Beauty is a pillar of faith, alongside goodness and truth. In an often dark world, we struggle to ensure that its importance and sacramental quality are not lost, for at the deepest level of our being we already know beauty and resonate sympathetically with it
Across the ward, a man is struggling. His body is writhing on the chair near the bed. His right leg, arthritic and misshapen, is kicking against the cubicle curtain. Sweat edges down the furrows of his grim face. I want to help him but I myself am anxiously recuperating. Taut and strained with the intense effort, he makes one last concentrated twist. And before a passing nurse can assist him, he utters a hoarse growl of triumph. The battle is over. Calm now, he proudly begins the long and complicated manoeuvre of buttoning up his cardigan – the cardigan that Dan had just managed to put on.
Why do I still remember Dan’s small victory when I have already forgotten the world records of the recent Olympic champions? It has to do, I think, with a certain simplicity, a concentration, a determination on Dan’s part. It was neither contrived nor attention-seeking. It was utterly honest; it was total and it was real. It was, I now believe, beautiful.
Here, according to D.H. Lawrence, was a man “in his wholeness wholly attending”. There was no distraction in Dan’s single eye as he battled with his uncooperative cardigan. If beauty is “the product of honest attention to the particular” then I was privy to a small epiphany in a Tralee hospital that August morning. Did it, I wonder, somehow facilitate my own healing as I watched? And did an invisible healing grace dance through the ward at that moment? I do not know.
But what did dance through the hospital the following day, though not down our wing, was the newly crowned Australian ‘Rose of Tralee’. There was no denying the grace and beauty there. But not only there, shining as it was. The mystic in all of us will recognise the hidden shimmering at the core of everything, even the imperfect; the quiet music in all that happens, the world itself as sacramental. St Thomas Aquinas saw divine harmony, God’s radiance and beauty in all of Creation.
That is why true beauty is always redemptive. In The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote that “only beauty will save the world”. Philosopher John Macmurray writes in Freedom in the Modern World: “I am inclined to think that the worst feature of modern life is its failure to believe in beauty … If we want to make the world better, the main thing we have to do is make it more beautiful.”
The Church has lost that blessed imagination. Beauty was always included with her two sisters, goodness and truth, in the traditional pillars of Christian faith. But the still virulent strains of Gnosticism and Manichaeism, with their fear of enfleshed beauty, have distorted the true vision and reality of Incarnation.
In The Minister, R.S. Thomas pulls no punches:
Protestantism – the adroit castrator
Of art; the bitter negation
Of song and dance and the heart’s innocent
You have botched our flesh and left us only
Terrible impotence in a warm world.
In his Art and the Beauty of God: a Christian understanding, Bishop Richard Harries, too, believes that all real beauty, no matter what its form, carries a divine radiance. He writes: “The material and the immaterial, the visible and the invisible, the physical and the spiritual interpenetrate one another. The physical world becomes radiant with eternity … This means that all everyday experiences have a sacramental character.” He also believes that this radiance of God “can be fully present in failure and ignominy”.
In Waiting on God, the French religious thinker Simone Weil wrote: “Like a sacrament, the beauty of the world is Christ’s tender smile for us coming through matter.” Drawn towards God, as we always somehow are from birth and baptism, we carry an unconscious attraction towards becoming small reflections of that beautiful smile. “We do not merely want to see beauty,” wrote C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory, “We want something else that can hardly be put into words – to unite with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”
But why is this desire so faint within us? Because of a condition called spiritual blindness.
In Alice Walker’s novel The Colour Purple, Shug Avery reminds us how fed up God must feel when we walk through a field of poppies and fail to notice the colour purple. On the final Judgement Day, Rabbi Lionel Blue tells us, we shall be called to account for all the beautiful things we should have enjoyed, but didn’t. Sin is blind to beauty. It lives in a flat world, it fears the edges, it does not notice colour. It is graceless. And it is graceless because it has no imagination.
“The imagination”, wrote the Irish poet and priest John O’Donohue, “creates a pathway of reverence for the visitations of beauty. To awaken the imagination is to retrieve, reclaim and re-enter experience in fresh new ways … To put it in liturgical terms: each of us is the priest/priestess of our own life, and the altar of our imagination is the place where our hidden and beautiful life can become visible and open to transformation.”
The theologist and writer Ronald Rolheiser reminds us that at the deepest level of our being we already know beauty and resonate sympathetically with it. “That Imago Dei,” he writes, “that deep virginal spot within us, that place where hands infinitely more gentle than our own once caressed us before we were born, where our souls were kissed before birth, where all that is most precious in us still dwells, where the fire of love still burns – in that place we feel a vibration sympathétique in the face of beauty. It stirs the soul where it is most tender.”
My cousin, the poet Eugene O’Connell, writes about a beauty that took many decades to perfect. In “Crossing the Fire”, he wrote about my Auntie Nell and her husband, Johnnie:
… So when Johnnie died we wanted
Nell to sit on his side of the fire,
Out of the way of the draught and
The traffic up to their room.
But she kept to the habit of
their life together, and preferred
The visitor to sit on his chair.
Afraid that if she crossed the fire
That there would be no one
On the other side to return her gaze.