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Beauty and Enmity: Life on the Point

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 25, 2012

For the second time this Summer, my wife and I are spending a few days with her mother at her “camp” on Willsboro Bay, just off Lake Champlain near Willsboro, NY. On much of the New York side, the lake is bordered by the Adirondack Mountains. Not surprisingly, then, it is an extremely deep lake with a rocky bottom. The clarity of the water is astonishing, and the deeps boast several diving wrecks plus the region’s own legendary water dragon, Champ. To me, this little thousand-square-foot camp is one of the most beautiful places in the world.

The land on which the camp sits, which divides the bay from the lake, is Willsboro point. Across the bay, where there is a straight run around it to the shores of the main lake itself, trains rumble and hoot to and from Montreal, some eighty miles to the north, and across the Canadian border. It is typically far less humid here in the North Country, at least as compared with home base in Virginia. The clarity of the air is refreshing. The vibrancy of the color calls Narnia to mind.

Beauty is relaxing; it also calls one out of oneself and lifts the soul toward something not quite graspable that seems always to lie just behind the beauty. This same elusive something is what we contemplate in wonder when we are struck or startled by beauty. That beauty points beyond itself in this way explains why, whenever we grasp some beauty and bring it into our possession, its charm eventually fades, leaving us restless and yearning once again. Even married couples have to look beyond the beauty they find in each other in exactly this way. Honoring the mystery is the only way to keep beauty fresh.

There is a way of beauty to God, called in Latin the via pulchritudinis. It is not the whole story; it is too hard to extract doctrinal principles and moral norms, the one required to think beautifully about God, and the other to live beautifully in His service. But it does lift us above the battle with our fallen nature for a moment, and it reminds us not only of our goal but of the desire we have to obtain it whole and entire. Far from being a distraction, beauty should spur us to appreciate also those other transcendentals, Truth and Goodness, which also point us to God.

The great quarrels of life are often, perhaps always, about God. When we quarrel about what is true or what is good, we are fighting about the very highest things. Even those who claim that everything is relative and the quarrels do not matter find themselves extraordinarily determined to ensure that others accept the same conclusions. The reason is not hard to see: It is simply because each of us, in our own muddled way, is striving mightily to confirm an understanding of reality which will bring maximum personal fulfillment. Differences over what constitutes beauty itself are also passionately argued, and for the same reason—the certainty that a right appreciation of the beautiful reveals a purity of soul which is somehow targeted for sublimity, and that an attachment to what is ugly reveals the opposite, a twisted spirit headed for degradation. This explains, among many other things, why parents care so passionately not just about the values but about the very tastes of their children.

We can see, then, how close we humans are to disagreement, and how close every disagreement is to a quarrel, and even how close every quarrel is to enmity. We want to find our own fulfillment, and we want to ensure that all those we care about find it too. By design, however, beauty tends to stimulate a sense of contemplative wonder which most of us have to work much harder to achieve when we are exploring the true and the good. And because the experience of beauty takes us out of ourselves, even if for only a moment, it is an experience which enables us to drop our guards, relax, and recognize at least briefly how much we desire the ineffable Source, and how much our neighbors also desire it, and how small and petty (in comparison with the ineffable Source) are our quarrels or, if not precisely our disagreements (for they too serve transcendental goals), then certainly our every enmity.

Like many, perhaps most, of my readers, I live mostly on the point—on the point of disagreeing, on the point of doing battle, on the point of making a point which is of overwhelming importance to human fulfillment. Like everybody else, I get tired of this sometimes, but I would not trade it for a false carelessness about the true and the good. And, as I said earlier, even those who insist most forcibly that the true and the good do not matter, well, apparently they wouldn’t trade living on the point of an argument for any such carelessness about human fulfillment either. If life is to have meaning, then I think we all have to live “on the point”.

We seem always to live for the point at issue, sometimes a point as precise as that of a pin, and sometimes it may even by the very knife-point. Living on the point is part of what it means to be human. Those who see no point, or despair of reaching the point, commit suicide.

But the wonder of beauty—of living on the point as on Willsboro point, or on the point at which we hear a symphony by Beethoven, or see a portrait by Rembrandt, or encounter any other beauty which takes our very breath away—the wonder of beauty is that it takes us out of ourselves and, just for a moment, suspends argument and preaches understanding. It makes us determined, probably not for the first time, to keep the ultimate matrix of that beauty alive in all our disagreements and even all of our quarrels, so that none of them may become enmities.

The matrix of beauty is love. We are called by beauty, as by truth and goodness, to envelop all of our relationships in love. It is love, ultimately, which takes us out of ourselves, in an act of will for the good of another, and so it is love alone which can fulfill our quest for the good, the true and, yes, the beautiful: Love for the Source and love for all the seekers of the Source, together.

Here on the shore of Lake Champlain, this is what I see. Beauty has taken me captive once again, if only for a moment, and though I must inescapably fail to meet Beauty’s demands, I know I must not willingly fail. And if I do willingly fail, I must repent and return. Love in my prayers; love in my vocation; love in my duties; love in my discussions; love in my work; love in my arguments; love in my disagreements; love in all and through all, no matter how vital the point at issue—no, in direct proportion to the vitality of the point at issue.

This is the lesson of the beautiful. I do not know how else to put it. If beauty really carries us out of ourselves, then the case is clear: The challenge of beauty is love.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 28, 2012 9:38 AM ET USA

    Beautiful reflection. On the lighter side, and back on "the point", one might take issue with the examples of Beethoven for music and Rembrandt (impressionism) in art. Perhaps the works of Bach in music or of Bernini in art are even more beautiful. Be that as it may, the underlying message is in fact vital in every sense of the word, and it makes for a beautiful reflection on everlasting love.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Jul. 28, 2012 8:43 AM ET USA

    Thank you! Outstanding, humble, to the point - in a word beautiful.