Thursday, September 25, 2008

On Beauty

I spent last weekend replanting all the window boxes around my home with fall flowers and had a marvelous time doing so. Now freshly finished, they provide me with so much pleasure when I gaze at them through my windows filled as they are with their dwarf fir trees, purple lantanas, sweet alyssum, and emerald green moss. Soon the mammoth stone frog which rests in the flower bed out front will share his floral home with pale green cinderella pumpkins and giant purple cabbages. I can’t wait to see him ensconced in his autumnal landscape. In the grand scheme of things, are these projects important? What do they add to the betterment of my existence, or for that matter, to the world around me? I suppose how one answers that question depends on the importance of beauty in one’s life.
So often, especially in the current climate of this early 21st century, the simple pursuit and love of beauty is dismissed as something quite trivial and unimportant. How dangerous that is for the soul. Like Keats, I have always found Truth in Beauty and felt it to be as life-affirming and essential as the very air that I breathe. It is also a gift which the natural world affords in great measure, but a gift too often ignored and, I believe, ignored at one’s peril. When we no longer look up to stare at the harvest moon hanging low in the night sky, when we are unable to marvel at the verdancy of an English hillside, or stand awestruck at the majesty of a snow white polar bear crossing an icy landscape - when we cannot hear the glory inside a Saint-Saens symphony nor gaze in wonderment at the depth of feeling within a Van Gogh painting, then what is left of goodness in our lives? When the value of this beauty is only measured in the amount of money it may represent, have we not all been diminished?
I ponder these questions often in face of the stridency of modern life. I recently came across this most sagacious quote by the Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and found it to be a validating balm for my wonderings.

"We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past - whether he admits it or not - can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love."

Hans Urs von Balthasar

Photograph Above: Hillside Near Lake Windermere, Cumbria, UK