My six-year-old daughter caught eight dragonflies in an hour this past summer, leaving hundreds more. In that one moment, she was made aware of the generous beauty of God. So she chased it. Gratuitous beauty. The truth of the matter is that we are always surrounded by the generous beauty of God, but we’re not always awake to it. The world is, indeed, charged with God’s grandeur and it gathers to a greatness (Gerard Manley Hopkins). All this generous beauty is a gift of God’s pure grace. Our high calling is to enjoy that gift and to compound God’s generosity by taking what he gave and transforming it into a new gift for others to enjoy. Artists of every stripe get to do this more tangibly and more often. They get to partake of all this gratuitous beauty and share it with others, but I believe that every Christian can do that in some way or another.
Beauty’s disinterest, its fleeting yet all-pervasive presence, its unbridled freedom, and its refusal to be pinned down by definition are no reason to sneer at it. Hans Urs Von Balthasar said that she who sneers at beauty will soon lose her ability to love. He also warns that beauty will take its revenge upon the person or people who neglect beauty by robbing them of truth and goodness as well. We have confused the pretty with the beautiful these days and have consequently suffered some consequences in moral and doctrinal decay.
That being said, the hunt for beauty can lead into a dark and distant country if we let go of the Lord’s hand and forget the Scriptures as our compass. If we cling to him and keep our eyes open, we will develop eyes to see beauty more and more. There are many ways to do that, but it has been helpful for me to realize that I will never have eyes to see beauty fully. Not at least until heaven. It also helps to remember that beauty comes at us from a slant. It is usually experienced by surprise and a sense of good fortune and it is usually indescribable in rational terms; for example, distinguishing the pretty from the beautiful would require a lengthy book, but the well-trained intuition knows the difference instantly. We can be content with the reality that beauty is never grasped analytically, but by analogy and by repeated exposure to it.
Unfortunately, we are growing up in an increasingly utilitarian world. A thing’s value now hinges upon its usefulness and this rapidly spreading mentality eliminates beauty and inadvertently exiles those artists who traffic in beauty. Those artists who find their way back into “the real world” often do so only if their work can be replicated and distributed in mass. But we forget how easily beauty is watered down by a consumerist people. To many people, beauty is now ancillary to utility, an unnecessary bonus. Conspiring with this utilitarian perspective is the tidal wave of flippancy and cynicism that currently erodes our cultural footings. By the time they are fifteen or sixteen, most people have already been defrocked from their priestly position as lovers of the good and beautiful by their devices and the distractions around them. Worse yet, they have grown so self-critical and, therefore, critical of others, that they can hardly see all the gratuity blooming around them.
When did we forget that God is an artist? Why have we forgotten that he made a world he did not need, most of which we do not need either. It’s true that our world contains billions of fragile macro and micro ecosystems, but I still say that the sheer number of swallows careening through the air outside my window at this moment is proof that God pays little mind to utility. He seems to take pleasure in lavishing the world with beauty and charging our existence with his glory and grace and generosity. Keep leaning, friend, leaning into beauty. Make space in your imagination for the wondrous and the beloved, the textured and the luminous, the transcendant and the ordinary. Watch for the delicate and the overlooked. A word. A glance. A gesture of grace.