Recently I was asked to nominate three experiences of beauty and I immediately thought of…

  • A winter display of northern lights on the Palmer mud flats in Alaska with swirling colours that danced and coloured the sky and the snow. And I knew it was all for me.
  • A young women I visited while I was a seminarian, with bent arms and legs who had spent her whole life in a hospital bed in a Seattle hospital. When I looked into her crib I didn’t see her broken body but her eyes, deep, pure and blue and saw her gentle suffering smile. I felt had seen Gods face. Who was visiting whom?
  • A cold Siberian winter in my hermitage sitting opposite of a small monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament praying as I had done many times but that night Christ showed His beauty and it was so true and intimate my heart ached. I couldn’t look any longer so I covered the monstrance opened the door and met His majesty shining through the zillion stars filling the Siberian sky. He was beautiful everywhere. And I wept.

The fact is that Beauty pulls at us, fills us, moves us, unites us, holds us, inspires us, comforts us, nourishes us, frees us, changes us, and creates that deep down ache we all have experienced; but can it save the world as Dostoyevsky so famously suggests?… Only if we let beauty work it’s beautiful way in our life.

Beauty points to something more or someone more. Beauty asks what are you looking for? As CS Lewis so splendidly expresses ‘We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves.’1

So the beauty that we seek is really something that we will never fully find in this world. That is what causes the deep down heartache. The beautiful ache is a fleeting pang that says, ‘There’s something more than this life.’ We will only find hints of it that will keep us searching for more.

CS Lewis continues, ‘If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.’ In the area of apologetics this is called the ‘Argument of Desire’.

Follow our desires to their end and we find God.

Make our desires an end in themselves and we find hell… which is ourselves without God.

Even the most twisted desires, we call sin, can lead a person to find God who can untwist, and purify the desire and show His most beautiful face. G.K. Chesterton once famously said, ‘Every man who knocks on the door of brothel is looking for God.’ 

Sadly many of us keep coming back knocking on the wrong door. The beauty-ache however, reminds us that we are made for more; we are made for a permanent beauty i.e. God and God alone. And only God can satisfy our deepest desires. That water (earthly desires) will make you thirsty all your life. Jesus is the Living Water, that when you drink of him, you will never thirst again.2

John Flavel, a 17th Century Puritan writer from England said, ‘All that delights you in earthly things can never satisfy you, for all of your desires are in God. The comforts you have here are only drops which inflame, but do not satisfy the appetites of your soul, the Lamb however will lead you to fountains of living water.’

Beauty offers only two choices. Either that the lovely smell of a lily is a hint of a heavenly aroma, a promise that one day all will be fulfilled which leads to a life of hope and a person of faith. Or that the same aroma will be but a painful reminder that the lily will die and become fertiliser and so will the one who smells it. And there is nothing more than nothingness. An experience of beauty then is a painful despair that says life is meaningless.

Life at the most beautiful moments offers a choice either it becomes a mockery that shouts ‘it is all for nothing and it is all going nowhere’ or a moment of sacramental grace that’s makes for a life of ‘wide awake living’ where the yearnings are seen as leaning into heaven.

Albert Camus the late 20th Century absurdist philosopher captures this despair when he writes, ‘Beauty is unbearable, it drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time.’

You live differently when beauty is the pointer to God and not made into an idol. You don’t have to hold on to life with desperation squeezing it tightly and photographing every minute hoping the good memories will be enough to fill the void; your life can be ‘messed up’, broken and full of the mundane.

Christians don’t get upset when the marriage is a struggle, or one’s career isn’t all it was suppose to be, they don’t get upset when the body starts falling apart. Life will bring pain, separation, failure, uncertainty, unfulfilled plans but there is a way to live ‘in-the-hoped-for-and-life-as-it-is’ reality; in the kingdom that is here and is yet to come. How?

By realising you are looking for something so great that no single desire can even come close to fulfilling. And it will be yours.

We throw ourselves into good things like work, family, and education and say that will do it, into play and say that will do it, into relationships and say that will do it. But finally it doesn’t do it. Even good things aren’t enough. We throw ourselves into following all and any desires. We throw ourselves into sex, alcohol, drugs, and more parties any time all the time and say that should do it but it doesn’t do it.

What is looked for and what is at the centre of the beauty ache in every heart is what I believe to be the greatest and most irrefutable argument for the existence of God and is found in this passage of scripture 1 John 3:2: ‘Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. ’St Augustine said we are looking for God; we are seeking the beatific vision, the Visio Dei.

You see Christianity critiques this age of making feelings and desires an end in themselves by saying what foolishness you live. Your life is too small. It is not that you should not feel or desire it is that your desires are not strong enough and your feelings deep enough. You live a sad shallow life where as there is so much more to have.

CS Lewis puts it this way ‘In the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.’ 

Is Dostoyevsky right? Will beauty save the world? The amazing truth is beauty has come into our world, died on a cross rose and is ascended and saved the world. And hear this scripture. ‘He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.’ Isaiah 53:2 He who was most beautiful became the very ugliness of sin so we could become the most beautiful of God. And all who have eyes for beauty will see and all who have ears for beauty will hear and all who have hearts for beauty will live in Him. And they pray this prayer ‘One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek … all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, and to seek him in his temple.’ 

1 C.S. Lewis: ‘The Weight of Glory’.
2 cf John 4:13-14.
3 C.S. Lewis: ‘The Weight of Glory’.
4 Psalm 27:4

This article can be found in Mirror 0513.