We hiked through the tangled woods searching for something beautiful. The trees had changed. We started on an open path with towering trees and far reaching boughs. As the path made its way closer to the water, the trees changed becoming smaller and reaching over the path which narrowed. These branches were bent and gnarled like the hands of my grandmother.
As the path descended, the air become cooler. We also heard the gurgling of water which grew into a growl as we approached our destination—a magnificent waterfall with a devastating 420-foot drop. This natural wonder is not the kind you walk by without awe at its beauty and danger. It demands you stop. We found a rock at the edge of the river looking over the waterfall and sat. We admired the beauty and danger of this tour de force of water.
Christians above all should be the kind of people who stop in awe of beauty. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). The earth below and heaven above teach us how to declare the glory of God. They are beautiful for him. Yet some Christians think very little of beauty. Or maybe it’s not that they think little of it, but they don’t see where beauty intersects with their ordinary life. Our world is full of beauty. We have just lost the eyes to see it all around us. We are like a man who can only see the world in muted colors. We cannot live without beauty. We shouldn’t live without it.
In a recent article “Why Do We Experience Awe?” in The New York Times, Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner get at just this, “Why do humans experience awe?” Years ago, one of us, Professor Keltner, argued (along with the psychologist Jonathan Haidt) that awe is the ultimate “collective” emotion, for it motivates people to do things that enhance the greater good. Through many activities that give us goose bumps — collective rituals, celebration, music and dance, religious gatherings and worship — awe might help shift our focus from our narrow self-interest to the interests of the group to which we belong.
They go on to introduce new research that may backup this initial thesis. In the research, people who regularly experienced awe in their life were more willing to help others. And it didn’t have to be ridiculously hard to reach Mount Everest type beauty. One group in the study spent time “on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, which has a spectacular grove of Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus trees, some with heights exceeding 200 feet — a potent source of everyday awe for anyone who walks by.” This research tells us what Christians have been teaching for millennia, but many have forgotten: Beauty empowers love of neighbor. Let’s smooth the wrinkles even more: Beauty energizes love of God and, therefore, love of neighbor—because God is beauty and all beauty ultimately has its origins in his divine perfections. In the third century, St. Basil wrote, “Let us recognize the One Who transcends in His beauty all things.” And in the sixth century, St. Maximus the Confessor states,
Nothing so much as love brings together those who have been sundered and produces in them an effective union of will and purpose. Love is distinguished by the beauty of recognizing the equal value of all men. Love is born in a man when his soul’s powers—that is, his intelligence, incensive power and desire—are concentrated and unified around the divine. Those who by grace have come to recognized the equal value of all men in God’s sight and who engrave His beauty on their memory, possess an ineradicable longing for divine love, for such love is always imprinting this beauty on their intellect. (Philokalia, II)
Seeing the beauty all around us opens our eyes to seeing the beauty of the imago dei in all humans. In The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis plucks this same string:
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.
Some Christians today might consider spending a day hiking through the woods a waste. Some might be too busy to stop to gaze at 200-foot-tall trees. They might finding reading great fiction boring or might say, “I just don’t have time.” They might scoff at spending money at a museum. Or laugh off traveling to the Grand Canyon to sit and wonder at its terrible beauty. Others may want to do these things, but not have the means. Others might not see the importance. Beauty, however, is all around us and must not be ignored. It is essential for making, maturing, and multiplying disciples of Jesus Christ.
The same New York Times article ends:
We believe that awe deprivation has had a hand in a broad societal shift that has been widely observed over the past 50 years: People have become more individualistic, more self-focused, more materialistic and less connected to others. To reverse this trend, we suggest that people insist on experiencing more everyday awe, to actively seek out what gives them goose bumps, be it in looking at trees, night skies, patterns of wind on water or the quotidian nobility of others — the teenage punk who gives up his seat on public transportation, the young child who explores the world in a state of wonder, the person who presses on against all odds.
Christians, we must insist on experiencing more beauty—even in the smallest ways like sharing acts of kindness or admiring that “mundane” summer lightening storm. Find beauty wherever you can and stand in awe.
Beauty and Sadness
But what do we do when the most beautiful things in our world are littered with sadness? What happens when a mother dies giving birth to a child? What happens when a terrorist group destroys an ancient and awe inspiring cultural artifact? What happens when war breaks out and priceless art is destroyed? What happens when a loved one dies and you cannot see the beauty in that thing you once shared with them? Because truth and beauty cannot be divorced for now, Christians must acknowledge this uneasy union between beauty and brokenness. Sometimes we need permission to experience beauty in the midst of our sadness and suffering. When sadness intersects with beauty, gaze at the cross of Christ for permission. It embodies beauty and brokenness. J. R. R. Tolkien called the cross the ultimate eucatastrophe (eu = good and catastrophe you know). There we have the brutal, de-humanizing Roman cross and the Savior of the world sacrificing himself for our sins. The truth is we live in that kind of world and our Savior came to show us how to find joy in its midst. The writer of Hebrews says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” –Hebrews 12:1-2 (italics mine)
This tension then between beauty and brokenness creates more longing for a true and lasting beauty, for the kingdom of Jesus Christ to come fully to this earth. Until that day, we cry out “Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven.” When the Kingdom is fully realized, all sadness will be undone and all things beautiful will be eternal. We will gaze at the beautiful unfiltered by sadness. We will truly see beauty because in the new heaven and new earth the King will return in all his beauty and majesty and his presence on earth will change everything forever.
Until that day, we pursue the beauty we have. Not just for its own sake, but because God himself is beautiful, because beauty moves us with compassion for our neighbors, and because it creates longing for true and lasting beauty. Do not treat beauty as a luxury or something far off. Find beauty where you are and take the time to stand in awe of it. Consider how much more work we have to do in the world as we strive for the Kingdom coming.
It is meet and right to hymn Thee,
to bless Thee, to praise Thee,
to give thanks unto Thee,
and to worship Thee in every place of Thy dominion:
for Thou art God ineffable, inconceivable,
ever existing and eternally the same,
Thou and Thine Only-begotten Son and the Holy Spirit.
— St. John Chrysostom