ALL WHO SEEK AFTER TRUTH
All who seek after truth, seek the One Who is Truth.
All who are lovers of beauty, love the Creator of all beauty.
All who respond to goodness, respond to the Origin of all goodness.
All who have love in their hearts, have been touched by Love Itself.
Whoever claims to know God, but knows nothing of truth, beauty, goodness or love,
Knows nothing at all!
“THAT’S SO BEAUTIFUL!”
“That’s so beautiful!” Don’t we love to hear these lovely words? It’s rather like a reward for our efforts for something we have done — perhaps it is creating a beautiful garden, or cake, or meal, or outfit, or hairstyle; or perhaps it is a performance of some sort, or a painting, or some other artistic creation; or perhaps it how we have decorated our home, our garden, or some other thing. What do we say when we want to compliment a child or an adult for something they have done? We say “that’s so beautiful” or, you did a beautiful job! If we say that something a person has put much work into is ugly, it can be crushing. Or maybe someone is responding to one’s new girlfriend, or baby, or home, or car, or some special creative project we have completed. Whatever it might be, when someone says it is beautiful it makes the recipient of the compliment smile and be happy, but to say that a person, one’s work or something that is important to a person is ugly, can be devastating.
Why do we react so intensely to being told that something that is important to us is beautiful or ugly? Why do we like to travel to or live in a beautiful place, and avoid ugly places? Why are we attracted to a beautiful person, and have “beauty contests? Why do we want to look beautiful and wear beautiful clothes and have a beautiful hair-do? Why are we naturally attracted to something beautiful, and repelled by something ugly? Virtually nobody seeks to make themselves ugly, or to create something ugly, whether it is our work or our hobby, and we like being in a beautiful environment, not an ugly one. Indeed, not everyone always agrees about what is beautiful — there is certainly a variation of personal tastes, and sometimes what is beautiful to one person might be ugly to another, but virtually no one is attracted to that which is ugly to that person. And there is an enormous consensus of what is beautiful and how people react to it across all cultural and ethnic groups throughout the centuries.
THE SOURCE OF BEAUTY
Is a reflection
Of the Divine Nature
All creation of beauty
Is an imitation
of the Divine Activity
All lovers of beauty
Are lovers of the Divine —
The source of all love and beauty
Orthodox Theology of Beauty
Although what is described above is pretty much a shared universal human experience, how we answer these universal questions of “why?” is not universal, if people even attempt to answer them. For the Orthodox Christian, however, it is very natural to ask such questions, and very easy to answer them, because Orthodoxy has an essential built-in theology of beauty, that is not shared by non-Orthodox. This Orthodox theology of Beauty is really simple and straight-forward. In Orthodox theology, God’s Nature is Beautiful and the source and origin of all beauty. God’s work is to create beauty, and all that God has created is beautiful. Additional aspects of God’s essential Nature are that He Good; He is Truth; He is Love; He is Peace. Therefore, He is the source and basis of all beauty, goodness, truth, love and peace. For Orthodox, to create beauty is a very high calling, because by creating beauty, we share in God’s activity that reflects His Nature. Furthermore, because we humans are created in God’s Image, even though that Image has been tarnished by sin, we ourselves have within us a certain share of Divine Beauty, Truth, Goodness, Love and Peace. Thus all humans are naturally attracted to, and desire to embrace beauty, truth, goodness, love and peace, because it is part of what we are and how we are created, although tarnished by sin.
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”
In general, the closer we grow to God, the more we are attracted to God’s divine attributes of Beauty, Truth, Goodness, Love and Peace. The process of traveling the Path of Salvation may be described as the process of absorbing more and more of God’s Nature into ourselves — that is, becoming more like Him, which is theosis or deification. This means an ever-increasing attraction to and pursuit of beauty, truth, goodness, love and peace. This is why so many people across the centuries have experienced a sense of closeness with God when encountering the beauty, peace and serenity of nature. Beauty is the source of poetic ecstasy and artistic creation, and is clearly reflected in the very famous words of the early 19th century English poet, John Keats, who wrote in his Ode to a Grecian Urn: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty; that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” The Russian author, Feodor Dostoievsky, imbued with the Orthodox ethos, took this a step further, when he wrote his oft-quoted statement that “Beauty will save the world.” A magnificent contemporary expression of a heart filled with divine beauty, truth, goodness, love and peace, is the very popular Orthodox Akathist Hymn, “Glory to God For All Things.” Written just before the author died in a communist prison camp, he extolls with the deepest gratitude countless aspects of the beauty and goodness of God’s created world and life lived in God’s Presence, and proclaims: “All true beauty has the power to draw the soul towards Thee, and to make it sing in ecstasy, Alleluia!” (7th Kontakion).
Whereas God is Beauty, Truth, Goodness, Love and Peace, on the other hand, Satan or the Devil is the opposite: he is ugly, a liar, evil, hateful and a murderer. Satan is the origin of all that is ugly; the father of lies, deceit and falsehood; the source of all evil, animosity, conflict, violence and hatred. Throughout all centuries and cultures, that which is divine and good is portrayed as being beautiful; while that which is evil is portrayed as being ugly. It follows naturally and logically then, that God loves that which is beautiful, because it is like Himself; and correspondently, that the Devil loves that which is ugly, because it is a reflection of himself. These descriptions of opposing natures include peoples’ souls as well as physical things.
We are What We Think, See, Hear
In the light of these descriptions of contrasting opposites, it is now easy to understand why people intrinsically love that which is beautiful, and are repelled by that which is ugly. God attracts us to the beautiful and Satan tries to spread ugliness, and to create the illusion that the ugly is attractive. Let us think for a moment about the influence on people’s lives and souls of being surrounded by beauty or being surrounded by ugliness. Reflect for a moment on what happens to people’s souls when they live in blighted urban centers, filled with cacophonous noise, conflict, fighting, violence, vulgarity, and especially the effect on children growing up in neighborhoods like this. It is important for us to realize that we are shaped by that which surrounds us, that which we encounter in our everyday lives , because we become what we think and see and hear and love. If it is ugly, vulgar and violent, we are likely to become ugly, vulgar and violent; if it is beautiful, good and honest, we are more likely to become beautiful, good and honest. This is why, for instance, the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, advocated a significant amount of censorship (which we abhor today). He lived in Ancient Athens, that sought to surround its citizens with beauty, by creating many beautiful buildings and statues adorning public places, as most cultures have done throughout the centuries. In our current age of few moral boundaries, and of where good is bad and bad is good, of where respect and reverence for life is hard to find, is it any wonder that our aesthetic sensitivities get warped along with our moral sensitivities, and our society disintegrates in front of our very eyes, and contemporary worldly daily life becomes increasingly ugly?
What is the antidote for life surrounded by the cancerous disease of ugliness, lies, corruption, evil, violence, vulgarity, and all sorts of depravity and immorality? It is to create, pursue and surround ourselves with beauty, truth, goodness, peace and love. It is to keep in touch with or restore our connection with our true inner selves, made in God’s Image, and allow God to restore us to our original beauty and goodness as He created us. It is to choose to follow the narrow path that leads to Him — Light and Life — rather than the wide path that leads to darkness and death. These are the only two paths: the path of following beauty, truth and goodness, or the path of following the ugly, lies and evil.
“Sanctify those who love the beauty of Thy House!”
The Holy Orthodox Church assists us in making the right choice of following the narrow path that leads to Life, by surrounding us with beauty divine. The Orthodox belief in the power of beauty to transform the soul is clearly expressed in the “Prayer Before the Ambon” said at the end of Divine Liturgy: “Sanctify those who love the beauty of Thy House!” God loves beauty and the Devil hates beauty — this is an absolute, not subject to debate or ‘personal opinion.’ This is why beauty is so important in the Orthodox Church, and why we seek to create beautiful churches, icons, liturgy, music, vestments, and everything connected with the church and its worship. We don’t try to save a few bucks by throwing out the beautiful decorative elements that transform something ordinary into something extraordinary and beautiful. Similarly, we don’t try to save a few minutes by rushing through hymns or prayers to get through them as fast as possible, and slurring the words, at the cost of reducing the liturgical and spiritual beauty and meaning. We offer the very best that we possibly can, according to our circumstances and ability, and should not settle for the ‘least we can get by with.’
That’s so Beautiful!
The church temple represents the Kingdom of Heaven, where God reigns. Therefore, it must be as beautiful as we can possibly make it, so it can adequately reflect the Divine Beauty. And our Orthodox architects, iconographers, musicians and all those involved with the church’s liturgical arts, including worship, must be well-trained and conscientiously offer their best. If we spend so much money and time to adorn our homes and our bodies to make them as beautiful as possible, should we not offer far more to God to adorn His home on earth? Surrounding ourselves with beautiful churches, beautiful icons, beautiful sacred things, beautiful Divine Services with the music rendered beautifully, can be an effective antidote and a vital means of drowning out the ugliness and cacophonous noise of the dark secular world around us — if we leave ourselves open to letting Divine Beauty and Light enter us and fill us. When we enter our Orthodox churches, we should open ourselves up so we can recognize, “That’s so beautiful!” While we are worshiping God during the Divine Services, we should be recognizing, “That’s so beautiful!” If we are singing, chanting or serving at the altar, we should be doing our liturgical work in such a way that not only us, but all the people present will be caught up into the beauty divine of the Kingdom of Heaven, so we all might have the opportunity to have a foretaste of Eternal Life in God’s Presence, and be overwhelmed by its Beauty, Truth, Goodness, Peace and Love, and therefore peacefully murmur from the depths of our hearts:
“That’s so beautiful!”
By Sister Ioanna
St. Innocent Monastic Community