The Way of Beauty I see!

“I see, I see,” shouts a student, thrilled at discovering the answer to a mathematical problem. “I only have eyes for you,” goes the love song, and the Israelites ask the Lord, “Keep us as the apple of your eye” (Prov 7:2). On completing his “Hallelujah” chorus, George Friedrich Händel exclaimed:  “I did think that I saw the heaven open, and that I saw the very face of God.”

How often have we heard the proverb, "There are none so blind as those who will not see."  In Shakespeare, blindness is not a physical quality, but a mental flaw some people possess. His most dominant theme in his play King Lear is that of blindness. Sonograms of expectant mothers show the beating heart of a developing human being, but many will not accept this  truth and refuse to see. We see and we don’t see in a thousand metaphorical ways.

Power of the Eye

The eye is the window of the soul.  It is “our instinctive measuring-rod,” writes Fr. Charles-Damian Boulogne, O.P., “and thought, knowledge, art, intuition, and contemplation are all compared to vision” (My Friends the Senses, 1953, pp 3-4).  It is hard for the eyes to deceive and still harder to hide the feelings unless we are well practiced at it.  In Eastern iconography, the faces are shown frontally and not at an angle or in a profile.  The eyes gaze directly at the viewer and beyond.  A side glance is to suggest evasion. It is not a question of seeing a great deal or of seeing very quickly but  of seeing well or of seeing better.  Seeing requires discipline, whose first law consists in accepting a relative slowness.

Vision is the art of seeing beyond the tangible to intangible reality. Vision perceives the truth of what is being offered to the eye and to the whole person.   It sees and grasps what is true. In regard to religious matters, it means the practice of seeing God in all things and all things in God.  Today, this question invites ridicule from secularists because, but Gerard Manley Hopkins responds in verse:

. . . The just man justices
Keeps grace; that keeps all his going graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is--
Chríst–for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

What Are We Seeing?

How many times have we seen the news media show the desperate and heartrending facial expressions of employees who, through no fault of their, lose their jobs.   Seeing the steady flow of  inhumanity heaped on humanity tends to anesthetize us from it.  We no longer see. As a form of radical ugliness, pornography titillates first the eye, and then all the senses. In a particular way, children exposed to pornography, instinctively see it for what it is, and they recoil from it, feeling embarrassed, ashamed, and unclean. Clearly, pornography is so ubiquitous that, we no longer see or even notice it as evil, even in the art world.

In a recent article entitled “All the Picassos in the Cupboard,” Holland Cotter, art critic and Pulitzer Prize winner, revealed a shocking anecdote.  He writes that Pablo Picasso, perhaps the most forceful and dominant artist of the contemporary scene, painted pornography on commission, with particular emphasis on carving up figures (NY Times April 30th, 2010), Weekend Edition, C 25).  Such a fact offends  moral and aesthetic sensibilities even though pseudo-art collectors are duped into acquiring meretricious art at exorbitant prices. Recently, this entry caught my eye in the “Dear Diary” section of a Monday New York Times:

"Dear Diary, 
Upon entering the Brice Marden exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, I was taken aback by the rectangular canvases painted separately in hues of battleship gray, mud, and olive green. 

I walked over to the security guard and asked his impression of the art.  He replied, “I don’t look at the art.  I look at the expressions on the faces of the people.  Most of them look as though they have been dropped into a Home Depot.”  (Susan Birnbryer Madon)

What did the security guard and the viewers see?  Either they saw well, or they didn’t see at all.


Art is the creation of something beautiful, and the quest for the arts is the quest for beauty. The arts belong solely to the realm of human creativity because they please the intellect by pleasing the senses. Museums known for their beautiful collections await art enthusiasts.  It is remarkable to see at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for example, families with very young children appreciating the wonder of each work of art.  Parents have expressed their determination to develop their children’s love of art and of all things beautiful given the fact that there is so much ugliness in the world. 

Knowledge, Reading, and Closing the Opportunity Gap

Until the discovery of the printing press in 1495, the privilege of reading belonged exclusively to the wealthy class.  Today, many of us use our eyes in front of a screen either for work or for entertainment.  When children are old enough to read, they should read much and well.  In doing so, their imaginations are stimulated, their vocabulary, expanded and enriched, and they size up the characters about whom they read before holding them up as role models.  Reading makes one’s world grow larger. One need only look to young Abraham Lincoln who could not read enough books to satiate his thirst for learning.  His speeches, so beautifully written, are those which we most commit to memory. 

Darkness and the Light of the World

More in The Way of Beauty

Jesus tells us that those who follow him will never walk in dark but will have the light of life.  Still, there is such a thing as a normal darkness of soul which he himself experienced in his passion.  Today, financial uncertainty can bring about a darkness that reacts normally to negative circumstances.  This sadness of soul differs from clinical depression, that is, abnormal reactions caused by internal dysfunction. Hostility to God, either implicitly or explicitly, can also descend as cultural darkness. But this is the world to which the Messiah brought new life.  

The Book of Genesis narrates: “Then God said: “Let there be light.”   When Jesus spoke the words, “I am the light of the world,” he was conferring the supreme dignity on light which the Godhead had created.  For us, the polarity of light and darkness is universally felt, and it is a reflection of life versus death, awareness versus ignorance as natural counterparts of good versus evil, delight versus dread, enlightenment versus superstition, clarity versus obscurity, brilliance versus dullness.

Seeing the Glory of the Lord in All Things

In the Book of Exodus, Moses asks God, “Do let me see your glory!” The Lord answers:
I will make all my beauty pass before you and in your presence, I will pronounce my name, ‘Lord;’ I will show favor to whom I will, I who grant mercy to whom I will.  But my face you cannot see, for no man see me and still lives.” (Ex:33).

The phrase, “the glory of the Lord,” defies definition, although to the Jews, it represented God in human form. The phrase has an iridescence as does no other word. Divine glory unites God’s beauty, holiness, and love.  Glory forms not only the content but also the underlying theme of Scripture, and the word occurs almost two hundred times both in the Hebrew scriptures and in the Christian.  Like Moses, though we see now only as in a faint mirror ,  we are destined to see the glory of God face to face.  The first Preface for Christmas expresses liturgically Händel’s contemplative moment, caught up in a vision of God:

In the mystery of the Word made flesh,
a new light of your glory has shone upon the eyes of our mind,
so that, as we recognize in him God made visible,
we may be caught up through him in love of things invisible.

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