Being raised on a farm in rural South Dakota, I believe I understood simplicity and solitude from a young age. While my friends in town spent their summers together at the pool or on adventures, my summers were quieter, filled with reading and finding entertainment with my younger sister. Oddly, the beauty of where I lived was not grasped until I left, traveled thousands of miles, and went to Europe.
In college, I spent a semester studying abroad in Austria. Immersed in older cultures that had spent centuries cultivating beauty, I was astounded. Entering a church, I couldn’t help but immediately think of God. The architecture forced me to look heavenward in a way that most churches back home did not. There were castles and bridges twice as old as the founding documents of my country. My experience of beauty culminated near the end of the semester when I awoke early one morning, climbed a small mountain, and watched the sunrise. Standing atop a radio tower, I marveled at the brilliant colors, the endless wave of mountains, and my ability to take it all in. My heart surged, beating in new ways and expanding to encompass beauty in a way it never had before.
What surprised me, perhaps more than this experience, was how this event changed how I saw the world. I returned home to the same South Dakota I had left, but I saw it with new eyes. Instead of another cornfield, I saw golden tassels stretching into an achingly lovely expanse of blue sky. This beauty that had always been before me struck me with a new vitality. A few years later, I started reading Thomas Dubay’s The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet and I found someone putting words to truths my heart had already recognized.
“Sin necessarily suffocates wonder and joy”
During my semester abroad, I took an excursion to Switzerland and left with the impression that it would be impossible to be an atheist while living there. Waking up in a hostel in Iseltwald, I encountered a lake shrouded in mist with snowcapped mountains piercing the sky. A stroll around the lake led to my friend and I belting out songs of praise to God. It simply seemed to be the necessary response to such glories that we found everywhere we looked.
I am not naive. I know that some people in Switzerland, just like people in the United States, might not be struck by the great beauty I found there. In The Evidential Power of Beauty, Thomas Dubay begins to explain why some seem immune to this power.
“The personal inability to perceive truth and beauty is related as first cousin, if not the sibling, to a lack of wonder, which in turn, often if not always, arises from jadedness, from a perduring and even disgusting boredom caused by excess and overindulgence….thus sin necessarily suffocates wonder and joy.”
The further we are from a relationship with Beauty Himself, the less able we are to encounter beauty in the world around us.
The first couple years that I taught high school, I was baffled that my students didn’t find beauty a mildly interesting, if not persuasive, an argument for God’s existence. They all seemed to write it off as illogical and silly to think that beauty meant there could be a Creator. Had they ever encountered the allure of a pretty scene? If not, I wondered how that was even possible. If they had, I wondered how the ache in their chests did not point to what Dubay calls “an aching need for the infinite.” Several times, I have recognized the desire I have for limitless beauty, love, and joy. It makes me believe that these desires might not be fruitless, with no fulfillment, but rather have a perfect solution–God.
“Wonder is the normal response to splendor.”
Regarding beauty, there are two things that continually interest me. The first is that I am able to perceive it and the second it that it is not necessary. When I stop to consider, it is a bit surprising that the scarlet leaves of autumn move my heart or that a symphony orchestra can feel equal parts painful and gorgeous. Why is beauty so powerful? The animals do not marvel at the thousands of stars in the country night sky. Dubay says, “Fully jaded men and women, old or young, marvel at nothing.” But the alive people, the ones not jaded in this breathtaking world? Thomas Dubay argues that the saints are the ones with “the keenest eyes for beauty” and that “[t]hey are so alive that they readily thrill to the beauty that impels them to the truth.” If the saints are the best at appreciating beauty, then the closer I get to Christ, the more power beauty will have in my life.
The fact that I perceive beauty and it moves me is one thing. Yet another is that all of this heart-pounding, eye-opening, truth-propelling beauty is completely unnecessary. In the simple sense of survival, beauty is an extra. I do not need beauty to eat, sleep, or live. It is the superabundance of this gift that, for me, makes it a sign of God. Humans seem compelled to create beauty. The architecture of buildings, the desire to create art, and the intricate harmonies in music are not needed in this world. Even though they aren’t needed, we seem bound and determined to create them anyway.
Impractical yet fulfilling
The “impractical” aspect of beauty reveals that God is not interested in humanity simply surviving. We are not given the bare essentials and told to make do with what we have. Our hearts mirror His own heart and the same is true of our desires. We long for beauty and we seek it out, whether in truly fulfilling or devastating avenues. This attraction to the beautiful is planted in our souls by the One who is Beauty. He is not a God of “just enough” but One who generously pours out an abundance. The God who multiplied the fish and the loaves to an unnecessarily large degree fashioned the glories of our created world in unnecessarily breathtaking complexity.
While unnecessary for physical survival, I would propose that beauty is crucial in the formation of the soul. Something new in me is born when I enter a truly beautiful church. Every Catholic church is a home to Jesus. Some, however, are much more like the home the King deserves. Works of literature can be profoundly moving as their beauty reveals the truth. Art, good art, can lead me into prayer as I gaze upon it. In terms of the health of the soul, beauty is essential. Naturally, I think Dubay would agree with me. “To be listless, bored, and lifeless is not only a miserable condition, it is an illness, a fact obvious to anyone who is intellectually alive. To respond to reality and to appreciate it are normal; not to respond is abnormal.”
I will not say that I have mastered the art of living a beautiful life. However, as time passes I become more aware that pursuing beauty is not a luxury but rather a necessity for my well-being. In a busy life, it is easy to question why I should take the time to soak up poetry, delve into literature, gaze at artwork, or appreciate the fall leaves. What is the point? Shouldn’t I be doing something more productive? The point is that doing so makes me more aware of the exquisite world that surrounds me and thus causes me to be more grateful. A spirit of gratitude causes me to be more ready to acknowledge the many gifts I’ve been given. In the sometimes frantic pace of ‘living life’, beauty forces me to slow down and be in this particular moment in time, the only place I can truly meet God.
St. Irenaeus is quoted as saying, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” Dubay says, “Saints too are alive, fully alive.” Perhaps we become fully alive by pursuing the beautiful glory of God in this world around us. In deeply and intentionally encountering the loveliness of this created world, we encounter the beauty of the Creator.