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Series on Beauty, Part I: What is Beauty?

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

Beauty.


In talking and thinking about music, beauty cannot help but be an essential part of the discussion. I am afraid many of us fail to understand what exactly beauty is, and perhaps even fewer of us have truly allowed ourselves to be moved by the beautiful in a profound and meaningful way. Those moments when we do touch beauty remain with us by leaving an impression on us.

One of my roommates in college once wrote me a note about how beauty could be found to my left, to my right, in looking up, looking down, and so on. In many ways, she is right. Beauty is to be found all around us whether it be in the gifts of God’s creation (nature, human beings, etc.) or the creations of man (art, music, etc.), beauty surrounds us if only we have the eyes to see it.

I remember with striking detail how I, and all those around me, felt when we saw an original painting of La belle jardinière by Raphael in Tuscany. It took our breath away, we were all awe-struck. Perhaps you, too, have experienced this in listening to a piece such as “Sicut cervus” by Palestrina or another song through which you see beauty.

There, too, are the extraordinary moments of experiencing beauty every day in marveling over the gentleness and beauty of leaves rusted in the wind, or the quiet moments spent with those you love. I am an amateur musician at best, but too find beauty in singing and playing instruments with friends (though we are a far cry away from emanating Palestrina).

But what is it that makes these and many other universal human experiences beautiful? Theologian John-Mark Miravalle in his book: Beauty What It Is and Why It Matters states that “Beauty is, by definition, engaging, appealing, delightful.” Elsewhere Miravalle notes that anything beautiful must make a statement, or as I said before, it demands to be noticed. For Roger Scruton, a philosopher and theologian, beauty can best be summarized through a list of adjectives in his work, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, including: “consoling, disturbing, sacred, profane; it can be exhilarating, appealing, inspiring, chilling.” Both agree that beauty is something that stirs within us.

This notion however is not new. The question of what the role of beauty is, is a question musicians, artists, theologians, and philosophers alike have posed throughout the centuries. For Plato, his understanding of beauty was related to his understanding of what he referred to as the “Ideas” as articulated in the Phaedo. These Ideas include notions such as “absolute beauty, and goodness.” They are these broad categories which help us understand how to make sense of the world around us. Plato understood that anything beautiful was beautiful because it reflected the absolute Beauty found in the Idea of Beauty outside of the physical material world.

Similarly, Plotinus in the Enneads, understood there to be a “Principle” and that it is this Principle “that bestows beauty on material things.” Plotinus understands beauty to be deeper than simply the participation in some principle though. He understands the profound effect beauty has on the individual and how it stirs within one too and thrills with delight upon sight. In some ways, this mirrors the definition given by Saint Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica when he says that “beautiful things are those which please when seen.” It is a moment of recognition, in which we feel ourselves stop and delight in that which is before us. Anything that embodies this reaction encompasses and expresses what it means to be Beautiful and reflects Beauty itself.

It is the simple understanding that true beauty leaves us left in a state of vulnerability, Insofar as it touches the depths of who we are. It makes us pause for a moment and allows our gaze to be drawn and seized. It lays a claim on us and touches deeply within us as it commands the breath to leave our lungs and remain truly aware of what lies in front of us in a profound sense.

That said, the implications of this are far-reaching and will be explored more throughout this blog. For today, suffice it to say that whoever you are, it is essential for you to experience and rest in beauty. I encourage you to look for it whether it be to your right, to your left, looking up, or down below. Know that there is beauty to be found around you if you but allow yourself to recognize it. Beauty captures us by its very nature, but we must consent to it to allow it to penetrate our gaze and allow its depth to seep in and form us. As you enter this upcoming week, seek out beauty by allowing yourself to rest in the preciousness of the world around you and see where that leads you.

May God who is Truth, Beauty, and Goodness draw you ever more into himself.

Praying for you,

Lauren



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