Divine Beauty (1)

“Ever since the creation of the world,” the apostle Paul declared, “[God’s] invisible nature, namely his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20). To those qualities of Power and Deity, we can add divine Beauty.[1]

Beauty is an all-encompassing term that is nearly synonymous with “truth” and “goodness.” “Beauty is truth / truth beauty. / That is all ye know on earth / and all ye need to know” (Keats). The Greek adjective kalos can be rendered both “good” and “beautiful.” The primary text of Orthodox spirituality is accordingly called The Philokalia, a title that translates as “love of beauty,” implying as well “love of the Good.” That Good is God himself, together with his purpose for all that he has brought into being. Imbued with the spirit of the Philokalia, nineteenth century Russian philosophers could affirm: “Beauty will save the world.”

Beauty of this order is not at all static, characterizing something that is merely to be observed and admired. It possesses an inherent power that enables a person to perceive—within and beyond its outward, material expression—a deeper dimension of reality, even in the most mundane of everyday objects. Peoples of all cultures and religions have experienced an ineffable, transcendent beauty in persons and things of the created world. This is evident, for example, in the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, a composite expression that combines the themes of harmony, stillness, tranquility and peace (wabi) with the notion of ageing with dignity and grace (sabi). It is often described as the beauty of “imperfection,” since its aesthetic focuses on what might be considered flaws in an otherwise perfect object or system: a chip in a fine porcelain teacup, for example, or a wilted flower in an ornamental arrangement, or the fact that all living things finally succumb to death. “Imperfection,” though, conveys a mistaken idea. True perfection, in this perspective, lies precisely in those details of a given reality that distinguish it as unique, considered by some as flaws but seen by others as marks of the “natural,” of reality as it is in its depths: simple, humble, yet peaceful, graceful, good. Beneath the artificial orderliness we try to impose on the world, there is a natural beauty, a loveliness perceptible only to those who can penetrate exteriors to behold the inner essence and value of things—and of persons. To such visionaries, all of reality, every aspect of creation, is potentially capable of revealing ultimate Beauty, ultimate Goodness. As Fathers of the Church such as Ambrose and Augustine affirmed, any truly beautiful thing, like any truly beautiful person, is an epiphany of Divine Beauty, a revelation of God.

According to the Hexameron, the account of creation given in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, after each “day” in which God brought elements of the world from non-being into being, “God saw that it was good.” At the close of the sixth day God surveyed everything that he had made, “and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). The word rendered here is again the term kalos, and it can be translated “beautiful.” Creation, reflecting the beauty of the Creator, is itself beautiful as well as good.

Yet, perhaps in the spirit of wabi-sabi, the narrative continues in chapter two with the sinful rebellion of Adam against the Creator-Lord, and his subsequent expulsion from the Garden of Paradise. The beauty of creation is marred by human sin. Nevertheless, God’s creative work embraces the fallen person, the human being created in the divine image, with the single-minded intention of restoring that person to Life. Creation reveals not only God’s power, deity and beauty. It also makes known his ultimate purpose: to draw the world and human persons from “the dominion of darkness”—from sin, corruption and bondage to demonic power—and to transfer them into “the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1:13). From the very beginning, Salvation is implicit in the act of Creation. Together they make up “the project of God,” a project that more than any other reveals the essence of God’s beauty and goodness.

Into the beauty of creation, both of the world and of humankind, there came a break in its perfection. Created for life, we chose death, whose consequences could only be eternal alienation and separation from the Creator. We introduced a “flaw” into creation that led to its fateful distortion, the obscuring of the primal beauty that marked it from its origins. To free us from the consequences of that flaw, of our self-induced imperfection, God entered into his creation with another “imperfection.” Responding to our blindness to natural beauty and to the mystery it reveals, God in the person of the divine Son submitted himself voluntarily to the ultimate imperfection, the ultimate offense against divine beauty and goodness. He took upon himself the horror and agony of crucifixion. And in so doing, he transformed the Cross from an image of torture and death into the ultimate symbol of divine love and the gift of divine life. Creation was marred by the imperfection of sin we introduced into it. It was renewed and restored by Christ’s death and resurrection to an even greater goodness, an even greater beauty than it knew “in the beginning.”

Divine Beauty comes to us through imperfections: in our personal life and in the world around us. If we can behold earthly beauty in a wilted leaf, a broken branch, a worn carpet or a grandparent’s wrinkles, then we are not very far from the degree and quality of perception needed to behold—both behind and within the mundane affairs and encounters of our daily life—the source of all authentic beauty. We are not far from seeing in things observed the goodness, the splendor and the Beauty of God.

[1] I am grateful to Peter Bouteneff and Tracy Bush for their insights into some of the themes of this column.