“To participate in Beauty is to come into
the presence of the Holy."
— John O’Donohue
Beauty as a Holy Sanctuary
Beauty is a holy sanctuary where heaven and earth greet each another with gladness. Beauty offers us glimpses of something more: the promise of a “a hidden wholeness” underneath the brokenness of this world. Beauty, I believe, is where we find our true home with God and the world.
And God is beautiful.
So many have been injured by the very word “God” and so cannot use such language; that is understandable. I use the word “God” throughout this Spiritual Alphabet Series in the sense that Alfred North Whitehead wrote of God, as the “poet of the world.” And, as a progressive minister, I also embrace the vision of Jesus as a lens through which we can imagine what God is like: Not an all-controlling king “up there,” but Love incarnate — in the world — weeping with those who weep and transforming our brokenness into novel possibilities for wholeness. As a process thinker, I believe in a beautiful God.
The Beauty of God
Pay attention (“A” is for Attention) to the world, for it offers stunning moments unfolding in time. Just yesterday, I witnessed a dragonfly perched on a purple water lily. It looked as though it were about to launch into flight. Perhaps it was a nymph, ready for its very first flight and trying to muster the courage atop the tall and welcoming water lily.
The larger world, outside this dragonfly and its lily, looks somewhat grim, especially in these dark days in America when anxiety is cresting like a wave in a hurricane. And yet, the dragonfly perches peacefully on its lily in a quiet pond. She seems to be saying: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well” (Julian of Norwich).
And that is true, that is, if we pay attention to Beauty and follow its path as co-creators with a beautiful God.
A Beautiful God does not break into the world with odd supernatural interventions; rather a beautiful God lives right here, and moves inside the purple petals of the water lily as well as in the translucent wings of the dragonfly. God inhabits the smallest and least showy things. We think of God as King and sing about his majesty on Sunday morning, but what we forget is the God who lives in dragonflies and purple water lilies. Any spiritual revolution begins here.
Thus, if Beauty ushers us into the realm of the holy, then perhaps we should pay more attention to Beauty, and not sideline Beauty as mere dessert, eaten only after the nutritional part of the meal is over — or on special occasions. Such a skewed worldview is quite alien to the tiny dragonfly, whose wings are imbued with divine joy. I would assert that Beauty is the main course of any spiritual meal.
The Lure of Beauty
So, then, what is Beauty? Let’s start with what Beauty is not. In our shallow, secular, and consumerist society, we have come to associate beauty with glamour, a paltry substitute. We have also distorted the word "beauty" by relegating it solely to the realm of the feminine. That long-standing fallacy is due to the well-meaning, but thoroughly wrong-headed aesthetic works of Edmond Burke and Immanuel Kant.
Kant, who in his famous work of 1764, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, developed Burke’s efforts to divide Beauty into two realms: the realm of the sublime and the realm of the beautiful — the sublime being associated with the masculine, while the beautiful was given over to the feminine sphere. Kant’s examples of feelings of the beautiful are the sight of flower beds, grazing flocks, daylight. For Kant, feelings of the sublime are the result of gazing at mountain peaks, raging storms, and night. Writing from a patriarchal viewpoint, it is no surprise that the sublime was given the higher endorsement! By separating these two, the sublime and the beautiful, he demoted beauty in favor of the sublime, casting a shadow on the discipline of aesthetics for over two centuries.
This is not the Beauty that brings wholeness and transformation; this is not the Beauty that Alfred North Whitehead speaks of when he says, “the teleology of the Universe is directed toward the production of Beauty.” Whitehead thankfully does not build on Kant’s bifurcated model. However, it seems to me that Whitehead does not dismiss what Kant and Burke would call the sublime, but rather integrates the darker and more intense ideas of the sublime into the very concept of Beauty, reuniting day and night, masculine and feminine, storms and wildflowers, into a wider harmony.
In Adventure of Ideas, Whitehead offers a view of beauty that can best be distilled into two words: Intense Harmony. That is, beauty is not just harmony; beauty is not just intensity. Beauty is intense harmony, uniting what Kant tried to separate.
Whitehead understands the centrality of Beauty — not just the beauty of purple lilies and dragonflies, or the beauty of a Mahler symphony, a painting by Vermeer, or even the pure elegance of mathematics and science. Rather, Whitehead sees beauty as the guiding lure in every becoming moment — that is, it is built into the very teleology of universe. We are lured forward in each moment by this urge toward Beauty, that is, toward whatever intense harmony is possible in this fractured world.
This means that Beauty is not all sweetness and light, but an intensity of contrast, which is why diversity is so beautiful — and why actively resisting hate and bigotry is an act of Beauty. That is why we seek to love each other in our differences and callings and personality quirks — and yes, political views, too. Beauty tells us that the friction inherent in such contrasts can find a more intense harmony in Beauty’s wide and transforming embrace. And spirituality is all about transformation, isn’t it?
The Dream of Beauty
I think again of the dragonfly poised in expectancy atop the water lily. She sits lightly, dreaming of flying. She is ready for the adventure, but what will she encounter in the world where anything can happen? The very courage to begin such a risky journey adds intensity to the moment. This is Beauty’s calling: It is not safe, but it is the only way to become who we really are.
Beauty loves dreamers like the dragonfly. “The Adventure of the Universe starts with a dream and reaps tragic Beauty,” says Whitehead. I see this aspect of tragic beauty in the person and art of Vincent van Gogh, who once wrote, "I dream of painting and then I paint my dream." The tragic aspects of his life and art found transformation in the wideness of Beauty's embrace.
Come what may, we can find healing and wholeness in the embrace of a beautiful God, because a beautiful God dares to linger in the dark alleyways of the soul. Rainer Maria Rilke says it best when he speaks of God this way:
We will sense you
like a fragrance from a nearby garden
and watch you move through our days
like a shaft of sunlight in a sickroom.
We are cradled close in your hands —
And lavishly flung forth.
So let us dream of Beauty, for it is surely the polestar for the spiritual pilgrim. Even when we falter in our faith, we can still believe in the snowy wings of a white egret, the gladness of a new friendship, the sonorous strings of viola, and the kindness of strangers. Peace, says Whitehead, is “to trust in the efficacy of Beauty.”