Seeking and Making Beautiful Things

On having a personal “collection” of beautiful things. And making beautiful things. The Transcendentals: beauty, truth, and goodness. The theology of icons, physical objects that direct us toward higher things. The way beautiful things seize us and stop us in our tracks. On attending to beauty in life’s vocations in marriage and family.

As I was driving to work this morning the desert sunrise was absolutely fantastic. I kept watching the way the clouds were lighting up and the colors were changing every 10 seconds or so. Eventually I just had to pull over on the side of the highway to watch it and take a photo. It was a great way to start the morning. When I got to work, others who had been coming on the highway at the same time also commented on it. It was really something. The rapid change of the lighting in the clouds reminded me of Claude Monet’s series paintings. Monet would paint the same subject in different lighting conditions, at different hours of the day, and in various weather and seasons. I could see why that idea would have intrigued him.

An experience like that is something I want to keep in a kind of “collection”, a collection of beautiful things: beautiful experiences, beautiful images, beautiful music, beautiful literature, beautiful ideas, and the like. The idea of keeping this kind of collection has occurred to me recently and this sunrise experience was a nice addition to it.

In Medieval philosophy beauty is considered a special property of being called a “transcendental”. The three transcendentals are beauty, truth, and goodness. These are primary, foundational properties that are not logically traced back to anything prior to them. And there’s a relation and unity between these three. Approaching beauty is also an approach to truth and goodness. I don’t know if that’s true but I like the idea regardless. I can imagine that thinking about beauty in this way would produce that kind of effect. Since beautiful things are intrinsically desirable, thinking of truth and goodness as beautiful can also make them more desirable.

One of the places I’ve been actively looking for beautiful things recently is in the work of Beethoven, especially in his piano sonatas and symphonies. The great thing about a musical composition is that it’s something a person can participate in. This is especially true for a piano piece. I can listen to one of Beethoven’s piano sonatas and appreciate it at the level of listening. I can appreciate it even more if I read the music while listening. I can appreciate it further still if I start to play it myself on the piano. And the experience deepens further as I continue to delve into the piece, move with it, and experiment with ways to express it.

I also started doing this with John Rutter’s “Psalmfest” collection composed for symphony orchestra and boys and men’s choir. I’ve enjoyed listening to the collection for a few years so I ordered the vocal score with piano accompaniment so I can start to enhance the experience.

I think the experience of beauty is partially an experience of unbidden grace. It can come upon you suddenly. But openness to it, a habituated sensitivity to it is also part of it. Flannery O’Connor is one of my favorite authors, the subject of a previous podcast episode. She would show God’s providential action in her stories through shocking, usually violent events. Not because she thought that God is violent but, in my interpretation, because God is so overwhelming and powerful. She was trying to produce a powerful effect on her readers. And in my case, it works. My favorite O’Connor story, though maybe not one of her more famous ones, is “Parker’s Back”. In this story the character Parker has an experience with an image, an image of Christ. Parker, after a near-death experience, wants to get a tattoo of God on his back. The following passage narrates Parker looking through a collection of images to select his tattoo:

“Parker sat down with the book and wet his thumb. He began to go through it, beginning at the back where the up-to-date pictures were. Some of them he recognized — The Good Shepherd, Forbid Them Not, The Smiling Jesus, Jesus the Physician’s Friend, but he kept turning rapidly backwards and the pictures became less and less reassuring. One showed a gaunt green dead face streaked with blood. One was yellow with sagging purple eyes. Parker’s heart began to beat faster and faster until it appeared to be roaring inside him like a great generator. He flipped the pages quickly, feeling that when he reached the one ordained, a sign would come. He continued to flip through until he had almost reached the front of the book. On one of the pages a pair of eyes glanced at him swiftly. Parker sped on, then stopped. His heart too appeared to cut off; there was absolute silence. It said as plainly as if silence were a language itself, GO BACK.”

“Parker returned to the picture — the haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes. He sat there trembling; his heart began slowly to beat again as if it were being brought to life by a subtle power.”

That is quite an encounter with beauty. Not because the image of the “flat stern Byzantine Christ” is merely pleasant but because it’s powerful and captivating. It’s like the sunrise that compels a person to pull over off on the side of the highway to give it the attention and respect that it deserves. That sunrise was essentially saying “GO BACK”.

I like the story too because it touches on the theological concept of icons. In Christian theology, especially in Eastern, Orthodox Christianity icons are means of directing us toward sacred things through physical objects and images. They’ve actually been a subject of heated contention in history, especially in the Byzantine Empire. What’s crucial about the icon is that it is not an end in itself but it points to something. It’s not about the wood or the paint. It’s about what these point toward. An icon of Christ, for example, though made of wood, points to Christ, the Son of God.

Bishop Robert Barron talked about icons in a 2018 talk about “Catholicism and Beauty”. In the historical controversy over icons and whether they were appropriate for veneration or constituted a form of idolatry, Bishop Barron references John of Damascus (676 – 749) who, in his treatise On the Divine Images made the point that God himself uses icons, most notably in the form of Jesus Christ, who Paul called “the image of the invisible God”, in Greek the εἰκὼν (eikon), of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). The idea being that this kind of icon is an appropriate and divinely appointed means of communicating what is divine and eternal. Something that is physical can point to what is transcendent.

The language of scripture itself is something I often find beautiful and captivating. They’re part of my collection of beautiful things. That verse from Colossians was actually one I added this week. Here’s the more complete passage that I found quite impactful:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.” (Colossians 1:15-19)

The last line is also translated: “in him all things hold together” (NIV). I love that! When I read the Epistle to the Colossians this week, especially this passage, the experience was one of elevation.

I’m talking a lot about theology here, having started off talking about beautiful things. Part of that’s because I’m interested in both. But I also think they fundamentally relate. Hans Urs von Balthasar gave a principal place for beauty in his theology, which he called a “theological aesthetics”. I think that aesthetic sensibility is a product of the Spirit. John of Damascus pointed out that in Exodus God said he had inspired artistic ability in a man named Bezalel for the design of the Tabernacle:

“See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. And I have filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works, to work in gold, in silver, in bronze, in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood, and to work in all manner of workmanship.” (Exodus 31:2-5)

How remarkable! This is quite the unification of Heaven and Earth. The Spirit of God, ר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֑ים (ruach elohim) works upon this man to get down into these very earthy materials: gold, silver, bronze, jewels, and wood. He’s getting covered in sawdust and forging hot metals, chiseling, and hammering. This is one of the things I love about music actually. One the one hand it’s supremely abstract. Music is not “about” anything in a strict sense. But on the other hand it’s extremely earthy. Making an instrument gets into metallurgy, carpentry, gears, bolts, and levers. And playing an instrument involves muscles, breath, and even spit. It’s extremely physical.

One last thought. Getting back to that connection and unity between the transcendentals: beauty, truth, and goodness. I’ve been thinking about this idea of not just seeking and collecting beautiful things but also actively producing them. Not just works of art but various vocations in life. Or maybe we could say making everyday things into works of art. The two things I’ve been thinking about are marriage and family. What would it be like to think about a marriage and a family like a work of art and treasure it as something beautiful and try to make it something beautiful. I was thinking a good motto for a married couple could be, “Let’s make something beautiful together”.

When I really get into these Beethoven sonatas I aspire to a high degree of finesse and sensitivity with my fingers, ears, and brain. It requires attention and dedication. What would it be like to give that same kind of attention and dedication to a spouse and children? Be like Bezalel, having that wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and all manner of workmanship, applied in these domestic vocations. That’s an idea that’s given me a lot to think about.

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