The Healing and Challenging Power of Beauty
I have spoken recently of winter as a time of slowing down and listening to the deepest voices within us. I also spoke of disturbing feelings that need to be listened to and named in a safe place. The same is true of the sorrow that is an inevitable part of life. Still another element of winter is its own unique beauty. This beauty is reflected in the silence of the falling snow and the intricate design of each snowflake.
Recently, I listened to an exquisitely beautiful piece of music sung by Sarah Brightman, called Nella Fantasia (In My Imagination). I found that this song reached into me and touched and evoked an aching longing. This longing is perhaps what is deepest within us. At the same time, the beauty of the music was almost overwhelming. It seems that the music opened up the longing and yet also responded to it. I was grateful to hear this music, to experience something so beautiful. It seems that our aching longing reflects perhaps the tinge of sorrow that springs from the brevity of life and its limitations. Yet, the beauty that is also an inherent part of life makes us thankful that such beauty exists, that are lives are enriched by it, and that the gift of life, however limited, is meaningful. We may therefore live out our lives with a sense of gratitude, even though at times it may be painful.
Some forty years ago, I made my first trip to Europe. I was to meet in Munich with a revered theologian, Karl Rahner. At the same time, I made excursions to France and Italy. I was overcome with the beauty of the architecture and the sculpture and paintings that were to be found everywhere. This experience uncovered in me a previously not fully recognized need for beauty. And yet the need was revealed in the very experience of beauty.
On one occasion, I stopped in a little chapel across from Notre Dame Cathedral, called Sainte-Chapelle. It contained some stunning mosaics. While I was sitting there by myself completely absorbed in these mosaics, a group of tourists came in, took pictures, and left, in barely more than a few seconds. I felt that their rushed activity was a violation. It seemed that the tourists simply tried to dominate, to capture the scene without ever experiencing it, and perhaps later to inflict their photos on others.
After some reflection, it struck me that perhaps there is a fear or at least a reluctance to opening ourselves to the experience of beauty. This experience would run counter to the cultural norm of control, possession, and domination. This life model is one of taking. It is one of reaching out for things to own, to take into ourselves, as if it would fill up any emptiness inside.
The experience of beauty is quite opposite. A favourite quotation of mine is from an article by Eva Rockett in an earlier issue of Homemakers magazine. She writes: “The beauty of music reaches behind all our defences and touches the core of the condensed self.” I think that, like Nella Fantasia, the experience of beauty can reach deeply within us. At the same time, it draws us out of ourselves, not to possess or grasp, but to admire, that is, to look with wonder, to respect, to appreciate.
The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote a poem about contemplating a statue of Apollo, the ancient Greek god and symbol of the sun, healing. and fine arts. He was also, so to speak, for the Greeks, the mirror of an ideal human being. Rilke concluded his poem by saying that it was as if the statue saw him and spoke to him, with the final words of the poem. “You must change your life.”
Certainly, it is not a literal voice that can be heard, but rather the call that the experience of beauty evokes in us. It is the call that summons us to become the person we can be, to become the best we can be. Shakespeare has written that the purpose of art is to hold the mirror up to nature. That would seem to mean that a good play, novel, painting or sculpture reflects us back to ourselves. It allows us to see into ourselves and challenges us to grow into the person we can be. I would add that a truly good person does the same. Who they are is an invitation and challenge to us to become all that we can be. This is not a matter of becoming other than who we are, but of uncovering the inner beauty of the person we truly are–and really the beauty of all that is–and living gradually out of that beauty.
May you experience much beauty in your life. May you come to recognize your own beauty, and the hidden beauty of all that is. And may your experience, over time, unfold in the direction of healing and wholeness, for yourself, and for all who come within the circle of your light.
Norman King, February 13, 2023