Beauty and freedom

When I was still small, one of my parents' most treasured gifts to me were motorcar rides into the country. In the countryside surrounding a large industrial city my awareness was caught up from my own unhappiness as I was transported to a peak of ineffable joy, a pleasure beyond any verbal description, as my eyes feasted on a beauty beyond human contrivance. My first quite natural reaction was wanting to possess the lovely flowers and shrubs, but even before I could contemplate the action of cutting them, a distinctly higher consciousness forbade me to do anything so destructive, for it revealed, admittedly in embryo understanding, the secret of beauty on a cosmic scale. What is beautiful is a pale image of the Creator's nature, and the more it is preserved and shared with our fellow creatures, the more beautifully does the presence of the Creator shine upon and bless the whole world, and help to transfigure even the meanest creature into something of the nature of its Creator. This means that beauty attains its fullness when it is shared in ardent joy with our fellow creatures, at first with those who can appreciate it directly as we do, but finally with all sentient life. When I, as an unhappy child, came into contact with natural beauty, I dispensed with all my inhibitions as I blossomed into a new person.

It is of interest that the flowers of the spacious garden of my home, much as I cared for them, never evoked that changed state of consciousness which came spontaneously to me when I was playing in an untamed piece of countryside. God seemed to be present in such a place as pure gift, unmanaged by humans and even thriving in spite of their own plans to use nature as a public adornment. The human has indeed been given dominion over the natural world, but I have learned what I had already grasped as a child, that as one grows in mystical awareness, so one leaves the pattern of the natural scene well alone. One strives rather to preserve its beauty than to alter the natural order to suit human aspirations. The way the human exults most gloriously in the natural order is by reproducing it in the form of great art. I would, of course, agree that great landscape gardens do form a point of contact between the beauty of nature and the imagination of the human mind, but can any human contrivance emulate the breathtaking beauty of the purple heather on the Yorkshire moors in early and mid-autumn?

Beauty is one of Plato's three ultimate values that bring us towards the light of God in an intellectual mode; the other two are truth and goodness (or love). The perfection of form, colour and sound seen in nature will, if only we let go of the critical faculty, lead us to a summit of self-transcendence where we are swept into a new appreciation of reality in which Creator and creature are one, not by fusion but by union. But there is a beauty in suffering also if the soul of the afflicted one is transfigured by love. It is glorious to see young athletes intent on the game and young women disporting their beauty in the salons of history, but the most compelling beauty of my experience came to me when one no longer young, and blinded by diabetes, came to me for help. The look of patient anticipation on her face has remained with me when the lithe bodies and blooming faces of the young are like so much clear water that has passed under the shadows in a frolicsome stream during a bright late spring day. Thus beauty liberates us from an anxious concern about our own possessions and deficiencies, and brings us to an appreciation of the universal providence of God. The risen Christ in the apparition described in John 29.24-29 proves his reality to doubting Thomas not by his glowing beauty, but by the marks of his crucifixion. Beauty has a truth about it that Keats commented on in his famous pronouncement from the "Ode on a Grecian Urn": "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." He follows this with the observation, "That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know". Scientists tell us that there is a beautiful economy about the most useful hypotheses involving nuclear physics, a subject that intrigues the educated layman by the analogies some of these hypotheses seem to share with mystical thinking.

To those with eyes that see and ears that hear - I speak in the biblical mode of Isaiah 6.9-10 and 35.5 -the majesty of beauty is also its consolation to a wounded heart and a depressed mind. Beauty evokes an emotional response by lifting us above our accustomed station in life and seating us with the mighty ones. I am not speaking here about a temporal aristocracy but about the communion of souls who have lived at various times and in diverse circumstances, but have been formed emotionally and spiritually by the beauty that is now ours for a short lifetime - for even if we live to a ripe old age, what is this compared to the everlasting glory of God's grace bestowed on even the smallest of his creatures! In Psalm 29.2 we read the lovely injunction (in the Authorized Version), "Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness". The sentence recurs in Psalm 96.9 and in 1 Chronicles 16.29. The modern versions of the Bible are rather more explicit but so much less beautiful. The Revised English Bible reads, "In holy attire worship the Lord". The New Jerusalem Bible reads, "Adore Yahweh in the splendour of holiness", a pleasant return from a more esoteric translation in the older Standard Version, "Worship Yahweh in his sacred court", the sacred court being heaven, the invisible counterpart of the Temple of Jerusalem. The beauty, or splendour, of holiness includes not only priestly vestments but also the architecture of the place of worship, the glorious music and the odour of burning incense. All of these lift up the worshipper in the company of the angelic hosts and the great communion of saints, of whom we worshippers are junior members. The worshippers, however nondescript they may appear, are also contributors to the beauty of the scene provided their prayer is rapt and they lose their ego consciousness - often miscalled themselves - in the glory of the scene. Of course God is omnipresent, wherever two or three are gathered together in his name (Matthew 18.20), but a magnificent congregation assembled with a single intent strengthens the divine communion.

The psalms quoted stress the beauty of holiness, but the obverse side of the coin, the holiness of beauty, also demands scrutiny. The concept has been brought to my notice by the distinguished sculptress Josefina de Vasconcellas, whose work has ennobled quite a number of churches. Inasmuch as beauty is wrought by the power of the Holy Spirit through the agency of specially gifted people, whether musicians, artists or writers, the product has a divine essence. This is in fact the supreme value of art: it lifts the consciousness of those who are sensitive to the call of beauty to the presence of God. This applies not only to places of worship as noted in the psalms quoted above, but also, and much more pertinently, to the world of vicious competition, struggle, rejection, and final triumph of the human spirit over all material adversities.

The poignancy of beauty, it has always seemed to me, finds its fulfilment in the human spirit, where the things of the world are transmuted into the symbols of music, visual art and literature. Here the mind reacts to the outer world in terms of its own emotional experience and need. To those blessed with musical ears the whole range of human emotion lies almost unbearably revealed. It strikes an echo in such people's experience, perhaps far beyond what they can articulate rationally, and brings them to the very heart of meaning in a dark life or else one of suffused joy. Above all a spark of hope comes to illuminate a dark shadow of depression, so enabling life to go on rather than halt at a mountain of futility. In my own life, catholic as my musical appreciation has been, it is the inspiration of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert that has been my greatest support in times of barely penetrable darkness. I love Mozart for the gentle, and sometimes not so gentle, play of light and shade that eloquently illuminates his mature piano concertos. They sometimes seem to come from nowhere, the inspiration, in other words, arriving from a source of divine simplicity and sweeping all earthly dross that we mistakenly call success miles away from reality. The modulations remind me of my own life of struggle and final victory in an achievement that seems to have little to do with me personally. And so I derived hope from them when I was feeling very low in the past, wondering whether I was ever to make the grade and do the task set before me. That task was to fulfil the work ahead of me by making the right contacts who could recognize my potential sufficiently to direct me towards the best channels for my future endeavours. All this sounds disgustingly egoistical, but when one is alone in the world one needs supernatural encouragement to do the nameless work ahead, even if, paradoxically, the task is merely mundane. But the mundane side was to be essentially a foil for something far more significant, to which I could not give a name at that time. And so the glorious genius of Mozart gave me strength and encouragement. The other aspect of Mozart that is especially dear to me are the Viennese operas with their scintillating humour among which a much more serious feeling is silhouetted. It reminds me to take nothing too seriously, at least in an earthly perspective. And so the concertos, symphonies, operas, and the glorious quartets and quintets of this celestial master have been my companions in all emotional weathers, reminding me of one, a genius beyond compare, dead without much notice but inspiring countless millions to a new aspiration of perfection.

The late quartets and sonatas of Schubert have helped me to articulate my periods of gloom in a beauty that defies description, and yet at the end there lay hope of a better future at present wrapped up in terrifying potentialities. The darkness had within it the seed of a new creation which I could somehow grasp, albeit enveloped in gloom through which tiny chinks of light shone in faint encouragement. When these appearances of light occur in one's own psyche, one is inclined to see them as sparks of illusion, but when they are portrayed by a great composer, one knows that one is not alone, and that hope lies in the way; Schubert died miserably but his music consoles the world as two centuries succeeding his life-time slowly approach. And then by complete contrast there sounds his great C major symphony, a work of youthful vision, courage and splendour, wiping away all the tears of doubt and dejection.

This thought brings me to Beethoven, the messenger of heroism par excellence. His works were of enormous encouragement in my earlier years, as they still are, but now the "third period" quartets are my special joy. Here is a completely deaf, ageing man communing with eternity through the lucidity of a soundless mind. He brings me a peace that puts all my emotional struggles and spiritual aspirations in their right perspective before God, who knows us all as we really are, and blesses us with his undemanding love no matter how we have behaved ourselves. It is our joy to receive that love, undisturbed by any personal doubt, like the little children who alone can enter heaven. I suspect that we all have to experience renunciation before that peace can be with us. In order to receive fully, we have to be completely empty of ego consciousness. It could well be that the experience of depression is here to teach us about renunciation. Certainly many depressive people have an enormous creative urge.

I have also known the inspiration of great painting and poetry, but somehow music can say in a few bars what writing and visual art enunciate so much more clumsily in their medium of expression. I shall nevertheless always be grateful for Rembrandt and Goya for bringing me to a finer appreciation of the human spirit, and the French Impressionists for drawing that spirit in its most universal mode. In the use of words, my own medium of communication, how easily one can distinguish between those who know God and the human spirit and those whose work is purely decorative! Once again it is the painting of moods that is the acid test; some writing speaks directly to my condition, whether one of happiness or despondency, whereas other literature simply bores me with its wordiness, as I may well do others in my turn. Apart from the older classics I have found the work of T. S. Eliot, Philip Larkin, and R. S. Thomas to be especially helpful in my own labile emotional moods. Beauty needs no apology, but if it is working to its best it raises the human spirit to the divine essence, in so doing also restoring the human to something of the divine image in which he or she is created, no matter how far from this state they may have wandered during a life of selfishness and cruelty.

It would be reassuring to proclaim that beauty is as inevitably related to goodness as to truth, in the thought of John Keats. Unfortunately this is not so; great villains in history have quite often been admirers of art, sometimes indeed patrons, and also music lovers. Adolf Hitler had an almost god-like admiration for the operas of Richard Wagner. Admittedly they shared strong racial prejudices, but the sublime genius of the composer shines out in the history of Western music even if some of it was misused in the Nazi concentration camps. Few of the world's great artists, whether musical, pictorial or literary, have been especially admirable men, so much so that one gasps with relief when one thinks of J. S. Bach and Joseph Haydn in the sphere of music. Nevertheless the genius of high creativity selects whom it will, no doubt under the aegis of the Holy Spirit, and we should be grateful for the service rendered to the world by even the most flawed artists, scientists and philosophers. They have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of beauty or truth, and their work will remain long after their lives pass into the realm of legend.

The work of goodness, or love, is, however, of a different stamp. If one's life is devoted to the condition of the world as a living organism with humans at the helm, one's first task is inner purification, so that the ego with its demands for recognition and satisfaction may be stilled and steadily civilized. When one's own desire-life has been purged of all personal motives, far easier said than done, then the desire for the transformation of society can be pursued both in safety and with a promise of effectiveness. Love will never rest until beauty, truth and goodness illuminate society. Needless to say, this enormous endeavour starts with oneself, that the beam may be removed from one's own eye in order to see more clearly what has to be done in respect of other people's welfare. A most important part of the work of bringing healing to the world is what may be called a divine darkness, or ignorance: one does not know how to proceed or even the nature of the change that is to be wrought. As soon as one knows with the assertive will, one inevitably tries to influence people and events according to one's own egoistical desires. Once one is inwardly purified, a work of suffering no less than selfless service, one may become an instrument of God and do what is required according to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Then does a beauty beyond description flow from one as it illuminates one's features to something of the Christ who is within all of us, our hope of glory (Colossians 1.27). This is something of the nature of a transfiguration that the three disciples witnessed in the ministry of Jesus (Mark 9.2-8). It was also seen in the face of the proto-martyr Stephen as he preached his final sermon (Acts 6.15).

Beauty brings with it freedom from the sordid routine of mundane existence with its emphasis on self-assertiveness. It lifts one's mind beyond the limits of rational thought to the vast expanses of idealized imagination where a new kind of living becomes possible. It does not necessarily bring sanctity with it, since it is still within the grasp of the selfish desire that we all know. But how much more thrilling it is to attend a live concert or opera, even if the performance is not faultless, than to listen to a completely impeccable recording with no audience interaction! All involved add their quota of life to something beyond mere rational perception, the audience no less than the players. As was mentioned at the beginning of the chapter, the more we can share the good things of life with our fellow creatures, the more do they reflect the presence of the Creator on whose love all life depends and all beauty pours forth. I sometimes think of a millionaire with a collection of priceless masterpieces in his strong room. No one can view them except after prior appointment. He is never completely at ease, imagining how a gang of robbers might raid his estate and carry off the art treasures. And so he becomes the prisoner of the masterpieces while they at the same time are his prisoners. How sad and how futile such ownership is! Then let us imagine the owner dying, and his collection passing into the hands of various public collections. Now at last the masterpieces are available to the public, and in their own way they glow with a recognition that was absent when they were sequestered in a rich man's home. It is so with all that is beautiful. It fulfils no useful function inasmuch as it will not play its part in the technological advance of society or aid in humanity's money-making activities. It is there as a witness to an aspect of reality that lies beyond the purely materialistic, and it transports people who are open to its challenge to that greater life, where they may begin to function as real creatures of light, created incredibly in the divine image, as we read in Genesis 1.27.

What this may mean is suggested in the fourth song of the servant of God in Isaiah 52.13 to 53.1-12. It is the great "suffering servant" passage, which indicates that the hero in his affliction for the saving of humanity is bereft of all beauty. He shows the nature of self-giving love and patient sacrifice, and in that revelation a new type of beauty emerges. This is the soul of the human with the spirit burning ardently within it. The Holy Spirit has brought all that composes a person, body, mind and soul, into unity under the control of the spirit, from where the Holy Spirit illuminates the whole in the form of a new creation, Christ himself. It is in this spiritualized beauty that truth and love can find their realization, as the fulfilled person emerges from the flames of torture to the life of eternity.

He has out-soared the shadow of our night;
Envy and calumny and hate and pain,
And that unrest which men miscall delight,
Can touch him not and torture not again; From the contagion of the world's slow stain
He is secure, and now can never mourn
A heart grown cold, a head grown grey in vain.

These lines come from Shelley's "Adonais", an elegy to his friend John Keats.

Chapter 5
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