The Way of BeautyA fresh start with beauty

If 2012 resembles previous years, most of us will imagine an improved self-image in the New Year. The pursuit of love and beauty is “ever ancient, ever new,” and ever with us. Today, beauty, truth and goodness, are widely seen as civic virtues but not as transcendentals.  Society long ago abandoned this classical view and the conviction that beauty assumes virtue. Nonetheless, even in a secularized culture, the beautiful convinces only when the true and the good, the logical and the ethical, converge with love. There is no limit to our pursuit of beauty, of truth, goodness, and love, but how they are realized depends on the individual. We are all invested in beauty and love. Don’t we all want to attract others? Don’t we all want their esteem? Making and doing something beautiful for one’s self is followed, more often than not, by making others feel beautiful as well as beautifying our culture and environment. 

Convergence of Beauty and Love

The joint venture of beauty and love is serious, and their convergence, essential. Why so? The most pressing reason for this statement is that beauty and love, their presence or their absence, are embedded in our consciousness. Despite this fact, mass media promotes multi-faceted ugliness in fashion and in film and offers promiscuity as love. Popular culture offers an example of the convergence of beauty and love. Some years ago, People Magazine (February, 1991, P. 76) published the following anecdote by Kirk Cameron about his fiancé:

During my five years as a pre-teen sex symbol, I learned that a lot of people you come across wear the right make-up and clothes. But very few people are truly beautiful. Beauty has everything to do with what starts in the heart and shines out. Chelsea has that.

For Dostoyevsky, beauty and love are powers that can redeem the world. In “The Brothers Karamazov” and “The Idiot,” beauty is interrelated with love. In the former novel, the character, Father Zossima, declares: “With love, all things may be redeemed, all things may be rescued.  . . . . ” In “The Idiot,” the author makes the same point about beauty:  “Beauty is power. With beauty like that, one might turn the world upside down.”  And in another place, “the prince says that the world will be saved by beauty.” Finally, love and beauty converge in a battle between God and the devil: “... [B]eauty is not only a terrifying thing – it is also a mysterious one.  In it, the Devil struggles with God, and the field of battle is the hearts of men.” 

Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta

In observing the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta, one must admit that this small bent woman – her face lined like a road map – was not seen as physically beautiful. No matter. She was beautiful from the inside. Her love was so palpable that one could feel it. It was so palpable that it seemed to emerge instinctively. On one occasion, when a man remarked to her that he wouldn’t do what she did for a million dollars, she quipped: “Neither would I.” 

Similarities between Beauty and Love

Like identical twins, beauty and love share an uncanny resemblance in the following ways: 

1.  Beauty, like love, is always expressed in concrete form; it renders the thing in which it inheres attractive and lovely.
2.  Beauty and love have the same dynamic principle: that magnetic pull that draws the person away from self to the thing of beauty or of the beloved.  The goal of beauty and love is transforming union with the beautiful and the beloved.
3.  On the surface, beauty and love are partly sensory, involving one or more of the sense-faculties. They appear as sense pleasure and sense love, enfleshed and tangible. Both are concerned with well-being and may not be used or controlled as utilities. They are concerned with fruitfulness and creativity. 
4.  The unity of beauty and love gives meaning to life, delight and joy. What is beautiful is loved, and what is loved is beautiful. 
5.  Beauty and love enrich the beholder. They ennoble by elevating, and transform by uniting the beholder to themselves. 

Differences between Beauty and Love

Love may be seen under various aspects, the main ones of which are: agapē, (Lat: caritas), the highest form of love which is generous and unselfish; eros (Lat: amor) is romantic, passionate, and sensual love, sometimes referred to as blind love; philia (Lat: amicitia), the love of friendship, loyalty to others.  

1.  Love is an act of the will, a free and deliberate decision to be-for-others. It means to will others as much good as we will to ourselves.  Nothing is harder than unselfish love, and it may even demand heroism.  St. Paul’s “Ode to Love” (1 Cor: 13) expresses the demands of love on one’s time, energy, patience, and generosity.   Love is not primarily an emotion, though feeling may support and strengthen the act of the will. Mothers and fathers do not want to rise in the middle of the night to care for their infant but do so out of love for the child.  Similarly, the Scriptures do not command us to like others, but we are told to pray for those who treat us poorly. Many do. In contrast, beauty makes no demands except for one’s contemplative gaze and offers instead restful leisure.
2.  Unselfish love must be caught, taught, and practiced so that it becomes a habit; when personified, this love is beautiful to behold.  Infants are self-centered individuals, and love in them must mature in them through discipline of the mind and will to be for others.
3.  When non-possessive love is a deliberate choice for others, it is a life-giving and redemptive quality, while eros, as sense love or possessive love, may revolve around satisfying one’s need and enhancement. Sense pleasure must be purified away from self to be for others. Beauty springs from unselfish love.
4.  No one can live without sense-pleasure, and love cannot function without the senses.  Sense pleasure must ascend to a higher plane of beauty that takes delight in God and delights in beautiful things.  Harmony between matter and spirit is a life-long pursuit. The Blessed Trinity expresses the perfect union of beauty, and delight. Because we have been created in God’s image and likeness, we participate in the unity of Trinitarian love. 

Love Incarnate and the Beautiful Christ

This discussion is striking for several reasons. If there was any person who delighted and fascinated others, it was Jesus. The Christian Scriptures provide overwhelming evidence of this. His credibility, goodness, and beauty shone with moral authority through the power of love. He enjoyed the company of special friends, but he kept his own confidence in union with his Father. Jesus could not be controlled or manipulated; neither did he control or manipulate others. His presence transformed the lives of his followers. Christ’s unselfish love is morally beautiful, and his followers loved him to the point of dying for him. The beauty of Christ is true because his love was so great. The crucified Lord represents the archetype of love poured out.  Outwardly, Christ's racked body evokes horror. Where then is the beauty of the suffering Lord? It reveals itself in his self-emptying love which loves to the end. 

Christ’s love always appears wonderful and glorious to us. In the gift of the Word made Flesh, God is not simply a body of knowledge to be believed (the true) or a set of precepts to be obeyed (the good). God is Beauty and Love, Eros and Agapē drawing us ever upward. Yes, God is a jealous God (Eros). This metaphor draws on human emotion to describe in a limited way that God is the ultimate Good in one’s life, one’s ultimate delight and pleasure. No other good can rival this Good. Of course, God may be grasped under various images, the Good Shepherd, for example. Today, the images of beauty and love and their opposites are striking because they are an essential part of our thinking and feeling, however they are expressed. The full and complete realization of this quest is God.

Love of the beautiful is a quintessential human quality. As St. Augustine writes, “What can we love if not beauty?” He caught the unity of beauty and love though he almost missed it.  With deep regret but with deeper gratitude, he writes in his “Confessions”:  “Late have I loved thee, O Beauty, ever ancient, ever new.  Late have I loved thee!” The “Song of Songs” assures us:  “Come then my love, come; your voice is sweet and your face beautiful. You are wholly beautiful, my love” (2:14; 4:7). 

More in The Way of Beauty

Called to Beauty

St. Gregory of Nyssa, one of the greatest of the Church Fathers (d. 394), confirms this assertion:

Everyone knows that anything placed in a world of change never remains the same but is always passing from one state to another.  . . . Now, it is certainly required that what is subject to change be in a sense always coming to birth . . . as is the case with the birth of the body.  We are in some manner our own parents giving birth to ourselves by our own free choice in accordance with whatever we wish to be, whether male or female, molding ourselves to the teaching of virtue or vice.

How can we discuss beauty in a selfish, hedonistic, and secularized, unlovely world that daily inundates us with ugliness? If we do not pursue beauty, “we will sink into despair,” cautions Paul VI. The parable of the talents mandates that we discover talents of character, aptitude, ingenuity, and creativity given at birth. We are to participate in the beauty of God and become God’s “works of art” (Eph 2:10).

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