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Another Perspective

Beauty as a Spiritual Path to God

Beauty as a Spiritual Path to God

I was riding in Jim Hubbell’s van in Baja, California in the late 1990s when he asked me, “What is beauty?” I was stunned for a couple of reasons. First, I thought that it was an odd question. Who thinks about that stuff? Second, in spite of all my education, I didn’t have a clue how to answer the question. I have been thinking about that question ever since.

My research into how others have answered the question revealed that Jim asked me a trick question. While many thoughtful people have attempted to explain what beauty is, including Merriam Webster and associates, there is really no one answer that clearly defines what beauty is. What we have instead are lists of its many of its ingredients.
Nevertheless, the more I’ve looked into what beauty is, the more convinced I’ve become that there is some special quality in beauty that makes it a spiritual path to God.

Here is some of what I’ve found. The etymology of beauty is found in the Latin, bellus, handsome. Not much help there. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who spent a lot of time thinking and writing about beauty, couldn’t define it. He did, however, identity certain characteristics that pertain to beauty. For Emerson beauty contains balance, symmetry, simplicity (i.e., perfect economy), an endearing quality that captures the imagination; it is organic, without outside embellishment. While edifying, this doesn’t really help me know what beauty is either.

Journalist Bill Moyers said, “Beauty is an expression of that rapture of being alive.”* I take it he means rapture in the sense of ecstasy: beauty carries the beholder beyond itself to its source: God. Now this is helpful in that it shows how beauty functions as a spiritual path, connecting the viewer of beauty with God. To see how beauty functions as a spiritual path, I challenge you to try the following. Spend the day looking for what is beautiful. Really focus on this intention. I believe you will start to see things, to feel things, which lift your spirit and help you to feel closer to God. I suspect you’ll also discover these beautiful things have been present in your life more than you’ve appreciated.

Jim Hubbell, the San Diego artist who started me thinking about beauty, finally shared some of his thoughts. “Beauty,” he wrote, “may at heart contain both trust and balance, yet much more. . . . Humans, because of consciousness, must live between pathos (as in death, loss, pain and fear) and joy (pleasure, friends, music, and peace). Beauty is the place between the two. It is where joy and pathos enrich each other. It is where life has, at its best, a profound meaning. It is where one’s life sings, not necessarily a happy song but where, despite the hurt and loss, we are glad we are here.”** I would suggest the beauty of a spider web is an example of the path between the joy of its design and the pathos of what it is used for. The French also agree with Jim’s enrichment theory. They provide us with belladonna, pretty lady. Belladonna is often used as an euphemism for a very poisonous plant.

I have a second challenge for you. Create something that is beautiful. What does this experience do for you? Did you notice a spiritual dimension to your experience?

Share with me your thoughts about beauty and your experience of looking for it, creating it, and how it functions for you as a spiritual path to God.

* This quote came from Joseph Campbell’s, The Power of Myth (New York: Doubleday, 1988) 228. Betty Sue Flowers, ed.
** Ilan Lael Foundation newsletter, Spring, 2009 edition.

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