For beauty is a source of strength for man. It is inspiration for work, a light that guides us through the darkness of human existence and allows us to overcome all evil, all suffering, with good, since hope in the Resurrection cannot be misplaced. All men know this—every man and woman knows this—for Christ is Risen! The Resurrection of Christ initiates the renewal and rebirth of that beauty which man has lost through sin.Pope John Paul II, A Meditation on Givenness
I have found that hiding leads to death, but longing leads to life. It seems important that the first thing we humans did after the fall was to immediately hide. Adam and Eve fashioned loincloths to cover themselves, and when the Lord called, “The man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Gen. 3:8). The concupiscent knee jerk reaction is to guard, mask, and protect ourselves from being seen and from seeing. Fear and insecurity drive us to construct impressive walls that give us a safe place to hide. This is both a great success and a terrible victory: a great success because we do indeed remain hidden and safe; but a terrible victory because we also remain isolated, unseen, and unknown. But if we desire light, life, and love we must possess a defenseless self-forgetfulness, which is a huge risk.
What compels people to take this risk? What compels an individual to step beyond their walls? More personally, what compels you to risk love? When I reflect on this question, experience reveals a consistent answer—beauty. Beauty compels me to risk love. And I don’t mean the abstract idea of beauty or exclusively a narrow view of beauty such as a piece of art or music; I mean beauty that has a face, a name, a color, a sound, a shape, a look, a walk, a smell, a cadence, a tone, a story, a spirit. A beauty that radiates from creation being fully alive; like a massive mountain range that leaves us speechless, a peaceful lake that calms an unsettled heart, a true friend that helps us rest. A beauty that has a personality so wild, attractive, and out of my control that I have to get out from behind myself to actually encounter it. We children of Adam can hide behind our ramparts and, at times, peek our heads over just enough to catch a glimpse of the splendor of beauty. But one day, our fleshy hearts will cry out “I can’t take this no more!” à la Michael “Squints” Palledorous in The Sandlot. And into the deep end we fall, drawn out of ourselves by beauty and thrust into life.
Fear and safety demand that we remain hidden. A deep longing is needed to compel us beyond our walls. But both fear and beauty compete to be heard; fear shouts to us while beauty sings. And the process of liberation is by no means black and white, only fear or only longing. The two forces fight for our hearts. Thomas Dubay says:
In his masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevski placed on the lips of one of his characters the observation that “Beauty is the battlefield where God and Satan contend with each other for the hearts of men.” The one is supreme Glory; the other is supreme ugliness. Though our free wills make the choice, it is beauty that provides the powerful attraction to the only victory that ultimately matters in this peak of all combats.
Fear and beauty simultaneously reverberate in the heart. Fear commands that we protect ourselves. It encourages pusillanimity, telling us to burrow deeper into isolation. In his novel East of Eden, John Steinbeck expertly depicts its effects in the antagonist Cathy (Kate) Ames. In telling how fear mangels her heart and plunges her into a spiral of despair, Steinbeck writes:
Kate got up from her bed and took a heavy dose of bromide. From that time on the crouching fear had always been at her side. . . . She had never gone out in the town very much, but now she developed a reluctance to go out at all. . . . Then she built the leanto and had it painted gray. She said it was because the light troubled her eyes, and gradually she began to believe the light did trouble her eyes. . . . She believed that the light pained her eyes, and also that the gray room was a cave to hide in, a dark burrow in the earth, a place where no eyes could stare at her. Once, sitting in her pillowed chair, she considered having a secret door built so that she would have an avenue of escape. And then a feeling rather than a thought threw out the plan. She would not be protected then. If she could get out, something could get in—that something which had begun to crouch outside the house, to crawl close to the walls at night, and to rise silently, trying to look through the windows.
Fear constricts, beauty expands. Beauty ignites desire and beckons us to a life of magnanimity. In this way, beauty instigates an awareness of our poverty, of our lack, of our self-insufficiency. She challenges the nature of our existence. “You can live, but now that you have seen me in my splendor, what is life without me? Can you truly exist without me?” Beauty invites us to lower our defenses and encounter “the other,” but she does not promise safety. The tough but saving fact remains: Embracing beauty requires an unmasking. Oftentimes beauty calls, but we allow her to pass us by. We stare out into the menacing yet marvelous world, protected but aching, safe but suffering. We cry out, inviting beauty into our fortress, but she will not enter because she will not be possessed or controlled. Beauty challenges our familiar comforts in order to liberate our humanity.
But then there are other times, moments of grace, when longing overwhelms fear, and beauty compels us to take a risk. We are led into the unknown, the “out of our control,” and the authentically human. J.R.R. Tolkien, in his trilogy The Lord of the Rings, puts flesh on this experience. He describes a subtle but definitive affective movement felt by his protagonist Frodo: “He did not tell Gandalf, but as he was speaking a great desire to follow Bilbo flamed up in his heart⏤to follow Bilbo, and even perhaps to find him again. It was so strong that it overcame his fear: he could almost have run out there and then down the road without his hat, as Bilbo had done on a similar morning long ago.” Reality beckons and we must go. And when we answer her call, who do we find? Others! We see other people looking back at us open-eyed; we encounter people being human. They are not acting; they are not deceiving; they, too, are following the voice of beauty. At this point, a great paradox is revealed: the voyage out of ourselves moves us deeper into ourselves, into our humanity. This journey leads us into relationship with others.
Now liberated, the people we encounter begin to bear real fruit in our hearts because relationships are a gift. They allow us to know others and to be known, to see and be seen; relationships allow us to love and to be loved. These authentic relationships lead us into an experience of communion. As John Paul II states in A Meditation on Givenness: “The yearning of the human heart after this primordial beauty with which the Creator has endowed man is also a desire for the communion in which the sincere gift of self is manifested. This beauty and this communion are not goods that have been lost irretrievably—they are goods to be redeemed, retrieved; and in this sense every human person is given to every other.” Truly genuine encounters with beauty free us to love and lead us to communion, which is the essence of the Trinity, a perfect communion of persons in a relationship of intimate love. St. Peter tells us in his second letter that we are invited to share in this nature, in God’s divine life (2 Pet. 1:4). A person, freed by beauty, has the capacity to engage others as a fluid instrument of God’s grace. This openness to reality forms a docile heart to the presence of God, whose grace begins to transform life and saturates our essential manner of being. Beauty liberates and leads us to communio, which begets life eternal.
I finish this essay with a personal story that helped me to notice the necessity and workings of beauty in my own life. It is a story of grace, so it is at once subtle and simple, yet permanent and undeniable. While visiting home one weekend, I convinced my family to watch the latest Terrence Malick flick, A Hidden Life. For those who haven’t seen the movie, it is long and—I imagine—insanely boring if you don’t enjoy artsy existential-type films. Luckily I do, and I found A Hidden Life to be stunningly beautiful, both in its cinematography and its heroic narrative. I was excited, but admittedly, a bit nervous when the family agreed to invest three hours on a Friday night to watch it. Thank goodness, they were captivated, and it was clear that each person was moved by the experience. When the movie ended, nobody spoke. When the silence gradually broke, discussion ensued. Different impactful scenes were remembered, insights were shared, and meaningful questions were pursued with real curiosity. We were collectively caught in a cloud of wonder. It was late and the night was drawing to a close, so people slowly trickled off to bed, and I thanked God for how special the night had been, thinking his grace had already run its course.
I awoke the next morning to a note on the kitchen counter: “Out by the fire. Grab a coffee and join!” So I poured a cup o’ Joe, headed to the backyard, and found Mom and Dad in the cool morning air watching the sun rise, chatting around the bonfire. I sat down and discovered that they had picked up the discussions from last night. I was so pumped! My little sister quickly joined us, then a brother, then a few more siblings, and soon the whole family was sitting around the morning burn, delighting in conversation. Mom eventually grabbed a skillet and cooked some breakfast on the open fire. We sat out there for hours eating and talking, enjoying the fire, captivated by life, dwelling in communion.
Beauty beckoned and we followed. Beauty led Mom and Dad to be more human, and their authentic humanity generated a substantial and graceful communion of persons.
This summer, pursue beauty and she just might lead you to communion⏤and point you toward eternal life.