Appetite for Beauty

February 28, 2009

montanaAt church camp we watched a series of Igniter videos.  One showed a montage of clips and single images, scenes from the earth, vistas and panaromas, plains and mountains and oceans.  Flocks of birds lifting into flight, the vast beauties of the earth.  What impressed me was the variety.  The earth holds many kinds of beauty.

Beauty is the question.  Why do we never tire of drinking in beauty?  Why are the stars endlessly fascinating?  Why does watching the rollers become breakers and spread onto the beach in foam-fringed sheets never lose its appeal?  Why does tree after tree, and mountain after mountain fascinate us?  Why do we never tire of beauty?

I think because there is a natural order of things.  Perhaps not the Great Chain of Being, but I think we lose happiness when we strive to make gods of ourselves.  We seize too much, we take too much into our dominion.  We subjugate one another and rape the earth.  In our fallenness, no wonder the earth groans as with birthing pains.  When we, the pinnacle of creation, fall into rebellion, we send the rest of the cosmos out of whack.

The world is off-kilter, groaning for restoration and healing.  We need vast expanses of beauty to remind us that our control reaches only so far.  Out there over the deep oceans and high, snow-capped mountains, we feel our smallness, our transience, and we are humbled.  Humility was meant to be a part of the natural order.  Unfortunately, the phrase “knowing one’s place” has taken on negative connotations, referring more to a social hierarchy than an preordained organization of creatures and forces.

montana2

When we disrespect our parents, we upset the natural order.  We are to respect our elders, to treat them with deference and to protect their dignity.  When I take the life of another human being, I upset the natural order.  

God does not hand out death warrants anymore, at least none that I can fathom.  When we claim that God sanctions our wars, our capital punishment, our law enforcement, our abortions, our euthanasia, and our self defense, we take death into our own hands.  We take it upon ourselves the responsibility of doling our life or death, of judging one life worth more than another.  We place different values on different lives.  The unborn child deserves to live; the serial killer-rapist deserves to die.

Of course, no one take responsibility for the death.  The executioner is simply doing his job.  The legislators are simply transmitting the wishes of the people.  The judges are simply honoring the spirit of the law.  Blame is dispersed.  Leo Tolstoy explores this phenomenon in depth in The Kingdom of God Is Within Us.  How is it that men do things while in the military, commit all sorts of atrocities for their governments and countries, to protect their “freedoms,” things which they would never do in their private lives?  What forces are in place that draw these men into a certain trajectory of violence and unquestioning, uncritical subservience?

montana4So the question of beauty persists.  We can never drink our fill.  Mountains and oceans and stars and even campfires always fascinate us.  We stare at them for hours and days.  Because we sense on some basic human level that they help to explain our salvation.  Salvation comes from outside of ourselves.  The same way we cannot master the hurricanes or forest fires and neither could we resist the fires of those stars in the heavens.  We cannot also master the tempests that rage in us.  Lust and greed and arrogance and pride and vanity and selfishness.  We do not have the resources in ourselves to pluck out these weeds.  And even if we could pluck one or two, they proliferate so quickly like dandelions that in even moving the one to the compost heap or incinerator to be burned, we merely disperse its seeds across the lawn.  If I think that by forces of my will and self-control that I can cure myself of lust.  By averting my eyes or by downloading a program to send a list of all the sites I’ve visited to my friends or by putting some sort of filter on the internet or tv and throwing away the password.  I can do all this and put a bandaid, but I have not touched the hemorrhaging.  I live in a fallen and rebellious world.  My lust is symptomatic of a perverted mind dwelling in a society of perverted minds.  Can I dip a bucket into a dirty puddle and expect to draw out a single cup of clean water?  As soon as I break the surface of the water with my bucket, I stir the water.  I can be very diligent, very vigilant, and attempt to snuff out every flicker of lust I find in my life but I can transform my smoldering spirit which produces these flickers.

In looking at beauty I feel the smallness of my own ability to create something of lasting significance.  I cannot even master myself.  Oceans remind me that I am but a vapor.  Acknowledging my need is the greatest thing I can do.  In admitting my helplessness and ugliness, I take the first step towards the beautiful rooms of grace God has prepared for those who surrender.  Can I look into the green distances and heights of mountains and own my insignificance and prostrate myself before God, saying Help me?  Help me, Father.

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2 Responses to “Appetite for Beauty”

  1. Austin L. Church Says:

    Valuable insights, Charlotte, thank you. I hope this Lenten season is for you a time of deep reflection and turning towards the Light.


  2. austin,

    what a wonderful entry! i love to read your writing. it inspires me to dive deeper into the hurting yet still rich culture that we live in (and to write from time to time myself).

    i think that one of the reasons that i never tire of beauty is that my heart longs for heaven. all of theses remnants of beauty that we find all around us are mere slivers of the beauty of the father, as creation reflects him. i am attending an anglican church here in chicago, and last week was transfiguration sunday in the liturgical calendar. reading the scripture about the glory of the lord astounds me; the overwhelming idea that a human could not gaze upon the face of the lord and live because the glory would be too great is unfathomable to me…. but isn’t that one of the greatest things about our god? he is beautiful, yet he knows what is best for us, and we don’t see his face revealed because he is protecting us, not punishing us. we see through the glass dimly for our own good.

    i love being in cathedrals because the imagery of my size compared to god’s is so bluntly astounding. he is so big, and we are so small… but being there inspires me again to approach the lord’s presence with the wonder and awe that he deserves. enough of this pettiness and unrighteousness in our living! being there helps me to “know my place”… to find yet again that fine-tuned balance of fearing the lord yet walking in incredible intimacy with him. you are so right in saying that we cannot master ourselves. every good and perfect gift comes from our father, and being in the cathedral reminds me of the humbling reality that we are utterly dependent upon him, and he loves for us to depend upon him. how blessed we are to serve a god who longs to love us!

    peace, my friend!


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