For the beauty of the earth,
for the glory of the skies,
for the love which from our birth
over and around us lies;
Lord of all, to thee we raise
this our hymn of grateful praise.
—Folliot S. Pierpoint
Every fall when I was growing up, my family would find a reason to drive out among the fantastic colors of the Upstate New York autumn. My mom in particular would be transported over the reds, oranges and golds on the wooded hillsides between our home in Syracuse and her native Pennsylvania. Every few minutes she would exclaim, “Oh, it’s just so beautiful I can hardly stand it!”
On the face of it, this response to beauty seems strange, yet we have probably all felt that sort of pleasure that, in its intensity, verges on pain and which, notwithstanding, we can’t get enough of. Anne Shirley, in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel, felt the same sensation on her first sight of the spring flowers at Green Gables:
“It just satisfies me here”–she put one hand on her breast–“it made a queer funny ache and yet it was a pleasant ache…I have it lots of times–whenever I see anything royally beautiful.”
Somerset Maugham identified the same ambiguous ache in his novel, Of Human Bondage:
Along one side lay the Cathedral with its great central tower, and Philip, who knew as yet nothing of beauty, felt when he looked at it a troubling delight which he could not understand…It gave him an odd feeling in his heart, and he did not know if it was pain or pleasure. It was the first dawn of the aesthetic emotion.
Why should we ache in the presence of beauty? Why should the loveliness of either art or nature make us long for we know not what?
I am convinced that this movement of the soul has an exact counterpart in the body. What happens to us physically when we smell delicious food? We get hungry. What happens to us spiritually as we experience beauty? We get hungry. As the smell of cooking is the token of a feast for the body, whetting our appetite for the food that is the source of the aroma, so beauty is the token of a feast for the soul, whetting our appetite for the Source of beauty.
This, above all else, is why I seek God: just as the hunger of the body is meant to lead us to the body’s sustenance, so the soul’s hunger draws us toward the sustenance of the soul. If there were no such thing as food, there would be no such thing as hunger of the body—so because my soul hungers, I know that there is Bread of Heaven to satisfy it
God, I am convinced, draws us heavenward with this scent, just as the aroma of a pie in the old cartoons assumes the visible form of a beckoning arm that draws by the nose anyone within wafting range. We hunger, theologian Paul Tillich tells us, in “anticipation of a fulfillment that cannot be found in an actual encounter.”[i] Simply put, because the smell is so good, we know the food must be even better–and because beauty moves us as it does, we know that beyond it must be something even more satisfying.
One reason I believe this is that Jesus, unlike other rabbis, sought out his disciples. Rather than setting up shop and attracting students as he acquired a reputation for holiness, which was the usual procedure, Jesus went out to the docks and dives and buttonholed his followers. “You did not choose me,” he told them later, “but I chose you.”
He talked about choosing in his parables, also:
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:45-6)
I think the second in this pair of parables—the kingdom of heaven as pearl merchant—is often misunderstood. We hear references to “the pearl of great price,” but they often sound like the person making them thinks the term applies to the kingdom. Because the first parable likens the kingdom to a treasure worth acquiring at any cost, people seem to miss the point that in the second, the kingdom is the merchant, not the pearl. We are the pearl. It is us that God seeks, and gives everything to acquire. And the beauty of the earth, the glory of the skies, the love of family and friends, spring flowers and autumn colors, music and poetry and birdsong are like the moon that reflects back to us the sunlight of God’s love. Like the smell of Thanksgiving dinner, they are calling us home.
[i] Eusden and Westerhoff: Sensing Beauty: Aesthetics, the Human Spirit, and the Church (United Church Press, 1998)