Two old friends were walking down the road one evening when they began to argue. As they went along, they shouted at one another as each tried to impose his view upon the other. Suddenly, one of them caught sight of the setting sun. He pointed it out to his friend. Immediately the men ceased their arguing. They stood side by side in silence, gazing in wonder and awe at the beauty of the sunset. When the sun had slipped beneath the horizon, the two friends started on their way again. Only now, having forgotten what they had been arguing about, they walked together cheerfully and at peace with one another.
This story reminds us that beauty has the power to heal. Unfortunately, this healing power is not always recognized in our technological society. This fact is reflected even in the curricula of many of our schools. If educational budgets are cut, what goes first? Not science. Not math. Not even sports. No, the arts go first. Such thinking implies that the arts are dispensable. Beauty is something we can live without.
But is beauty dispensable? Thomas Moore, in his classic book Care of the Soul, argues that beauty is absolutely essential for the health of the soul. In fact, he goes so far as to say that if we lack beauty in our lives, we will probably suffer from familiar disturbances such as depression, paranoia, meaninglessness, and addiction. Moore writes, “The soul craves beauty, and in its absence suffers what James Hillman has called ‘beauty neurosis.’” The psychologist Carl Jung, also a believer in the power of beauty, once suggested to a colleague, “Why not go out into the forest for a time, literally? Sometimes a tree tells you more than you can read in books.”
Christianity at its best has always understood and appreciated the power of beauty to nourish the soul. Just look at our ancient cathedrals, with their stained glass windows and soaring spires, our solemn liturgies with their chants and incense. Just listen to the strains of Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” or behold Michelangelo’s Pieta. Just read the poetry of St. John of the Cross or the prose of St. Teresa of Ávila.
Jesus was remarkably attentive to the beauty in his everyday life. He appreciated, for example, the beauty in nature. The Gospels show him attuned to the weather patterns and changing seasons of his native land. He knew his trees, noticed flowers, and was even something of a bird watcher. Jesus also observed animals and often used them very effectively in his teachings.
Jesus appreciated beauty in other forms, too. The son of a carpenter, he probably knew wood very well and had an eye for color, line, and texture. The son of a homemaker, he was well acquainted with the beauty of freshly baked bread, a carefully sewn garment, and good wine.
But most of all, Jesus was attentive to the beauty of human love. He experienced love firsthand from his parents. Later, he encountered it in the men and women who were so devoted to him. Throughout his ministry, Jesus marveled at love’s power to do incredibly beautiful things. Jesus’ experience of human love made it easier for him to believe in the love that God, Abba, had for him. Beauty is a gift of the Spirit that nourishes and heals our souls, for ultimately, Beauty is but another name for God.
How do I make time for beauty in my life? Have I ever experienced beauty’s healing power?
Beauty, ever ancient and ever new, please nourish and heal my soul today.
—Excerpted from Gracious Goodness by Melannie Svoboda, SND