Beauty and the Face of God

dsc_3274Everything is beautiful in a person when he turns toward God, and everything is ugly when it is turned away from God.

Fr. Pavel Florensky


As I am preparing for next weekend’s interview on A Crisis of Beauty, I am digging back through my writings on the topic. In Orthodoxy, all truth is one and the same truth, simply seen from various angles. Thus, beauty is a perfectly fine place to begin when thinking about God or pursuing God. Many times, it may be the best place to start.

In thinking about darkness and light – and their role in our apprehension of the truth – I cannot but think about Beauty, which is a primary place in which the light of God is made manifest among us (if rightly perceived). The heart that is full of darkness cannot truly perceive beauty: the heart which is full of light, cannot help but perceive it. Perhaps a measure of our heart can be found in how we perceive the world around us: is it primarily a place of beauty or darkness? It is difficult in the fallen world to maintain a witness to beauty. And yet those places where it is made manifest to us are so poignant, so piercing, that I think we cannot and should not remain silent about them. Perhaps they should be shouted from the rooftops! 

The quote from Pavel Florensky contains a world of truth, indeed, from a certain perspective it contains the whole of the Gospel. It is both commentary on how we see the world (as beautiful or ugly) or how we are within ourselves. The ugliness of sin is one of its most important components – and the inability to distinguish between the truly beautiful and the false beauty of so much of contemporary life offers a profound diagnosis of our lives and culture.

To say that God is beautiful carries insights into what we mean by knowledge of God. “How do we know God?”  is one question. But if we ask the question, “How do we recognize Beauty?” then we have also shifted the ground from questions of intellect or pure rationality and onto grounds of aesthetics and relationship (communion). The recognition of beauty is a universal experience (as is the misperception of beauty). But the capacity to recognize beauty points as well to a capacity within us to know God (if Florensky is right). I would offer that this capacity is itself a gift of grace – particularly when we admit that the recognition of beauty is subject to delusion.

In a famous passage from The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s Dmitri Karamazov has this to say on beauty as well as delusion:

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 an enigma. Here the boundaries meet and all contradictions exist side by side. I am not a cultivated man, brother, but I’ve thought a lot about this. It’s terrible what mysteries there are! Too many mysteries 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 Theotokos (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 Theotokos (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.”

Dostoevsky’s paradox, that “beauty,” for the mass of mankind, is found in Sodom, is a paradox that can hold two meanings. Either it can mean that even the corrupted “beauty” of Sodom can be redeemed (this is not Dostoevsky’s own intention) or that our heart can be so corrupted that we perceive the things of Sodom to be beautiful (closer to Dostoevsky’s point). We can also bring in a third – that of Florensky quoted above – that the “beauty” found in Sodom is corrupted precisely because it is turned away from God. It’s repentance can also be its restoration of true beauty.

I prefer this third thought (which is more or less the same as the first) in that it carries within it the reminder that when God created the world He said, “It is good  or beautiful”  – both the Hebrew and the Greek of Genesis carry this double meaning.

We were created to perceive the Beautiful, even to pursue it. This is also to say that we were created to know God and to have the capacity, by grace, to know Him. Consider the evangelical imperative: “Go and make disciples.” What would it mean in our proclamation of the gospel were we to have within it an understanding that we are calling people to Beauty? The report of St. Vladimir’s emissaries to Constantinople that when they attended worship among the Orthodox they “did not know whether we were on earth or in heaven. We only know that of a truth, God is with them,” is history’s most profound confirmation of this proclamation.

St. Paul confirms the same when he describes the progressive work of our salvation as “the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” If we would have our hearts cured of the illness that mistakes Sodom for the Kingdom of God, then we should turn our eyes to the face of Christ. There the heart’s battle will find its Champion and beauty will find its Prototype.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


22 responses to “Beauty and the Face of God”

  1. Byron Gaist Avatar
    Byron Gaist

    Fr Stephen, you make an excellent point. Thank you once again for a beautiful post. I try to think of the false beauty offered to us at every turn in our fake world of advertising, exploitation and profit, but at the same time I think of the genuine beauty on which this false beauty preys. It is often quite hard to discern the difference. One of the problems this difficulty causes, is that belief in the truth of sin becomes unclear – which is the sinful beauty, and which is the virtuous? Which is the beauty that brings us closer to God – is it even always that, which the Church suggests?

    Is church iconography and architecture, church music beautiful? Yes. Is it the only true beauty? No. I am told we should look for the face of Christ in everyone, so in an overcrowded church building packed with individuals with whom I would have nothing in common on any other day of the week, where am I supposed to find the humility I am told is needed to perceive the beauty of the liturgy (work of the people) taking place? This is a genuine spiritual question, and I’ll be grateful for constructive responses.

  2. Rhonda Avatar


    I think you answered your own question about beauty: true beauty is that “beauty that brings us closer to God”. When trying to discern between true beauty vs. distorted beauty look for the purpose…is it to point us to God & pursuit of the virtues? Or is it to point us to ourselves & pursuit of the passions? There is much that is distorted, knowingly (encouraging us to buy-buy-buy) & unknowingly (vileness of what often is passed off as art).

    Also, the Church does not restrict nor define “beauty” to that found in Church iconography, architecture & music. These are the ultimate forms that lead us to beauty, truth & reality of God, but other forms are not outside of the Church. The other forms you mentioned in your 2nd paragraph are taught by the Church, i.e. the image of God in each & every person as well as the nature/creation that surrounds us. Even the most undesireable persons (in our damaged thinking) display the beauty & truth of God; the Church teaches us to remember & seek this out in our discernment. There is no true beauty that does not point us to the Truth of God; beauty is therefore Truth.

  3. Scott Sanderson Avatar
    Scott Sanderson

    This writing seems especially poignant in light of the tradegy in Oklahoma. I remember many times standing in awe of the powerful forces of nature. A storm generally is not, for me, a cause of alarm, but a recognition of the power strength and force of Nature. It is, on one level beautiful.
    Yet what is left is the storms wake is not beautiful. How can I say that a storm is beauty when it so utterly destroys?
    Herein lies a paradox. I know that there exists a certain beauty that will become manifest in those who render aid, and rally to rebuild. It is the beauty of the human spirit. Yet, is this enough?
    Perhaps true beauty, like its maker, remains elusive to human understanding.
    Lots to think about. Thanks for the inquiry.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    Traditionally we are told to find the humility by considering ourselves to be the least of all, the worst of all. You’re right – we should see Christ in the face of all and each. I will say that my own practice isn’t so much to look for the Beauty as it is to look for Christ. Beauty is not so hard to see – it’s almost obvious. It is the next question – how does this reveal Christ that helps with discernment.

  5. Lina Avatar

    Scott, you reminded me of an experience I had in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. I was a volunteer in a makeshift clinic. Injured persons were arriving constantly. The surgery was operating 24 hours. Beds were mattresses on the floor. Four bedpans for 200 people in my section and etc etc. People from around the world had responded to come there and various languages could be heard floating through the air. And yet God’s peace permeated the whole place. It was absolutely incredible. It was raun by the Baptists but we were a mixed bag of Christians and maybe non Christians for all I know.

  6. Dino Avatar

    We mustn’t forget that the ultimate beauty -Christ revealed as All in all-, is always eschatological; whether in the storm or in the the face of all and each, if we lose our eschatological orientation, if we forget the vision, the constant ‘memory’ (as we use the term in the Liturgy) of the “other side” even for one moment, we will fail to see properly, instead of wondering in awe we will become perplexed…

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    When I go into an Orthodox temple (small or large), I am humbled. We have a sign over our doors reminding us to “enter with reverance”, but even without that sign, the beauty (even in the small missions) is awe inspiring because it is a beauty connected to and communicating the presence of God, the saints and the angels. It always amazes me when folks are so hardened that they don’t see it and experience it immediately. Of course, that same beauty is inherent in each of us which is much more difficult to see (at least for me). Yet many saints see it as easily as I see the beauty of the icons and sense the presence of God in others as palably as I can (sometimes) at worship.

    As Dino says it is a revelation of the end. It is what makes possible giving glory to God in all things, for all things. We have a choice, we can look for the beauty that comes from God in everything and everyone or we can concentrate on the less than beautiful. Still, all people are capable of being sanctified. But that takes entering into the horrible beauty of the Cross; entering into the discipline of forgiveness and repentance.

  8. davidp Avatar

    Hope to listen in to AFR broadcast on Kevin Allen´s Ancient Faith Today Program. One of my favorites on AFR.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    Amen to you Caveat! I should have said something like this already… Beauty, only as it looks beyond itself, only as it directs towards God, is properly seen.

  10. ElizaMB Avatar

    Dear Father Steven,

    It’s moreover interesting to consider how and why this crisis of beauty has been adopted and even propagated by modern Christian culture. I’m beginning to think that this “two story universe” where many Christians live, separate from anything deemed secular, is but a combination of fear, ignorance, narcissism and a touch of apathy. (i.e. the post you wrote on your hometown- deemed at one the ugliest and most Christian city in America!) It is the lack of true presence.

    While we like to harp on the narcissism of secular modernity, art in this “Christian” world (and I’m thinking of the cheesy moralistic novels published for teenagers, Kinkade, praise music etc), becomes a blind escape into an idealized, and even idolized Christian society rather than an authentic engagement with the world that is- and its interpretation and re-interpretation throughout history. We live in a Christian culture that cannot engage with beauty because it does not engage with the cross. It is disincarnate.

    It is rare to find Christians willing to assume the critiques posed by modernity. While waiting for paradise modern Christianity interests itself in inscribing a safe and finite morality on the world rather than seeking the infinite that is truly present with us. In the words of Schmemann, we have: “on the one hand, an atheism impregnated with religious thirst, on the other, a religion impregnated with atheism, and this is the context within which we must live and work!” (from his journals)

    If modern culture is vapid and ugly it’s because it has accepted the story of a vapid and ugly world, and this is true on both sides of belief.

    Thanks for your posts on this fascinating subject!

  11. Byron Gaist Avatar
    Byron Gaist

    ElizaMB makes a very valid point, which addresses precisely my dilemma: I am reminded in all sincerity and sympathy to discern the true beauty by asking whether it leads to Christ or virtue (and thank you very much to all those who did make the effort to remind me, including Fr Stephen); I am reminded to also ‘remember’ the eschatological perspective of phenomena. But my problem is, that I do not know either Christ or what will happen if and when the world ends. Secular modernity tells me, with the zeal of missionaries, to just enjoy today as much as I can, for tomorrow we die anyway. Pascal’s wager doesn’t work: you do miss out on a lot, if you act virtuously and there is no heaven. Events like the hurricane in Oklahoma make this view seem correct, for all the brilliant theodicies I’ve tried to understand.

    I can try to imagine that I’m the worst of all, and sometimes it does help to remind myself I don’t deserve any of the wonderful blessings in my life. But I don’t really believe I’m the worst, so should I lie to myself? And even if I take it on and say ‘OK I’m the worst’, will I be saved by the combination of a half-accepted self-evaluation and a half-disbelieved grace which may hopefully accompany it? Of course I know grace is a gift, we can’t ‘make’ it come to us…I’m just no longer comfortable with dogma, I need experience.

  12. EPG Avatar

    Eliza B. wrote in part, “I’m beginning to think that this “two story universe” where many Christians live, separate from anything deemed secular, is but a combination of fear, ignorance, narcissism and a touch of apathy.”

    It may also be the result of forgetting that, for Jews and Christians, the act of creation was accompanied by a resounding note of approval, “it is Good!” It may be the result of forgetting that one message of the Gospel is that God came not to condemn the world, but to save it. I once heard an evangelical preacher (on the radio) state that he was looking forward to being able to exit this “ball of dirt.” Such an attitude seems (to me at least) to reek with contempt for the work of a (supposedly) good Creator.

    Like Byron above, I struggle. But I have to admit that Orthodox Christianity (and perhaps Western Catholicism), adheres to the ancient Jewish insight that the world is good, and that it is suffused with the goodness of its creator. Battered and bruised, wounded by the Fall, certainly, but the goodness is there.

    If Creation were as awful as some Christian traditions seem to hold, I would gravitate toward Buddhism.

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Bryon, I too was motivated to seek the experience of Jesus Christ. That motivation alone led me to some pretty strange places and put my soul in jeperdy. He was faithful to me however in my ignorance as my goal was really not so much experience but to know the truth. The truth is a person, a person to love, not an idea to be conceptualized.

    I held lightly those things taught to me as the truth until the were confirmed as the truth. I was rewarded by being led to the Church (a 39 year journey from my birth). It was then that my journey really began. In a sense, I still hold the rational dogmas lightly–more concerned for what they reveal than for what they say for, as Fr. Stephen says, dogama is iconic in nature.

    I have been told by my priest and read enough contemporary stories to convince me that the experience of the living God amongst we Orthodox even in this apostate age is frequent and constant. The warning that always comes with such a reality however is that experience as phenomena is not to be sought for itself, cherished for itself or much talked about. I always check out what I believe to be ‘experiences’ with my priest.

    The Orthodox ‘experience’ however is the participation in the sacramental life of the Church, guided by our priests and bishops and embedded in the life of the local community.

    It is the fruit of sincere repentance, prayer, worship, almsgiving and fasting in service to The Truth.

    Each of these in there own way are acts of humility, obedience, love and thanksgiving. Each of these combine to allow our hearts, the core of our being, to be purified and transformed by the grace of God who is with us.

    That being said there are some experiences that deserve to be shouted from the roof tops and come with such irrepressible joy that they cannot be contained.

    Still, it all begins with belief, correct belief as revealed in the Church. Through the door of belief and a willingness to act on that belief we are able to enter into communion with our Lord.

    The core beliefs are outlined in the Nicean Creed but those beliefs are predicated on the understanding that God is good and His creation good. Without that fundamental assumption, Christianity makes no sense and any ‘experience’ we might have is likely to be delusion.

    The fact of the Incarnation (which includes His nativity, his ministry, the Cross, the grave, the ressurection, asension and glorious second coming) and the ineffable love which motivates it is the central reality of the Chrisitan faith. The life of the Church is meant to bring us into the life that the Incarnation reveals so that we may be transformed and transfigured by the love of God.

    Anything that directs away from that life is a lie. At some point to experience that life, we have to surrender our questions and just say “let it be done unto me according to your word.”

    Yet, the perverse truth of the human condition is that “we prefer darkness more than light” most of the time.

    Yet at this time of year in the continuing celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord we are taught to shout out: “Christ is Risen!” and to sing:

    The angel cried to the Lady full of grace:
    Rejoice, rejoice, O pure Virgin!
    Again, I say: rejoice! Your Son is risen
    from His three days in the tomb.
    With Himself He has raised all the dead.
    Rejoice, rejoice, O ye people!
    Shine, shine! Shine, O new Jerusalem!
    The glory of the Lord has shown on you
    Exult now, exult, and be glad, O Zion!
    Be radiant, O pure Theotokos, in the Resurrection,
    the Resurrection of your Son!.

    To end, I paraphrase Fr. Stephen: Christ came not to make bad men good, but to make dead men alive. This is the day of Ressurection. Glory to God for all things.

  14. Lila Wagner Avatar
    Lila Wagner

    In Canada, CBC produced a fascinating program on the Ideas series called, “Beauty will save the World.” This is a quote from Dostoevsky via Solzhenitsyn and surveys the broad meaning of “Beauty.” It can still be accessed at:

  15. Byron Gaist Avatar
    Byron Gaist

    Michael Bauman, thank you very much for your heartfelt response and comments.

    You present a passionate (in the good sense) view of the Orthodox Christian experience: trust in the articles of the Creed, participation in the sacraments, repentance and prayer. In my reading I have also come to the understanding that that we ought not seek ‘experiences’ for their own sake. But should we not seek experience at all? Why engage in Christian spirituality then?

    Sometimes I have had beautiful and restful, occasionally even integrating experiences of prayer and participation in services; I cannot in all sincerity claim that these experiences were different or necessarily deeper than those I had when I used to do yoga, or when I’d simply read a good book by the seaside. I cannot see why spirituality, if it is anything more than relaxation, should necessarily be characterized as Christian – unless we first accept the dogma, as you suggest, but right now this is precisely what I don’t want to do, and I’m going to still argue against this. I don’t want to first believe in something provisionally, in order to come to believe in it actually. Are we not told to ‘taste and see’? Well, I’ve been tasting and I haven’t been seeing.

    Also, the ‘local bishops and local community’ here in Cyprus are currently part of my problem, too. I kiss the hand of my priest, Fr Marios, because I think he’s a really good man and I can see that with all his human frailties, he nevertheless makes an effort to deserve his rason. I’m not sure I feel the same about many of our bishops, lording it about in expensive limousines (oh, but why not give the Lord the very best? yeah, right), building the nicest churches in the richest parts of town, clearly enjoying the obsequious adulation of the populace, generally behaving more like vip politicians than humble servants of the Lord and his people. As for the ordinary members of the congregation, I see no point in lying to myself – these are the very same people who I find rude, selfish and cruel in their majority outside the church building, so why should I love them anymore within the church walls? I clarify that the reason I’m puzzling over it, is because I really would like to love other people more – for one thing, it would make me a happier person. Unfortunately though, as you say “the perverse truth of the human condition is that “we prefer darkness more than light”” – and we behave accordingly. It is a mystery to me how anyone can love people in general (I do love certain individuals). I cannot be the light by myself. And I don’t see the Lord’s light either, so I can hardly reflect something I don’t experience. The idea of “sincere repentance, prayer, worship, almsgiving and fasting ” for this community over here (since I cannot be saved individually), and considering myself worst of all of these, frankly makes me nauseous. I don’t think I can go through another period of Lent this year.

    Also, the view that God is good and his creation good, that basic hope of our faith, I have a problem with that too. I’m not so optimistic. I can see why one should hope, but since when did ‘should’ become ‘can’? I just can’t be starry-eyed about people or creation, when clearly the law of the jungle is what’s operating around me – hurricanes and society. Last night I watched “A Celtic Pilgrimage with John O’ Donohue”. It’s on YouTube, just under an hour’s length and very well worth it. Now this man truly loved his landscape, and learned from it, living in creative relationship with the earth. But he left the Catholic priesthood he was part of for 12 years or so, and was, like other Irish people, shocked after the sexual abuse scandals emerged, having a sense of betrayed trust in the church. He still seemed to have some sort of relationship with Christ though, as he crossed himself in one of the scenes.

    Well, clearly I need to get back to the drawing board on many things…all the best on your journey Michael.

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Bryon, experience will come as needed if one is faithful to just being there, forgiveness and praying the literacy. Whether we like it or not we are in communion with all these rude nasty people because Jesus loves them. They do not know what they do.

    You sound a bit like me several years ago. Certainly the people around us make a difference, but they are not the reason you are there. You are there to praise God and receive the life-giving sacrament.

    There is an old saying in the Russia: “Bishops die, babushkas live forever.”.

    Life is still there where you are. The rest is unimportant.

    Keep reading Fr. Stephen, the Spirit here can change your heart as you receive what is said.

  17. Dino Avatar

    it takes a while to realise who is our enemy in practical terms and at the stage we are at now (it is our “logismoi” first and foremost). Knowing this we can start ignoring all thoughts and criticisms, whether they are coming from what we see or hear, from what others say, from what enters our mind, from what springs up from our hearts etc.
    That is the lion’s share of the method to cure the problem you describe, combined with prayer and the life of the sacraments.

    What Fr John Anthony McGuckin of Manhattan once said is very pertinent here too:

    God does not meet us primarily in our heads, but rather in the clarity of a humble and merciful heart, since he himself is pure humility and mercy. This is not to denigrate the spiritual importance of the intellectual life in any way (or the searching honesty that is part and parcel of true intellectual perception). It is merely to state that Orthodoxy places great emphasis on the unshakeable primacy of the faithful heart in that complex synthesis which is the human being. Many “problems” in faith, in ethics, in one’s understanding of religion and philosophy, can affect the Christian on his or her way forward, especially in this age of vastly increased “alternative sources” of spiritual teaching, but the Orthodox Church holds fast to its belief that all problems, difficulties, and dark confusions can be illuminated and healed only by our return to prayer, along with ascetical repentance and unceasing petition for our Father to restore us to that radiance…

  18. Rhonda Avatar


    If you have not already, check out Fr. Aidan’s blog as he wrote & posted this McGuckin quote this morning…I still really like it 🙂

  19. Michael Patrick Avatar
    Michael Patrick

    Byron, allow me to recommend Sergius Bulgakov’s “The Unfading Light”.

    Please consider how many good must remain in the Cypriot Church for God to want it preserved rather than rolled up and discarded. Even if it stands like a dirty icon for just one old man or lady, mediating the life of God’s kingdom on earth, it has a reason to remain. Christ is the only pure vessel; the kingdom is full of dirty icons and dirty human vessels bearing precious gifts.

  20. Byron Gaist Avatar
    Byron Gaist

    Michael B, Dino and Michael P.,

    Thank you for your support and guidance. The path is slow and rocky for me, but I’m carrying on. My mind is in many ways my best friend and my worst enemy on this Way to Christianity, but as J.A. McGuckin states, “searching honesty … is part and parcel of true intellectual perception”. It is a very long way from the head to the heart, but I seriously doubt it can be bypassed (except perhaps by Divine dispensation), and I’ve never been one for shortcuts…I don’t trust them.

  21. davidp Avatar

    Fr Stephen mentioned on Kevin Allen´s program what turned him to Orthodoxy was Rachmaninov´s Vespers. Youtube has a link to many of these Vespers. Enjoy.

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