Beauty Will Save Your Soul
The love of beauty is the mark of a Christian soul. From the tiniest blade of grass to the stars in the sky, all beauty is sacramental. It exists to inspire our soul towards God. If we want to grow as Christians, we need to take seriously this work: to spend life contemplating beauty.
Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain. High up on that jagged mountain, Christ transfigured before them. “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.” A bright cloud overshadowed them and a voice boomed, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Matthew 17:1-9). Overcome, the disciples fell down to the ground in awe and fear.
What would it be to look at God in his splendor? This was not a little light glimmering on Jesus’ face. It was not the kind of impressive show that you can see at a concert. We have become so conditioned to computer generated tricks that we can not even fathom seeing the real thing. Jesus Christ’s true glory shown on Mount Tabor. A veil was pulled down from the disciples’ eyes. For one moment, they looked face to face at God. It would have been stunning and terrifying.
Ezekiel had the same vision. Caught up to the throne of God, he looked with utter fear: “Behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness round about it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming bronze…there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire, and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness as it were a human form…I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness round about him. Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face" (Ezekiel 1: 3,4, 25-28).
We have all been moved by beauty. We have all had glimpses into the majestic, whether in a storm, on a mountaintop, or in the innocent eyes of an infant. Every wonder in this world is just a shadow compared to the real thing. God is beauty itself.
St. Symeon describes his vision of God: “Master, how could I describe the vision of your face? How could mere words contain One whom the World could never contain…suddenly you appeared from on high, shining greater than the Sun itself, shining brilliantly from the heavens down into my heart…What intoxication of the Light. What swirlings of fire!”
Every word is inadequate. To look on the full beauty of God would be like looking for the first time in your life. You would realize that you have never really seen colors. Faced with God’s beauty, every rose and sunset here would look cheap and shadowy. You have never really known pleasure. Every sensual joy would feel fake and childish. King David discovered this reality and proclaimed: "One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord" (Ps 26: 4).
This is the vision granted Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor. The Feast of the Transfiguration is the Feast of God’s revealed glory. It is the celebration of beauty. How should a Christian live? If we want to grow as Christians, we need to make ours a life of contemplating beauty.
What is beauty? In 1878, novelist Margaret Hungerford first coined the phrase, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” The idea goes farther back then that. When Shakespeare composed the verse: “Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye,” he was echoing a concept that people have wrestled with since the beginning. Today, this notion has pierced so deeply in our culture that most of us never question it. It is an absolute lie. Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. Beauty is not subjective. Beauty is absolute. What is beauty? Beauty is that which reminds the soul of God.
When God wove the universe together, he scattered his beauty in everything he touched. Like rays of light bouncing through a prism, God’s personality, his essence, clings to all that he orchestrates. Modern science only makes this more obvious. God’s beauty is evident in the greatest cosmic marvels and all the way down to the molecular level. The world is pregnant with His beauty. How can anyone doubt God’s reality? God’s glory is evident all around us. We can only doubt him if we have forgotten how to look.
American culture is in a crisis today: a crisis of beauty. Our values have changed over the last 100 years. In the past, the concert halls overflowed with admirers of Mozart, Debussy, and the genius of classical composers. Today, the symphony halls have been replaced with pop music and sensational cacophony. We have replaced beauty with entertainment and eroticism. In the past, men wore suits and ladies white gloves to go to the market. Today, we hardly wear anything at all. We have replaced what is beautiful with what is comfortable.
Christians have been just as guilty as non-Christians. We have dropped the ball of culture. From architecture, to entertainment, to Sunday worship, we have lost the value of beauty, which has forever been at the heart of Christian civilization. If we want to witness Christianity in the 21st century, we need to start reclaiming authentic Christian culture. We need to be the Church, and that means to take earnestly the love and pursuit of beauty.
St. Porphyrios once visited the island Patmos. He was on a pilgrimage to see the cave where St. John wrote Revelation. He waited for all the pilgrims to step away so that he could enjoy the holiness of the site, but he was too distracted. His prayer felt dry and barren. Then he walked outside for a little, wandered from the cave, and saw a wild flower. Lackadaisically, he stooped down and smelled it. Awe overcame him instantly. He was raptured up into contemplation of the miracle of creation.
The love of beauty is the mark of a Christian soul. Today, as we celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration, we are reminded of this gift. The Christian in the 21st century will only succeed by rediscovering a pursuit of beauty. So stop and smell the roses.