The need for beauty

Sorry for the radio silence on here, I’ve been reading and thinking more than I’ve been writing, recently.

One thing I’ve been both thinking and reading about, though perhaps from different angles, is the theological significance of beauty. When, a year ago, I first started my clinical training and began spending 9-5, Monday-Friday in a hospital I found the environment really difficult to cope with. Hospitals are very white and very utilitarian; they’re designed to be safe, hard-wearing, easy to clean – not to be beautiful. It didn’t help that along with moving from libraries to hospitals I’d moved from a small, leafy town with beautiful buildings to…London. It’s not called the Big Smoke for nothing. For the first two months of life here I couldn’t even see the trees for all the grey – grey pavements papering over the grass, and grey buildings blotting out the sky.

I was surprised by the strength of my reaction. It was almost visceral, a physical craving. I had to escape, find a park, or a bench under a tree, or a window that looked out onto unhindered sky. All I could think was that human beings need beauty. And yet, at the same time, I felt guilty for having such a hunger for it. In a city where so many people couldn’t afford to live in an area even as green as mine – where people lived holed up in council flats, towers packed in beside each other around a little patch of concrete – what right did I have to find my lot difficult? In the same way, what right did I have to complain that hospitals are depressing when I could escape every evening and go home, unlike the patients? I had just been spoilt, up til then. Now I would learn what the ‘real world’ was like.

Except I’m growingly convinced that ugliness isn’t the ‘real world’, not if what we mean by ‘real world’ is the basic, foundational nature of the Universe. Why? Because God is beautiful, and so the Universe is beautiful. What is ugly in it is the product of human beings. Even the most terrifying or weird of God’s creations have their own arresting aesthetic. The really ugly things – like rubbish dumps and multi-storey carparks – are human inventions. And the fact that God made the world so beautiful – so superfluously, super-abundantly beautiful – tells us two things:

  1. God is beautiful
  2. Human beings need beauty

Here’s John & Stasi Eldredge’s take on what nature teaches us about beauty, taken from Captivating (yes, I’m quoting Captivating, judge me all you want :)):

“Nature is not primarily functional. It is primarily beautiful. Stop for a moment and let that sink in. We’re so used to evaluating everything (and everyone) by their usefulness that this thought will take a minute or two to begin to dawn on us. Nature is…primarily beautiful. Which is to say, beauty is in and of itself a great and glorious good, something we need in large and daily does (for our God has seen fit to arrange this). Nature at the height of its glory shouts ‘Beauty is essential!’”

In case you’re not kindly disposed to the Eldredges, here’s CS Lewis (as quoted by Piper in When I don’t desire God) on how the natural goodness of the world can point us to God:

“Pleasures are shafts of glory as it strikes our sensibility…I have tried since…to make every pleasure into a channel of adoration. I don’t mean simply by giving thanks for it. One must of course give thanks, but I mean something different…Gratitude exclaims, very properly, “How good of God to give me this. “ Adoration says, “What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this!” One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun…”

If God is ultimately beautiful, then our longing for beauty is good because it drives us to God:

“Every experience of beauty points to [eternity]”  – Hans Urs von Balthasar

“He has planted eternity in the hearts of men.” – Eccl. 3:11

I still live in London, I still spend my weekdays in a hospital. But thinking about all of this has made me feel less guilty about having a need for beauty, about wanting to build time into my week to spend with beauty, in whatever form. At the same time, it’s helped me to see Jesus’ beauty more clearly. When my spiritual eyes are darkened because I start to doubt that God really is good, I find the beauty of the world He created helps. When I find it difficult to see the beauty of Jesus in the Bible, the beauty of trees, flaming leaves, skies filled with cloud-spray and light, win me back again. And, in the end, I hope I’m learning to trust Him to be the ultimate source of beauty in my life, even when I find myself surrounded by ugliness.

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