The Essential Need of Beauty

On my walk this past week, I listened to a podcast from the CBC Tapestry program, which stressed the importance of words, both in terms of the healing or and wounding effect that they can have, our responsibility for our own words and something of their impact. The interview was with Malcolm Guite, a poet, Anglican priest, former fellow of Girton College, Cambridge. He stressed that the way a person speaks shapes who they are at a very elemental level, At the same time, the way we speak is itself born out of the way we hear and the way we read. As a result, he adds: “We really need to soak ourselves in rich language.”

He refers to the words of Irish poet and Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney, who holds that the only way to respond to grief is through beauty : “The greater the weight of grief a line [of poetry] is asked to bear, the more beautifully and musically sprung the line must be.” His words reflect those of an article on beauty that appeared many years ago in Homemakers magazine. “The beauty of music seems to come to us from a vast spiritual reservoir and to reach behind all our defences and touches the core of the condensed self.”

One example is found in Shakespeare’s play, Romeo & Juliet. It would be absolutely horrifying if it were encountered as a newspaper report of a tragic mistake that resulted in two teenage suicides. But in the language of Shakespeare, while it certainly does convey a sense of sadness, loss, and tragedy, it also has a great warmth and beauty as well. Tragic events are put into a beautiful container which gives them a meaning or discerns a meaning in them that would otherwise be absent. As writer on story, John Shea puts it, “Any sorrow can be borne if a story can be told about it.”

Such words of Guite and others call to mind an expression I heard as a child, which I have since realized is utterly false. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Words can in fact undermine and wound a person even more than a physical assault. They can also heal immensely. Jane and I have often raised the question of whether our words come from our surface noise or from our deepest silence. It is these latter words that can have the most profound effect.

What the above observations indicate our profound need to experience what is truly beautiful. Whether our experience of beauty is in a piece of music, a work of art, a sculpture, a story, a poem, or a building, “we touch the deepest meaning of being human” (in the words of author, Frederick Streng). We may sense that it is good that such beauty exists. It is like a gift enriching our spirit, and drawing us out of ourselves towards it, allowing us to glimpse another way of seeing life, and challenging us to expand our mind and heart. As the above reference to grief expresses, the experience of beauty, can have a power of healing that reaches deeper than any of our wounds and sorrows. It may indeed make us aware of these in the very process of healing them.

I may mention here two favourite examples. Yousuf Karsh, the photographer, for example, tells a marvelous story in connection with his portrait of the exiled Spanish cellist, Pablo Casals. In an ancient French Abbey where the photograph was taken, session took place. Casals sat in a chair in the grotto and played the music of Bach. Karsh was so moved by the beauty of the music that he could not for a time attend to photography. Then, he took a picture of Casals from behind. “I have never photographed anyone, before or since, with his back to the camera–but it seemed to me just right. For me, the bare room conveys the loneliness of the artist, at the pinnacle of his art, and also the loneliness of the exile.” Years later when this portrait was on exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, an elderly gentleman would come each day and stand before it for a period of time. The curator finally approached and asked why he did so. To which the man replied, “Hush–can’t you see, I am listening to the music!”

A second example comes from the story of Beauty and the Beast. In the story, a young woman is initially held captive by a seeming monster, yet one who radiates kindness. After a time, she realizes that she loves him deeply, and once declared, her love transforms him back into a handsome prince. One element of the4 story is the transforming power of love. Yet the underlying truth of the story is that the deepest beauty is at first found in the “Beast,.” and that the beauty of his soul which flows into his love creates the deeper transformation. Writer G. K. Chesterton, has a striking comment on this story. Its lesson, he says, is that something must be loved before it is loveable.

Finally, Group of Seven artist, Lawren Harris, writes: “In the inner place where true artists create there exists a pure child. To recognize this is to recognize beauty as a living, abiding, presence completely untouchable by all the devices of human beings, such as moral codes, creeds, intellectual analysis, games and clichés, the acquisitive instinct, or lust for anything whatsoever.”

The experience of beauty may be contrasted with the experience of something or even someone as property. What is regarded as property is something to be acquired, owned, and used and disposed of at will. It is taken into ourselves and possessed. The experience of beauty in music, art, or nature speaks to a deeper, quieter, more centred place within ourselves. Beauty can reach into our inmost heart, yet at the same time draw us to reach out from that centre, not to possess, but to admire and appreciate, and even to be transformed by it.

Perhaps one of the most transforming experiences is to glimpse something of the inner beauty of another human being. It is perhaps most often felt in a situation of mutual vulnerability and openness. Yousef Karsh once remarked that everyone has a public face, which is like a mask that conceals their true self. He adds that if you engage the subject of a portrait in meaningful conversation, at some point their soul shines through. It is then that you must take the picture.

May each of you come in touch with your own inner beauty. And may you also have the occasion to reveal that beauty in situations of mutual trustworthiness. And may you more and more come to experience the beauty in the world of nature and the arts and in one another.

Norman King, March 21, 2021