Our Grieving Hearts and the “Great Impertinence of Beauty” (Or, Can Beauty Save the World?), Pt 2

This is the second part of my reflection on beauty. Check out part one here. […]

Ben Self / 8.2.16

This is the second part of my reflection on beauty. Check out part one here.

“Is it true, prince, that you once declared that ‘beauty would save the world’? Great Heaven! The prince says that beauty saves the world! And I declare that he only has such playful ideas because he’s in love! Gentlemen, the prince is in love. I guessed it the moment he came in. Don’t blush, prince; you make me sorry for you. What beauty saves the world?”

— Ippolit, in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot

Ansel Adams


As I attempt to expand a little further on this whole theory that ‘beauty will save the world’, it’s worth first acknowledging and addressing a couple obvious problems with it, alluded to in part one. For one thing, it is very easy to make certain kinds of beauty into idols that lead us away from God. I have definitely made it that at times. G.K. Chesterson once famously said, “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.” Though presumably, they don’t find it there. St. Augustine, a notorious sensualist, long obsessed with beauty in all its forms, realized after his conversion that his pursuit of the “lovely things” of this world had actually kept him away from God, who he nevertheless names in this passage from his Confessions as the ultimate “Beauty”:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside [myself], and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all.

On the one hand, it is vitally important, as I’ve already tried to explain, that anyone no matter how “unlovely” be able to experience and appreciate and take pleasure in beauty. Without that, we are truly lost. Beauty, as I’ve said, can act as the Holy Spirit in disguise, and when we need it most. Though it may not. Because on the other hand, the love of “created things” can keep us away from God, as Augustine says. So how do we know? Well, we should clearly take some caution in attempting to deify beauty. It is, after all, a nebulous concept that countless philosophers and poets and romantics and artists have endeavored for centuries, like the Spirit, to pin down, to little avail. So for now, without laboring too long on this matter, perhaps this quote from Ninon de l’Enclos will help: “That which is beautiful is not always good, but that which is good is always beautiful.”


Featured Images by Ansel Adams

The second big problem with this meagre sketch of a theory is this: beauty need not necessarily lead to positive transformation. If the power in beauty stops with the mere casual observance and appreciation of it, even pleasure in it, then it’s not worth all that much. If it doesn’t draw us towards God and the way of the Kingdom, then it’s not going to save anything. Again, it should be noted that the Nazi elites were famous lovers (and pilferers) of high art, yet it did not help turn their hearts away from mass murder—or from almost destroying civilization. And yet, even so, I think beauty is always going to play a vital part in the transformational process. Here St. Augustine again offers us some useful thoughts, as explained by Fr. Basil Nortz, ORC:

Before his conversion, St. Augustine once asked his friends: “Do we love anything but the beautiful? What then is the beautiful? And what is beauty? What is it that allures and unites us to the things we love? For unless there were a grace and beauty in them, they could not possibly attract us to them” (Confessions, Bk. IV, ch. 13). The Saint recognized that what touches the heart of man more than anything else is beauty. The heart experiences the overwhelming force of loveliness which, one could say, does violence to it, holding it captive in its enticing grasp. St. Augustine himself was powerfully moved and even ensnared by the visual charm of the things of the world. He experienced the frustration of fighting against his own weakness… His experience is aptly expressed in the closing words addressed to God of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet V:

Yet dearly I love You and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto Your enemy:
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again;
Take me to You, imprison me, for I
Except You enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.

Ansel Adams

There is an inextricable link between experiences of beauty and the impulse to love—including to love God—though the connection need not always bear good fruit, or any fruit at all. I think it’s a mistake, as Augustine and Donne seem to do, to lump the love of all “worldly” beauty (what other kind of beauty is there, really?) together, as being the barrier to our love of God. Sometimes the love of beauty may serve as a barrier, but beauty itself is not. Beauty, as it moves on our hearts, is a gift, not a curse—even if we sometimes experience it that way—and it has a special power over us, whether for good or ill, but that includes the power to, as I’ve said, touch us with meaning and draw us towards the ultimate Beauty, towards God, who Gerard Manley Hopkins describes as “beauty’s self and beauty’s giver”, and thus towards the way of love. As Augustine and Donne realized, the impulse in us that draws us towards the beauty of created things is at least similar to the impulse that draws us towards God. And isn’t the process of metanoia ultimately a sensual as much as intellectual one? St. Augustine continues:

You shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

The way Augustine describes it, God pretty much makes use of all five senses in the process of reeling him in. And why not? How else could it even be done? It follows accordingly that many of the rites and rituals of the church are likewise very sensual—baptisms and christenings, the Eucharist, the washing of feet, lighting of candles, fasting, feasting, singing, kneeling, the burning of incense, the application of ashes, etc. Beauty is a profound longing of our hearts. Or at least, as C.S. Lewis explains, beauty is a kind of foretaste that points to a deeper longing:

We do not merely want 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, to bathe in it, to become part of it.


And so, though we may perhaps resist the impulse towards any real transformation, beauty does at least have a way of getting its hooks in us, of provoking some response from us, and it’s there that transformation can take place.

Madeleine L’Engle, reminiscing over her early days as a writer in A Circle of Quiet, wrote this:

I came across several [of my old poems]. There was one, notable for its arrogance, if nothing else. We lived on 82nd Street, and the Metropolitan Museum was my short cut to Central Park. I wrote:

I go into the museum
and look at all the pictures on the walls.
Instead of feeling my own insignificance
I want to go straight home and paint.

A great painting, or symphony, or play, doesn’t diminish us, but enlarges us, and we, too, want to make our own cry of affirmation to the power of creation behind the universe. This surge of creativity has nothing to do with competition, or degree of talent. When I hear a superb pianist, I can’t wait to get to my own piano, and I play about as well now as I did when I was ten. A great novel, rather than discouraging me, simply makes me want to write. This response on the part of any artist is the need to make incarnate the new awareness we have been granted through the genius of someone else.

I used the word ‘arrogant’ about those verses. I take it back. I don’t think it’s arrogance at all. It’s beauty crying out for more beauty.

I love that phrase: “beauty crying out for more beauty.” Isn’t that the whole point I’m trying to make? And not just in art but in life! As 1 John says: “We love because God first loved us.” That is true even when we can’t or won’t define it as God’s love, but instead experience it as God’s presence in the world through beauty, which teaches us to value things we might not otherwise value, and so, ultimately, to love them.


It’s here—in our response to the experience of beauty—that we can begin to see how the world itself might be saved. In his talk at the Wild Goose Festival, Frank Schaeffer developed this point:

What is the vocation of life? It is to actually encounter the grace of God. Where do you see that? In the beauty in your life…

That’s why we care for the least of these—because we’ve tasted something of the grace of God. But it’s not a theological concept! It’s that mountain sitting over there. It’s the muddy river. It’s the quiet of the stream to people camped out in a hammock. It’s the conversations you and I will have here. It’s the actual gift of life…

What’s our call in life? It is to fix the world, in a way. But that’s not really the call because it’s pointless to fix the world unless we love the beauty of what is there. Why save the world unless life is beautiful to save?

The call of our lives may be to love—in love may be our salvation, individual and collective—but, weak as we are, we need to feel love first. And beauty helps get us there. It is through encounters with grace that we are transformed into agents of love. God is all about loving people back to life. Every day we wake up and there’s another reason to grieve, another reason to despair, to hate, to withdraw from the world. The experiences of beauty continually help to open us back up to the meaning and value in things, even the sacredness of things, in life itself. And in so doing, they ask of us a response, because in pushing us to see and value things more as God does we are also pushed to live more as God would have us live. By grace, we are given what we long for most: something to love, to protect, to nurture, to work for, to serve with our lives. Thus we learn to treat things with the love that beauty has helped us to feel for them, that God has helped us to see in them, or to see them with.

So here’s the thing, even if it’s never made explicit to us like a voice from the clouds, and even if we can ignore the “hints”, or ignore their meaning: beauty has an agenda. That’s why I relate it to Spirit. Taken as a whole, these experiences of beauty strung together over the course of our lives can help to transform us for the better if we let them, if we listen to what they’re trying to tell us, and perhaps even if we don’t. Beauty meets us wherever we’re at, which is critical, but it doesn’t leave us there. It’s like Anne Lamott says in Traveling Mercies: “I do not understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us. It can be received gladly or grudgingly, in big gulps or in tiny tastes, like a deer at the salt.” But the point is: it has the power to change us. And so beauty is, as Schaeffer implied, what we’re here for: to encounter it, but then to live it out, to make of our lives works of beauty. Or, as Hopkins puts it in “The Golden Echo”, to “give beauty back”:

Come then, your ways and airs and looks, locks, maiden gear, gallantry and gaiety and grace…
Resign them, sign them, seal them, send them, motion them with breath,
And with sighs soaring, soaring sighs deliver
Them; beauty-in-the-ghost, deliver it, early now, long before death
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.
See; not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost…
O then, weary then why
When the thing we freely forfeit is kept with fonder a care,
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept
Far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) finer, fonder
A care kept.—Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where.—
Yonder.—What high as that! We follow, now we follow.—Yonder, yes yonder, yonder,



As if I hadn’t already said enough about this whole “beauty will save the world” thing, let me say just a little more. I have explained that by responding to the beauty we experience we can be drawn towards Beauty itself and to make of our lives themselves works of beauty—but what does that really look like? By focusing on beauty as we experience it in nature or the arts, I have still not said a great deal about the ultimate image of beauty in the world: the beauty of love. Yet, all other manifestations of beauty are really just appetizers compared to that main course—the beauty we see in self-giving love acted out in the world in countless ways, for ourselves and for others. And it’s by responding to this kind of beauty that we are most likely to be transformed into those agents of God’s mercy in the world, that we are most likely to learn to walk in the way of love—the way of healing and reconciliation in a world of so much loss—which is, of course, the way of Christ.

In some sense, to borrow a phrase from Pope Francis, Jesus was sent into the world precisely “to charm it with the beauty of love.” On the one hand, during his ministry, Jesus performed acts of beauty. Some of the most beautiful moments that come to my mind are those instances of Jesus’s healings: of lepers and paralytics, of the blind, the deaf, the mute, the demon-possessed, of the man with the withered hand, the woman with issue of blood, the infirmed man at the pool of Bethesda, the servant’s ear in Gethsemane, even of Lazarus at Bethany. And then there are the other beautiful examples of his tenderness towards undesirables—towards little children, the woman caught in adultery, the woman at the well, towards Mary Magdalene, Zacchaeus, the thief on the cross, and so on. By the same token, Jesus’s teachings are also in some (often paradoxical) sense beautiful to us—the strange stories, often strange imagery, the lofty themes and principles themselves. But of course, perhaps most beautiful of all, again, in a paradoxical way, is Jesus’s ultimate hideous death on the cross, which we Christians view as the ultimate act of sacrificial love, and the ultimate act of forgiveness and reconciliation. The cross is still, 2,000 years later, the image and symbol of God in the world that we Christians organize around and are most drawn to—and it is that singular image that we proclaim that God is somehow using to draw the world unto God’s self.

And yet, all of that theology surrounding the cross makes no sense except insofar as we are able to somehow experience Christ’s ultimate act of self-sacrifice on the cross as beautiful, and thus an act which makes Christ-like, self-sacrificial love beautiful to us more broadly, as a way of life worthy of following. Love, in this world of so much loss, inevitably must involve self-sacrifice. As Dostoevsky’s Father Zosima concludes in The Brothers Karamazov: “love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams”—which is why, to some extent, the experience of beauty in love, and the beauty of love, of being drawn towards love in spite of ourselves, is so important, as a way to get us over the hump. How else is love even possible? The strength to love must come from something beyond us, or we would not choose it. As Thomas Merton wrote: “the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is a resetting of a Body of broken bones.” And so God has, in God’s wisdom, made Jesus on the cross the very image of that process of “resetting… broken bones”, which we are, through its power and beauty, continually being called towards, to aspire to, to give our lives to, to remake the world after. Jesus himself said: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And that is what Jesus did, for the whole world in fact. And that is why it is the ultimate act of beauty, still mysteriously charming us and enthralling us all these years later.

Ansel Adams

But here’s the thing: believers and nonbelievers alike can recognize and aspire to the beauty of love as it appears in countless other acts that are more recent, more immediate to us perhaps, than that of Christ on the cross. God is not done with us. Recent history is littered with powerful acts of love, often in the midst of crises—when love is most needed but most difficult. I think of the stories of 20th century martyrs like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Jr. I think of those beautiful people—young and old, black and white—singing and marching together arm-in-arm over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I think of the famous Christmas truce of 1914, when “thousands of British, Belgian and French soldiers put down their rifles, stepped out of their trenches and spent Christmas mingling with their German enemies along the Western front.” I think of pictures I saw back in 2011, during the tumultuous events in Egypt, of hundreds of Christians forming a human chain in Tahrir Square to surround and protect their Muslim neighbors as they knelt and prayed in protest. I think of the 15-year-old Zaevion Dobson in Tennessee, who died last Christmas while shielding three of his friends from being shot. These kinds of acts of beauty touch our hearts, but they also again ask something of us. As President Obama put it: “Zaevion Dobson… was a hero at 15. What’s our excuse for not acting?” These are just a few of the images that come to my mind as examples of the beauty of self-giving love amid the horrors of this world. But there are countless others, large and small. The point is: this is powerful stuff—the stuff of hope. And we all recognize these acts to be beautiful. We may not necessarily share much in the way of political or religious beliefs, but we know the beauty of love when we see it. And that, in itself, gives us all something to aspire towards, together.

Perhaps, seen in this light, beauty may even offer us a lens to navigate the world. Again, here, the beautiful heretic Frank Schaeffer offers some useful thoughts. Speaking of his grandchildren, he explains:

I am not trying to pass on the love of Jesus to them. I am not trying to pass on the greatness of America. I am only trying to do one thing, and it’s a lens through which I see everything… I am trying to give them a sense… that there’s one lens through which you look at all of your life, and against which everything has to be measured, in terms of goals and morality and behavior, one value: and that is the intrinsic worth of beauty…

Is it beautiful? … There’s not a reason to [do right in the world] that has to do with hellfire… The damnation comes now – our world becomes a poorer place because it is ugly…

We have this fabulous opportunity… to look at the meaning of following Jesus as having that be a portal to beauty. Is it more beautiful to stone a woman to death, or to say: “Go in peace, your sins are forgiven”?

Ansel Adams

I’m not sure if he’s right about all that. Frankly, I’m not sure if I’m right about any of this. But it makes sense to me that the way of Christ is a way of beauty. So perhaps, if we learn the intrinsic value of beauty, we will be led to the way of Christ. And ultimately, by following this way we do experience and become participants in the Kingdom here and now. I really do believe that, even if it is, as C.S. Lewis would have said, only a foretaste of things to come.

In fact, beauty can teach us not only about the meaning and value of things, or the way of love, but can give us glimpses of the direction of things, of God’s ultimate dream for the world, of the Kingdom—the world as it could be and should be and will be and in some sense already is in God. In Secrets in the Dark, Frederick Buechner describes having “a glimpse of the Peaceable Kingdom” on a family trip to Sea World in Orlando:

It was a gorgeous day when we were there, with bright Florida sunlight reflected in the shimmering water and a cloudless blue sky over our heads. The bleachers where we sat were packed. The way the show began was that at a given signal they released into the tank five or six killer whales, as we call them (it would be interesting to know what they call us), and no creatures under heaven could have looked less killer-like as they went racing around and around in circles. What with the dazzle of sky and sun, the beautiful young people on the platform, the soft southern air, and the crowds all around us watching the performance with a delight matched only by what seemed the delight of the performing whales, it was as if the whole creation—men and women and beasts and sun and water and earth and sky and, for all I know, God himself—was caught up in one great, jubilant dance of unimaginable beauty. And then, right in the midst of it, I was astonished to find that my eyes were filled with tears.

It is moments of such beautiful unity like these when the veil truly grows thin, and we seem to sense God more closely than ever, as enveloping all of creation. Another example of this sort of experience is Thomas Merton’s famous epiphany at the “corner of Fourth and Walnut…” The point is: in such moments the experience of beauty becomes a window into the Kingdom—it gives us a powerful vision of a world made after God’s own image, the Peaceable Kingdom, the Beloved Community, the Civilization of Love, the Economy of Grace. It was this sense of vision that drove Martin Luther King, Jr., which oriented his life and gave it meaning, and which comforted him in the face of death. And we can see the power he took from it in this famous excerpt from his last speech:

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!

And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

It was that vision that King gave his life to—which Jesus gave his life to—and which helped them each to overcome fear of loss, even taste the fullness of life, and to bear the immense grief that comes from loving others in this world. And so, finally, we too are called to walk in the light of that beautiful vision and join our lives to it, and in so doing, we may, by grace, find in that lived beauty a balm that can help not only to revive our spirits and keep us from despair but can save us, or as the old hymn says, “make the wounded whole… [and] heal the sin-sick soul.”

Ansel Adams


In the end, beauty is grace. It is a mercy that we experience it at all in this damned grim world. And we all have our own moments of it—whether it’s a dying plum tree or the orcas at Sea World—those moments “in and out of time” that seem to give us at least a momentary sense that our lives mean something, that something really important is happening here, and that we better take notice. But then we mostly go on about our days. After all, beauty is not something we can control, and making a “success” of our lives in this world can be pretty time-consuming. But we can work to become more open and receptive to the beauty around us, to the meaning and value of things. We can slow down. We can watch and listen. We can unplug. We can practice mindfulness, perhaps. I don’t know. But to quote Alice Walker’s The Color Purple: “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” If we’re not careful, we’ll walk right past the fullness of life in the process of pursuing it so feverishly. And I think that if we open our hearts to the beauty that envelops the world, that is pulling each of us and the world towards itself, and make beauty a way of life, we might even understand what St. Paul meant by: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing.” We might make of our lives a prayer. As Joyce Rupp writes:

Praying does not always take place in a contained or predetermined place of reflection. We never know when there might be an interior turning toward the One who dwells within us and among us. Going for a walk or a run, stopping at night to bless sleeping children, driving past a homeless person, looking up to see a bright star in the heavens, receiving a note from a cherished friend, turning toward a spouse in pleasurable love, reading a story in the newspaper, hearing the pain in a colleague’s anguish, waiting in a check-out line — at any time and any place we can be surprised and drawn into communion by the unanticipated sense of God’s nearness.

And perhaps that is what these Trappist monks here at the Abbey of Gethsemani are doing all day in so much silence as they go about their lives. Perhaps it is all really just that sort of pedestrian prayer anyway. Perhaps what they do—perhaps their species of prayer—is not really so different from what we might do in our own busy, noisy lives. Perhaps that’s just what it looks like: responding to the grace in the world as we each are able to perceive it, moment to moment, and then attempting to live accordingly in a way that honors what we find most beautiful, in a way that itself seems most beautiful to us. Perhaps the key really is this sort of common prayer—this watching and listening—so that we too might, as Wendell Berry does, in our moments: “almost understand / … almost recognize as a friend / the great impertinence of beauty / that comes even to the dying…”

Ansel Adams

Yes, I think that’s how I’d like to end this uncharitably long-winded reflection of mine, with an ode, in this world of so much grief, to the practice of prayerful listening—for beauty, the presence of God in all things, even when we’d prefer not to call it God. And here, I would be remiss if I did not let Thomas Merton, this Abbey’s great prophet, have the final word. This passage, taken from Raids on the Unspeakable, describes the rain from his hermitage, rain that comes whether bidden or unbidden, to bless and renew, like a balm and baptism for all the earth:

I came up here from the monastery last night, sloshing through the cornfield, said Vespers, and put some oatmeal on the Coleman stove for supper. It boiled over while I was listening to the rain and toasting a piece of bread at the log fire. The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows! Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.