The Life of Beauty in an Ugly World

In my last article, I described our personal existence as something that is not self-contained but found only in relation. Who-I-am is seen in the face of the one beholding me. There is an element of this in the perception of beauty that is worth noting.

Some years ago, my wife and I visited the Grand Canyon. Its beauty is impossible to describe. I consistently felt frustrated with my camera – it simply could not take a picture that was sufficiently large. And the largeness of the Grand Canyon is a major aspect of its beauty. No picture can capture the feeling in which the bottom of your feet hurt (vertigo) as you peer at this mile-deep chasm. But the vertigo is also part of the beauty. Indeed, every picture you will see of the Grand Canyon will fail because it is inevitably smaller than you are (except for something in a movie theater). Its beauty is carried by its size, by its color, by the sky, by where you stand. Beauty, like personhood, is a relation of many things.

When architects design something that we experience as beautiful, they have paid attention to proportion and any number of things that are relational in character. It is how we actually see. Significantly, words for knowledge often carry the root meaning of “to see” (cf. Greek “oidein”). Among the limits of language is its requirement that one thing be spoken at a time forcing it into a linear pattern. We must start the sentence and wait for its end. Very often, thinking follows this same pattern.

There is no way to do with language what a single look accomplishes. Even a thousand words cannot equal a picture. Language is not without its uses. It can point and suggest. Theology often resorts to paradox and contradiction in order to point beyond words to a larger reality. This is the true meaning of “Apophatic Theology.” Words cannot sufficiently express what we might otherwise know. In the Church’s teaching, we speak about what we know, while acknowledging that our speaking can only point. We cannot always say what we see.

This is also a function of icons. The Fathers of the 7th Council wrote: “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” But, in point of fact, they do more. We can always see more than we can say. Icons are an eloquent exposition of the faith for those who know how to see them. It is fitting that the 7th Council is described as the summary of everything that went before. It defended the making and veneration of icons, in what is the most enduring expression of Apophatic teaching. The Orthodox rightly say, “Come and see!”

The modern world is awash in images. Strangely, the images do not expand our understanding but tend to diminish it. We have become accustomed to seeing carefully selected clips as representations of reality, often as finely honed and skewed as the rhetoric which passes for modern speech. Icons, in the Byzantine style, often use reverse perspective. The effect is to look into a world that is expanding (instead of shrinking in the distance). It is a presentation that always says that there is more than is being seen. It honestly admits the limited nature of its representation. Debates rage today about “fake” media, as though there were a “real” media. We are increasingly living into Kafka’s aphorism: “Lies have been turned into the order of the world.” 1

It is not surprising that in a world order built on lies that the manipulation and regulation of language should become important. Many public institutions are abandoning the language of gender (for example), refusing to label an infant as a boy or a girl. Ideology (gender fluidity is a concept, not a thing) is made to triumph over reality. That which we can obviously see, may not be obviously named.

Modernity is inherently violent as are its many philosophies. The “making of a better world” is a project of violence. When what is asserted is not patently true, then its assertion can only succeed through force. When language is regulated by law, it is only in order to enforce lies. The devil is named both as the “father of lies” and as a “murderer from the beginning.” Murder is an effort to make a lie into the truth. The true existence of someone is made to appear as though it did not exist. But its destruction is a lie. By the same token, every lie is an act of murder, an effort to establish what has no existence in the place of that which does. In a world where the pressure to regulate language is growing, violence is inevitable, whether overt or covert.

The believer thus lives in a violent world, surrounded by false images and false language. It is important in such a context to actually see the world and to speak the truth. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, wrote towards the end of the Soviet Union. Living under a regime that was corrupt to the core, he bravely urged others to follow his example. It was simple:

It’s dangerous. But let us refuse to say that which we do not think.

This is from his essay, “Live Not By Lies.” It is worth reading in its entirety. The wonders of the market economy mask the spiritual sickness that undergirds the whole of it. A paragraph from his essay sounds strangely familiar:

At one time we dared not even to whisper. Now we write and read underground writings [samizdat], and sometimes when we gather in the smoking room at the Science Institute we complain frankly to one another: What kind of tricks are they playing on us, and where are they dragging us? Gratuitous boasting of cosmic achievements while there is poverty and destruction at home. Propping up remote, uncivilized regimes. Fanning up civil war. And we recklessly fostered Mao Tse-tung at our expense—and it will be we who are sent to war against him, and will have to go.

The Soviet system collapsed because it was built on lies. That which does not exist (the lie) is a poor foundation for serious construction.

Human beings are created for true personal existence. That existence is a relationship with everything around us. But we begin to move towards non-existence when we nurture relationships with lies. Christ alone is the true image of the Father. The world is only seen rightly as it reveals the truth of its created existence.

See the truth. Speak the truth. Be the truth.

This is beauty in the world.

Footnotes for this article

  1.  Die Lüge wird zur Weltordnung gemacht

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.



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30 responses to “The Life of Beauty in an Ugly World”

  1. Byron Avatar

    Wonderfully said, Father! Many thanks!

  2. Janine Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen. I haven’t read the previous article yet, so I’ll get to that! But thanks again for the mention of the Solzhenitsyn article, which I read when you recommended it in the past. For the moment, just a quick comment.
    You wrote:
    “That which we can obviously see, may not be obviously named.”
    And perhaps also, in accordance with what you’ve pointed out above, that which we cannot obviously see, may be obviously named!
    God bless,

  3. Byron Avatar

    A second thought on this statement: Ideology (gender fluidity is a concept, not a thing) is made to triumph over reality.

    It seems to me that as long as we use the language of “gender” instead of, and in place of, “sex”, then we contribute to using concepts over things (as you’ve put it). That it appears here shows how deep the control of language has become within our society: we cannot even speak of the issue unless it is in false terms. Just a thought.

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I understand your point. The two words have been used somewhat interchangeably for a while, without any ideological intent. It’s not something I pay attention to.

  5. Kevin Z Avatar
    Kevin Z

    In 2018 the overal ersatz mouth feel of the common rehteoric seems overplayed. By the machine, I mean. I don’t speak to many people that ‘buy into’ what’s happening in the world and to us as a culture (culture used very loosely). But…it also seems like many people do not buy into the provided narrative only so long as they get to consume ad nauseaum. If the idea is dangerous enough to obstruct or derail the mindless consumption of content/stuff then it is paid lip service to and people will argue as addicts; oh, well I KNOW this is false/manufactured but it doesn’t effect ME (or their kids who are often allowed unmitigated screen time on devices and TV with little to no filtering).

    It seems reasonable that through ‘free’ media is where the most poison is planted. This poison harvests the imagination until you cannot dream or imagine anything that doesn’t come from a screen. I see this every soccer or sporting event our children compete in where maybe 4 out of 5 kids are doing a dance from the game ‘Fort Night’. That kids want to dance is great. But that it’s not really their own expression. It’s one that’s been given to them by a ‘game’ (social engineering) that’s sole premise is murder and hoarding.., well. The deep state has had over 50 years to practice manipulation through elctronic media. With an endless budget. It is the absolute and complete violence you mention in your post, simply on a more insidious platform. This violence is the assault on the imagination and the spirit of youth, moving towards ideas ‘hyper modern’ that leave a violent binary towards that which is not (scripture, literature, etc).

    As always. A profound and relevant post, sir.

  6. Chris Avatar

    Do any of you know, off the top of your head, if any of the patristic fathers wrote about the relationship between truth and beauty? Or anyone else from the Tradition of the Church?

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Look into the Cappadocians

  8. Mark M. Avatar
    Mark M.

    Thank you, Father, for your post.

    To Kevin,
    The shallow but total cynicism that you refer to is one of the most dangerous aspects of the modern age (and, I think, a major goal of the demons, for they have little more to do once they’ve achieved this end). It takes the place of genuine watchfulness, but, as you mention, fails to act. “They can’t take ME in” is the attitude of the taken, as brilliantly expressed by the dwarves beyond the stable door in The Last Battle. It does not matter whether a cynic is presented with real beauty, real truth, or even real danger. The attitude that “You can’t ever believe anything” ensures that you won’t.
    Thank you for your thoughts, and God keep us all.

  9. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    A timely post Father, in view of the upcoming elections.

  10. DougLK Avatar

    Another fine posting, and one more reason to anticipate the next. Sadly, all too relevant.
    I’d like to offer a comment to your comment to Byron above on gender and sex being used interchangeably for some time. I agree. But I note that this is also evidence for the early linguistic forward strike of post-modernism’s earliest devotees. And dare I say neo-Marxists? The totalitarian impulse, after all, is plain with those who would compel my speech. I think the distinction frightfully important, and if we’re going to use them interchangeably, which most do, let’s not lose sight of the linguistic abuse which got us to this pont. And ponder what’s next. Lord, have mercy.

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think they get used interchangeably because people do not have a very clear meaning attached to them. “Sex” can mean several things – including the act. “Gender” was always used to describe male and female in language studies. So, I’m not really clear what the language problem is. No doubt, words get used and abused and meanings evolve. “Enthusiasm” once meant something quite different than it does today, without the intervention of neo-Marxists. I would say that the word “gender” has been hi-jacked (only recently) to mean something like “an inner perception of orientation” or some such thing.

    The language abuse does indeed have its roots in earlier Marxist practice. I studied with a number of them in my years at Duke. It’s very intentional. But, that which is natural and true always wins. It’s like gravity.

  12. Dean Avatar

    “But that which is natural and true always wins. It’s like gravity.” Thank you Father. You have expanded on that theme in the past. It gives me hope.
    Jesus’ words are so important: “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against.” As the best runner goes on to win the crown in a marathon, so with those in the Church…yet both the runner and believer only arrive at their destination through constancy , pain and suffering…with eyes fixed on the goal. “For the joy set before us.”

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is very important that we remember – we have already won. The outcome of history was settled in the death and resurrection of Christ. It is for us to be faithful, to give thanks, and to trust in the Providence of God. We speak the truth because it matters – but we cannot and will not fix the world. Be the truth.

  14. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Thank you Father for the opportunity to discuss these matters. To me the life of beauty in an ugly world is a tension we must be graced to deal with. It is quite challenging. On that note, I’d like to say a bit more about the upcoming elections…
    One of the things we hear from our local ‘powers that be’ is a call to make our town beautiful. Nice thought. Don’t litter, keep your yard clean, those kind of things. Then come the elections. So your driving down mainstreet and what does the eye meet but signs galore…filling every spot off the side of the road. The town is small, only two traffic lights…and every single person running for office in the county, city, state, school districts, has a sign posted. Not one or two. No. They literally fill both sides of the street. It is ugliness in all its glory. Very oppressive. Yet they talk about beautifying the town. It makes no sense. But since when does anything in the realm of politics make sense?

    Father, you talk about the violence inherent in ‘making a better world’. This manner of campaigning, by erecting a multitude of signs where, unless you are blind, you can not ignore, is sure violence. Unasked for, and undesirable, by force the locals must endure this. It is an onslaught. Behind the presence of these signs is a powerful and dark force that has entrapped these politicians. They have fell for the lie of bettering the world, blinded to the fact that the world has already been redeemed by our Savior. Their eye is not toward the heavenly Zion, but to ‘Anytown, USA’. For their benefit, for their empowerment, for their agenda. They have no idea about the spirit they serve. The campaign signs en mass are just another hook for us to be lured into this darkness.

    It’s a battle out there. God grant us to know Him, see, hear, smell, touch and contemplate His beauty in the beauty of Creation…to look past the ugliness and to give thanks always and for all things.

  15. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    My situation is complex as I’m buffeted by these cultural forces you describe, Father, I am grateful for God’s presence in each moment that I’m engaged with another. Due to my circumstances of these past years I’ve been ‘out of the stream’ of these forces. Now I’m frequently engaged with someone who ‘self identifies’. I call them by the name they wish easily but accidentally referred to them in their presence with the pronoun that doesn’t match their preference. Accident or not the act was hurtful to them. And I apologized.

    Father I ask for your prayers. Sometimes I’m in a real pickle. I want to walk in truth and love.

  16. Alan Avatar

    “When language is regulated by law, it is only in order to enforce lies.”
    So very true. I realize that this is note remotely the point of your post, so forgive me Father. But I can’t help but notice that this is what’s happening today. On some American college campuses, you can now be expelled for calling someone a male, who is quite obviously, a male.

  17. Alan Avatar

    “See the truth. Speak the truth. Be the truth.”

    Wise advice Father. Thank you.

    “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” – George Orwell

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think that an act of politeness, even kindness to someone who has some sort of disorder is not wrong. Of course, this would have been an easy thing to understand some years back. However, we are currently in an undeniable cultural moment in which something like hysteria is sweeping through a generation. Britain saw a rise of 4000% in requested sex change therapy over less than a decade. What we see at present can in no way be explained through normal understandings of biological differentiation. There are difficult cases, and biological issues that are real. However, what we are now seeing is vastly different – complete with a political agenda and increasingly severe penalties enforced by institutional policies. Often those policies are set in place without any public input – but as institutional fiat. The HR departments in corporations are included in this as well.

    Gender/sex is not fluid, nor is it merely a cultural convention. Every baby born is living proof of the binary character of human existence. That there may be the rare deviation from this norm is not itself the norm, nor does it destroy the norm.

    We are in the difficult position in which kindness, love, gentleness are being used to insist that we do violence to common sense and the obvious. I would probably do what you have done myself. On some level, I would likely share what I actually think, even if I were to acquiesce to the request.

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Paula, the ugliness you describe is built into our political system in the US. We are guaranteed “free speech” after all. And most speech is ugly because our hearts are darkened.

  20. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Just a quibble Father: It not simple relationship. It is that we are interrelated. All created things.

  21. Margaret Avatar

    Michael Bauman, I realize that you addressed your comment to Fr. Stephen, but to restate your words: It is a simple relationship, we are all interrelated, all created things. God is not doing something that we cannot comprehend. Forgive me, a sinner.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, Michael. I have also written and criticized the use of the word “relationship” when it is used in a weak manner. “Inter-related” is closer.

  23. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    No doubt in what you say.
    Yet I still find it difficult to live with the tension between the “ugly and the beautiful”, the good and the evil. Some days are more trying than others, as to be expected.

    There is much to be thankful for. I believe when we thank God (for all things) it is at the same time doing violence against the darkness within ourselves, the same darkness that is in the world. But the tension, the ugly and the beauty, remains and always will in this present age, within our hearts and without.

    I would imagine that according to the uniqueness of each person, some will experience a greater tension than others? I don’t know. All I know is that it is a challenge to keep at peace. Surely reflects my disjointedness.
    Just some thoughts….

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I agree. “The line between good and evil runs through every human heart”, in the words of Solzhenitsyn. Knowing and remembering that is, I would argue, something that saved his soul. Though he opposed the lie that was the Soviet Union, he nevertheless recognized his own complicity in that lie within his heart. It is not known other than to those who’ve studied Solzhenitsyn, but he was sentenced to the Gulag on the basis of a private correspondence with a friend in which they both criticized Stalin for not being a good enough Communist. Solzhenitsyn’s awakening did not occur until later – during his time in the Gulag.

    But, had he held a sense of righteousness, a sense that the problem was “them” and not “me,” it could have eaten his soul.

    I see this same theme in a very profound manner in the book, The Aviator, by Vodolazkin, the author of Laurus. Slow read at first, but wonderfully profound by the end –

    The darkness in the world can only be healed within each human heart. What we fail to see is the enormous redemptive power generated from even a single human heart that has overcome that opposition. And they exist.

  25. Dean Avatar

    Yes, they do exist. Thank you Fr. Stephen.
    Soltzhenitzen wrote of these flickering candles of light that existed a short time in the gulag. Rays of beauty in the ugly, torturous world of the camps. “A bruised reed he will not break. A flickering wick he will not extinguish.”
    Precious it is to know that God sees each of these holy ones, however tenuous be the light they emit.

  26. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Thank you Father.
    It is way to easy for me to criticize and condemn loudly when the barrage out there becomes too much. Still, left to myself it is no better. Life doesn’t improve in retreat. And the reason for that is as you say…the darkness runs through our own heart. There is no escape. Either I continue in sheer blindness, blame, point fingers (and loose my soul), or turn to the Light and face my own darkness. Looking at His Face I see my own face, my own sin and culpability which can (and should) crush me (Dean, as a bruised reed) and yet, in Christ, I live. If He should quench that smoking reed, He would quench a soul who at one time had lost her way and now trying to find her way back; who now longs for Him in fullness, and nothing less. No, His love can not possibly quench that smoking reed.

    Dean…again, you quote a beautiful verse. Thank you. I was moved by that verse a long time ago and has remained it my heart ever since. There is a book “The Bruised Reed” written by the Puritan Richard Sibbes that is one of my treasures. Should read it again…it’s been a while.

    Father, thanks…I just purchased The Aviator! Funny you should bring up Vodolazkin …I have been eyeballing Laurus on my bookshelf here lately. I wish I were a speed reader at times….
    I want to say, Father Stephen… It is a great comfort to know you understand us. You are blessed with the ability to draw from our fumbling words what it is we’re trying to say. You understand and kindly acknowledge our pain (this is extremely comforting) and offer sound godly advice. Many times when on the edge, your words of truth bring a very needed peace. I thank God.

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ugliness is everywhere I look, beauty is right beside me but I am an extremely fortunate man. One smile from my wife and the ugliness, even within my heart tends to fade away.

  28. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Smiles are good Michael… 🙂 🙂 🙂 .
    Never saw a smile that didn’t soften the heart!
    Now frowns, on the other hand……

  29. Todd Isaac Avatar
    Todd Isaac

    I’m going to get in big trouble for this. But blog posts are not “articles.” Articles have to go through peer review, or at least editorial review. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I know I will take heat for this.

    I love Fr Stephen’s posts, and the content deserves much more than I have said here. Will join in on that in a bit.

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Only heat for being pedantic. There are newspaper articles, magazine articles, scholarly articles, and blog articles, and probably some others. “Posts” is possible – but “articles” is by no means limited to peer-reviewed scholarly publications. Use your dictionary more effectively. 🙂

    And, for what it’s worth, my blog posts are not infrequently cited in peer-reviewed scholarly publications, as are some others. I make no pretense to peer-review – I’m judged far more harshly.

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