We are having a really frightful time of it, beloved. It seems as if lately the shocks just keep on coming—Boom! Boom! Boom!—one right after another, and you and I are forced to seek out whatever shelter we can find from the shocking venality of our government, from the appalling vulgarity of our public discourse, from our muddled, messed up lives. So in this frightful time what comfort is available to us?
Well, none at all, if we choose to focus our attention on the nasty business that confronts us daily in the newspapers and on television. If we set our eyes on the destruction of the natural world upon which humanity seems so hell-bent, or if we listen only to the “organ concert” of our infirmities and diseases, there would indeed no hope. Ugliness—moral and physical–is inescapable. But if we make a decision to see it, the beautiful is also all around us. Whether we find the comfort that it offers is up to us to decide; whether to see the world as a hideous mess or suffused with eternal grace depends upon whether our eyes are really open.
There is a wonderful passage about—of all things—the flowers in “The Naval Treaty” by Arthur Conan Doyle. In the midst of solving a particularly puzzling case, the author has Sherlock Holmes pause to indulge in a very uncharacteristic meditation:
“He walked past the couch to the open window and held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green. It was a new phase of his character to me, [says Dr. Watson, Holmes’ fictional biographer] for I had never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.
“‘There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as religion,’ said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.’”
So what hope does the great detective derive from the rose? In practical terms its beauty is useless–useless but not meaningless. It is “an extra”—not a necessity but “an embellishment of life,” a necessary unnecessary. It will not feed us or satisfy any of our ordinary physical needs or desires, but its beauty is a powerful sign of something beyond itself. It is not good for anything, it is good in itself and its goodness comes from outside itself, from what Sherlock calls “the goodness of Providence.”
It is a glimpse into another world which makes sense of this one. If our eyes are really open we cannot help but ask—Whence comes all this beauty? In the Nicene Creed we profess our faith in the God who is the maker of all things, “seen and unseen.” The real world—the night sky, the birds, the flowers–transmits the beauty of the unseen world behind it, the Really Real, where this world’s meaning is revealed. We presently see it “through a glass, darkly,” as St. Paul writes, but it holds the promise that that eventually we will see that meaning “face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
If I were given a choice among all the most beautiful places I have ever been, I would choose Sainte Chapelle in Paris. It was the chapel of the early French kings, and it contains the most extensive collection of 13th century glass in the world. The effect of the sun shining through those windows into the gilded interior of the chapel is nothing short of heavenly. But the guide will tell you that the chapel was used as an administrative office during the French Revolution, when its windows were obscured by enormous filing cabinets. The cabinets both hid them and saved them. And in the same way our view of the beautiful is often obscured by the ugly realities of our human situation. The light behind the windows, however, continues to shine.
It shines whether we see it or not. Beauty is not simply in the eye of the beholder—it comes from somewhere else, beyond the world of the things it illuminates. Evil does its best to soil and destroy it, and it often succeeds. But beauty is both fragile as a rose and as tough and resilient as the roots of wisteria vines which cannot be rooted out. It keeps coming back and back and back for more. It no sooner does it die in one place than it breaks through somewhere else.
At this stage of my life my calling, as I see it, is to give hope to the perplexed—most particularly to myself–and encouragement in a world that seems to have gone mad. Hope for what exactly? Hope that things that currently seem to be falling apart will eventually come together in a more harmonious form. Beauty is a product of fitness and rightness in nature and art, every part of something working together to make a graceful whole. That’s what beauty is. A rose. A sunset. A common butterfly. A rare bird’s wing. The windows of Sainte Chapelle. A concerto for strings played there. It makes no difference. And to those who see it and give thanks for it, the beautiful offers the promise that things can and will someday work together that way, in harmony. And that which seems to be falling part is really coming together in a more apt and fitting whole.
But we are helpless to make that happen, beloved. On one level you and I are called to change things, but the beautiful silently it asks us–Can you separate what is precious from the desire to possess it? Can you smell the rose without plucking it? Can you let it bloom on the bush? Can you be patient and let God, the original artist, finish his work? Can you be content to wait until the Really Real is fully revealed? The beautiful is a glimpse of that a transformed world. It is, like goodness and truth, a form that eternal grace takes. Without it this world would be hell, beloved, but filled to over-bursting with beauty, it indeed gives us “much to hope for.”