God in Beauty
A golden dusk looms over the wheat field in rural France. Two peasants have set aside their tools and a basket of potatoes. They stand bowed, praying an Ave Maria, and the world around them is lit up. The whole landscape is charged, enchanted by a presence of glory. This painting is called The Angelus, by J.F. Millet, 1859. Art shows us the essence of things, and in this artwork in particular, we discover the essence of Christianity. A heart open to God is open to God’s beauty, and that beauty overflows into our life.
“Beware of false prophets,” Christ warns us today. “They come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:15-21).
Since prehistoric times, fruit producing trees have symbolized paradise and beauty. Eden is described as a garden of magnificent trees, at the center of which stands the very Tree of Life. Children tap into this when they bite into a sweet, juicy fruit. It is the first taste of heaven. It is no wonder artists dedicate years to the study of fruit, and a simple still life with a bunch of grapes can move the most oblivious audience. Some of my favorite childhood memories involve fruit — picking apples in an orchand in the Shenandoah. A good tree has the quality of heaven.
Then there is the Mesquite tree. I acquired a disdain for mesquite while clearing brush last year. Sometimes known as the “devil with roots,” this invasive species, with sharp thorns and indestructible roots, has been the bane of farmers for centuries. You can judge a tree by its fruit.
If this is true, what then is the fruit of the Kingdom of God? It is Beauty.
Beauty is an emanation from God, and we can only open our hearts to God when our hearts are open to beauty.
“Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth” (Psalm 50:2).
Beauty is a glimpse into the kingdom.
Notice St. John’s descriptions of the heavenly Zion in his Revelation:
"He carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal…the city was pure gold, like clear glass…and has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light” (Rev. 21:10-11, 18, 23-24).
God is the height of beauty, and his kingdom reflects his beauty.
Where is this heavenly city?
"You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering" (Hebrews 12:22).
The heavenly kingdom is with us here, in the Church. It pours into our lives from the sacraments. The more our hearts fill up with prayer, the more our actions with virtue, the more the paradisal beauty overflows into everything we touch. This is the ageless testimony of the Church.
It is no coincidence that the further the West has fallen from apostolic Christianity, the more degenerate has become its art. The early Church filled the world with cathedrals colossal and breathtaking, colorful paintings that pierce the heart, and polyphonic harmonies so rich you want to fall down on your knees. Almost overnight, something switched with the Protestant reformation. The iconoclasts in Northern Europe literally white washed their walls. They tore down icons and smashed stained glass windows. A new wave of iconoclasm swept through Christendom in the 1960’s. Churches abandoned their traditional liturgies. Worship corroded to pop-music and jeans and t-shirts in a metal warehouse.
We have a crisis. The world is starved of beauty.
“Beware of false prophets,” Christ warned us. A culture that perverts or disdains beauty is a false prophet. A church that produces ugliness is a false church. The Kingdom gives us beauty.
But what is beauty?
We have to ask this today, because our culture has lost an understanding of beauty. We have watered down the word so often, it has lost its meaning. Much of the time, when we say beauty we really mean something wholly different: ‘stimulating,’ ‘utilitarian,’ or ‘sensual.’ Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, and it is blaspheme to say so. Beauty is an attribute of God. Anything truly beautiful is beautiful because it expresses God’s character.
“Like the appearance of the rainbow…so was the appearance of the brightness all around…the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face" (Ezekiel 1:28).
God is the source of all beauty, and his beauty the source of joy.
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1).
God’s beauty is woven into creation, in the clouds, in sunlight, in plants, and animals, everywhere.
“Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air, amply spread around everywhere…They all answer you, ‘Here we are, look; we’re beautiful.’ Their beauty is their confession. Who made these beautiful changeable things, if not one who is beautiful and unchangeable” (St. Augustine).
God’s beauty through the universe is his revelation to us. If are eyes are trained to reach out for beauty, we will always find God.
“Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth” (Psalm 50:2).
Finally, the height of God’s beauty in this world is Jesus Christ. Having assumed a body of flesh, God perfected flesh. Jesus Christ is the epitome of beauty, and the Church is His Body.
God’s beauty shines everywhere. Are we aware of it? Are we enjoying it? We Christians need to stop being so dour. We let the news get us depressed or angry. We find ourselves bogged down when this or that goes wrong. There is a lot of ugliness around us. The world is messed up. Yet, even now, the whole world is charged with God’s beauty.
What do our problems compare with the grandeur in the clouds above us? Our problems are pretty small. The newstations report about one calamity after another. Yet, the flowers keep blooming and the crickets keep chirping.
“Do not be anxious,” our Lord tells us. “Look at the birds…consider the lilies” (Matthew 6:25-26, 28).
We have to lift up our hearts. The universe is a banquet table that God has laid out for us to enjoy and give thanks. We have Christ with us. No matter how bleak the world becomes, we can just go on, finding beauty in all the little things, and making the world a little more beautiful, day after day. We are here to breathe in and breathe out beauty.
“Beware of false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:15-21).
Two peasants are standing in the field. The church bells have rung. They dropped their tools and bowed praying:
“The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary; and she conceived of the Holy Ghost. Hail Mary, full of Grace…”
Artists can depict life better than anyone, and this artist captured the heart of Christianity in his painting. When our life revolves around prayer, a beauty from heaven pours into everything. Our hearts are changed. Our work is changed. Nature changes. God’s presence fills the world with beauty. If we only open our souls to it, His beauty will saturate into our lives.