The older I get the more convinced I am that spiritual maturity lies in the simple capacity to admire – to admire beauty, admire talent, and admire youth, without trying to possess them.
It takes years and lots of restless sadness to come to understand that. Happiness doesn’t come from achieving great things, being the centre of attention, or being recognized for being exceptional in some way. Paradoxically, the near-reverse is true, real joy lies in being able to admire another, in focusing attention away from self, and in being able to enjoy the beauty and giftedness of others without trying to possess them.
That’s easily said and very hard to do. Our congenital metaphysics militates against it. Soul and the body resist it. We want to possess what’s beautiful, press it against ourselves, make it our own. The heart wants to capture, possess, and control what attracts it. That’s the way we’re built.
And it’s the reason too why we often find it so painful to experience beauty. Strange, rather than filling us with joy, the experience of beauty often makes us sad and restless. Beauty attracts us, even stuns us sometimes, but, too often, leaves us with the bitter-sweet feeling: “This is beautiful, but I can’t have it, and so it accentuates everything I am not!” The experience of beauty, more often than not, leaves us restless and sad, incapable of joyful admiration.
Etty Hillesum, in her poignant memoir, An Interrupted Life, articulates this well:
“And here I hit upon something essential. Whenever I saw a beautiful flower, what I longed to do with it was press it to my heart, or eat it all up. It was more difficult with a piece of beautiful scenery, but the feeling was the same. I was too sensual, I might also write that I was too greedy. I yearned physically for all I thought was beautiful, wanted to own it. Hence the painful longing that could never be satisfied, the pining for something I thought unattainable, which I called my creative urge. I believe it was this powerful emotion that made me think that I was born to produce great works. It all suddenly changed, God alone knows by what inner process, but it is different now. I realized it only this morning, when I recalled my short walk around the Skating Club a few nights ago. It was dusk, soft hues in the sky, mysterious silhouettes of houses, trees alive with light through the tracery of their branches, in short, enchanting. And then I knew precisely how I had felt in the past. Then all the beauty would have gone like a stab to my heart and I would not have known what to do with the pain. Then I would have felt the need to write, to compose verses, but the words still would have refused to come. I would have felt utterly miserable, wallowed in the pain and exhausted myself as a result. The experience would have sapped all my energy. Now I know it for what it was: mental masturbation. But that night, only just gone, I reacted quite differently. I felt that God’s world was beautiful despite everything, but its beauty now filled me with joy. I was just as deeply moved by that mysterious, still landscape in the dusk as I might have been before, but somehow I no longer wanted to own it. I went home invigorated and got to work. And the scenery stayed with me, in the background as a cloak about my soul, to put it poetically for once, but it no longer held me back: I no longer masturbated with it.”
To admire someone attractive or something beautiful without trying to possess, that’s the real task, not just of aesthetics but, especially, of spirituality. When the rich young man comes up to Jesus and asks: “What must I do to possess eternal life?”, Jesus gently corrects his verb. He tells him: “If you would receive eternal life, then open your hands and, in that posture of non-grasping, eternal life is free for you.” But, as we know, the story has an unhappy ending. The young man goes away sad, unable to do what Jesus asked of him.
That’s our problem too, generally, with sadness. We are unable to stand before beauty without trying, like the rich young man, to possess it, to close our hands over it. If only we could be content just to receive it, to admire it, to bless it, our restlessness and sadness could turn to joy.
The older we get, the more we know the truth of this, though we aren’t always up to the task. But it’s helpful, very helpful, to know in what direction peace and maturity lie. Hopefully one day, like Etty Hillesum, joy will catch us blind-side, as we look at a beauty that swells the heart and are able to say: “This is beautiful, and I don’t need to press it to my heart!”