I recently spent five days hiking in the Appalachian Mountains.  As a Midwesterner, mountains have always fascinated me – I grew up in the northern half of Indiana, which means that when anyone in any given town talks about “the hill,” everyone else knows precisely which hill is intended: there’s usually only one.  Often during our hikes, I or another member of the group would scan the stunning landscape and comment, “Wow, that’s beautiful.”  Everyone would agree and, after a small pause or a picture, the group would move on.

It struck me how the recognition of beauty brought with it what felt like a sacred obligation to stop and admire it.  Cascading mountains under a blue sky, seeing both above and below the low-lying cloud line, mist forming among the trees in the failing light, waterfalls plunging from incredible heights, standing atop a precipice looking down on the shadow-spotted valley below – all of it arrested our attention and held us bound.


The Delight of Beauty

The ancient philosopher Plato made the same observation millennia ago.  For him, the distinguishing character of beauty is the way it shocks us out of our normal experience of the world.  The encounter with beauty presents an overwhelming reality that stops us in our tracks; it engrosses us in its splendor and captivates us by its simplicity.  In the end, it carries with it a sense of completion: the beautiful thing is what it should be.  And we feel a responsibility to admire and appreciate it.

Why are we so bound and frozen by beauty? Why does it cause delight and joy?  I propose that it is because beauty confronts us with exactly what our lives are not.  As we noted, experiencing the beauty of something involves being confronted by its completion and perfection.  Our life, on the other hand, is a constant experience of incompletion, dissatisfaction, and longing – nothing is ever how we imagine it should be, everything could always be better, and even if we attain what we have so long desired, it never actually fulfills.  The experience of beauty brings joy and delight because, for a brief moment, something that feels complete touches our life.  Every encounter with beauty is both a promise that fulfillment is possible and a taste of what it might be like.


The Sorrow of Beauty

Like true love, the experience of beauty is never something that can be forced – “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink,” as the saying goes – it remains outside our control, greater and more powerful than us.  The same object can spark an encounter with beauty one day and the next leave us cold.  While we can admire something that is beautiful at any time, an encounter with beauty is something beyond our initiative.  The experience of it always has an element of given-ness (even wildness) that is beyond our power to cause.

And here, in the “given-ness” of the encounter, we discover the painful side of beauty.  Inevitably, every encounter with beauty – and the completion it promises – comes to an end.  The grip that it places on our heart loosens until we are left without it – left unable to gain it back or cause it again.  Since the experience of beauty is an experience of completion and perfection, after it passes we are left with a heightened sense of the reality of our own life: its incompletion and imperfection.  In the heart that reflects on this sense of dissatisfaction, what remains is – as the great philosophers and spiritual writers would call it – a “wound.”  The taste of fulfillment carves a space into man’s heart that will be satisfied only if the encounter returns.

Most can relate to the experience of returning to school or work after an enjoyable vacation or holiday comes to an end – the heaviness in the pit of the stomach as we think about coming back to the ordinariness of life, the longing for the days of rest and joy with friends or family, and the wish that life could always be that way.  In this more easily-recognized experience, we catch a glimpse of what the heart that has been wounded by beauty passes through: an experience of completion has broken upon it, but it is forced to settle for the imperfection of normal life, like being living in exile.


Why Beauty Hurts

This article likely seems odd.  I am convinced that the authentic experience of beauty is a common one, but it is seldom given reflection, and even more rarely given words.  Still, I am convinced that – whether through romance, art, nature, friendship, literature, a passing comment, one’s family, or prayer – something has broken into the heart of every man and given him a taste of what life ought to be or a vision of the beauty that life has always possessed, but to which he has been blind.  To some degree, everyone who has tried to live his life knows the encounter with beauty and the wound it leaves.

And (consciously or not) with every experience of beauty, a choice must be made.  One option is to become a beauty junkie: one who looks for the next mountain panorama, the next symphony, the next art gallery, the next woman, the next exotic vacation, the next “experience.”  The junkie distorts beauty, making it a drug, and becomes an addict who tries somehow to recreate the high of the first hit; or he perverts beauty, searching for it again in some immoral source; or he surrounds himself with beautiful things and comfort to try to recreate what the experience of beauty once promised, but in vain.

Or, he chooses a different option: he discovers why beauty hurts.

The reason is simple.  In the end, the effect that beauty has on us is not accidental.  The experience of beauty comes upon us apart from our effort and takes on an aspect of given-ness precisely because that’s what it is: a gift.  Created beauty is a tool in the hand of Creator; and the experience of beauty is an unmerited gift that invites us to love Him.

In the experience of beauty, a door opens momentarily upon the possibility of fulfillment and hurts the soul.  It hurts because God made it to hurt; it hurts because it is meant to give the heart a taste of fulfillment in order to create a hunger for it; it hurts because it isn’t an end in itself, but a bread crumb leading to the Source of completion.  And the hurt impels us to seek Him.

Brothers, I want to challenge your concept of God.  So often, we search for fulfillment very much apart from him, or make him just a piece of our plan for happiness.  Deep reflection on the experience of beauty and the hurt and longing that it brings, however, challenges this idea and teaches us something very different about God: he is what we have always-already wanted.  In every encounter with beauty, he calls us to himself and invites us to discover that beauty hurts because we were made for him, the Author of beauty.  And only if we accept him as the true object of our longing for completion, do both our lives and our destinies become full.

  • Wonderful article, Fr. Clayton! I never thought about beauty in this way. Very deep and thought-provoking.

  • Well stated…..from a fellow Northern Hoosier (South Bend).

    Appreciating the beauty after it is gone, that seems to me to be the trick. Our fallen human nature causes the unfortunate realities that get in the way of a constant Eden. As part of my Benedictine oblate journey, I am trying to learn to appreciate the mundane parts of life as well as the beautiful parts of life. It is a constant struggle.