Beauty, Wonder, Love
I’m sitting on a screened porch perhaps fifty feet from the shore of Willsboro Bay, off of Lake Champlain in New York State. My wife’s parents have what New Yorkers call a “camp” here and, in the aftermath of her father’s death, we’ve come north with her mother to settle some affairs and give her a chance just to be here again. The entire Lake Champlain region is breathtakingly beautiful, a splendor accentuated by the typically clear upstate New York air—so unlike Virginia in the summer!
With this view, it is almost impossible not to think about beauty, about its nature and why it is we are designed to recognize and appreciate it. A certain amount of philosophizing can, I suppose, be done on the subject. But as with all of the arts, and particularly music, our experience of beauty is not primarily rational, and it does not lend itself well to definition or dissection.
I recall (vaguely, as is perhaps appropriate to the case) what John Paul II said to artists about the contemplative character of beauty, and I agree that man’s contemplative abilities lie at the center of our communion with the beautiful. To some degree this is surely true of all the transcendentals. Even though truth and goodness lend themselves to precise rational analysis, it seems that we somehow take them to heart only when, at a more fundamental level than reason, we begin to perceive that they are beautiful as well—when, in effect, they too become objects for contemplation.
There are layers to this process. We are often struck by a sensory delight which remains primarily or even exclusively sensual; moreover, our own appreciative abilities differ. With more abstract art forms, for example, I might find the visual impact of color, light or geometry quite striking, but without a more representational reference, I am not drawn any deeper than that. Another example would be man’s response to an attractive woman—or, indeed, the difference between the way a woman will use makeup and clothing to be perceived as “sexy” as opposed to being more deeply beautiful. In some cases a man will experience what is primarily a biological response; but in others he will find himself quite simply astonished by feminine beauty.
This astonishment—this wonder—brings us to the heart of the matter. It is, I think, only when the sense of wonder kicks in that contemplation is at work. This contemplation may be a deliberate choice, but it may also be initiated on the demand of the object to be contemplated, that is, by its own revelatory power to penetrate our consciousness. This, after all, is how God calls us to true contemplation in prayer, something to which we can dispose ourselves, but which we cannot really manufacture or create. Contemplation in this sense is a response to an interior disclosure made in the human soul, appealing to man’s spiritual faculties. It is what we mean, I suppose, when we describe beauty as penetrating our very being.
As such, the experience of beauty is a non-rational communication with a reality which extends beyond the self, but a communication which takes the form of a communion deep within. That it originates beyond the self is the key to its transformative power. To return for just a moment to female beauty, we can see that the mere experience of sensory delight might fold in upon the self, becoming a selfish yearning for pleasure. But the deeper experience of beauty provides a contemplative understanding of the other, a disclosure of the true and the good in the other, and a movement into the unselfish order of love.
In some measure, this appreciation of beauty which consists in a sort of contemplative wonder will always put us in touch with something larger than ourselves, something to which we are inescapably drawn, as to our own fulfillment. Another way to say this is that it puts us in touch with being, something we experience in a wide variety of ways and on a wide variety of levels. But we can benefit fully only by appreciating the full range of beauty. It is not sufficient, for example, to make a religion out of beauty per se, to deify the seemingly transcendent experience which beauty provides. This is the romantic error, both as a movement and in particular human relations. It leaves us chasing a feeling. Rather, we must learn to appreciate the beauty in goodness and in truth as well, and the truth, goodness and beauty in all of reality. For I am convinced that beauty does not exist to please us; it exists to help us commune with being, that is, with God.
There was a television commercial once which showed a young couple walking along a path. They were very good-looking, but somewhat disengaged and preoccupied. Then they saw an elderly couple walking along the same path, lined with age and infirmity, the bloom of external beauty gone, but they walked hand-in-hand. The young couple experienced this as beauty, beauty through which they appropriated deep within something outside and larger than themselves. Their mood lightened; they too began to hold hands. They were no longer alone.
We live so often only on the surface. It is the role of beauty to make that impossible by penetrating to our spiritual core. Gradually, opening ourselves to beauty in this sense makes us less selfish. And as we become less selfish, less preoccupied with the ugly little worlds we create for ourselves, we experience beauty more often and more easily in turn.
Looking out across Willsboro Bay, I see a sailboat gliding by. The scene almost makes me gasp in wonder. Turning my attention back indoors, I see those who are with me here, the same as ever, ordinary and prosaic on the outside, just like me. It is possible, I guess, that they haven't actually changed. But I love them more.
An appeal from our founder, Dr. Jeffrey Mirus:
Dear reader: If you found the information on this page helpful in your pursuit of a better Catholic life, please support our work with a donation. Your donation will help us reach seven million Truth-seeking readers worldwide this year. Thank you!
Progress toward our March expenses ($773 to go):
All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!
Posted by: koinonia -
Jul. 16, 2011 8:08 AM ET USA
I can dig it!- ("You are really feelin' something") for those born after the 1970s. I am sorry for the loss of a loved one, but such occasions often do afford opportunities to elevate and redirect our thoughts. He'll be remembered in our family Rosary. Thanks for sharing.
Posted by: cvm46470 -
Jul. 16, 2011 12:32 AM ET USA
Welcome to the north country Dr. Mirus! (from over near the St. Lawrence River). It has been particularly glorious here the last few days! It is so true, the awareness of beauty and wonder leads so naturally to contemplation. Retrieving my children from camp in the mountains this evening, and then out stargazing tonight with my family, leads to an expansiveness that seems always to lead back to God.