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Brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.
—St Paul, Philippians 4:8

The concept of beauty has been on my mind for quite awhile. Beauty is of one of the three classical virtues, the others being Goodness and Truth. Dr. Timothy G. Patitsas, in his new book, The Ethics of Beauty, advocates that we must first look to Beauty (rather than Goodness or Truth) to fill us with life. Beauty is life-giving.

Patitsas argues from “St Dionysius the Areopagite and the Fathers that followed him” that as “the beautiful appearing of God” hovered over the deep (Genesis 1:1-2), non-being became inflamed with love of God’s beauty and willingly left its non-being, becoming “gloriously alive.” (Pg 45) Patitsas goes on to argue that if we first get caught up in the intellectual pursuit of Goodness and Truth without first allowing ourselves to fall in love with God’s Beauty, we will become “imprisoned in the self.”

My thinking on Beauty has intersected with my thinking about Luck, Life, and God (my previous post). In that post, I said I have come to believe that while God does not cause the tragic events in our lives, He does permit them and He meets us in them. If being in love with beauty draws us toward life and away from non-being, then how can I learn to not just see the tragedy and become cynical about life and God? How can I learn to see beyond the ugly and find Beauty—God—in the midst of tragedy?

Certainly I can find beauty in nature. Recall a sunset that has been like a fire setting the sky ablaze. We know the physics: nuclear fission combines hydrogen atoms into helium; the Earth’s atmosphere filters out the blue spectrum; the Earth orbits the sun and turns on its axis. However, knowing these rational things about the sunset are not what stops our breath and fill us with wonder and awe; rather, the beauty of the sunset transcends the natural and reveals to us something more, something unseen.

The same thing can occur in art. Here is a photograph of Michelangelo’s masterpiece, “Pieta.” It depicts the dead Jesus laying across the lap of His mother, Mary. Regardless of your beliefs, the sight of a dead child in the arms of the mother is as a tragic a sight as there can be. As a man, I cannot grasp the depth of the pain that a mother would experience.

The same thing can occur in art. Here is a photograph of Michelangelo’s masterpiece, “Pieta.” It depicts the dead Jesus laying across the lap of His mother, Mary. Regardless of your beliefs, the sight of a dead child in the arms of the mother is as a tragic a sight as there can be. As a man, I cannot grasp the depth of the pain that a mother would experience.

Michelangelo’s “Pieta”

And yet, this work is considered to be one of the great works of art. Through it, we witness a great tragedy while at the same time experiencing its overwhelming beauty. How can this be?

The tragedy of the scene is manifold. For the Christian, we see God dead at our hands. All of us, Christian or not, see a man in his early 30s, dead, a life cut short. We also see the grieving mother. While we may not have experienced the loss of a child, likely each of us knows the pain of a life cut short; or, we have experienced loss due to death. Most know what is like to feel the pain and emptiness when someone we love dies: the extraordinary pain of grief that feels as though it is crushing the very life out of us as we struggle simply to take our next breath. Viewing this statue, we relive our own pain as memories flood in; we are filled with empathy for Mary.

And, we see more. In the tragedy of Jesus’ death and Mary’s loss we also see the very essence of what makes us human: love. Without love there is no grief. Mother Mary’s pain is a window into the depth of love. Too, without love, there is no self-sacrifice. Jesus willingly gave up His life for us, that we might be saved from death. Mary would have willingly traded places with her Son. “There is no greater love than to give your life for another,” said Jesus.

Michelangelo speaks to us in the universal language of life, pain, joy, suffering, and death. In this work he shows us the beauty of love is its rawest form. It is as though his work is a portal through which we can see through the tragedy and glimpse true reality beyond this world. And isn’t that the function of true art, whether sculpture, painting, literature, poetry, music…? True art has the power to transform both the tragic and the ordinary into the extraordinary, to give us a glimpse into true reality; it lifts the veil separating the natural from the rest of reality. When art does this, when it succeeds in opening the portal to reveal all of true reality, then it is truly beautiful.

All art is not created equal. Contrast Michelangelo’s work with this photograph of Salvador Dali’s painting of Jesus’ crucifixion (“Corpus Hypercubus”). That is Dali’s wife looking on. Francis Schaefer (Art and the Bible) argues that modern artists no longer use a language common to us all; therefore, he says, without help we cannot know what the artist is trying to say to us. I find this to be true of Dali’s work. I view it and I experience a sense of “wow” at the artwork itself, but I do not experience awe in the depths of my soul that I feel when seeing Michelangelo’s statue.

Dali’s “Corpus Hypercubus”

And this is the problem with art that “wows” us. So much of modern art, for me, either speaks a language I don’t understand without explanation, or seeks to shock me with the tragedy and absurdity of life. “Wow” is like a drug; we constantly need more. It seems like so much of modern art is left to try become increasingly abstract or shocking to satisfy our desire for more “wow.” Too often it is meant to inspire in the viewer anger, cynicism, or despair. Rarely does modern art inspire awe by revealing the beauty often hidden in reality.

For 2000 years the Christian Church has been filled with icons. These icons are not intended to be photo realistic depictions of people or historical events. Icons are a way we can see through the portal and experience God’s Kingdom now. In worship, surrounded by icons, we enter into the reality of the Kingdom of God with Jesus, the angels, and all the saints praying for us and awaiting us. We know we are worshiping God with all of creation. Icons are always beautiful.

What about our day-to-day life?

We each know that life is difficult and it is relentless. Life is too often filled with seemingly senseless tragedy, ours or that of others. I began this blog with Patitsas’ (The Ethics of Beauty) claim that we must find transformative beauty to endure tragedy around us or heal from tragedy that has happened to us. Recall too, above, that St Dionysius said creation willingly left its non-being for being when encountering the love of God, the ultimate Beauty.

For us, we can find beauty in nature and in true art. And, perhaps most importantly we can find it in another place.

Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is within us. Each human, is made in the image of God; therefore, each of us has the potential to be an icon of Jesus, the God-man. When you weep with me in my suffering, laugh with me in my happiness, rejoice with me in my joy, smile at me, offer a kind word, help me when I need help…when you do these things for me, in you I see the Beauty of Christ; in your beauty I see beyond the natural, survival-of-the-fittest world and experience through you the Beauty of Christ’s selflessness toward all of humanity. Through you I experience the Kingdom of God. If I am able to do these things for you, then you, too, can experience God’s Beauty and Kingdom in this life.

The gift of Christ’s Beauty is our greatest gift to each other; this is why we are to told by God to love our neighbor. Through our giving and receiving love we each offer the other the opportunity to gaze upon the Beauty of God and to experience His Kingdom; we remind each other of our moment-by-moment choice to willingly move away from the non-being of our self-centeredness and toward the healing of our soul and body and have fullness of life in the love of God.

St Paul exhorts us to always strive toward Beauty:

I consider [the things I have obtained as] garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him…Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
—Philippian’s 3:8-9, 12-14

Let’s choose Beauty. Choose love. Choose life.


The Ethics of BeautyTimothy Patitsas

“Why Beauty Matters”—Roger Scruton

Naturally—Rick Mylander’s reflections on creation and Christian spirituality