In the first part of this series, I spoke of how beauty leaves an impression upon us and of how it causes us to stop and delight in the world around us. I claimed that beauty is essential to experience and rest in beauty, but the question inevitably becomes why? Why is this so essential? The answer is quite simply that beauty teaches us something.
Roger Scruton emphasizes how beauty brings us to the horizon of this life and the next. It is a meeting point of the ordinary and the extraordinary. Scruton goes on to write of the close relation between the beautiful and the sacred in his small treatise, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction. He writes that they are “adjacent in our experience, and that our feelings for the one are constantly spilling over into the territory claimed by the other.” He expounds on this further in another piece of his entitled Soul of the World where he explores the relation between man and the world within it he elaborates that a feature of the sacred is that “all seem[s] to stand at the horizon of our world, looking out to that which is not of this world, because it belongs in the sphere of the divine, and looking also into our world, so as to meet us face-to-face.” It is here where beauty, sacredness, and the human person collide. We are being made to stop, to rest, and delight in the world around us because it revels something far deeper about fundamentally who we are. In this way, Scruton continues by saying that, “[i]n the experience of beauty the world comes home to us, and we to the world.” It is a long awaited meeting where we can take a breath, and our hearts are able to rest as it catches a whisper of the Divine in the ordinary.
This is the effect of beauty – a moment where we understand ourselves to be a part of something larger than ourselves. Scruton describes this experience by saying that, “[w]hen the world looks back at me with my eyes, as it does in aesthetic experience, it is also addressing me in another way. Something is being revealed to me, and I am being made to stand still and absorb it… What is revealed to me in the experience of beauty is a fundamental truth about being - that being is a gift.” Beauty teaches us, oh so much – but reducing it down to a fundamental level, it teaches us that there is so much more to the world than we first perceive. In the process, it forces us to be confronted by something that lies beyond ourselves. In the moment in which beauty touches and arrests us, we realize a profound truth – that life is not about us as individuals.
This is admittedly a shift from how we often approach the world around us. So often, Charles Taylor writes in A Secular Age many have come to search for meaning within ourselves rather than outside of ourselves. He forms this distinction largely between believers and non-believers, but the effects of living in a culture where the messaging is constantly ego-centric effects everyone to some degree. The impacts of which are far-reaching. Experiencing beauty necessarily teaches us the opposite – that meaning is to be found outside of ourselves at this meeting between the visible and the invisible.
And it is at this crossing that John Paul II’s words in his “Letter to Artists” become realized. He gives voice to the power of beauty by arguing that “[b]eauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savour life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God.” Beauty unlocks part of ourselves that we often remain unaware of in the day-to-day of our lives. It is the gentle and quiet knocking of God to remind us of who he made us to be – individuals not focused on ourselves, but living with our sights on the horizon and to recognize the gift of the world around us. It is an invitation to live in a world full of wonder as we brush up against the Divine slowly learning to see the Lord.