Recognizing and Appreciating Beauty

Taken from a talk given in 2012 by Pure in Heart Alumna, Christina Kelley

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“We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” C.S. Lewis

Think about the things in this world that are widely recognized as beautiful (to name a few: Michelangelo's David or the Pieta, the view from the top of the Alps or across the Grand Canyon, our mothers, Our Lady of Sorrows, or Bizet's famous opera, "Carmen"). What makes these things beautiful? What makes anything beautiful? According to St. Thomas Aquinas, beautiful things are (1) integrated into the whole, complete, and perfect (integritas) (2) proportional, and harmonize with themselves and all the things around them (consonantia), and (3) clear and radiant (claritas). Basically, in order to be beautiful, a thing, place, or person must possess perfection, truth, and light. Hmm who do we know that fits this description? Perhaps... God! All beauty ultimately calls us back to God ,who IS beauty and the source of all created beauty.

In the English language, we have many words to describe things that are pleasing to our eyes. Just for fun, while writing this talk, I looked up what the word "beautiful" means in my dictionary at home. The dictionary noted that the synonyms for beauty included a number of adjectives, all of them with different connotations not quite rivaling the meaning of "beautiful." Listing all of these adjectives out, the dictionary says:

Beautiful, the most comprehensive, applies to what stirs a heightened response of the senses and of the mind on its highest level. Lovely pertains to that which inspires ardent emotion rather than intellectual appreciation. Pretty suggests only sensory appeal of a limited and superficial nature. Handsome stresses visual appeal by reason of conformity to ideals of form and proportion. Comely is usually restricted to wholesome physical attractiveness. Fair, in this context, emphasizes visual appeal deriving from freshness and purity.

Further, beauty itself is defined as, "Appearance or sound that arouses a strong, contemplative delight; loveliness. A person or thing that arouses such delight; especially, a woman widely regarded as beautiful. A part, characteristic, or attribute that arouses such delight; a specific excellence or grace." - Theology of the Body was waiting right in our dictionaries all this time! "Contemplative delight" sounds like it belongs in the Garden of Eden or in the Song of Songs, rather than in Webster's. Yet, this is the fundamental concept of beauty that our society recognizes - it goes much deeper than mere sensory appeal.

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In Greek, "beautiful" is "kalon," which comes from a verb root that means "to call." Beauty calls us, it draws us, and it causes us to step outside of ourselves and into the infinite. Who hasn't lost himself or herself in a beautiful photograph or piece of art, or the face of a troubled woman on the train, or the view across the Charles River at sunset? Who hasn't forgotten to breathe at some point upon hearing a beautiful voice or classical sonata, or upon the entrance of a radiant bride into the church as she walks down the aisle? Because beauty draws us out of ourselves, we glimpse ever-so-briefly that overwhelming truth that we will see fully in the Beatific vision: we are all connected to one another in this beauty, "ever ancient, ever new." God draws us all out of ourselves that we might recognize our identities as a part of HIS greater whole, as a part of HIS greater beauty. And then, miraculously, for a brief moment, we ourselves become this beauty with God. "For from the greatness and the beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen."

St. Augustine, who wrote very beautiful verses, inspired by God's beauty, famously said: "Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new; late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been IN you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace."

St. Augustine draws a very apt distinction between the beauty of created things and the use of created things for unbeautiful purposes. Like many powerful and transformative things in this world, beauty can be dangerous if used improperly.

Think of how Adam viewed Eve's naked body pre-apple, and post-apple. In one instance, he recognized that this was the woman created as his partner, for himself, and he gazed on her with awe and admiration and gratitude to God. In the post-apple scenario, all bets were off. Eve's beauty was Adam's for the taking, period. He could possess and dominate her, and keep her body all to himself. She was his wife, after all. In the pre-apple scenario, Adam was transformed by Eve's beauty, and in the post-apple scenario, he became a scriptural Golem, consumed with lust to possess his wife.

Sirach describes this nicely: "Avert your eyes from a shapely woman; do not gaze upon beauty that is not yours; through woman’s beauty many have been ruined, for love of it burns like fire.” Proverbs also advises: "Do not lust in your heart after her beauty, do not let her captivate you with her glance!"6 These verses of course encourage modesty in women, but they also underscore the importance of observing rightly the beauty of woman. We cannot possess eternal life unless we first die to ourselves, and we cannot truly possess beauty in our lives until we first die to our own interior ugliness. Lust serves only to obscure a woman's beauty, but dying to yourself in aspiring to a woman's beauty - now that’s a noble cause!

What does all of this mean for us, though? We cannot bounce between the two extremes of covering up every indication that we are male or female, or "letting it all hang out," so to speak. There has to be a happy medium in the middle somewhere, where we find God's truth. What was God's original plan? Eve was created so that Adam would not be alone. She was created from Adam's very self, from his own rib. Eve was a part of Adam even before she was Eve. They were as one flesh. After the fall, Adam and Eve were severed apart by lust and lack of trust in one another. What's a modern-day woman and man to do?

Women: first, understand that you are beautiful beyond compare, and were meant to be beautiful since the day you were born. Protect and treasure the gift that has been given to you, not just through physical modesty, but through emotional modesty, as well. Do not allow yourself to be treated like an object by anyone, but rather be beautiful and graceful for others. Think of the beauty of Mother Teresa in caring for the sick, the unwanted, the unloved. Be vigilant and watchful of how your beauty is perceived, but don't hold grudges or harbor resentment in your hearts against men in general when certain men have viewed you with lust. Recognize the blessing of your fathers in affirming your beauty and worth. And, finally, always take time to rest, recharge, and renew yourself in Christ through Our Blessed Mother. Pray unceasingly in all that you do. Beauty must overflow in a woman's heart and soul before she can truly share that beauty with others.

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Men: first, do not stare lustfully at women. Period. As a woman myself, I cannot tell you how many times I feel a sword pierce my heart when I walk down the street and I get the up-and- down look from men. You know which look I'm talking about. I always end up feeling shamed, worthless, and dirty after those moments. What's even worse is I end up adding brick after brick to the wall around my heart because of the insecurity I feel around these men. I feel betrayed and diminished by them. In staring lustfully at a woman, you can never, ever truly appreciate or obtain that beauty that you so desperately desire for yourself, and women know that. You destroy your chances altogether of ever gaining her beauty. Is this "not staring lustfully" thing an easy task? Absolutely not. But, you are men. You are destined for greatness and winning the prize, not for easy battles with plastic swords and paper tigers. You were built to succeed in all things, and succeeding over your own selves is no exception. In fact, it's probably the most important and difficult battle of your life.

Secondly, when you can look at women with true admiration of their beauty, strive not to make them a part of yourselves (women were already created from man's rib, so that task has been taken care of!). Strive to make yourself an integral part of the woman you admire. Prove yourself to her such that you possess her by her own choice to remain faithful to you. Think of how you treat your own mother: she loves and affirms you of her own accord, and you possess her heart without even trying explicitly to do so. Care for all women the way that you care for your mother - protect them and earn their trust. Our world is in need of strong, virtuous, and brave protectors - be those men.

"Beauty is indeed a good gift of God; but that the good may not think it a great good, God dispenses it even to the wicked." St. Augustine

May we learn to seek God's goodness, that we may fully appreciate Him in the beauty that surrounds us every day in so many forms.