Life is beautiful. What a profound and enduring statement! Despite tragedy, anguish, violence, greed, and all the hosts of ills which exist upon this earth, still humanity clings to this simple phrase: Life is beautiful. It is a statement that transcends religion and philosophy, a statement that is proven by the irrefutable reality of creation. Even those who have no faith cling to this simple phrase. Because if life isn’t beautiful—even though it is at times also tragic—then it is meaningless.
Herein we see the stamp of God’s own beauty, expressed in terms which are approachable for all. Life is beautiful. Why? Because beauty is an attribute of God. As the Creator, He ensured that beauty was interwoven with all aspects of creation: From the inner workings of a cell to the design of the galaxies; from the intrinsic kindness which inhabits every human heart, to the joy we feel when we behold something that is undeniably breathtaking. Again and again, when He created the cosmos, “God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1)
Just as our Creator loves the beautiful, so we, as icons of God, have an innate desire for beauty. One of the great tragedies of our contemporary world is the diminishing and even denial of beauty, which has become widespread in our society, due to both the predominance of the “functional” or “utilitarian” approach, and also the ascendency of subjectivity over objectivity.
Subjectivity has increasingly become the mode of modern existence. Nothing has transcendence or immutability; everything is in the eye of the beholder. If you say that something is such-and-such, it must be. And if I say it is the opposite, that must be as well. There is no compass, no anchor by which the human experience can judge rightly the beauty or goodness or truth of anything. In the modern subjective world, even the ugliest thing can be called “beautiful,” while the beauty of the truly transcendent is diminished or ignored.
In addition to the subjective worldview, modernity has exalted the functional over the beautiful. In post-Reformation Europe, and then America, utility and function became the primary determining factor of an item’s worth. (Only those things which were dubbed “art” were somewhat exempted.) As utility became a virtue, artistry and beauty became less and less important—luxuries not seen as useful or necessary to our existence.
In America the exaltation of the functional can be seen clearly in the modern Christian worship space. Everything is stripped away until only the essential functionality is all that is left. There is no need to incorporate anything of beauty for beauty’s sake. Furthermore, when utility is mixed with the “virtue” of frugality, it becomes a moral injustice to spend the extra money to make a mundane thing beautiful. The house of God becomes sterile and cold, and there is no shame in using a warehouse or movie theater to worship the uncreated, all-powerful, loving, and beautiful God. Nothing is sacred. (Sacred comes from consecrated, which has the Latin root dedicated or devoted.) If a room is used as a worship space one hour and as a concert venue the next, it can never be sacred.
In contrast to the modern American church, an Orthodox church stands out. It prefers beauty when utility would suffice. It gives voice to the artisans who desire to glorify God through their works of wood and metal and paint and stone. It reveals a purpose in the smallest accents and seemingly inconsequential details. Yet through this all it expresses unity in the one purpose for which it exists: the worship of a loving God, Who joyfully reveals Himself in the beauty of His creation.
Fr. Stephen Freeman, a well-known Orthodox blog writer, experienced that profound beauty in the Church and described it:
I can recall being in a parish that has a particularly well-rendered icon of the Rublev Trinity (the three angels in the visit with Abraham) in the parish altar. I was officiating Vespers. As the sun began to set, the dying rays of the evening sun caught the icon and it began to “luminesce” in a manner I had only read about. The icon shone brightly with a light that appeared to come from within. This is not easily accomplished in the painting of an icon but is certainly a proper goal of its execution. It is a revelation of the heavenly light (iconographically). Both the orientation of the Church and the quality of its iconography became one with the service that was being offered and a beauty that is all too rare was revealed. There was nothing to be said, but as the choir sang, “O Gladsome Light,” the icon wordlessly proclaimed the same.
This month we have the special opportunity to learn more about the essential and salvific role of beauty within Orthodox spiritual life and worship. Dr. Timothy Patitsas, Assistant Professor of Orthodox Christian Ethics at Holy Cross School of Theology, will offer a talk on Beauty and the Orthodox Way at our parish Nativity retreat, Friday and Saturday, November 9 and 10.