The experience of beauty in body, mind, and spirit is a universal human need. Beauty penetrates to the psyche’s deepest levels and offers meaning to life. A thing of beauty uplifts the human spirit if the pleasure is derived from what is morally sound and aesthetically honest.
Beauty offers lasting satisfaction. Gazing at a sunset, visiting a museum, listening to lovely music, deriving satisfaction from a mathematical or scientific project, seeing beauty in oneself and in others—all these experiences are designed especially for us. A person deprived of beauty is like a person deprived of love.
Beauty and society
Cultures pursue beauty in their own ways knowing that without the experience of beauty, humanity remains sad and woefully incomplete. Beauty contributes to society when it helps us rise above life’s oppressive demands, lightens burdens, and comforts the spirit. A nation too enjoys the beauty of civic, religious, and national holidays and the majestic vistas of national parks and playgrounds. Art exhibits together with music and literary events celebrate jubilant occasions. By contrast, a society long deprived of beauty compensates with coarse and even offensive pleasure that compromises human dignity.
Ugliness negates beauty and perverts it. Like beauty, ugliness attracts attention because both fully engage us. One may be lured by its fascinating expressions, but instead of inspiring, it entices through the senses and debases what is refined.
Beauty and leisure
To experience beauty and the arts, one needs leisure time, however brief or prolonged. But often a relentless work ethic dismisses it as time wasted. Many guard leisure as a precious value, but in practice it is challenged everywhere. Yet, leisure is a prerequisite for the survival of every culture. It is a satisfying kind of activity and not just cessation from work, not idleness or wasting time. It disengages us from the cares of life freeing us to enjoy natural and artistic beauty. Leisure evokes creativity. Still, leisure varies from one person to another and from one culture to another. Leisure for one may be work for another. Many people work on the weekend so that others may then enjoy leisure. Holidays are designated as national days of celebration of a specific event or reality.
Leisure is characterized by certain universal similarities. It brings with it freedom from external constraint, joy and meaning to life. Sunday worship, reading a book, taking a walk, gardening, attending or playing a ball game, enjoying sound TV programs, or taking the coffee break are qualitatively the same: they refresh and enrich a person for the return to routine of work. Leisure is self-authenticating. It needs no apology, no defense or justification.
Ceaseless work and overwork destroy the spirit because, in practice, they tend to view man and woman as machines. Listlessness, boredom, and joylessness, dull the sense of wonder, a thought implicit in the psalm verse: “Be still and see that I am God” (Ps 46:10). Without periodic rest to restore the soul, acedia and ennui afflict one’s overall well-being that weaken the taste for God and spiritual activities. They can even provoke despair. Unemployment and financial crisis can trigger acedia and ennui. While coping with such extreme hardship, attention to unplanned leisure can remind the suffering person that being is as important as doing. In fact, activity follows being and is only one aspect of the human person. We work to live; we do not live to work.
Collectively, Americans rank among the most driven people in the world; our style, competition. Puritanical tendencies are resolved only by justifying leisure as earned by work or as necessary to continue our work. Moreover, Sunday worship, the highest form of activity, can become distasteful because it is perceived as non-productive, and therefore, meaningless. Unlike business transactions, liturgy cannot be measured in terms of expected outcomes. Jesus tells us: “Come to me, all ye that labour and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).
The idea of the Sabbath means cessation from work. Western civilization is indebted to the Jews for keeping the Sabbath as a gift from God to come aside and rest. In fact, they gave us the weekend beginning on Friday at sundown.
Beauty in a suffering and un-lovely world
How can we discuss beauty in a world of massive suffering? Despite the grim news and horrific images that enter our homes, daily, even relentlessly, we still yearn for beauty, truth, and goodness, all attributes of love. The human race may be flawed by limitation and sin, but at heart we do want these qualities supported in the family, in the Church, and in society at large.