I remember what a revelation it was for me when I read these lines in Chesterton’s Orthodoxy: “Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery, you create morbidity… The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand.”
This idea is more relevant today than ever. We live in an age dominated by the conviction that everything that is important and valuable can and has to be empirically proven. Everything else is dismissed as worthless. The value of things, ideas and actions is assessed by their practical utility and rationality. Tragically, this inevitably leads us to a disaster as almost all things that bring us happiness and make life joyful, exciting and worth living are irrational and mysterious, for example, love, faith, beauty or romance. This constant pursuit of rationality leaves people in a state of inner emptiness and meaninglessness because it is incompatible with human nature. The only way for us to avoid cynicism and despair and to preserve sanity is to accept that there are things that are beyond our comprehension and that they, for our own good, should be valued and cherished exactly for being so.
Four years ago, I wrote in my diary how important I thought it was not to lose the ability to admire, for example the beauty of a city or the nobility of somebody’s actions. Just sincerely admire, without analyzing or judging. Back then I didn’t connect it with God or faith. I think it was my emotional and intuitive reaction towards the tendency in the modern world to question and cynically dismiss beauty, traditions, time-tested wisdoms and other things that are sacred for many. Now I can see that it was destruction of mystery and the tyranny of rationality my soul protested against.
After a while I suddenly realized how I myself lacked humility and the sense of gratitude, how I let myself be dragged into the mentality of constant conflict and complaining, dissatisfaction and cynicism. I had quite a long period when faith didn’t play an active role in my life. It was a part of my personal rebellion and what I then saw as pursuit of freedom. It has always been hard to me to accept things that I don’t understand intellectually. But when the realization of the necessity of faith and religion came to me, it came both to my head and my heart and there was no contradiction or conflict between them. Chesterton believed that Christianity reconciled the paradoxes of the human nature, our desire to understand with our desire for mystery, our need of adventure and freedom with our need for belonging. And it was exactly how I felt. My faith came back to me when I stopped demanding evidence and realized the value of mystery, when I accepted that there are things I would never comprehend and that it is good.
Our admiration of beauty is closely connected with our need for mystery.
Beauty protects us from the tyranny of utility and rationality. It evokes mystery and helps us appreciate it. Beauty in non-utilitarian by nature. Many philosophers from Plato to modern times have emphasized that beauty is to be contemplated, not possessed. If you try to own or use beauty, you spoil and corrupt it. Kant called beauty “disinterested delight” because we are able to enjoy it for itself without an urge to possess it or use it. David C. Schindler describes beauty as “just-is-ness” of things and argues that it is this “just-is-ness” of beauty that makes self-giving and unselfish love possible. Schindler asserts that without reclaiming the primary significance of beauty the sense of being as a gift is impossible. Only beauty can help us reintroduce contemplative wonder as the foundation for our understanding of reality. Beauty enables and encourages us to love and admire the world we live in, which of course awakens our curiosity about it and our desire to explore it. That is why the experience of beauty should be an integral part of the educational process.
Beauty is not a merely pretty and pleasing physical quality but has a deep spiritual meaning.
In the Christian tradition beauty is closely connected to truth and goodness. As John-Mark L. Miravalle puts it, “the experience of beauty involves perceiving spiritual good and spiritual truth in sense images”. Beauty helps God be present in the world; it reveals the invisible reality in visible form. That is why the beauty of the liturgy and the church interior is of such significance. By prioritizing utility and neglecting beauty, we are making our environment, both natural and cultural, more and more ugly. This cannot leave our minds and souls unaffected.
Beauty has a power to bring consolation and relieve pain. In his documentary, Why beauty matters, Roger Scruton explains that, traditionally, the purpose of art has been to redeem human suffering through beauty, to show the real in the light of the ideal. He believes that modern art is losing sight of beauty because it is becoming more and more about “me and my desires”, about indulging one’s appetites. By giving up on beauty, the modern art “is determined to portray the human world as unlovable”.
Nowadays, even artists question the significance of beauty. I believe that art can serve the common good only if it aspires to beauty. Only then can it bring us closer to truth and goodness, to make us see the light even in the most tragic aspects of reality and thereby protect us from despair, to awaken the best in us and inspire us to pursue what is right and good.
By preserving and cultivating beauty we preserve individuality and uniqueness.
We have sacrificed beauty for utility, which has led to uniformity, standardization and mass production of everything from buildings, clothes and food to films and music. In the long run, it inevitably leads to standardization and uniformity of thinking as John Steinbeck predicted in his brilliant book East of Eden:
“When our food and clothing and housing all are born in the complication of mass production, mass method is bound to get into our thinking and to eliminate all other thinking. In our time mass or collective production has entered our economics, our politics, and even our religion, so that some nations have substituted the idea collective for the idea God. This in my time is the danger. There is great tension in the world, tension toward a breaking point, and men are unhappy and confused.” I find these words to be truly prophetic and they are far more true today than they were seventy years ago.
Our ability to appreciate beauty also influences how we see and treat nature. According to the Christian conception, God reveals Himself through nature’s beauty. Nature’s orderliness, harmony, symmetry and regularity lead us to believe that the world is created by a conscious plan. If there is a plan, there must be a person behind it; there must be an artist behind the artwork of the physical world. God revealed himself first through the beauty of creation before He did it in the written Scripture. The invisible divine beauty becomes visible in the visible beauty of creation.
Many thinkers believe that recognizing beauty’s significance is a necessity if we want to be able to deal with the current environmental crisis. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis quotes the following statement from Saint Pope John Paul II: “The relationship between a good aesthetic education and the maintenance of a healthy environment cannot be overlooked”.
He further develops this idea: “By learning to see and appreciate beauty, we learn to reject self-interested pragmatism. If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple”. The rejection of self-centered pragmatism is possible thanks to the non-possessive nature of beauty that we have discussed earlier.
The “just-is-ness” of beauty allows us to enjoy it without owning or exploiting it. When we admire something beautiful it evokes love in us and, naturally, we want to protect what we love, we want it to exist and thrive. In the words of Pablo Martínez de Anguita, “anyone amazed by the beauty of a pristine forest wants to understand and preserve it.” If we are able to see beauty and admire it, we will see everything as a gift. If we see everything as a gift, we will not treat nature or other human beings as disposable objects that exist only to satisfy our needs.
We should put beauty first. At the same time, it is crucial that we understand beauty properly, as a message and a gift. This, of course, is hard to do if we don’t recognize God as the Creator and the Lawgiver. We should revive and emphasize the spiritual dimension of beauty. Nowadays, the ideals of beauty are frequently questioned and relativized, along with many other ideals. When beauty is relativized so is truth and vice versa. We should stop relativizing beauty, as we should stop relativizing truth and goodness. If we see the beauty of nature as a message from God and a guide that leads us to spiritual truth and spiritual good, it will be easier for us to understand that, as John-Mark Miravalle puts it, “whenever we attack nature’s beauty, we undermine that message”.
Tatiana is originally from Russia, of Orthodox Christian heritage. She is educated in geography, geoecology and environmental protection and is currently working as an environmental compliance inspector in Sweden. Tatiana is a graduate of the Integral Ecology course, through Saint Joseph’s College of Maine in cooperation with the Laudato Si’ Institute, in the spring of 2020.
Chesterton, Gilbert Keith. Orthodoxy. Moody Press, U.S., 2009.
Francis. Encyclical Letter Laudato Si. The Vatican. The Holy See, 2015.
Martínez de Anguita, Pablo. Environmental Solidarity: How Religions Can Sustain Sustainability, Routledge, 2012.
Miravalle, John-Mark L. Beauty. What It Is and Why It Matters. Sophia Institute Press, 2019.
O’Donohue, John. Beauty: The Invisible Embrace. Harper Perennial, 2005.
Schindler, David C. Love and Beauty: The “Forgotten Transcendental” in Thomas Aquinas. Communio: International Catholic Review, 2017.
Scruton, Roger, writer and presenter. Why beauty matters. Directed by Louise Lockwood, BBC Two, 2009.