to the utilitarian and then to the barbaric in what is called ‘art’.

    We are even destroying the written word and much rationality as we return to a largely pictographic means of communication.

    It this milleau, the icon appears to be one of the view means at our disposal for reaching the our souls and allowing the word to give life in us.

    Iconoclasim is always ugly.

  3. Marjaana Says:

    Thank you, Father Stephen, for this post. I always struggle with how to live out my faith and the recognition that the Kingdom of God exists here and now. This post somehow made things clearer for me. Thank you!

  4. Mrs. Mutton Says:

    Good thoughts, Michael, on the subject of the iconoclasm of our times — to which I would add the iconoclastic spirit that has come to prevail in so many churches of the West, a truly lamentable state.

  5. Doug C. Says:

    Father Stephen,

    What a great post, it reminds me of the first time I attended Divine Liturgy. I was visiting St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary. My sister was graduating and I went with her to Liturgy. As an evangelical I had felt many things while at worship services, but nothing came close to this. Indeed I could not tell if I was in Heaven or on earth. I was moved to tears. I was so amazed at what I saw/percieved to be happening. The beauty of the Icons, the vestments, the incense, and the choir; I was overwhelmed. I could no longer view Orthodoxy as just another ritual filled and dead church. I had to reconsider every premise of my Christian life.(of course this continues to this day and every day)
    The Beauty of the Liturgy sticks with me to this day, even at the small mission parish we are inquirers. The Icons, the incense, the vestments, the choir all bring the beauty of the Church to reality. This is the beauty I craved all those years sitting in an evangelical church with empty walls and self-centered worship. At last the veil is being lifted and I am able to see the beauty of our existence though the life of the One True Church.

  6. kay Says:

    Dear Father Stephen,
    Your site was a critical “find” on my path to Orthodoxy. As an artist, I was sickened spiritually by the current state of affairs in the art world; it took a very long time for me to figure out that what what wrong actually was a spiritual matter. It was so hard to stop in my tracks, and pray to God, as an adult, to ask forgiveness – and to help me get back to the beautiful in my heart. The Orthodox perception of beauty you’ve described in your postings, was truly a beacon of hope.

    Early on in my uninformed prayer life, I encountered a Navajo prayer that I’ve since sandwiched within the following. Have put this prayer back in my daily morning prayers:

    In the beauty of the Lord, it is begun.
    I will walk in the beauty of the Lord.

    “Beauty is before me, and
    Beauty is behind me,
    above me and below me,
    hovers the beautiful.

    I am surrounded by it,
    I am immersed in it.
    In my youth, I am aware of it,
    and, in my old age,
    I shall walk quietly the beautiful trail.”

    In the beauty of the Lord, all is made whole
    In the beauty of the Lord, all is restored
    In the beauty of the Lord, it is ended.

    Thank you, please pray for me – K

  7. fatherstephen Says:

    Kay,
    What a beautiful prayer. It reminds me in part of the Breastplate of St. Patrick.

    You are so correct in seeing the root of our modern disease as spiritual. The failure in so many instances of the modern world to produce beauty is a reflection of a darkness within our souls. Florensky, in his book Iconostasis, makes the point that you cannot paint what you do not see. Thus, he concludes, looking at Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity, “Rublev’s Icon of the Holy Trinity exists, therefore God exists.” Meaning, that such beauty can only be seen because it is real and true.

  8. Darlene Says:

    Michael,

    The utilitarian mindset prevails in architecture as well. One of the primary reasons Americans want to visit Western Europe is because of the beautiful churches and castles. Here in the US we have strip malls, fast food joints, and modern square buildings with little to no character. If one were to make an assessment of the architecture here, souless and empty comes to mind. Of course there are some exceptions, but those are buildings erected in the first 2 1/2 centuries of our existence.

  9. Darlene Says:

    Doug,

    Your description of the Divine Liturgy echoes my sentiments as well. I had the same experience of being lifted up to another place, a Heavenly one as it were, at my first DL. However, I kept my eyes closed almost the entire time! I also was “overwhelmed” by the beauty.

    Evangelicalism had become hollow for me. The emptiness I felt while at the services increasingly pressed upon me till I couldn’t take it anymore. I exclaimed at one point to my husband, even before I knew very little of Orthodoxy, “I am no longer Protestant. I don’t know what I am, but I know what I am not.”

    Now, I can’t wait to attend the Divine Liturgy. And when I am there, worry, doubt, fear, anxiety, frustration, all the things that can steal my joy, simply melt away. So it is that I love when we sing, “Now lay aside all earthly cares.”

    Those who would attend a Divine Liturgy and not experience the beauty are somehow removed from what beauty really is. Or else the Liturgy has become old hat to them, nothing more than “empty” worship, which is no worhip at all.

    Perhaps I’m just in a bubble that will eventually burst. Nonetheless, I will continue to appreciate these times and hold them dear to my heart. And I pray I will never lose the wonder that I behold in each Divine Liturgy.

  10. Darlene Says:

    Father Stephen,

    You mentioned that Fr. Florensky wore his cassock at all times, even to the consternation of the revolutionaries. Do the canons address when priests are supposed to wear the cassock? It would seem that in Russia, where Orthodoxy has been quite visible for many centuries, wearing the cassock would be quite natural.

    But what about in the US? Are there “rules” (so to speak), of when a priest is supposed to wear his cassock. Or rather, is it up to each individual priests’ discretion? Does it vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction? Is the white collar just another replacement for the cassock? I’ve noticed that a number of priests will wear the white collar here in the US.

  11. fatherstephen Says:

    Darlene,
    It does vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and even from diocese to diocese within a jurisdiction (and sometimes by a priest’s preference). Generally, Antiochians wear a clerical collar except at Church where they wear a cassock. Practice in the OCA varies from diocese to diocese. Practice in the Greek Archdiocese varies from priest to priest. The canons do mention clerical clothing. How the canons are applied, however, will vary. There was much thought in the early 20th century (and beyond) that Orthodox clergy should adapt to America (thus clerical collars like R.C.’s and Anglicans). That is probably giving away today (Orthodoxy in America is less “self-conscious” about immigrant status). I would suspect that there are more Orthodox clergy in the US wearing cassocks normally than there were in 1960. I generally wear mine, which was the preference of the Bishop who received me into the Church. I personally think that Orthodoxy will benefit by certain distinctive marks rather than be penalized. It’s not 1900 any more. But I also think that it is nothing over which to judge a priest. If he’s in obedience to his bishop – this is what matters.

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  13. davidperi Says:

    I´m going to have to google and see what I can find..this writings, etc..on Fr Pavel Florensky.

  14. Nike Says:

    Dear Father Stephen-

    Have you ever prayed the Akathist ~ “Glory to God for All Things”?

    It’s the Beautiful God expressed in prayer, seeing the wonder and Glory of God surrounding us in our world and situations. There is even mention of beauty seen (maybe filtered through the lens of Hope?) in fallen souls because with HIM there is “nothing that can not be redeemed”.

    I suspect though, seeing the beauty of a fallen soul, requires a redefinition or different understanding of beauty – an understanding that is probably also quite fleeting! Or maybe there is a portion of the soul which is always beautiful and it always exists- the portion that God knows – but a portion which we, in our fallen state cover up.

  15. fatherstephen Says:

    Nike,
    It is probably my favorite Akathist.

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