Readings on Beauty

Readings on Beauty

“That which is striking and beautiful is not always good, but that which is good is always beautiful.” Ninon de L’Enclos

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”  Rachel Carson

At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint or even remember it. It is enough. No record of it needs to be kept and you don’t need someone to share it with or tell it to. Toni Morrison

“The ability to see beauty is the beginning of our moral sensibility. What we believe is beautiful we will not wantonly destroy.” Rev. Sean Parker Dennison

Beauty feeds the soul, wakens it, and brings it to life as nothing else can. Beauty is a deep-seated reaction to some meaningful and stunning presentation of life. It stops you and gives you an instant promise of pleasure. But if you have no soul, you won’t even see the beautiful in the thick layers of your practicality and in the density of your own ego. All your senses and your full imagination have to be alert when beauty makes its appearance. If you miss it, it is like going without food. . . . Beauty is to the soul what truth and fact are to the mind. The beauty of a thing is its depth and meaning being revealed. To perceive that beauty, you need an eye for both appearances and for the invisible radiance of a thing. You also need the capacity to be affected. But many people walk through life defended against all positive influences. They are not open to the invitations and messages coming at them at every turn. They wonder why life feels empty and meaningless, when the problem is not the absence of meaning but their blindness and deafness to it. . . . The discovery of your own beauty — and I don’t mean this sentimentally — is the foundation of well-being. Your beauty is complex. It is not all good and wholesome. It is not a superficial thing but is the very substance of your being. Truly beautiful people are not necessarily physically healthy, emotionally together, easy to get along with, or productive and successful. Beauty usually requires some imperfection, transgression, or lacuna. The whole of your being, the good and the bad, is the stuff out of which your beauty makes an appearance. A lover may see it. A parent may embrace it. A friend may struggle with it but love it. . . . Beauty nurtures the soul by serving the spirit. Beauty takes you out of your cramped, merely personal worries and sets you down in a field of eternity. The essence of spirituality is an enlargement of vision. The experience may only last a moment, but in these matters a moment is enough. You need a transcendent sense of things, not one that lets you escape from your situation but one that gives you an added perspective. In this, beauty and religion serve similar purposes, and so it’s no wonder that they are so often allied. Thomas Moore

Where beauty is — beauty isn’t all about just niceness, loveliness. Beauty is about more rounded substantial becoming. And when we cross a new threshold worthily, what we do is we heal the patterns of repetition that were in us that had us caught somewhere. So I think beauty in that sense is about an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth, and also a kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding life…. When I think of the word ‘beauty,’ some of the faces of those that I love come into my mind. When I think of beauty, I also think of beautiful landscapes that I know. Then I think of acts of such lovely kindness that have been done to me, by people that cared for me, in bleak unsheltered times or when I needed to be loved and minded. I also think of those unknown people who are the real heroes for me, who you never hear about, who hold out on frontiers of awful want and awful situations and manage somehow to go beyond the given impoverishments and offer gifts of possibility and imagination and seeing. I also always when I think of beauty think of music. I love music. I think music is just it. I love poetry as well, of course, and I think of beauty in poetry. But music is what language would love to be if it could. John O’Donohue

Outside the Cathedral holding ancient relics in Valencia, a woman kissed pigeons. She saw these birds as symbols of God. Gray and white and black as discarded shells, these were creatures I’d been taught to think of as ‘filthy.’ They seemed filthy, in fact, with their staring orange eyes and patchy feathers. But now, while I looked, they turned into doves. Of course they always were doves, or rather, of course doves always really were a type of pigeon. But I never really believed it until this woman showed me her belief. Her kiss transformed ugliness to beauty. So it was like a fairy tale after all. It was the old story: what is loved reveals its loveliness. Here she squatted, radiant, smiling, enrobed in life, in a dozen pairs of folded wings, in a dozen pairs of pearl gray and, as I looked, yes, even lavender, even royal purple wings — a woman in an ordinary black cotton dress who smiled as if she knew she was the luckiest person on earth, swathed in blessing. Bonnie Friedman

Beauty does more than awaken us. It also admonishes us. It demands something… We are here, in religious community, not to hide from the anguished cries or the tender lullabies. We are here, in religious community, not to protect our hearts from breaking. We are here together to borrow courage for the task of coming alive.  We are here so that together we might heed the admonitions of beauty.  Answer its call to create, protect, and preserve. Rev. Mary Katherine Morn

A spontaneous act of generosity, performed with unselfish grace is an example of moral beauty, as are certain acts of courage; genuine modesty is a possible example, as is selfless love. Some people appear to possess moral beauty as others possess physical beauty. Although moral beauty may be a natural gift, it is nevertheless more likely to emerge and flourish in societies that appreciate and encourage it. Yi-Fu Tuan

When I was little –and by the way, I was little once — my father told me a story about an 18th century watchmaker. And what this guy had done: he used to produce these fabulously beautiful watches. And one day, one of his customers came into his workshop and asked him to clean the watch that he’d bought. And the guy took it apart, and one of the things he pulled out was one of the balance wheels. And as he did so, his customer noticed that on the back side of the balance wheel was an engraving, were words. And he said to the guy, “Why have you put stuff on the back that no one will ever see?” And the watchmaker turned around and said,”God can see it.” Now I’m not in the least bit religious, neither was my father, but at that point, I noticed something happening here. I felt something in this plexus of blood vessels and nerves, and there must be some muscles in there as well somewhere, I guess. But I felt something. And it was a physiological response. And from that point on, from my age at the time, I began to think of [beauty] in a different way. Richard Seymour, TED Talk

“In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty”. Phil Ochs

“In difficult times, carry something beautiful in your heart.” Blaise Pascal

Longer Texts

This short piece by Parker Palmer from On Being illuminates our struggles with beauty.

A philosophical exploration of beauty by Shahidha Bari at Aeon Magazine.

Omid Safi on Beauty and Brokenness from On Being.

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