Growing with Intention: Transcendent Beauty

Before I moved to Toronto, I used to live in Victoria, a beautiful city on the southeastern tip of Vancouver Island. I often found myself showing visitors around, and one of my favorite things to do with them was to take them to Beacon Hill Park, which offers a beautiful mix of carefully tended flower gardens and natural Garry Oak groves growing on rocky outcrops. The Park was always a big hit with guests, but my favorite moment would come at the very end, when I’d take visitors up the back side of Beacon Hill itself, and I’d get to see the look on their faces the moment they reached the crest of the hill and saw the glorious Salish sea splayed out before them, shimmering in the sun. It’s always one of those transcendent ‘wow’ moments that makes me wonder if Dostoevsky was right after all, and that beauty really will save the world.

Beauty may not be able to save the world, but it can change mindsets and expand horizons, and thereby change lives. This is why appreciating beauty came up previously here in the series on Good Fruit, as one of the twenty-four universal character strengths identified by positive psychologists in their study of cultures around the world, and in the series on Knowing God as one of the three main perspectives through which we can experience the divine. And this is, in turn, why it’s worth talking about again in this series about working intentionally with the mechanisms of spiritual growth.

With this lens, we can see that experiences of beauty and excellence — whether a beautiful vista, an architectural wonder, the strength of an Olympic athlete, or the majesty of watching an animal in its element — function in much the same way as the mystical and meditative experiences described in the previous post. Like these more paradigmatic spiritual experiences, they can stop us in our tracks and shift what and how we see the world. One friend, who experienced homelessness as a young adult, has spoken of the importance of beautiful cathedrals and public buildings to him during those years, saying that some days those experiences of beauty were the only thing that reminded him that he was human, of what he was and what was possible for him. Beauty therefore has a way of drawing us out of ourselves and our immediate circumstances and ways of thinking. I remember one day close to twenty years ago when I was feeling particularly burdened and went for a walk in a small park near my house. As I was making my way down the trail, a large black dog bounded past me and I was transfixed. In that brief moment, it was as if time stood still, and I saw every muscle move, the joints absorb the impact of its paws against the earth, and every loose piece of gravel scatter as it moved. The animal was an incredible machine in motion and yet totally at ease. It was doing exactly the thing it was made to do. And close to two decades later, I am still humbled by it. What we experience in these moments of beauty often leaves us feeling both precious and insignificant, which is exactly the message of Julian of Norwich‘s famous vision of the hazelnut:

And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: What can this be? I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God. (Showings (long text), chapter 5)

The biggest advantage beauty has over mysticism or meditation is that it is everywhere. A mystical experience is a gift that for whatever reason not everyone will receive, and the benefits of meditation can take years to cultivate, but beauty is available to anyone with senses. Even just in the past few minutes as I’ve been writing, I’ve had the following experiences of beauty:

  • a cardinal’s song in the distance
  • the warm light of sunrise playing in the tree outside my window
  • the silky texture of my coffee (with cream) against my tongue
  • an unexpected cool breeze against my arms

Beauty is everywhere and for everyone. This ubiquity is, however, also its greatest problem. We easily become numb to what we are used to, so we can spend every day surrounded by beauty and never actually appreciate it with the wonder and awe it deserves. So, we have to be intentional about stopping to pay attention to it, or else we can easily miss it.

Cultivating beauty is a profoundly spiritual and faithful activity. It is the art of paying attention, of awareness, and of allowing things to be what they truly are. As our Scriptures say:

The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims His handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. (Psalm 19.1-2)

Do we have eyes to see the glory of God all around us? Do we have ears to hear what Creation is telling us? To see and hear is an essential act of faithfulness, of truly showing up.

Beauty’s transformative power is also why humans throughout history and around the world have attempted to make their worship as beautiful as possible. We have built taller and grander temples, mosques and cathedrals, buildings that stretched our engineering knowledge past its limits. We have covered these spaces with paintings, carvings, and mosaics, and filled them with song and elaborate ritual. Beauty may not save the world, but it does have the power to transform our perceptions of it.

So, how might we cultivate beauty in our lives? Here are just a few suggestions:

  • Think about a truly beautiful experience, capturing as many details as possible.
  • Go for a walk in nature.
  • Stroll through a museum or art gallery.
  • Watch the sun rise or set every day for a week.
  • Keep a Beauty Journal, recording the beautiful things your experience.
  • Try to ‘scavenge’ beauty for each of the senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste.

4 thoughts on “Growing with Intention: Transcendent Beauty

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