Beauty – The Great Mystery

Having spoken about the world as perhaps not best understood (theologically) in terms of cause and effect – I turn my attention for a short time to the mystery of Beauty. God created the world and said it is good, but both the Hebrew and the Greek translation of that statement in Genesis carry the double-meaning of beautiful. The world is not merely good in its creation, but is as well created in beauty. Of course the world is fallen and much that we encounter of beauty is disfigured. And yet the pervasive character of beauty demonstrates just how far the universe retains something of its origins. The Orthodox understanding of salvation, as participation in God, is also described, from time to time, as a restoration of our original beauty. This can only come through our participation and communion with God. It points again towards the Personal character of all that exists (or at least its potential personhood). Beauty is not a category that can be separated from personhood (at least I believe it cannot be). The following article is from last year – but is a fruitful revisiting of this important understanding.


 The great mystery of Beauty is that its most profound statement in all of human history is the crucified Christ. The human experience of that Beauty is well described by Isaiah:

Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed (53:1-5).

Christ had “no beauty that we should desire him.” How is it possible that the King of Glory should have no beauty? This is itself the mystery of Beauty: it lies hidden beneath the sufferings of God. This same image is extended into the world itself. Our stories of Beauty also carry within them the fragility of that Beauty. The Beauty of my child is frightfully fragile, so that my heart as a parent trembles at every thought. The Beauty of creation is itself fragile at every turn. Beauty cannot remain stable within itself – it exists as ephemeral as all created life. If Beauty is to have meaning – meaning beyond its moment – then it must be somehow “underwritten.” With nothing beneath it, Beauty mocks us all, teasing us to a world that only haunts us with something that cannot be.

But such is the mystery of Beauty that it is indeed underwritten – by the mystery of the suffering of God. What appears to be the ephemeral character of God’s own Beauty – shrouded in the marred and distressed countenance of the Crucified – is in fact nothing less than the eternal Beauty of God Himself now pressing down into the deepest ugliness the world can offer – its disease and death. For His immersion in the ugliness of the world is our immersion in the Beauty of His world. “By His stripes we are healed.”

And it is the same promise to all of the Beauty of this world. Though it passes away something greater holds yet more promise:

A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people is grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever (Isaiah 40:6-8).

That same word is the Word, smitten on the Cross but raised in the fullness of Beauty. And in Him all Beauty is raised:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:18-25).

For now we see a most fragile Beauty – enough to break your heart. But within that broken heart can be understood the fragility of God which is none other than the healing of all Beauty, the redemption of all things. It is with such knowledge that we can say faithfully: Glory to God for all things!

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





4 responses to “Beauty – The Great Mystery”

  1. Justin Farr Avatar

    Wow. This is one of the most profound, mind boggling, amazing things I have read in a very long time. Thank you, Father.

  2. Mike C Avatar
    Mike C

    “Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it has not been fathomed and never can be fathomed, for God sets us nothing but riddles. Here the boundaries meet and all contradictions exist side by side. I am a cultivated man, brother, but I’ve thought a lot about this. It’s terrible what mysteries there are! Too many riddles weigh men down on earth. We must solve them as we can, and try to keep a dry skin in the water. Beauty! I can’t endure the thought that a man of lofty mind and heart begins with the ideal of the Madonna and ends with the ideal of Sodom. What’s still more awful is that a man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not renounce the ideal of the Madonna, and his heart may be on fire with that ideal, genuinely on fire, just as in his days of youth and innocence. Yes, man is broad, too broad, indeed. I’d have him narrower. The devil only knows what to make of it! What to the mind is shameful is beauty and nothing else to the heart. Is there beauty in Sodom? Believe me, that for the immense mass of mankind beauty is found in Sodom. Did you know that secret? The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.
    Dmitri Karamazov, from The Brothers Karamazov

  3. fatherstephen Avatar


    You might find this posting of mine to be of interest. It has some of the same quotation as well as some other material.

  4. Mike C Avatar
    Mike C

    I did indeed!!! Thank you!

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