On the Necessity of Beauty
Molly Sabourin · September 11, 2009
Why all the fuss about pageantry and beauty in Orthodoxy? Molly contends it is not God who needs it but us!
I’ve been taking a lot of pictures lately. If you have known me for awhile, you might think this odd, seeing as for decades I was the girl who was forever cutting off heads, with a poorly aimed disposable Kodak, at weddings and parties, and whose in-laws provided her with doubles of their own photos lest those first important milestones of her babies’ lives remain undocumented. Out of guilt, a couple of years ago, I borrowed my dad’s digital camera hoping to better myself as a mother, but I just couldn’t quite wrap my mind around there being no actual film involved. “Are the pictures just stuck there…in the computer?” I wondered. “How is that any fun?” The whole process seemed too complicated to master.
Awhile later, however, while digging around in my parent’s office, I unearthed about a half a dozen CDs of old digital photos. They were a riot, I tell you! I so enjoyed looking through them. I knew, then, I wanted that for my kids—memories frozen in time. It made me determined to tackle my digital photography insecurities and get snapping. Eventually, I figured out that I could get actual prints just as easily as, if not easier than, I had before. I realized those out-of-focus, 4x6-sized disasters could be avoided thanks to a handy-dandy delete button, and then I found websites that allowed me to edit, crop and enhance my photos! Just like that, I was hooked. Soon my albums contained recent pictures, shot by yours truly.
Last Christmas, I got my own digital camera (we have my screams of delight on video). That gift awakened within me an infatuation that up until then had lain dormant, undiscovered. Photography, I was learning, was just another way of telling a story, one without words. I started challenging myself to create lasting narratives of significant events we as a family didn’t want to forget, using only images. I looked for candid moments, some small and quiet, others loud and grand, that when captured and browsed through would reveal not only what we did and saw (the facts), but also how we felt, what we liked and disliked, what made us laugh. I began to uncover exquisiteness—in an expression, a sign of affection, the way the sun’s rays lit up our porch in the late afternoon—within even the most banal of circumstances. It’s like a key, my camera, unlocking doors behind which are numerous treasures, doors I’ve passed by repeatedly without even realizing it. By carrying it around with me, to the library, the park, the backyard, the grocery store, I remain conscious of the messiness and extraordinariness of both nature and humanity.
My sister-in-law takes great pleasure in shaping and kneading a mound of yeasty, elastic dough before allowing it to rise and then placing it in the oven. Paige finds satisfaction in producing warmth, deliciousness and comfort from out of simple ingredients that, when combined, nourish and thrill those who partake of them. My priest spends hours on his garden, a garden wild with textures and hues that invoke within me awe and wonder every single time I drive by it. My daughter’s godmother paints with watercolors. My husband’s cousin writes and performs his own music. Do any of us get paid (I mean enough to live on anyway) for these extra-curricular undertakings? Are they really… what’s the word I’m looking for here, necessary?
I find it interesting that my opinion on the matter has changed a great deal in the last ten years. I am convinced that my newfound convictions (convictions stating, Yes!, by the way, the hunger to create, to give birth to something resplendent, is not only essential but an act of spiritual devotion) are tied directly to my conversion to Orthodox Christianity. One needn’t spend more than five minutes in an Orthodox Church to figure out that beauty is an imperative element of worship for Orthodox Christians. We like our services ornate, visually captivating and otherworldly.
It makes total sense to me that since God designed tulips, violets, and fragrant lilies of the valley (not to mention extravagant sunsets and multicolored rainbows) when plain grass and beige skies would have been fine (how would we ever have known the difference?) we would long, ourselves (being made in His image), to generate splendor. A peacock feather, a fiery orange gladiola, a translucent pearl inside the jaws of an unassuming oyster, these all can be windows into eternity, if only we’d stop and pay attention, but its hard to pay attention, isn’t it? It is hard to make room in our lives for heavenly opulence while preoccupied with what is profitable, useful, or titillating.
The Church, like my camera, keeps my soul and senses elevated. Beauty begets beauty, just as kindness begets kindness and exposure to quality literature sours one to cheap and tawdry romance novels. “But God doesn’t need all that,” a friend of mine once told me after attending an Orthodox Liturgy and becoming unnerved by the vivid vestments, the generous iconography, the billowing incense and an overall formality rarely seen in our American culture. I dare say that she is absolutely right. God, of course, doesn’t need it, but I’ll tell you what: I certainly do! For me, anyway, a casual approach to faith translates to a casual and overly familiar perception of my Savior.
What did pouring expensive perfume on Jesus’s feet before washing them with her hair and tears do for the harlot that a mere handshake and a “Thanks, pal,” couldn’t? I believe that lavish gesture of gratitude transformed her inwardly. Through her socially taboo and over-the-top display of absolute penitence, she was gifted with the insight to recognize Christ as omnipotent, mind-blowingly holy, and fully deserving of her trust and first fruits.
Standing for over an hour on a Sunday morning, partaking with my eyes, my nose, my mouth and ears in the very serious and stunning veneration of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ helps me remember that our salvation is not merely one of many worthwhile pursuits but rather the only thing in this universe that matters. “But we can’t see God,” my son once lamented when first awakening to the irrationality of belief. “He dwells in beauty, sweetheart, in the very beauty He exhibits all around us,” was my reply. “It’s up to you and I, both, to pray for the discipline and discernment to continually recognize Him within it.”
Father Stephen Freeman, on his Glory to God for All things website, explained the perceiving of beauty, as it relates to our understanding of the Divine, in this way:
The recent questions about knowing God – which I have described as something that often comes to me in the “peripheral vision” of my life – seems somehow related to the perception of beauty as well. Beauty often seems to be “greater than the sum of its parts.” We see beauty not simply by looking at a thing – but by seeing it. Many people look at icons – a rightly prepared heart is required in order to see an icon. Beauty is not an object to be manipulated – but always a gift and a wonder to be venerated. So, too, our knowledge of God. Thus the knowledge of God seems radically different than the knowledge we gain by the exercise of our rational faculty.
Our truest responsibility to the irrationality of the world, said Madeleine L’Engle, is to paint or sing or write, for only in such response do we find the truth. Ah, how spot on that is! I know in my own life that the more rigorously I try and define God via proof texts and cogent arguments and explanations the less open I am to the notion of Christ as Mystery. It is only through my participation in the giving of birth to excellence, via illogical and seemingly “superfluous” acts such as picture taking, and squirming for whole nights at a time in front of a blank computer screen waiting, waiting and waiting in faith for God to meet me in that silence and state of utter malleability, to bless me with words and but a glimpse of Himself, that I am able to transcend my restrictive mental limitations.
“Do thou enlighten the eyes of my understanding…” I pray in the mornings, before busyness and level-headedness can intervene. Each of us has the potential to use our distinct gifts and passions as spotlights illuminating the pulsating mercy and shudder-worthy authority of our Creator. He is calling us, always, to surrender to that Holy Spirit instilled longing to let go of our doubts and second thoughts and simply bask in His presence, without trying to make perfect sense of it all. It is vitally important, when faced with so very many unknowns, to absorb beauty, like a sponge. And it is our responsibility, as followers of Christ, to drench, douse, saturate this thirsty world (using whatever means and talents are at our disposal) in radiant goodness. His love his waiting (it’s always available) to be manifested through a hymn, a loaf of bread, a poem, a piece of canvas covered in brush strokes, a digital photo of a father clinging proudly to his son – the possibilities are literally endless. How will you, my friend, give voice to it?