The Yearning for Beauty

Whether in flowers, music, painting, story or other expressions, the theme of beauty returns again and again. I think that it is a profound human need, yet one that is sometimes recognized as such only when it is deeply experienced.

I recall vividly my first trip to Europe. It was especially the architecture that struck me, perhaps more than anything the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, as well as the beauty of the city itself. The sculpture and painting as well really resonated. On returning to Canada, I found that I had to listen for a few weeks to classical music. It was the closest I could come to sustaining that European experience. I had a powerful sense that we have a very deep need for the experience of beauty.

On another occasion, when living in Quebec City, a group of us went to Montmorency Falls and the surrounding wooded area. Back at the university residence, we listened to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. The beauty of the music not only matched the beauty of the natural setting, but even seemed to name that experience in a way that words could not. The experience of this music is beautifully captured in the original version of the film, Fantasia, especially in the storm sequence followed by the unfolding calm beauty of the world showered with the light of the sun. At the same time, in listening to this symphony, I had a keen sense of the flowing quality of music. Its movement through time that a mirrored the tinge of sadness felt in the passing time of our own lives. It reflected also the same movement experienced in hearing a story unfold.

A writer on the philosophy of story, John Shea, has said that any sorrow can be borne provided a story can be told about it. We might add that, when an event, real or imagined, is situated in a story, it provides a framework of meaning for the event. It holds all the fragments in a unity. A non-story, such as the play, Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett or the novel, The Stranger, by Albert Camus, conveys a sense of meaninglessness. Even further, when a unified story is encased in beauty, as in the Shakespearian play, Romeo and Juliet, it provides an enriching experience. Despite the tragedy, the life of the characters depicted is felt as meaningful, and so, by extension, are our own lives.

The beauty of art and music and story and nature is a reflection of the beauty of the human heart or soul. Writer Thomas Merton, speaks of the “secret beauty” of every human heart, and says that at the centre of our being is “a point of pure truth … like a pure diamond.” The story of Rapunzel tells how, isolated in a tower, the young woman sang out of her loneliness, and the beauty of her singing rang throughout the forest and reached a young man who was profoundly moved by it. The story suggests that out of the solitude that allows us to get in touch with and express our deepest self, the result is something that reflects its beauty.

Sometimes in a conversation or a shared experience, we may come to a vivid realization of that inner beauty of a person. On one occasion, a young woman was telling me of a horrendous experience of abuse inflicted on her as a teenager. At the same time, there was an overwhelming sense of the inner beauty of this person that the horror could not take away or even reach.

There is a film based on a story imagined about the painting by Johannes Vermeer called The Girl with the Pearl Earing. When the young woman is finally able to look at the finished portrait, she exclaims, “You looked inside me.” It seems that the role of art in any form is to express outwardly, however incompletely, an inner beauty that is often hidden. I recall once seeing a photograph of a 100 year old Innuit woman, whose facial wrinkles themselves had wrinkles. Yet the overall impression was one of incredible beauty, perhaps the beauty of a heart and soul that shone through.

We have often quoted the words of Eva Rockett in an older Homemakers magazine, who says that the beauty of music reaches beneath all our defenses and reaches the core of the condensed self. One effect of beauty can be to pass through the layers of the self, and have a healing effect on us, at the same time as it unveils in a non-threatening way our need of healing. In a similar vein, it is the experience of forgiveness itself that enables us to admit th need of forgiveness

One thing that has struck me about beauty, whether in persons or nature or the arts, is that, in reaching our inmost centre, it draws us out of ourselves, not to possess, but to admire and appreciate, and even to be transformed by it. To experience something or someone merely as property can lead us to grasp and possess it, to see n not in terms of itself, but only in terms of a perceived need. If we experience the beauty of another person, if we experience another person as a being of interior beauty, we can never violate that person.

The experience of beauty can also invite us, in fact challenge us, to grow in the direction of that beauty. The story of Rumpelstiltzkin, for example, calls us to spin straw into gold. That would seem to mean that the challenge of a lifetime is to take the raw material of our life, however limited and passing, like straw, and transform it into a beautiful and lasting work of art, like gold. This thought is reflected in the poem of Rilke on a statue of the Greek god, Apollo. He feels that he is seen by this statue who addresses him with the words: “You must change your life.”

I’ll conclude with an experience, again, of many years ago. Lorraine and I were visiting her uncle at his farm in northern Alberta, which bordered on the now longer used farm of her parents before they moved Windsor when she was a young child. A storm had arisen and as it passed, a rainbow appeared, and came to an end on the porch of her parents’ old house. It was the first and only time I had seen a rainbow’s end, and it was an overwhelmingly beautiful sight that remains always in my imagination. It seemed to embody all that is positive in a lifetime.

May your own lives be filled with rainbows, with beauty. May you come to discover more and more to experience the beauty of music and story and the natural world and so much more, and especially the beauty of your own heart and the hearts of those around you. And may you be awakened more fully as a result to a sense of meaning, to a recognition of worth that leads to compassion and generosity for yourself and those whose lives more closely intersect with your own, yet expanding in ever widening circles.

Norman King, November 28, 2021