The Discipline of Beauty

Colossians 1:16-17 (ESV)

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

In light of not posting for awhile, I wanted to write about something that I have been personally convicted of lately: not practicing the discipline of looking for beauty. 

Unfortunately, I have been overwhelmed of late with the common scourge of the “tyranny of the urgent.” It is the pestilence that drains my energy while I actively “get things done.” This affliction isn’t about making lists, for a list naturally means forethought, and forethought at the very least has a rudimentary understanding of prioritization. Instead, tyranny of the urgent is the antithesis of forethought–it is living moment to moment without any context. It is performing the actions without understanding the purpose. It is like walking head-down in a dark tunnel without understanding that you are actually walking towards a light at the end. This kind of life breads hopelessness and ultimately anesthetizes our ability to see beauty. We devolve into creatures of task like oxen driven hard in the field without enjoying the harvest. And as far as I’m concerned, this is no way to live. 

TunnelI also believe that this is not the way that God designed us to live either. As the verse in Colossians says, all things were created through God to bring Him glory. In fact, all of these things are held together by Him. I believe that when we look into that which God has created then we are also looking into an aspect of God Himself. When we see the beauty of that which God has created, namely Nature and Humanity, then we see the beauty of God. Along with this, there is an aspect of beauty that does not come directly from the hand of God; it is that divine piece of Imago Dei (Image of God–Genesis 1:27) that lives in humanity, but it is also the beauty of creation that comes from the human hand. According to Dorothy L. Sayer’s fantastic book Mind of the Maker, the human desire to create is actually a characteristic that we share with God.

How then can he be said to resemble God? Is it his immortal soul, his rationality, his self-consciousness, his free will, or what, that gives him a claim to this rather startling distinction? A case may be argued for all these elements in the complex nature of man. But had the author of Genesis anything particular in his mind when he wrote? It is observable that in the passage leading up to the statement about man, he has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the “image” of God was modeled, we find only the single assertion, “God created”. The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things.

This isn’t to say that humanity is divine as much as it consciously or subconsciously values the very part of our humanity that is made possible through the divine imprint left on us. Similar to the Fruits of the Spirit, we share certain qualities of goodness that are only perfected in God. With this said, there are aspects of this world both natural and constructed that point to a divine. These are symbols that should direct our gaze to the glory of God, and thus these symbols can be both beautiful and led to Beauty. This is the great act of Art that sets the human apart from the beast. For as G.K. Chesterton points out, animals may make homes like humans make homes, but animals don’t aspire to make architecture. Thus, Art can portray a certain beauty that draws us back to balance or harmony with God. This is not to say that all art is pleasing to the eye, or even effective in truth-telling, but the fact remains that the work of the hand when creating art is in a rude form trying to mimic our Creator. Like a son grabbing his plastic hammer to assist dad in building a tree house. 

Seeing this kind of beauty does not come easily or naturally, at least it doesn’t to me; instead, I believe we must cultivate our senses and practice the discipline of experiencing beauty. I believe we have the deep desire to be connected to beauty, but often don’t have the time or the discipline to experience that beauty. C.S. Lewis puts it well when he writes:

 “We do not want merely to see beauty… 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.

While I am by no means the poster boy for “stopping and smelling the roses” (remember, the tyranny of the urgent led me to this place), this process has helped me refocus my energies in an effort to lift my head up from the darkness in the tunnel and experience the beautiful light. After some thought, here are a activities that help me “bathe” in beauty. 

Study the Bible… instead of just reading it devotionally

Read poetry…and try to understand it

Write…but not about myself

Listen to the stories of the elderly…and ask them how they see the world

Ask good questions to children…and notice how they see the world 

Listen to music…without doing anything else

Read good fantasy…and allow yourself to escape

Read books that make me think…really, really hard

Climb a mountain…a big one with a good view

Take a walk early in the morning…when birds instead of cars are heard

Serve others…because Christ has served us

Sketch the small details of something that I see…even if it turns out horribly

Look at a good piece of art…for a really long time

Pray…and then be silent

This is by no means an exhaustive list. I would enjoy hearing about what others do to see Beauty.