What is beauty? We talked about it last night, the sort of night that is the last night on earth even when you know it isn’t. We talked about it in the dark blue dusk of evening along the Danube, with the bright, old yellow of city lights on cathedrals and Parliament and ordinary buildings across the water.
Forgive the sentimental prose for a moment so I can ask this: what is beauty?
There has been so much beauty on this tour. At every turn I wanted to tell my Gypsy: your country’s normal is so beautiful. But do I say that rightly?
What is beauty? What is the beauty of crumbling history? What is the beauty of a disintegrating human face carved between windows and around doorways? What is the beauty of cracked stone and streaked gray brick? Romania and Hungary still carry the leftovers of Communism, and I think they may struggle to answer this question, as well. What is beauty when it was meant to laud human dominance and the subjugation of man? There is a beautiful statute in Budapest, high on a cliff overlooking the Danube. The woman holds a branch aloft with both arms, a palm leaf flung up to catch the wind – and the light. There used to be two more statues below her: communism in metal, honoring a false freedom. They were called the statues of Liberation, this collective. The Soviet statues were relocated to a hated and historic wayside park, and the lady is called Liberty now. It’s a semantic tightrope across the Danube; once you are on the other side, you see the view and wonder how you ever could have thought that both sides were the same.
What is beauty for its own sake? What is beauty made by sinful man? Was the tower of Babel beautiful?
I wonder if our creation of corrupted beauty speaks of our identity as image bearers – imprinted with a reflection of the beauty of our Creator, spun outwards in statues and structures in an attempt to replicate what our souls long for.
Perhaps C.S. Lewis said it best: “The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
What is beauty? I have been far to quick to assign that to things I see and experience – far too quick to catch my breath and say “Ah, what a thing!” and far too slow to say “Ah, what a Creator!” Is the world beautiful in a way that delights my eyes, or is the world longing in a way that speaks to my soul? Or, possibly, is it both? Threads of a fabric woven in perfection and stained by sin, drifting music played by a child in hopes to replicate the soul-song he cannot quite hear, eye-catching colors in the faded shades of Paradise, monuments of and for and by man. God crafted a world of beauty and placed within man the longing for the reality of it. Our ability to create beauty is continually frustrated by sins, personal and collective, but we know we want it. These desires are as twisted as ourselves – our sinful hearts covet the greatness of other men, wishing that statue was of, for, by us…and our image-bearing souls recognize the diminished beauty that achingly cannot capture the greatness beyond it.
I love the beautiful things too much, I think. I wish to know better the difference between the beauty of this world and my longing for what it mimics. I wish to know when my self shakes hands with a sinner and lusts in rebellion against God’s beauty, and I wish to know when my soul is gripped in mutual longing for the beauty beyond the now. I wish to recognize the towering craftsmanship of these little Babels, to decry the sinful lusts of twisted longing, and to direct the ache of my soul to the author and satisfaction of true beauty. I wish to say, truly, with the Psalmist, as a cry from the sinner and saint:
“One thing I have desired of the Lord,
That will I seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the Lord
All the days of my life,
To behold the beauty of the Lord,
And to inquire in His temple.”
Missing you and the beauty of the far country,