HarperCollins PublishersISBN: 0060196432
The Call of Beauty
Thy light alone --
Gives grace and truth to life's unquiet dream.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty'
Every life is braided with luminous moments.
I was with a friend out on Loch Corrib, the largest lake in the West of Ireland. It was a beautiful summer's day. Time had come to rest in the silence and stillness that presided there. The lake slept without a ripple. A grey-blue haze enfolded everything. There was no division any more between earth and sky. Reaching far intothe distance, everything was suffused in a majestic blue light. The mountains of Conamara seemed like pile upon pile of delicate blue; you felt you could almost reach out your hand and pull them towards you. No object protruded anywhere. Trees, stones, fields and islands had forgotten themselves in the daze of blue. Then, suddenly, a harsh flutter as near us the lake surface split and a huge cormorant flew from inside the water and struck up into the air. Its ragged black wings and large awkward shape were like an eruption from the underworld. Against the finely woven blue everywhere its strange form fluttered and gleamed in absolute black. She had the place to herself. She was the one clear object to be seen. And as if to conceal the source as she soared, she left her shadow thistling the lake surface. This was an event of pure disclosure: a sudden epiphany from between the worlds. The strange beauty of the cormorant was a counterpoint to the dreamlike delicacy of the lake and the landscape. Sometimes beauty is that unpredictable; a threshold we had never noticed opens, mystery comes alive around us and we realize how the earth is full of concealed beauty. St Augustine expressed this memorably: 'I asked the earth, I asked the sea and the deeps, among the living animals, the things that creep. I asked the winds that blow, I asked the heavens, the sun, the moon, the stars, and to all things that stand at the doors of my flesh ... My question was the gaze I turned to them. Their answer was their beauty.'
Beauty Is Quietly Woven through Our Days
When we hear the word 'beauty', we inevitably think that beauty belongs in a special elite realm where only the extraordinary dwells. Yet without realizing it, each day each one of us is visited by beauty. When you actually listen to people, it is surprising how often beauty is mentioned. A world without beauty would be unbearable. Indeed the subtle touches of beauty are what enable most people to survive. Yet beauty is so quietly woven through our ordinary days that we hardly notice it. Everywhere there is tenderness, care and kindness, there is beauty. Despite our natural difficulties with our parents, each of us has in our memory moments of deep love we shared with them. Perhaps it was a moment in which you became aware of some infinite tenderness in the way your mother gazed upon you, and you knew that her heart would always carry you as tenderly as it carried herself. Or it might have been a phrase of affection that has continued to sound around your life like a bright circle of blessing.
In Greek the word for 'the beautiful' is to kalon. It is related to the word kalein which includes the notion of 'call'. When we experience beauty, we feel called. The Beautiful stirs passion and urgency in us and calls us forth from aloneness into the warmth and wonder of an eternal embrace. It unites us again with the neglected and forgotten grandeur of life. The call of beauty is not a cold call into the dark or the unknown; in some instinctive way we know that beauty is no stranger. We respond with joy to the call of beauty because in an instant it can awaken under the layers of the heart a forgotten brightness. Plato said: 'Beauty was ours in all its brightness ... Whole were we who celebrated that festival' (Phaedrus).
Beauty does not linger, it only visits. Yet beauty's visitation affects us and invites us into its rhythm, it calls us to feel, think and act beautifully in the world: to create and live a life that awakens the Beautiful. A life without delight is only half a life. Lest this be construed as a plea for decadence or a self-indulgence that is blind to the horrors of the world, we should remember that beauty does not restrict its visitations only to those whom fortune or circumstances favour. Indeed, it is often the whispers and glimpses of beauty which enable people to endure on desperate frontiers.
Even, and perhaps especially, in the bleakest times, we can still discover and awaken beauty; these are precisely the times when we need it most. Nowhere else can we find the joy that beauty brings. Joy is not simply the fruit of circumstance; we can choose to be joyous independent of what is happening around us. The joyful heart sees and reads the world with a sense of freedom and graciousness. Despite all the difficult turns on the road, it never loses sight of the world as a gift. St Augustine said: 'The soul is weighed in the balance by what delights her. Delight or enjoyment sets the soul in her ordered place. Where the delight is, there is the treasure.' Perhaps this is why there is such delight in beauty. In the midst of fragmentation and distress beauty draws the soul into an experience where an elegant order prevails. This brings a lovely tranquillity and satisfies the desire of the soul. When the Beautiful continues on its way, the soul has been strengthened by a delight that will further assist her in transfiguring struggle.Continues...