“Beauty will save the world,” is an intriguing phrase out of a Dostoyevsky novel which has been notably repeated and explicated within the Christian Russian Orthodox tradition. Beauty understood as a fold of ultimate reality is not new to human experience. In the 4th century we hear, “Late have I loved you, O Beauty, ever old, ever new, late have I loved you.” The human experience of beauty universally gives voice to the fact we are existentially and emotionally attracted, in ways not immediately evident at first, to the meaning of our life and its unfolding. Whatever it is human nature is, beauty serves as an attractant toward our actualization. Because it is a human being who sees, beauty carries within itself the qualities of goodness and truth, so that, for example, part of what makes a sunset beautiful is its sheer gratuity.
Beauty as the lure of our ground and future addresses the whole person, senses, awareness, intelligence, emotion, all of it engaging the part of us that says “yes,” our agreement and participation with the given. Beauty is a thread within our lives which gives primacy to experience over thought. Beauty links us to reality, to be responsive and alive to it. At a time when so many seem allergic to propositions of truth and behavior, and with some seemingly to work to annihilate truth, “Beauty will save the world,” still holds promise. The human experience of beauty, in myriad forms, arises from, and returns us to, our belongingness, to the world and one another. A simple instance, at one of our recent food pantry events which also featured a barbecue, I was given pause to see a young Muslim woman who had just come off the fast of Ramadan jump in to serve pork hot dogs. She did so with gusto, in freedom and pleasure. The image was beautiful, and I told her so the following week. It spoke of a person simultaneously saying “yes” to her faith tradition and to the human family.
Beauty satisfies desire within us, shaping desire, and giving pleasure. Pleasure is not something which is just sort of fooling around, it attends creating things, struggling for justice, whatever one desires and does well. When a person finds his or her greatest, deepest pleasure, it is their vocation they are discovering, in full, deep breaths.
In our culture, the truth and depth of beauty is lost to entertainment and commerce. An absolute requirement for beauty to work its power for our human transformation and maturing is an inner life. Spiritual writer and psychologist, Henri Nouwen, once said to a friend in a conversation about Dag Hammarskjold’s Markings, “Most people don’t have a rich inner life.” An inner life begins with beauty and it sets us off on a spiritual adventure. Life of the spirit is a life of knowing and loving, of hope and peace, and friends and intelligence. It can be described as attention to the life within beauty, the life of life, the core of my own identity and of others, and because I am looking at a reality beyond what can be objectified and named, it is a simple unconditioned gaze, a ‘yes,’ a loving, trusting, receiving gaze, in other words, it is resting in the presence of God. An inner life, traditionally called ‘contemplation,’ is the silence within which we hear discoveries of new modes of being, or, of an inner life. It covers a spectrum of expression including dedicated periods of time, spiritual reading, and simple human engagements. Older cultures, such as represented by Village Exchange partners who worship here weekly, the Nepali, Congolese, and Kachin congregations, are all familiar with inner lives. Inner lives are evidenced for me by the faces of our Nepali congregation as they prepare for common worship individually and in small groups with rhythmic liminality-inducing prayer. Our Pentecostal Congolese Congregation prays in the tradition of tongues which is a non-conceptual praise which leads naturally to contemplation. Here too, faces give evidence of an interiority.
Religion without an inner life is mere ideology, in competition with other ideologies. Spirited with an inner life, faith becomes communicable, beyond argument and intention, a presence comprehending the whole person, body, mind, and heart, lit, as it were, by grace. It is in this manner the way of beauty communicates life to others, gifting possibilities to be invigorated with the ability to love life, acquire an unshakable self-confidence, stand on one’s own feet, in the divine beauty that is the belongingness of the spirit.
Rev. Marcel Narucki
Director of Multi-Faith Services
Village Exchange Center