Our Longing for Beauty
We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become a part of it.1
I have longed for the beautiful all my life. I am drawn to color and deep shadows; to design and proportion; to texture and style; to context and scale. In language, I see exquisite beauty in the etymology of a single word chosen for nuance in a picturesque expression birthed in a writer’s imagination. In a sleeping baby, the imago Dei, the glorious image of God. In the Alps, sublime majesty. And in Mozart’s Requiem, the emotional embrace of the mystery of death and the hope of eternal life.
Beauty surrounds us, and one curious observer will discover what a thousand others will pass over as unworthy of even a momentary glance. French mathematician, scientist, inventor, and apologist Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) observed how people preferred “painted imitations to the real”2 and exposed human vanity when he wrote, “How vain painting is, exciting admiration by its resemblance to things of which we do not admire the originals!”3 Which, he suggests, do we enjoy more: van Gogh’s Starry Night or a night out under the stars? “If sometimes,” writes Simone Weil, “a work of art seems almost as beautiful as the sea, the mountains, or flowers, it is because the light of God has filled the artist.”4
Harvard Professor Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) discovered exquisite beauty and meaning in Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, perhaps the greatest picture ever painted. After spending more than four hours sitting alone before this masterpiece in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, he remarked, “the painting has become a mysterious window through which I can step into the Kingdom of God.”5 The sheer size of the oil painting – eight feet by six feet – enabled him to see minute details which could not be detected in a smaller reproduction. Even so, Rembrandt’s presentation of the mysterious embrace of the father and son could not be consumed by Nouwen; he struggled to absorb the beauty into his person and to allow himself to be held by a forgiving God.
Some of the ancients, such as Pythagoras (c. 570 to 490 BC), believed that the beautiful, harmonious sounds that men made, either with their instruments or in their singing, were an approximation of a larger harmony that existed in the universe. He believed that the planets were aligned in such exact mathematical relationships that they gave off a special music – the Music of the Spheres. However, even if it were possible to hear this music, we would never be able to be unified with it and brought into its beauty.
In the creation narrative of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, “Of the Beginning of Days,” Ilúvatar (Creator) called together all of the Ainur (Holy Ones/Angels) and unfolded to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed. In response, “they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent.”6 What follows is a beautiful description of the place of music in the creation:
“Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void. Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days. Then the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright….”7
These examples tell us that beauty exists in various forms, that we recognize it when we see or hear it, and that we have a deep longing to be washed in it. But once we leave the Grand Canyon, Carnegie Hall, the National Portrait Gallery, or a glorious sunset, we instantly know that we have not been able to capture the inexpressible beauty for our own future enjoyment and delight. As Lewis reminds us: Our longing is not just to see the beauty, but to be united with it.
Brilliant social observer, literary genius, political theorist, moral philosopher, and follower of Jesus Christ, Simone Weil (1909-1943), said that “beauty captivates the flesh in order to obtain permission to pass right into the soul.”8 She understood that beauty relentlessly captures our imaginations (makes us look), overcomes our resistance, and lodges in our very souls. Upon leaving a concert, we understand at a deep level that the music has transformed us – but we don’t quite know how, and we are speechless to describe the experience to our closest friends. Our inability to express our thoughts and depth of feeling may expose this inadequacy as we gather our words into a summary statement: “I was so moved by the performance.” In her acclaimed novel My Ántonia, Pulitzer Prize winner Willa Cather (1873-1947) recounts what it felt like to sit under her professor who had just finished teaching Virgil’s Aeneid. “We left the classroom quietly, conscious that we had been brushed by the wing of a great feeling.”9 After listening to a mesmerizing lecture, that was the most she could absorb and express.
In his profound essay, The Weight of Glory, Lewis’ claim is that “we are not able to find the thing itself, but only a reminder of it….The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”10
Like Lewis, Weil concedes that, at present – that is, in this life – we cannot pass into beauty. “We cannot mingle with the splendours we see.”11 “Distance,” she says, “is the soul of the beautiful.” On this side of heaven, no one can see God and live. “Someday, God willing, we shall get in,” writes Lewis. “And in there, in beyond Nature, we shall eat of the tree of life.” Those who have believed on Christ for salvation will be “welcomed, received, acknowledged.”12 For all eternity, those who know and love Him will bathe in Him and in the beauty of His holiness.13
Until that time comes, we gladly receive beauty as a divine gift while noting that it can be enchanting, even tempting. It can lead the unguarded astray. Beauty, as we learn, was never designed to be alone. Theologian Carl F.H. Henry (1913-2003) has cautioned: “Nowhere in classical theology or in the Bible is beauty an independent conception unrelated to truth and the good; like truth and right, the genuinely aesthetic always corresponds to the will of God. When this interrelationship is abused, the beautiful loses its wholesomeness, truth its goodness, and the good its winsomeness; worse yet, to fragment these essentials alters the significance of the goodness of God. Apart from and when abstracted from God, the good is really nothing.”14
At present, the scent of the flower is strong. And there is news from another country. But, again, they are not the thing itself. The incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, was born in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago and lived a perfect life – perfect beauty, goodness, and truth – and died on a Roman cross in order to redeem us by bringing us into His eternal and glorious beauty, by forgiving us for all of our sins and imputing His righteousness to us. “Man,” writes Pascal, “is not worthy of God but he is not incapable of being made worthy. It is unworthy of God to unite himself to wretched man, but it is not unworthy of God to raise him out of his wretchedness.”15
The good news for every person is that Jesus paid the penalty for the sins of the world, and that all that “man vainly desires here below is perfectly realized in God.”16 One day, we shall no longer be on the wrong side of the door. All who repent of their sins and believe on the name of the Son of God shall be “summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendour which she fitfully reflects.”17
By: John Musselman
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1 C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 37.
2 Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 73.
3 Blaise Pascal, A.J. Krailsheimer, trans., Pensées (New York: Viking Penguin, 1986), No. 40, p. 38.
4 Simone Weil, Emma Crawford, trans., Waiting for God (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 77.
5 Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 15.
6 J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Silmarillion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977), 15.
8 Simone Weil, Emma Crawford and Mario von der Ruhr, trans., Gravity and Grace (New York: Routledge Classics, 2004), 148.
9 Willa Cather, My Ántonia (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 198.
10 Lewis, Weight of Glory, 29.
11 Ibid., 37.
12 Ibid., 36.
13 I Chron. 16:29; Ps. 29:2; 96:6; 111:2-3; Eccl. 3:10-11a; Hab. 3:3b.
14 Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, Vol. VI “God Who Stands and Stays” (Waco, TX: Word Books, Publisher, 1983), Vol. VI, 253.
15 Pascal, Pensées, No. 239, pp.102-103.
16 Simone Weil, Emma Craufurd, trans., Waiting for God (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 74.
17 Lewis, Weight of Glory, 38.