The Longing for Beauty

Last week I spoke of listening to and from our own heart, our sacred core. The process of tuning in to that core may involve passing through the uncertainties, hurts, fears, and hostilities, that we all experience; then acknowledging, feeling, and sharing them in a safe place. The challenge is not to identify with any of these areas, not to see them as who we are. Rather, in the perspective, of Viktor Frankl and David Steindl-Rast, our challenge is also to tune into and respond to the meaning of each present moment.

Tuning in is a musical term, and along with story and the other arts, music, especially if beautiful, is able to reach that core. Eva Rockett wrote many years ago, in Homemakers magazine what has become a favourite statement of mine. She wrote that the beauty of music is able to reach behind all our defences and touch the core of the condensed self. Those defences may involve skating on the surface of life, a false conviviality, or any protective mask to hide who we are, even from ourselves.

What resonates with me here as well is that a pathway to our inmost care is through the experience of beauty. Sometimes our profound need for beauty goes unrecognized until we actually experience a beauty that touches our core. I recall vividly on my first trip to Europe how I was overwhelmed by the sculpture, the paintings, and perhaps mostly by the architecture of a city such a Paris. The very experience at once evoked and responded to an immense longing, of which I was not fully aware. On my return home, I found that I had to listen daily to classical music for a month. It was the only immediately available form of such beauty.

Often students who enjoy a group tour to Europe and its art galleries, experience an unnamed longing on their return. I think it is this same profound need for beauty in their lives. One image that has stuck in my mind is from the late science fiction writer, J. G. Ballard. In one novel, the only remaining birds are to be found stuffed and in museums. I recall as well a statement quoted by theologian, Jurgen Moltmann: “The birds are singing more than Darwin allows.” (A more recent approach sees Darwin as professing the survival of the kindest rather than the so-called fittest.)

It seems that there is in nature a superabundance, an overflow, an extravagance that goes well beyond mere survival. It is meaning. It is becoming more fully alive, rather than merely being alive. The fulness of life is certainly expressed in love, but also in beauty as well. In an early novel, Thomas Merton describes the underside of London, “as terrible as no music at all.” Elsewhere he writes: “Music is pleasing not only because of the sound but because of the silence that is in it: without the alternation of sound and silence there would be no rhythm.”

What these words suggest is that music and all that is beautiful are essential to a meaningful life. In whatever ways are possible, it is necessary to open ourselves up to that experience.

Religious Studies scholar, Frederick Streng, writes that, in the experience of beauty, whether in a piece of music, work of art, poem or story, we touch the deepest meaning of being human, and sense that it is good that this beauty exists. It is like a gift enriching our spirit, drawing us out of ourselves, allowing us to glimpse another way of seeing life, and inviting us to expand our mind and heart.

I might add that the experience of beauty puts us in touch with what is at the heart of life, a presence and power of beauty that enriches our soul, calls to our spirit, and draws us out of ourselves. It is a power of healing that reaches deeper than and even unveils our wounds, in the very process of healing them.

In her book, BitterSweet, Susan Cain speaks of transforming sorrow into beauty. She sees this quality in the words and music of Leonard Cohen. He speaks of a cold and lonely hallelujah, a celebration of life despite its pain. The inseparable joy and sorrow of life transformed into beauty is also expressed in his song Anthem. It says that there is a crack in everything and that is how the light gets in. This is also the theme of the story, The Cracked Pot. The crack in the pot which allows water to leak out gives rise to beautiful flowers.

The beauty found in the world of nature and of the arts, is also found at the core of each person. The challenge is to experience this inner beauty in a world that regularly stresses superficiality, externals, and escapism. This inner beauty we have also called the sacred worth–in oneself or others. Thomas Merton writes of a powerful experience when he was struck by this awareness.
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality. … If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed..

I also recall a few experiences when I had a sense of that inner beauty in someone, and how it is experienced as an unexpected gift, a challenge never to harm, and a calling to have a caring reverence for the person.

May you uncover your own inner beauty and that of those you meet, beneath all else that clutters our awareness. And may you be open to be transformed by the beauty of the natural world, of story and music, of all that is beautiful. This experience alone may contribute greatly to can make our life worthwhile.

Norman King, May 22, 2023