Few things in this life have the raw power of beauty.
What’s beautiful stuns us, holds us, draws us to itself, awakens us, and transforms us. Beauty enchants. Drawn by its power, we stretch beyond ourselves and grasp for more light and love. It is no accident that Confucius, perhaps the greatest educational expert of all time, based his whole system on the power of beauty.
In Christian thought, there have always been theologies of beauty, though rarely have they been utilized sufficiently. Most recently, Hans Urs von Balthasar has articulated such a theology, a “theological aesthetics“. Beauty, he feels, is the key to everything, including our journey towards God and each other. How does beauty work?
According to Von Balthasar, anything beautiful has a character of grace to it. Beauty disturbs us, catches us, entraps us. It does not let us be indifferent, but is inherently provocative. It makes us deal with it. But, unlike violence, which also disturbs and provokes, beauty challenges precisely what is mean, ugly, violent, and base. In beauty there is always an invitation.
What does it invite us to do? It invites us to wonder, that such a thing should exist. Implicit in all wonder is a search, however dark and inchoate, for the source of what is making us wonder. To see something beautiful is to have one’s horizon lifted, to strain one’s eyes to see something further. To stare at something beautiful is to be turned away from self (the opposite of sin). In the face of beauty we begin spontaneously to look for the ultimate source of all beauty. In contemplating beauty, we search for God, pure and simple.
Beauty therefore has a summoning power, an arresting quality. The language it speaks is as elemental as a heart attack. It chooses us, we don’t choose it, any more than we choose a heart attack. We know this from personal experience, beauty comes upon us as a command, an imperative, as a moral demand. To refuse beauty is to refuse what is best within us. To wilfully despoil beauty is to put a knife to one’s own soul. In this sense, even when we don’t consciously relate it to its ultimate source, beauty still works to expand us, to turn us outward, to make us more moral.
It does this by reminding us, in a deliciously palatable way, that everything second best is really second best because there is something beyond it, that is indeed first best. In doing this, beauty reminds us too, as does the first page of scripture, that it is not good to be alone, that living in sovereign aloneness and being lord to oneself, is also something second best.
And why is beauty so powerful? What gives it such power to enchant? Why does it so stun and haunt us? Why is it that, despite sin, violence, self-absorption, numbing distraction, third-degree tiredness, and plain stupidity, we can still fall, as Von Balthasar so beautifully puts it, into “aesthetic arrest“?
For Von Balthasar, as for scripture, the answer lies in the fact that, first of all, at the deepest level of our beings, we already know beauty and resonate sympathetically with it because we are ourselves beautiful. In the depth of our souls we carry an icon of the One who is Beautiful. We have within us the image and likeness of God, the source of all beauty.
That Imago Dei, that deep virginal spot within us, that place where hands infinitely more gentle than our own once caressed us before we were born, where our souls were kissed before birth, where all that is most precious in us dwells, where the fire of love still burns, and where ultimately we judge everything as to its love and truth; in that place, we feel a “vibration sympathetique” in the face of beauty. Beauty rouses dormant divinity within us. It stirs the soul where it is most tender.
In essence, what beauty does is kiss the soul in that same place where it still remembers, in some dark manner, having been kissed long ago, when it was still naked – before birth, before sin, before lost innocence, before being wounded, before tiredness, before shame, and before being buried under so much suspicion and callousness. Beauty awakens the soul by mirroring it. In beauty, the soul sees itself, it recognizes kin.
Beauty then has an immense power to transform us, to call us back from woundedness, tiredness, and sin to health, enthusiasm, and gratitude. All beauty – be it the beauty of nature, the masterpiece of an artist, the stunning grace of the human body at the peak of its bloom, or the more abstract, though no less real, radiance of virtue and truth – is equipped to do this. Beauty then should be honoured. Like love, it softens the heart and invites one out of oneself. Moreover, perhaps even more so than love, it is what reminds us, as Merton once said, that we are “all walking around shining like the sun.”