Usefulness and Beauty

Theotokos_of_VladimirThe recent questions about knowing God – which I have described as something that often comes to me in the “peripheral vision” of my life – seems somehow related to the perception of beauty as well. Beauty often seems to be “greater than the sum of its parts.” We see beauty not simply by looking at a thing – but by seeing it. Many people look at icons – a rightly prepared heart is required in order to see an icon. Beauty is not an object to be manipulated – but always a gift and a wonder to be venerated. So, too, our knowledge of God. Thus the knowledge of God seems radically different than the knowledge we gain by the exercise of our rational faculty. God cannot be mastered or measured. Even though He has given us words to express Him – He cannot be contained in the words. As the Fathers of the 7th Council said, “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” I would suggest that it is also true that Scripture does with words what icons do with color. With that – some brief thoughts on 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.”

The recent questions about knowing God – which I have described as something that often comes to me in the “peripheral vision” of my life – seems somehow related to the perception of beauty as well. Beauty often seems to be “greater than the sum of its parts.” We see beauty not simply by looking at a thing – but by seeing it. Many people look at icons – a rightly prepared heart is required in order to see an icon. Beauty is not an object to be manipulated – but always a gift and a wonder to be venerated. So, too, our knowledge of God. Thus the knowledge of God seems radically different than the knowledge we gain by the exercise of our rational faculty. God cannot be mastered or measured. Even though He has given us words to express Him – He cannot be contained in the words. As the Fathers of the 7th Council said, “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” I would suggest that it is also true that Scripture does with words what icons do with color. With that – some brief thoughts on beauty.

A very sad existence indeed is a human life that has been reduced to utility and 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 his opinion: 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.

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.





26 responses to “Usefulness and Beauty”

  1. George Patsourakos Avatar

    People need to be more cognizant and appreciative of beauty and the various things it represents.

    For example, icons — with their beautiful colors and precise art work — can represent God or saints of the church. Flowers, with their beautiful colors and sweet aroma, can represent beauty and love in an in-depth way which cannot be matched by words. A church building — with its stately architecture — can represent strength as well as beauty, and serve as an inspiration in our unlimited and unending love of God.

  2. mike Avatar

    …..this post is Great..i was moved in the reading…i understand that deeper level of “seeing” you describe…when im allowed one of those moments of Awe im always grateful and humbled before God..thanks for your descriptions….however.. the story of how you handled the honest architect killed the buzz.. so to speak.

  3. Damaris Avatar

    The wonderful thing is how beautiful useful things are — there’s no conflict. When I look at the basket of vegetables I’ve just brought in from the garden (a beautiful basket made by one of my daughters) I think a Flemish artist could have painted a masterpiece of color and texture with what will become my dinner. I’m delighted by God’s grace in making the humble and useful beautful, so that I seem to be surrounded by beauty every day. There’s a poem by Anna Hampstead Branch called “The Monk in the Kitchen” that expresses my feelings well. Here’s a part:

    Whoever makes a thing more bright,
    He is an angel of all light.
    When I cleanse this earthen floor
    My spirit leaps to see
    Bright garments trailing over it,
    A cleanness made by me.
    Purger of all men’s thoughts and ways,
    With labor do I sound Thy praise,
    My work is done for Thee.
    Whoever makes a thing more bright
    He is an angel of all light.
    Therefore, let me spread abroad
    The beautiful cleanness of my God.

  4. marsha Avatar

    Damaris, that is beautiful. I had forgotten it!! (Printing now.)

    Father, I remember (I think) reading this earlier and getting a glimpse of how utility had seeped in. Of course, I thought, a thing must also be useful. I loved getting a glimpse of how beauty is its own gift.

  5. […] Stephen Freeman on beauty: We see beauty not simply by looking at a thing — but by […]

  6. Юрий/George Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen,
    We have the ability to build churches and related buildings that would serve as models of: energy conservation, energy production to meet the needs of the immediate community and sell “back to the grid” any excesses, multiple-use structures that could serve as revenue sources (to help pay off any debts and also to help the needy).
    The ancient cathedrals of Europe had several minor uses other than being open 24 hours a day for worship, but that was very different from modern times. My parish church located in a large North American city is barely used three or four hours a week for worship and a few more hours for ikebana classes. It’s also energy inefficient, being an older structure. I have links to share if anyone is interested in “green” church buildings.

  7. John Avatar

    I have been in Montgomery for the last few days and my time online has been limited. I feel it necessary to respond to the six points that were offered in the post of July 24. Everything that I say, and have said, is from a spirit of love and humility as a seeker of Biblical truth with the solemn realization that God above is the Judge of us all.

    Here is an undeniable fact: the Orthodox Church stands or falls on the acceptance or refusal of human tradition, that is the commandments of men apart from the Bible. All other issues are peripheral. Orthodoxy, with its entire apparatus, is shown to be incorrect, if authority for human commands cannot be found in the pages of the New Testament itself. I am still waiting for the Bible text that justifies such.

    Now, on to the six points.

    1. By “New Testament church” I simply mean the church as it existed in organization and teaching in the pages of the New Testament. To say that this concept is fiction is to imply that God gave a plan that could not be followed. This is fact. As many of you gentle readers who are familiar with the church of Christ know, we are about as far away from the Mormons and Muslims as far away gets.

    2. The New Testament texts were inspired by God from the time pen touched parchment or papyrus. A decision made by a group of men at a later date did not at that later time make them inspired. I am glad Matthew 28.20 was cited for the New Testament is simply the record of Jesus’ “all things that I have commanded you.”

    3. To be called a “people of the book” in the way I assume that reference was intended, I consider to be a great compliment, and not a slur. We are all familiar with Romans 1.16. There is no hubris involved. I would much rather read God’s word for myself, than blindly and hypnotically allow some group of men to spoon feed me their version. My soul will be judged on whether I did what God said, not if I did what men said. God’s word does not need a filter (human councils) or to be plugged into some formula (church tradition). Just pick it up and read it. Or, is God unable to author a communication that can be understood?

    4. Titus 2.15 is not the text we have been looking for. Interestingly, why has it only now come up in the discussion? Titus clearly was to speak with the authority of Paul: that is, the words of Paul, which today (with the other writers) would be the New Testament. I do that every time I stand up to teach, and so can anyone else who bases their message on the gospel. To say that Titus was a Bishop who had his own independent authority in message content apart from the apostles, is a giant leap. It is not in the text. We may only frame arguments from what is in the text, not what we wish was there, or from church tradition. As I have already said, the “authority of church tradition” is the foundation on which Orthodoxy is built.

    5. “Christ alone is our salvation,” I could not agree more.

    6. An appeal to the emotions, while touching (and I do not mean that flippantly), has absolutely nothing to do with a discussion of the issues. If emotions are allowed to control the discussion, there is no telling where things will go. Just look at the UA and UT football “discussions” over the last few years.

    I love you all. May we seek truth together.

  8. Sea of Sin Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    There is something about purity and beauty that go hand in hand. This would be a great subject for another post!

  9. fatherstephen Avatar


    At this point I do not know how to press the conversation any further. You have established how the rules must be, based on your own (or Church of Christ) rules. So be it. But they are not the rules of the Apostles, which the Church they established (you seem to think they wrote a book rather than established a Church or you overlook the continued existence of the Church they founded and its direct continuity with the most primitive community). You have also established for yourself a rule that will not allow verses of Scripture to possibly mean that there was an established Tradition which is still alive in the Church. The Orthodox do not believe in a Tradition established by men, but believe that what we have received, Tradition included, is from God. That which is of man is changeable. That which is of God is not. But you have your own critieria of how things may be proven. This effectively makes conversation unproductive. Nonetheless, a learning experience. May God keep you. Perhaps some of my readers who have come from a Church of Christ background could address your points better than myself.

    It’s a very romantic notion of “inspiration” to think that inspiration began with the touching of the pen to the parchment. However, it is obvious that beginning in 1 Cor. 11:23 St. Paul is quoting oral tradition (the Last Supper which is only later written) and quotes it authoritatively (as from the Lord). He also does this in I Cor. 15. Both passages use the technical language of paradosis (tradition). Apparently the oral tradition was inspired as well – indeed the stories written were clearly repeated and told before ever they were written – but you seem to have some sort of magical notion about inspiration such that it begins only when the pen hits the paper. Thus were the words of Christ not inspired because He never wrote anything? And the Spirit He gave to lead us into all Truth – this was only to assist us with reading the Scriptures? You have many man-made rules (far more than I do and yours seem rigid and are novel, having been invented many centuries after the book was written).

    My comparisons to Mormons and the like are because the Restoration Movement is itself an American made (not God made) movement that was a product of American social forces (not God) that followed certain trends in Scottish philosophy (not the Scriptures) and applies these notions rigidly to the Scriptures. You cannot restore what was not lost and what God has never abandoned. But I think this is a fruitless line of argument so I’ll drop it.

    Again, may God keep you. Forgive me if I offend.

  10. Ryan McNamara Avatar
    Ryan McNamara

    It’s easy to say “just read the Book” and you’ll understand. Why, then, does every “Bible-based” denomination have different beliefs? Why do some believe that it is important to handle snakes, others believe it essential to avoid blood transfusions, still others that we must speak in tongues, or have multiple wives, or even that we should preach a Gospel of Prosperity? I know full well, John, having attended several C of C services with my in-laws, that you believe non of these things. I also know that your church doesn’t follow the clear Scriptural commandment to eat of our Lord’s Flesh and Blood in Communion. The point is, that when one interprets for oneself, one is only making up one’s own tradition, and hoping that it happens to match what the Apostles taught. Perhaps you follow instead the tradition of your teachers, or Alexander Campbell. We instead strive to follow the Tradition (Paradosis) handed from our Savior to the Apostles, from the Apostles to their disciples, and so on, and fervently believe that the Holy Spirit has led his Ancient Church consistently to the present day through the many Saints in between.
    That said, John, I have no doubt that you are a man of true faith, and far closer to God than I am. We don’t expect you to change your beliefs; we only want you to know where we’re coming from.

    In Christ

  11. Margaret Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for this post concerning usefullness and beauty, I couldn’t agree more and it is a balm to my soul to read it.

    Thank you also for your comments and exchange with John. During our first year of marriage my husband and I had the privilege to study the bible with one of my fellow students from David Lipscomb University here in Nashville. He was born and raised in the Church of Christ and I came to know of the worship while living with my mother and stepfather and was baptized there. Having grown and left Christian life, I was blessed to be loved by my Anglican husband and I became Episcopalian. (God is continually good to us and we are now Orthodox :0)

    All this to say, the bible study we did together was a blessing in that it pointed out to my husband and I what you say here, Fr. Stephen, and it pointed our friend toward conversation with fellow Christians. It is my impression that often followers of the Church of Christ (especially the young ones in college) do not wish to discuss the scriptures they know so well and love so much with those outside of the Church of Christ.

    Thank you!

  12. J.D. Avatar


    I mentioned earlier I spent 62 years in the Church of Christ. It typically has great people who love the Lord like I know you do. I never did accept that the Church went into the tank shortly after Jesus ascended only to “restored” by a West Virginia farmer, albeit, a highly educated farmer. I have been exploring Orthodoxy for 4 years and was received into the Church last month. I am challenged, I am free, I am a sinner and I am truly ancient.

    1. If the New Testament truly has the information about the structure and function of the church, why does it require a scavenger hunt to put it all together incorporating some generous filling in of the blanks and gaps?

    2. Interesting theory that either you have or someone else had.

    3. Think Gutenberg press 15th century

    4. Pick this verse or any verse and there are 1000 churches who would see it their unique way. Who has the magic pill or the magic elixir?

    5. Salvation yes–often meaning healing which is what I need from my chronic condition known as death.

    6. Here’s a thought stipped of emotions. Does your church mandate that young widows get remarried and start having babies? 1 Timothy 5:14. Some would say it’s open to interpretation but it’s about a direct statement/command that you will find in the New Testament from Paul.

    I have no intention to offend or discourage. I love everyone who extols the love of God as manifested in God’s earthly visitation as the Incarnate Jesus who came to free us from the bondage of fear of death. If I had to pick one scripture thought that encapsulates Orthodoxy it would be Hebrews 2:14-15. It’s got incarnation, resurrection and salvation/healing succintly stated.

    God bless you brother. May you have peace and the Lord continue to show you and me mercy.

  13. Ryan McNamara Avatar
    Ryan McNamara

    John, are you familiar with the Nicene Creed? There’s nothing in there remotely non scriptural. What is it that you disagree with regarding creeds? The statement (not necessarily yours) “no creeds but Christ” is a nice sound bite, but is meaningless unless you know who this Christ fellow really is. The action of many of these councils you so condemn (see Prov24:7) served the primary purpose to clarify that in fact Jesus was man yet God too. I am of the belief that the C of C is Trinitarian. You can thank the early Ecumenical Councils for your own Tradition too! As for Titus 2.15: we believe Titus was ordained Bishop by Paul, but the authority he was to teach with, and appoint presbyters by was from Christ.
    Lastly: Roll Tide!
    God Bless.

  14. handmaid leah Avatar

    “No creed but Christ” is in itself a creed.

  15. Karen Avatar

    J.D.–Many thanks for your words of encouragement to John and all of us. Your journey and your words are worth much more than many of ours not from Church of Christ background (though many of us former Protestants have had to work through similar blind spots and prejudices to discover that the Orthodox Church is, in fact, more fully Scriptural, than any other in its doctrine and practice). I was amazed after I became Orthodox, and had accepted the truly Apostolic rule of faith for interpreting and understanding the Scriptures (which Fr. Stephen discusses in the next post) at how much more easily I could just read and accept Scripture on its face value without becoming confused or having to explain things away (not that it’s necessarily any easier to actually live and obey, mind you!). Your loving spirit/attitude is a credit to the Lord you serve.

  16. Ben Avatar

    I too am an orthodox convert from the churches of Christ. I can only say that I am well familiar with John’s line of argumentation and that I wish God’s blessing on him as he seeks truth.

  17. Kristen Laurence Avatar

    A beautiful post, Father. Your last paragraph about the architect reminds me of the gospel passages regarding the woman (M. Magdalene, I think)who anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment. Those around her criticized her for pouring such expensive perfume on her Lord when such money could be used for the poor. But Jesus defended her saying “The poor you will always have…but I will not always be with you” (paraphrasing here, sorry!).

    Just found the connection to be interesting. God bless!

  18. Anna Avatar

    The Protestant church I used to attend was in a middle school gym. It was perfectly functional and suited the congregation and the services adequately. Having now become Orthodox, I have thought a lot about what having such a richly beautiful, even ornate Church does for the soul. I think that it helps me to leave the world, “now lay aside all earthly cares” and enter heaven. Each of my senses is asthetically pleased in Church and all the things that I look at, smell, hear, touch, and finally taste are beautiful. They are all so foreign to many, even most, of my daily sensations and seem to be a icon of heaven. They serve to remind me that I am not of this world, that my home is heaven, that I am a Child of God, and that I must remember to press on in living as a Child of God. I need all of these things to remind me of this.

    I have also often wondered at the beauty of Churches clad in gold and the poverty of the people who attend them, but they too need this beauty to remind them of spiritual things.

    When asking our priest about this dicotomy, he said that many times these beautiful icons and gold clad items are actually specific donations from parishioners, and not items that the priest or bishop has chosen to buy.

    I also think of the specific detail God gave the Israelites when they built the temple, and there we see the beauty of their place of worship. It would be better to, as the Israelites did, somewhat strip our homes of luxury, so that we can build a beautiful Church and a place where we can have a vision of heaven and be reminded to keep our mind on the things above.

  19. Lucy Avatar

    This post reminds me of G.K. Chesterton’s letter to his wife Frances, in which he describes his idea to set up an allegorical house, in which every item is inscribed with its true meaning, such as inscribing the hairbrush with the words “even the hairs of your head are all numbered” or “living water” above the sink.

    The Victorians got some things wrong, but I believe that one thing they got right was bestowing beauty upon the most utilitarian objects, such as doorknobs and hinges, pens and buttons. To me, Orthodoxy does the same thing, although in a different way. Thank you for the reminder of the importance (and Godliness) of beauty.

  20. […] course, art and beauty might one day replace religion but it can never replace a single dream or thought that is God given. How much less can it replace […]

  21. Karen Avatar

    John, you say: “Here is an undeniable fact: the Orthodox Church stands or falls on the acceptance or refusal of human tradition . . . ”

    My conviction as a former Protestant become Orthodox Christian is that it is precisely for this reason that the Orthodox Christian Church alone stands, while all others fall short!

    This is the crux of the Orthodox objection to much of the teaching of Protestantism and its offshoots, including the Church of Christ (and even Roman Catholic dogma introduced after the Great Schism)–that you read the Scriptures through the lens of a human tradition (presuppositions) that you are blind to, while the Orthodox preserve the Apostolic Tradition, passed down faithfully through the ages in the living Community of the Church, of which Scripture comprises the authoritative written record but is not thereby exhaustive of the full Tradition (see John 20:30 and 21:25), and through which the full and proper meaning of the Scriptures becomes clear.

  22. […] Usefulness and Beauty Blogroll […]

  23. Molly Sabourin Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen,

    I just wanted to let you know what a gift and blessing this blog has been to me. I can’t thank you enough for the taking the time (and I know it takes a great deal of time) to put into laymen’s terms these most extraordinary teachings of the Church. This piece, particularly, I have come back to often. It was the inspiration for my next podcast, actually (in which I quote a part of this post), entitled the “On the Necessity of Beauty” May God to continue to bless your ministry!

    With love in Christ,
    Molly Sabourin

  24. fatherstephen Avatar


    Thank you for the note – and the great compliment of the quote. May God raise up many voices!

  25. Aaroneous Avatar

    Was listening to NPR last night about the discovery in Georgia of the oldest evidence of woven fibers (30,000 years ago) and they had *gasp* different colored pigments on them! It was set up a little dramatically which got me tickled, the assumption being that people way back then could not have been concerned with something so non-utilitarian as beauty.

  26. fatherstephen Avatar


    I have always been struck at the pure beauty of early cave paintings. There is an economy of motion, a sure-handedness, and a purity of form that is breath-taking. I’m not sure it is possible to be human and not love beauty.

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