Experiences of beauty point beyond themselves.
Last week my wife and I attended a play about the Christian conversion of C.S. Lewis. His conversion was a process, not a one-time event. An important element in that process, he says, was some early experiences he had of joy. They set the stage for his conversion. In fact, he titled his autobiographical account of his conversion Surprised by Joy.
He gives his understanding of joy, however, a twist. In his experiences of joy, the ecstatic elation of feeling did not last long. Joy triggers an intense, almost poignant, longing or craving, a craving for that which had somehow caused that momentary experience of joy. His concept parallels that of the romantic German concept of sehnsucht.
What is “that” that has momentarily touched him? For Lewis, it is on a surface level beauty. What we find beautiful may differ from person to person (“beauty lies in the eye of the beholder”), yet wherever we find it, it seems to trigger a sense of pleasurable elation. We are drawn to it, as the night moth is drawn to the porch light.
And, as Lewis found, beauty feeds that intense desire to be in the presence of what we find beautiful. To hold onto it and possess it if we can.
Beauty as a Pointer
But for Lewis, beauty wherever we find it points to something beyond itself. It draws its allure from a higher source–God. Beauty then becomes one of the defining qualities of divinity. When we are fully in the presence of God, we are touched poignantly by God’s supreme beauty and by the beauty that he in grace bestows on all he has made.
So when we stand in awe of a stunning sunset, we are experiencing a beauty which derives from the godhead. When we examine a complex spider web in the light of early dawn, we perceive a beauty that flows from a divine source. When we admire the beauty of a handsome man or woman, we take joy in a beauty that is conferred by his or her maker.
When we work on a mathematic problem and we discover the solution is one of sublime simplicity, we feel we are once again discerning a beauty that derives from the One who creates mathematics. When we feel a sense of amazement at the beauty of some kind, compassionate action, we are recognizing that beauty adheres not only to things, but to behavior as well.
If God then is supreme beauty as God is also supreme goodness and truth, then the words of the psalmist make sense:
As a deer longs for the flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God? (Psalm 42:1-2)
When we are touched, if only momentarily, by the beauty, goodness, and truth of God, then we long, sometimes poignantly, for that experience again. Our soul thirsts with an intense thirst, that ultimately only God alone can satisfy by bringing us into his own presence. We can never quite be the same again.
That’s why, I believe, that believers have had a hard time not understanding the Song of Songs in the Old Testament allegorically. What is this longing for God like when we experience it deeply? The closest thing in human experience is the intense longing of lovers for each other. And the Song of Songs is primarily a poem about longing, intense erotic longing.
A Poignant Experience of Beauty
I write this way because of my own experience. When I was in graduate school, some classmates and I decided one weekend to make a retreat at the Cistercian monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts. There we were invited to attend the round of daily prayers in the chapel.
We were not allowed to actually sit in the choir stalls with the monks. Instead we had to gather in a separate room attached to the chapel. There we could listen to the divine offices through a lattice grill. We heard the monks as they chanted their psalms and sang their hymns, sometimes to a strumming guitar.
Even in our somewhat isolated confinement, I found the music flowing to us through the grill intensely beautiful. In Homer’s Odyssey, the music of the sirens is described as so intensely beautiful that sailors were inevitably drawn to plunge into the sea as they passed the sirens’ island. The plunge was always fatal as the waves would dash them up against the jagged rocks. So Odysseus ordered his crew to stop up their ears with wax. Only he would be able to listen, but securely lashed to the ship’s mast.
Well, for me the music of the monks felt something like that coming from divine sirens. I could not believe how deeply it moved me. In some strange way I must have been experiencing something of the beauty that was flowing in their voices from the very God they were praising.
A week later, back in my dorm room, I woke up one night consumed with intense longing to that music. The pangs were so intense that they bordered on pain. They kept me awake for hours. I so wanted to experience that beauty again.
The intensity of the experience confused and frightened me. What was it saying about me? I struggled with that question for years to come. I still do not understand all that was going on that experience, except it did reveal for me the immense power of beauty when we experience it in some very deep way. That power can resemble both pleasure and pain. It can shake us the core of our being.
Signposts of the Universe’s Destiny
Like Lewis, I have come to view such experiences of beauty as pointers to something beyond themselves. They are preparing us, I suspect, for that great experience of unimaginable beauty that will be disclosed to us when God brings the universe to its final fulfillment. God then will be in all that is, no longer obscure and veiled from our eyes, but shining in a dazzling effulgence that will be indescribable. It can only be experienced, not described in words. But all creation will break forth in pealing shouts of joy.
In that day will be fulfilled the words of the psalmist:
Those who go out weeping
Bearing the seed for sowing,
Shall come home with shouts of joy,
Carrying their sheaves. (Psalm 126:6)
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!