Glory to God for All Things

The Absence of Beauty

We can say without hesitation that God is the ultimate author of Beauty, and what we know and love of beauty is an echo or stronger of our desire for the Beautiful God. It becomes a major problem of sin, largely unrecognized, when beauty begins to recede from the consciousness of people, or something tawdry or ersatz becomes substituted for that which is beautiful.

We live, of course, in a culture which is predicated on mass production. Thus even within Orthodoxy we are driven towards mass production in an effort to economize and to satisfy ourselves with the same level of aesthetic that marks our culture (this is frequently true of icons in mission churches, including my own). I have had opportunity to see and worship in an environment marked by quality iconography and in a few cases, truly great icons.

I can recall being in a parish that has a particularly well-rendered “Rublev” Trinity (the three angels in the visit with Abraham) in the parish altar. I was officiating Vespers. As the sun began to set, the dying rays of the evening sun caught the icon and it began to “luminesce” in a manner I had only read about. The icon shone brightly with a light that appeared to come from within. This is not easily accomplished in the painting of an icon, but is certainly a proper goal of its execution. It is a revelation of the heavenly light (iconographically).

Both the orientation of the Church and the quality of its iconography became one with the service that was being offered and a beauty that is all too rare was revealed. There was nothing to be said, but as the choir sang, “O Gladsome Light,” the icon wordlessly proclaimed the same.

There is much in our life and culture that pushes us away from beauty. Mass production and the nature of our economy (marked by a level of productivity unknown in human history), are driven by questions other than beauty. Beauty has value as it can be marketed, but too often is absent in any depth from much of our experience. (I should add that the long-term goals of my parish include proper iconography and a temple that conforms to Orthodox architectural norms.)

Deeply distressing is the drive to “utility” in our lives. Value is given to that which is “useful.” Beauty thus becomes an avocation, a luxury not seen as useful or necessary to our existence. Of course, this is a deep miscalculation of the nature of human existence. Human beings do not exist well without beauty – and in most of human culture throughout most of human history, beauty has been valued beyond many of the things which we think of as “useful.”

A very sad existence indeed is a human life that has been reduced to utility but emptied of beauty.

The very presence of God brings beauty into the world, for God Himself is beautiful. As human art has revealed, even in the suffering of the Cross, God is beautiful.

I can recall some years ago chairing a committee of a parish that was in the process of interviewing architects (we were planning to build our first true “church”). One architect we interviewed shared the opinion that he thought churches historically had wasted a lot of money that could have better been spent on the poor. I do not hesitate in preaching our obligations to the poor, nor the need for us to tithe and give beyond ourselves. But I had no hesitancy in looking for a different architect. I daresay few architects would have said to a family whose house they were designing, “I think people have spent too much on building their homes and have neglected the poor.” It was churches that should be relegated to utility.

I strongly expect, because of the seamless garment of Christian theology, that someone who does not understand the necessity of beauty will not truly love the poor. For the poor must be treated not merely as the objects of our utility but the beautiful creations of God: anything less is not love.

I recall the title of Macolm Muggeridge’s wonderful book on Mother Teresa: Something Beautiful for God.

Yes. Yes, indeed.

32 Responses to “The Absence of Beauty”

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  1. Nate Rose says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    I love the line:

    “A very sad existence indeed is a human life that has been reduced to utility but emptied of beauty.”

    I shall have to ponder this more deeply.

    I am reminded of a quote by Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel taken from his wonderful book, God In Search of Man. He writes:

    “Among the many things that religious tradition holds in store for us is a legacy of wonder. The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin.”

    Once, when I was visiting a monastery in Iowa, New Melleray Abbey, one of the monks, a priest, said, “Indeed, beauty is God’s humility.” Later, I repeated these words to another brother who simply smiled and said, “Hmm, I would have said that humility is God’s beauty.” His words made me grin!

  2. Karen C says:

    Dear Father, a recent blog “conversation” with an self-proclaimed evangelist who preferred to use the comments section of another’s blog site to “preach the gospel” than to actually converse and relate reminded me of a how this utilitarian mentality insidiously infected our expectations of ourselves and others in my former evangelical Christian subculture. Depending on the church or group at hand, blatantly or subtly the bottom line of all preaching and teaching to those already believers tended to be “your ultimate purpose here on earth (and for becoming “holy”) is getting others ‘saved’ or otherwise influencing others for Christ.” Implicit in this assumption was that our real value to God and in the Church is our “tool” value. Subtly or blatantly, the focus of our daily “walk with Christ” became our spiritual performance or productivity, not the healing and transformation of our hearts and our real communion with Christ. I had not before consciously reflected on how a utilitarian attitude toward the meaning of the Church and the consequent devaluing of beauty in worship go hand in hand with a depersonalization of the human being, but I recognize what you are saying to be profoundly true from my own experience. It was my frustration with the way this subtle but pervasive utilitarian mentality in my former evangelical and charismatic subcultures undercut my ability to truly love God and others the way Christ commands that ultimately drove me to Orthodoxy. I had similarly learned to hate the change in terminology in businesses and organizations (that occurred in the U.S. back somewhere in the ’70s, I think) from “Personnel” to “Human Resources.” That change is very revealing in terms of our modern American cultural values and mindset, isn’t it!?

    Nate, I’m with the second brother! :-)

  3. Karen C says:

    Note: That odd smiley face after “holy” should have been a closing parenthesis. Computer translation glitch! . . .

  4. Matt Yonke says:

    I believe I’ve told this story in your comment section before, Father, but it’s so pertinent here.

    When considering the move from protestantism to Catholicism (having no idea we would be Byzantine Rite in the end) I was convinced to go to a discussion group on St. John Damascene’s Treatises on Holy Images.

    I was openly iconoclastic at the time, but I read the book, engaged in the discussion, thought it interesting, though certainly not interesting enough to give up my iconoclasm.

    Then the leader of the group took us into the Church, Annunciation of the Mother of God Parish in Homer Glenn, IL, to show us the icons we had been discussing all night.

    The Church was dark as we entered, but for the light of a few candles. Our leader went to the back to turn the lights on and the first light that shone was the light around the Pantocrator in the center of the ceiling of the Church.

    My experience of seeing that icon in that setting for the first time was, I can only imagine, a far cry from St. Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus, but for me it was just as powerful.

    After hearing the explanation of the theology and symbolism behind all the icons in the Church for a good hour or so, I went outside to call my wife and tell her I thought we just might need to be Catholic after all.

    True beauty with the depth and intensity and otherworldliness that the Eastern Tradition so splendidly displays is truly a unique and life-changing thing.

  5. You probably knew this already, but I learned Saturday at a talk given by a Presbytera on iconography that the outer outlines of the Trinity in the icon above form a circle of Communion, and the inner lines of the Father and the Spirit form a Chalise in which is the Son. It seems so clear to me now that I wonder how I missed it.

  6. handmaidleah says:

    Father bless!

    The Orthodox Church in Calhan, CO has the Trinity icon in its altar and it is indeed, beautiful. I was told that it is uncommon for this icon to be in the place of the Theotokos – my Church has the Anastasis and above that the Theotokos.

    Only at Pascha is the Anastasis revealed fully (the Theotokos is visible above the iconostasis). Currently Holy Theophany is working to complete the iconography in the temple, not any easy task, yet so ncessary. This is the first Church that I have attended that has frescos on the walls and it is so easy to worship there because of it.

    The difference between hanging a framed icon on the wall and the walls being the icons is amazing and something I hadn’t considered before.

    Elder Porphyrios said, “In Christ is found all that is beautiful and all that is healthy…”
    Thanks of the post!

  7. Lucias says:

    Beauty is indeed essential to a proper and well rounded life. And yes it is made by God. Beauty doesn’t demand much money either. It only demands our time. A simple guitar, or violin, or lute, or whatever. Some simple water colors or oils. Or even the simple springtime flowers from the garden.

    I do not presently understand iconography. But I do understand the role proper architecture makes in our world. Proper architecture and decoration can make a huge difference.

    I will ponder your post throughout today.

    Thanks Father.

  8. AR says:

    When my husband and I first started looking at other churches, we wanted to see them at their best, so we attended a few Christmas concerts, vespers, etc. When we went into the gorgeously restored RCC Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist in Milwaukee, I was struck, among other things, by the use of gold on the walls. In a blog post later, I reflected that if we have gold, we ought to worship with it. If the best we have is silver we ought to worship with that.

    The first Orthodox Church we visited was a tiny old Greek church in Georgia. I don’t think it even had a bathroom. But the stones of the walls were arranged in such a way that it was clearly a temple. It had a beautiful shape.

    I think of these two experiences as bookends. One example was expensive, one impoverished. But both, at the level of their own ability, showed devotion to God by beautifying the place of worship. Attention to beauty is, as you say, Father, proper to worship – not only because of the beauty of God but also because of the nature of humanity.

  9. Stephen W. says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    Since I am new to reading your blog, I was wondering if you could give me some type of a list showing the development of thought regarding the one and two storey universe. I typed these things in to a search but did not come back with any kind of comprehensive list of all your thoughts on this subject.

  10. Stephen W.,

    Not to speak for Father Stephen, but I would highly recommend listening to his podcasts on the subject, in chronological order.

  11. Mary Gail says:

    Why doesn’t providing a beautiful respite from the stresses of the world help a poor person as much as a well-to-do person?

    Once built, a beautiful church is available for thousands of people from all walks of life for generations. It even enhances the community in which it is situated, it becomes a landmark and a cultural asset uplifting the city it is in.

    The Church is perhaps the only place in American life where people are ready to be a true friend to you regardless of your material status. I just lost a job and I know that I will not be treated any differently at Church as a result, most people there don’t know or really care what I do for a living.

  12. Troy says:

    Father, this is a truly exceptional post. It reminded me of a book that I have heard of called “The Beauty Of The Infinite: The Aesthetics Of Christian Truth” by David Bentley Hart [an Eastern Orthodox theologian whose work has been celebrated even outside our own Church] which reveals the beauty not just in our icons and churches but in the doctrines we teach. Are you familiar with the book?

  13. Patrick says:

    “Implicit in this assumption was that our real value to God and in the Church is our ‘tool’ value.”

    Bravo, Karen C! ;)

  14. AR says:

    Mary Gail, I think what you say is true. For my part, I had in mind the relative ability of different communities to build such churches.

  15. Stephen W.

    I have collected some of the earliest articles as a separate “page”

    http://glory2godforallthings.com/christianity-in-a-one-storey-universe/

  16. Troy,

    Hart’s writings are excellent. His vocabulary seems to rival W.F.Buckley’s, and I enjoy them for that excellence as well.

  17. Michael Bauman says:

    Beauty is perpetuated in a society only when, as Lucias says, the people in the society practice beautiful things.

    Electronic media of all types make beauty quite difficult. It is a concern of mine that the proliferation of electronic ministries in the Orthodox world may be at the expense of real beauty. As much as I enjoy and profit from this blog and others, one attendance at Vespers or the Divine Liturgy or Confession blows it all away. Personally, I have yet to see anything of real beauty that is electronic in origin, and even the attempts to communicate real beauty by electronic means is problematic. The truncation that occurs leads us to accept a lower standard and understanding of real beauty. Just as mass-produced icon prints reduce our understanding of what a real icon is as seemingly necessary as they are.

    Electronic media are essentially two-dimensional, voyeristic, atomizing dehumanizing and utilitarian. Pixels are so easy to altar that the counterfiet images of supposedly real people and events are becoming common place. Electronics are especially damaging to one of the great works and expressions of beauty we have–language.

    Ultimately, electronic media work against real human experience with the divine that alone produces beauty. We must therefore be quite careful with our use of electronic media. Certainly not abandon them, but realize the limitations and dangers involved.

    Touch, physical human touch, must not be forgotten. It is after all through the laying on of hands that Christ transmits the grace of His Church from one person to another. It is through touch that beauty is expressed in this world–the physical manipulation of the elements of the created realm by willing and gifted people. At times it is then made transcendent by an angelic touch.

  18. Dale says:

    Michael,

    You are right to suggest caution with the electronic media or any new technology for that matter and yet I would suggest that each new technology offers a potential for newly realized beauty as well. I would say this blog is an example of just that. There is beauty in the medium when used in such a way as to show the beauty of Christ to those that may not have been exposed to it outside of this medium. It will never replace the true Beauty we seek but can help to guide us towards it.

    Touch, physical human touch must not be forgotten but a word of caution must remain there as well as that can also be a source of ugliness if used in a manner not according to God’s love.

    I suggest that new technology just as old can be beautiful or not depending on the persons involved and what is done with them. Has very little to do with the technologies themselves.

  19. The Scylding says:

    The understanding and place of beauty is one of the quarrels I had with (a lot of) Calvinism while I still was one. I think the utlitarian view as narated by one of the earlier posts on this thread betrays the origin of such a “gospel”, namely that it sits comfortably in a modernist, materialist realm (and by materialism I mean philosophical, not the drive to own). Such a realm is foreign to Scripture and the Church, and should act as a warning for those who pursue such a gospel. It is only a matter of degrees from there to properity gospels, self-help gospels etc – and I use the word gospel in a very generic sense. Of course, one can err in the opposite direction as well, but then beauty is lost in favour of kitsch and gawdiness. Hence I respect the strict guidelines the Orthodox have.

  20. Michael,

    Your admonitions, well put, point to my emphasis on Church and prayer, versus reading, or even this blog. At best, this blog can be a place to safely point towards the direction where the Truth can be found. It cannot replace the Church. On the other hand, it is becoming a new form of literature (I use the term very loosely). The priniting press did not destroy books.

    The internet is very uneven. But that’s the nature of democracy. Everybody gets their own opinion. It’s not efficient or even beautiful, and certainly less than intelligent. On the other hand, tyrants are a real bother, even Christian ones.

  21. Gerry says:

    Dear Fr. Stephen

    I’ve only recently discovered your blog and am profiting from it. Your thoughts on beauty are inspiring and indeed, if anyone needs yet another ‘proof’ of or clue to the existence of our God, our innate need for and appreciation of beauty provides one that is very compelling.

    Greetings from Ireland. Bless your wonderful work.

    Gerry

  22. michaelcook says:

    Dear Father Stephen,

    I have been “admiring” the beauty of the Spirit working through your Ancient Faith podcasts, and your blog for several months now – and I am thankful for the humility and depth of piety in your work. It reminds me of true beauty – of all that is good and Holy in our God. My family and I are catechumens at Holy Cross Antiochian Mission – under the guidance of our priest Father Gregory Hogg. God willing, our Chrismation will occur on August 16th – the day after the feast of Dormition… this is very cool to our children aged 13 to 7 (four of them!) My comments are regarding the icon glowing hat you mention, and building a church and sparing no expense for God’s house. We dream as a mission of the day we can build a “real” temple – but for now our little “renovated building” is heaven on earth to us. But one day, how beautiful to imagine a space not just made with brick, wood and mortar – but a place that is literally heaven on earth. To think of how the light will come in, to imagine the icons in all of their hand painted authenticity – and to see the sunrises and sunsets of a thousand days as they join with us in worship – and in turn – the buidling itself becomes yet another voice in the unceasing chorus that we are singing. Thank you Father and many years to you.

  23. I believe with all my heart that regardless of the limitations of our present facility, in the liturgy and at all times as we gather, it is heaven on earth. I believe in doing the very best we can with the beauty of the Temple, but the Beauty of God fills our poor space with the fullness of His glory. My eyes cannot see yet the brilliance of the Divine Light, my heart is far from pure, but I confess that it is there. Indeed, I love the temple in which I worship and ask forgiveness if I gave any other impression. We started in a warehouse 10 years ago, moved to commercial space, and now have our own building (which we purchased) though we have also purchased land for the construction of a temple. All things in time. But the least place where I have attended the Holy Eucharist is a fully heaven as the most beautiful. No reason not to do the other, but God is merciful who has visited us in our “mean estate.”

  24. Brad says:

    “Beauty has value as it can be marketed [..]” – is that kind of ‘beauty’ appropriately a ‘utility’? I don’t think I’d call our economy utilitarian. We live in a consumer society, and so consumption is what drives production. We consume more than just functional things. We get nice furniture, cool gadgets, television shows, the internet, et cetera. It’s not practicality, it’s self-indulgence that matters in the economy.

    Secondly, I don’t see too much beauty in architecture or religious icons. Sure, there are aesthetics to be seen, but not much beauty to be had. These mediums for beauty just don’t seem that important compared to say, the more sublime or deeper forms of expression in society. Seriously, how much can be expressed in expensive marble and glittery portraits?

    You complain that church architecture has been reduced to utility. (I’m pretty sure this kind of utility would be considered important by believers, mind you. Doing God’s work on Earth is a pretty big utility.) Then you say: “someone who does not understand the necessity of beauty will not truly love the poor.”

    So if we want to give money for the poor instead of making churches look like eye-candy, we don’t truly love the poor? And by spending money that could otherwise help them on buildings, we are treating them like “beautiful creations of God”? I’m not understanding this at all, Mr. Stephen.

    It would seem you agree with Mother Teresa, that suffering and poverty is really just another form of beauty, and is spiritually good. That would put the lives of the poor on the same playing field with details on a building structure in terms of budgeting. Now who’s utilitarian?

  25. Couple of points here:

    “Self-indulgence” is a moral condition, it assumes that somewhere along the line, God has been substituted by “self”.

    “Practicality” implies the pursuit of an end, without regard to the morality of the means.

    In other words, the pursuit of the greater good is not justified if it infringes on the welfare of the poor in spirit, in line with Jesus’ stark warnings in Matthew 24.

    Man is not justified “under” the law but when he is in agreement with the One who is above it (God). “You cannot be the slave both of God and of money” Matthew 6:24 (NJB)

  26. Karen C says:

    Brad, I think it would be clear to most of Fr. Stephen’s readers, but I will say it for all of us . . . you have clearly missed Father Stephen’s point, and by quite a wide margin. This is particularly evident in your comments about Mother Teresa and way in which you suppose (in error) Fr. Stephen sees the suffering of the poor as beautiful. Nevertheless, I hope you will keep reading his posts! Perhaps it will help supply some of the context that for you is missing at this point. No suffering is beautiful in and of itself, but as we can see through the Cross, it can be made to be the occasion by which we see the beauty of the love and grace of God in its fullest glory. Mother Teresa’s very effective attempts (for those individuals to whom she has ministered) to alleviate the suffering of the poorest of the poor in Calcutta is the occasion by which the love of Christ is most clearly seen through her. By the same token, we can affirm that the Cross would have no real meaning for us without the Resurrection. (I would also want to point out that the spiritual meaning of any “Resurrected Christ” without the Cross would be spiritually devastating for us.)

  27. I have perhaps not written this posting clearly enough for Brad to get my meaning. There is indeed much in our consumer culture that is not for utility, but utility usually wins the argument.

    Nor do I think suffering beautiful in and of itself, but the poor are beautiful because they are the image of God. Mother Teresa served them selflessly because she saw in each the beauty of God.

    To this day, the largest donor to the needs of the poor continue to be the Churches. Whatever their architecture.

    But you do not understand the beauty of an Orthodox Church if you consider it to be “eye candy”. The proper love of beauty will serve God in all places, for He is everywhere present and fills all things. It is not the love of beauty that is the cause of poverty. It is the hatred of beauty.

  28. Michael Bauman says:

    Well, Brad, I disagree with everything you said. Since I’m Orthodox that’s only to be expected so I’ll share the perspective of a mature Methodist lady who took a tour of my parish several years ago. At the end of the tour she asked if she could sit and look at the icons (hand written ones, not prints or reproductions) for a while longer. Then she commented in a voice heavy with joy and awe, “My friends told me I wouldn’t like the icons. They were wrong. They are BEAUTIFUL!”

    To see the beauty in icons is a blessing from God. To see the beauty in the person who is destitute, foul and dying as Mother Teresa did is a similar gift since we all are made in the image and likeness of God.

  29. William says:

    Also, if one is looking at the icons for beauty that is found in some sort of artistic accomplishment, as though they were to be compared with museum pieces, one is also missing the point. Certainly, there is artistic accomplishment to be seen in icons, but their beauty is in the realities they reveal, which are the activities of God in the life of Christ and in the life of Christ in his saints. There is absolutely no way that a Christian can rightly declare the activity of God and the life of Christ is not beautiful. When one attempts to compare the depictions of this activity and life (as it has been manifested in the world through Christ and his holy servants) with other “more sublime or deeper forms of expression in society,” then one has clearly misunderstood the icons and stands to gain from further instruction and consideration. They are not art to be compared with other art. They are not wholly subject to an artist’s personal expressive sensibilities nor to a viewer’s personal aesthetic.

    And architecture? All that a church does has an iconographic quality, including its employment of architecture. These things express a church’s theology to some degree. Human beings obviously matter more than architecture, but still, when utility is, by intention, prioritized to the (complete or overwhelming) exclusion of beauty, then a theological expression to that same effect has also been made.

  30. William says:

    Also, I think I it’s worth pointing out that Fr. Stephen’s words on all of this above were perfectly clear. His mention of the economy is in a separate paragraph from his introduction of the word “utility.” The two topics, economy and the prominence of utility, are treated separately. The statement Fr. Stephen made on the economy was: “Mass production and the nature of our economy … are driven by questions other than beauty. Beauty has value as it can be marketed …” This is not the same thing as calling our economy purely utilitarian or saying that only the functional matters economically. Again: “Beauty has value as it can be marketed.”

    And nowhere in Fr. Stephen’s post does the attentive reader find a call (or even a hint) that the lives of the poor are “on the same playing field with details on a building structure in terms of budgeting.” The only way one could arrive at this reading of the post is by total conflation of the various points being made.

  31. Visibilium says:

    It’s been my experience that the most valuable things have no utility whatsoever.

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