The Limits of Language: Beauty

I don’t know when “the beautiful” became so important to me.   Was it an idea or an experience?   Notions of truth came first, primarily because of a religious upbringing, and the good wasn’t on my radar for many years, at least not as a concept. But somewhere along the way, “beauty” came along and nailed my heart, and I have been on a search for its capture ever since.   Perhaps it was the Romantic poetry I encountered in high school, or the music of Seals and Crofts, or the beauty of Hamlet, or the novels and stories of my youth.  I honestly don’t know where it began.   When I found Alejandro Garcia-Rivera’s text, The Community of the Beautiful, in which he describes the experience of beauty as a call of God that reveals both God’s presence and the abyss that stands between us all in the same glorious, aching moment, I understood what he meant.   His vocabulary of glory and praise gave me a new way to think about my chase after the beautiful.

The word beauty is another one of those problematic words, so tough to define, nearly impossible to stay consistent with through a conversation.   On the one hand, we all know what we mean when we call something beautiful.  On the other hand, none of us want to be bound by someone else’s standard or definition.  Nor do we always know just what nuances of meaning are being included when someone says something or someone in beautiful.   Do they refer to physical beauty or spiritual beauty?  Beauty of heart or beauty of appearance?   The beauty of youth or the beauty of age?  The beauty that has a place for ugliness or the beauty that is exclusively reserved for the symmetry of the aesthetic surgeon?   The beauty that belongs to mathematics, or the beauty that belongs to the master artist?

There are clusters of meanings around words, and when thinking of any abstract concept such as “beauty”, my practice tends to be to not pick one particular meaning, but to examine and hold in tension the various ideas at play in the word. Look up definitions of the word beauty in dictionaries and you’ll get words like pleasure, satisfaction, and meaning.  Others will list patterns and objects that give rise to these sensations, with a special mention of spirituality.  I’ve also seen references to the Koine Greek words for beauty that imply the idea of “being of one’s hour,” as in the moment when a fruit is ripe, or when a young woman was at the height of her youthful beauty and an older woman was in the prime of the beauty associated with that age.   Beautiful can describe rhythms, compositions, single words, a series of actions, an entire personality, a handbag, or a century.  But perhaps the most miraculous thing is, again, that we actually can understand something of what is being said when someone looks at something or someone and simply  utters, “Beautiful.”

I love the fact that there are ratios in the world we respond to, as in the Golden Ratio.  And I love the fact that symmetry is generally understood to be at the heart of the matter.   But then again, we know the power of asymmetry.   And as makers of things, I love the fact that there is a moment when we recognize that our attempt at making something beautiful has fallen short, and we can see it plain as day.   Someone reassures us, muttering about beauty being in the eye of the beholder, but no matter often we spout that line, there is a part of us that just doesn’t believe it.   Somewhere in our hearts, we recognize that while assessments of beauty may differ in degree, there is a reality behind the word “beauty” that is universally recognized.

But “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” you say.  I know that phrase is meant to point up the differences in our conceptions of beauty, but let’s take that statement a different direction.   If the eye of the beholder is where beauty resides, it might be well to think that the eye can be trained to behold more and more beauty, and trained to find it in places where others cannot imagine beauty living.   Or what if “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is also a statement of imagination, wherein the mind’s eye beholds the beauty, and then spends its life shaping and forming the world to coincide with what the eye of the heart sees?

What defines beauty in the kingdom of God?   My instinct is that the answer to that is far broader and deeper than we might think.

“If your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness…” 

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