Beauty is the battlefield where God and the devil war for the soul of man. — Fyodor Dostoyevsky
In the last five years, a heightened awareness of beauty and the mystery of beauty has played with my senses more than at any other time in my life, excluding, perhaps, my childhood, when the world so often resonated with the magical and the beautiful. Why these seeds of appreciation have taken root and sprouted is unclear to me, though I suspect that growing old has something to do with it. The sensation of winding down like an old-fashioned clock, of realizing, to paraphrase Housman, that sixty of my three-score and ten will not come again, surely accounts for some of my newfound sense of awe and exaltation.
A self-imposed seclusion has also watered these seeds. Since the death of my wife eight years ago, I have spent more and more of my time alone. Outside of my teaching duties, the bulk of my waking hours pass in silence and solitude, conditions which give rise to long thoughts and a keener apprehension of the sublime. Like a prisoner feeding crumbs to a sparrow on the sill of his barred window, I have developed, slowly, painfully at times, a capacity for gratitude and wonder.
My reading has reflected my curiosity about beauty and aesthetics. One of the most influential books I have encountered in the last five years is Gregory Wolfe’s Beauty Will Save the World, a title taken from a novel by Dostoyevsky. When this book first came to hand, that title baffled me: How on earth could beauty save anything? Even now, after close study, the idea remains murky for me. Yet the more I read of this book and others like it, the more I have pondered the meaning and place of beauty in our daily affairs. Whether beauty will save the world remains to be seen, yet I have come to understand that beauty can save me. Beauty can move the mind toward truth, the heart toward love, the soul toward compassion.
Let me explain.
I am not an aesthetician. I enjoy art—paintings, sculpture, music—but am strictly an amateur critic, an ignorant ham-and-egger. Literature is more my domain, and here I could tell you why Hemingway speaks more to the human spirit than Stephen King and why the novels of Sigrid Undset give us more of that spirit than Hemingway. Without any intention of braggadocio, I can say that I have read more in the last 50 years than all but a tiny percentage of my contemporaries. (The thousand books I know and love, and the many thousands more I have read, are often as much a curse as a blessing. No, that is unfair—the curse is my habit of reading. The books themselves are innocent as babes at baptism.)
Even so, I have no intention here of entering into the tangled world of art criticism and aesthetics. I am, as I say, too ignorant to do so. Why the colors of a particular painting, the depth of a woman’s eyes, or the slant of light through the clouds this afternoon should strike me as beautiful would require another lifetime of exploration. Instead, I wish only to share some moments and places of beauty that have penetrated a once-heedless heart.
I have limited myself to ten such encounters, all of them recent. The number ten seems beautiful in and of itself. We count by tens and work on a decimal system. Nurses ask patients to rate their pain on a scale of one to ten; lovers use the same scale to rate the attractiveness of their beloved. This integer resonates theologically: There are Ten Commandments and ten days between Ascension and Pentecost. Again often yards in football brings a first down; ten players—don’t forget the batter—are necessary to fill a baseball diamond; a bowler tries to knock down ten pins. Human beings have ten fingers and ten toes. Ten, then, seems a fine number.
My list of recent encounters with beauty begins with the natural world. Though I live in a city surrounded by mountains that attract thousands of visitors every year, I generally commune with nature from the front porch of my apartment building, located within an eight-minute walk of downtown Asheville. Right now I have just returned to this keyboard from that porch, where I listened to the late-September crickets and the dripping of rain from the maples along Chestnut Street and from the waxy leaves of the magnolia tree in the side yard. These soft sounds, the moist air on my face and bare arms, and the secret pleasure I feel being awake and alone on the street where I live filled me this evening with joy and wonder. This porch is one place where I frequently find beauty.
My home is a three-story brick apartment building fronted by four large white columns and six porches. It was built 80 years ago, back before our modern architects gave human beings glass-and-concrete boxes for banks, offices, and dwelling places. On either side of the building are large yards filled with shrubs, flowers, walkways, and benches. The woman who manages this property, Anne, spends hours every week trimming rose bushes and vines, battling poison ivy, pulling weeds, and clipping hedges. She has mixed so much of her labor and love into the gifts of nature that tourists often pause in front of the house to take pictures. Several weeks ago, touched by those gloomy thoughts of the past which sometimes haunt us in our solitude, I stepped onto my porch at dawn and watched for a few minutes while the rising sun illuminated the trim bushes, tidy flower beds, and freshly mown lawns. Contemplating this ornamentation pushed aside my dark mood and regrets. Once again, beauty had left its mark.
Another building that can bring such wonder, if I remember to give the moment breath, is the Basilica of Saint Lawrence. Built a hundred years ago, this granite-and-brick church with its domed ceiling and statues, its stained glass windows and crucifixion tableau above the altar, has the power over me of a hypnotist. Recently, I have begun attending daily Mass at the basilica before going off to teach. Only a handful of worshipers frequent this early morning Mass, and here in the shadows and the silence may be found hints of that “peace that passeth all understanding?” The very air of the church, laden with the perfume of candle wax and incense, exudes beauty and holiness.
Perhaps more than any other art, music—great music—holds the soul of the world, communicating with its listeners in a universal language. The other evening, while grading some student essays, I tried listening to Jimmy Cliff’s reggae music. Usually his music appeals, but on this particular evening it interfered with my work. The cool-jazz voice of Norah Jones also failed to do the trick. I then threw some Bach onto the machine, one of those collections that the connoisseur would scorn as common. Gradually, the music reached into me, subtly penetrating my thoughts. As the music took hold, I put down my pen, listened, and felt myself lifted emotionally away from my desk and papers. (This experience is not new to me: when I make spaghetti and sauce, I entertain myself with another one of those ubiquitous collections—Italian opera sung by the Three Tenors. Their voices enter the sauce and improve the taste.)
To me, however, words speak even more powerfully than music, and with a beauty as sublime. Often, I wish I’d kept a notebook in which I copied down the words and sentences that have struck a nerve. These would range from single lines—in Gladiator the final words of Maximus to his men before charging into battle, “Soldiers, what we do in life echoes in eternity!” contain an entire philosophy—to the rich passages of poetry and prose from a hundred writers. Family, friends, and students who wonder why there are so many books about my apartment now have their answer: These are repositories in which I find truth, goodness, beauty.
So far, the things I have mentioned—nature, architecture, painting, music, literature—are the areas of human endeavor we traditionally associate with beauty. We go to nature and the objects created by artists from nature for that sense of sublimity beyond reason. Now, however, I will turn to human beings, and five recent encounters with them that, as my dictionary says in defining beauty exalted my mind and spirit.
Shortly after nine o’clock on a Saturday morning two weeks ago, my daughter, the mother of five, came down the stairs at her home, dressed to attend the wedding of a friend. Her hair fell loose and easy about her face. Besides being struck by its length—she typically wears her hair up—I was amazed as well by its loveliness, by the way it floated about her cheeks and throat. Suddenly I realized how lovely she was, this daughter of mine, this wife, this mother. She glowed so with life and health that my breath caught in my throat, and then she had gathered her belongings and was out the door.
A second snapshot: This past week, my students in a middle-school class were writing about the clothing they had worn that day and why they had chosen this particular pair of jeans or this blue blouse. Often the intensity of my students’ faces as they read or write has struck me as beautiful, but on this day some of their faces were shining with such concentration that I felt swept up by their radiance and by what I can best describe as the holiness of their composure.
Because I spend a good deal of time alone, the sound of laughter—good, hearty laughter—also injects a sense of beauty into my blood and nerves. Sound in our neighborhood can carry quite a distance, curling about the cars and yards, and yesterday evening through the open door to my porch I could hear laughter coming from a party up the street. Here from these strangers was real laughter, full, rich, beautiful.
One spoken word can cut the air with a beauty that like a knife goes straight to the heart. When I recently visited my grandchildren in Virginia, I could hear them crying “Grandpa! Grandpa!” before they had even raced from the house to greet me. Their voices bore more than just anticipation, more than excitement They were filled with love. We can’t see a thing called love, just as we can’t see a thing called beauty, but love and beauty vibrated in the cries of those children, as real as a painting, as dramatic as an opera.
Finally, I attended on Saturday the baptism of another grandson, a boy not yet two. In his tiny jacket and rumpled shirt he brought to mind a stout little banker after a night of drinking. When the priest poured the water over his head, he wiggled so vigorously that water washed into his eyes. He cried, infuriated, and thrust out his lower lip. How familiar is this ritual, performed millions of times over the last 2,000 years! Yet here again were signs of beauty: the newly baptized, the removal of Original Sin, the presence of family and friends, of angels and saints, of grace.
During this baptism, the priest asked the witnesses to respond “I do” to a series of questions from the Ritual of Baptism. One of the questions in the ritual asks us whether we reject the “glamour of evil?” These three words capture the path taken by so many of our contemporary artists: musicians, painters, writers, filmmakers. Evil decks itself out in glamorous attire, and we are so drenched in this glamour that only the strongest can resist its allure. In the Foreword to The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty, John Saward writes of the “three great gateways to God, of goodness, truth, and beauty.” Over a century ago, our intelligentsia began sawing one leg—truth—off this stool, and now it has collapsed, giving us a century of bloodshed, lies, and ugliness.
Many in the world of art traffic in the glamour of evil. They muddle about in ugliness and depravity. They muck along in jaded lockstep, proffering dross rather than gold, concept rather than form, junk rather than treasure. Their crude work diminishes the soul, making savages and yahoos of their audience rather than revealing, through their craft and vision, the solace, comfort, and transcendence historically offered us by artists.
They will not endure.
Beauty will triumph. Beauty exists outside of them and beyond them, and cannot be denied.
Meanwhile, the rest of us can look to the great art from the past and to those more recent artists—writers, painters, musicians, filmmakers—who have offered insight into our humanity. Who can listen to Gorecki’s Third Symphony and not be moved by his portrait of war and tragedy? Who can read Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War and not be touched by this novel’s ideas of love, loss, art, and God? Who can view the sculptures of Frederick Hart or the paintings of Fred Folsom, and not see visions that sweep viewers beyond themselves?
We can also discover, as I have so belatedly discovered, the beauty found in ordinary living. The greatest Teacher of all time reminded His disciples many times of the blessed state of those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. He was giving His followers a lesson in aesthetics as well as in theology, urging them to unlock their senses, to open the door to the goodness, beauty, and truth that is everywhere around them: the word ofma friend, the laughter of a child, the kiss of a lover, the verities that He was making known to them. A friend to whom I sent a link to Roger Scruton’s YouTube video “Why Beauty Matters” wrote back this note of her husband’s death:
Scruton says that beauty is a consolation in sorrow, and it’s true. I remember a day after Ben died when my heart was so freighted with grief that I didn’t want to draw another breath in the world. I turned and caught a glimpse of the evening sun with its radiant peaches and corals. I knew in that moment that beauty endured even in the face of terrible loss and that it would help to sustain my spirit.
Learning to appreciate beauty won’t pay the bills or put money in the bank. It won’t blunt the steel-point of death we all must someday face. But without beauty our lives are destitute, and we die long before we reach our graves if we shunt beauty aside or accept ugliness and lies in its stead. True beauty makes us more fully human. It can save us from the glamour of evil, from darkness, from despair. It can even save us from ourselves.
Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture (August 2013)
Jeff Minick writes from Asheville, North Carolina.