Beauty is real. We argue over its subjectivity and objectivity, but in both concept and experience, the presence of something we call Beauty is undeniable. The experience of Beauty stirs us, speaks to us, and creates (or illuminates) a yearning in us that longs to be filled, yet most often, is not.
What is Beauty?
Many aspects of our experience can be described as beautiful: natural objects of certain forms and colors, experiences of profound moral wisdom and compassion, relationships of love and connectedness, and art pieces offering either distillations of our common understanding or glimpses into the most idiosyncratic worlds. Cultures revere certain people as beautiful, and we, too, want to be beautiful, in form and spirit, and millions of dollars cross store-counters each day in this pursuit.
A dahlia is beautiful. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is beautiful. My wife is beautiful, as is her love. The poetry of Milosz is beautiful. The full moon is beautiful. Increasing the equity of civil rights is beautiful. Righting wrongs is beautiful. Reconciliation is beautiful. Mt. Rainier is beautiful. A disease healed is beautiful. Fractals are beautiful. The mathematics describing the physical universe is beautiful. Kindness is beautiful. Respect is beautiful.
Wholeness is beautiful, but so, too, can brokenness be beautiful. How can this be?
There is something of form, of difference, of contrast, of balance, of unity-in-variety, of color (or lack thereof), of light, of scale, and other aesthetic properties in the beautiful, but there is also the manner in which such properties relate to each other, so that beauty might be said to exist not in the presence of certain aesthetic elements, but in the emergent reality constituted by the unique relationships of the various parts at work in anything we describe as beautiful.
We say beauty is subjective, yet we argue passionately over just what the beautiful is. When we recognize something as beautiful, we want everyone to share that opinion. Many have wondered at our odd reluctance to simply shrug when others disagree with our assessment of beauty, as one might shrug when someone asserts that a different brand of peanut butter is superior to my brand of choice. When someone challenges what I experience as beautiful, however, there is no shrugging—often, the gloves come off, and we battle to make the other understand that no, this, this, is beautiful.
What I know is this: the experience of Beauty delights us, certainly, but there’s more to it than that. It stirs us, moves us, and inspires us. It gets our insides, our spirits going. It is as if Beauty speaks through the beautiful, and our spirits immediately leap, going to work intuitively to decipher just what it is that is being said. Often, the experience gets translated as a kind of call, a call to something higher, a pursuit of excellence, or a greater commitment. It’s as if Beauty says to us, “This is what life can be like. What it was meant to be like. This is what’s possible. Be part of that. Come, be part of this.”
And we are moved, literally, as in driven forward in response. We answer affirmatively. Yes! We want to be a part of it—we long to join in the dance, the music, the justice, or the love that has revealed Beauty to us. We muse, we contemplate, we brood. We want to move. Just what is Beauty telling us in this moment, we ask, and while we long to, and do, say yes, we often walk away from the experience with what I call “an ache.” Jesuit writer Alejandro Garcia-Rivera named the cause of this ache for me in a book of theology called The Community of the Beautiful when he observed that the experience of profound Beauty opens a gap between us and the source of that Beauty, and as we long to cross that gap to embrace the source of Beauty, we realize we cannot. Beauty fades, and a kind of abyss remains. For Garcia-Rivera, the source was God. And while I, too—in faith—would claim God as the source of both Beauty and its longing, what I know is that whether God is there or not, Beauty exists, and humanity experiences the “call” that it issues, as well as the ache that it leaves in its wake as the experience dissipates and fades.
The question that follows is this: just what is it that Beauty is calling us to? And why do we experience its call in this way? And finally, how do we answer that call?
How do I answer that call?
Here’s what I know: there is a call in Beauty.