In Praise of Beauty
God created all things in goodness, truth and beauty. Beauty is one of the ultimate things, then, that human beings are drawn to by their very nature. It is not just the beauty of nature, though. Nature is certainly a powerful exemplar of beauty, but men and women from the beginning of human culture have been moved to create beauty with their own hands and minds in bursts of wonder, and awe.
Shakespeare, for example, has his most noble of characters, Hamlet, reflect on the beauty of creation and the even nobler beauty of humanity in Act II, scene ii of his play, “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark”. Hamlet reflects on the beauty around him, but his thoughts are tainted by his present state of depression, which is the result of his dear father’s too sudden and mysterious death, and his mother’s too quick marriage to his uncle. Out of this depression he looks at the beauty that is all around him and at the beauty of mankind, but those natural beauties have been tarnished for him by the events surrounding his father’s death:
“I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’rhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire; why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” (Act II, scene ii)
As in so many of our experiences, Hamlet’s little speech here, which arises from his deep loss. It seems to illuminate the positive beauty around him for its lack within him, rather than for its presence. The beauty of the broad blue dome of the sky, “this majestical roof fretted with golden fire” seems foul to him in his depressive condition. It’s beauty mocks his depression, as does his recognition of the natural beauty of man and woman, which for him, is deeply tarnished because of his suspicions that his uncle, and maybe even his dear mother, may have sinned against that beauty by being the very cause of his father’s demise.
That is a good description of reality, is it not? Nature is profoundly beautiful. Man and woman, made in the image and likeness of God, are made in profound beauty. Beauty is the very essence of the soul of man and woman. To sin, to defy that natural and native beauty, stains that beauty, and insults the Creator of that beauty.
When we sin against nature, against our fellow human beings, we sin against beauty, we sin against God, the Author of all that is good, true and beautiful. Then the world begins to darken, the skies become a “pestilent congregation of vapors.” When we sin against our brothers and sisters we begin to see men and women not as the beautiful creations of the beautiful mind of God, but as nothing more than a “quintessence of dust” that we might simply sweep aside in our selfish pursuit of gain. It is sin, then, that destroys our ability to see and appreciate the beauty that is always there before our eyes. Sometimes we even lose sight of that beauty within ourselves. And that is a most dangerous thing indeed.
But then, God would not let us go on this way without reminding us of his unconquerable beauty in myriad ways. He reveals it in a sunrise, or sunset, the sudden apprehension of a field of spring flowers, in the majesty of snow-capped mountains, the quiet burbling of a creek in the deep woods, or the surprise of the lifting lilt of a solitary mountain thrush in the quiet evening hours. We see it in a painting, hear it in the music of Beethoven, or the familiar voice of a loved one. But the most profound proof of the beauty that is the mind of God was revealed in the Incarnation of his only begotten Son, Jesus. Though we had made the world dark with sin, he entered into that darkness, and with the pure light and beauty of his infinite, unconditional love and forgiveness, he pushed back the darkness, conquered it, and took away its power, forever.
Yes Beauty is everywhere. It is within and without. It is at the core of reality in all things. God is the source of all that is good, true and beautiful. When we turn our eyes to God, we are able to see it more clearly. When we turn away from God, we lose sight of beauty and we become lost. We must not take our eyes off of God then. For it is in him that we find all of our hope our wonder and, ultimately, our salvation.
Let me finish this reflection on beauty with this lovely poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins entitled, “Pied Beauty.”
Glory be to God for dappled things–
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: