When you see the setting sun burn the clouds into wisps of gold and red and those colors shimmer toward you across the blue-dark water, what do you feel?
When after a snowfall you step into the sunshine where your breath makes mist and the mountains extend before you, glistening to the north and south as far as you can see, what happens inside you?
When your friend’s newborn son gazes at you with his soul in his eyes, and his fingers unfurl revealing a fingernail – delicate as filo – peeling away at the end, what do you feel?
You Could Touch it but Your Heart Would Break
Simone Weil says two things pierce the human soul – affliction and beauty.
Rich Mullins agrees. He sings that sometimes the sky seems to stoop so close “you could touch it but your heart would break.”
Beauty penetrates us and makes us ache. We want to keep it, protect it, believe it, come back next year.
C. S. Lewis says we want more than that: “We do not want to merely see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which we can hardly put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” The Weight of Glory.
The Piercing of Beauty
I have a picture by the Hubble Space Telescope. Stars of every color swirl into patterns of intricate, seemingly infinite beauty.
Why? Why does the universe not appear to you and I like the inside of a radio? Why does a sunset not move us like the fading of a lightbulb? Why is a newborn exquisitely lovely instead of a little repulsive, like our intestines?
The psalmist says God’s creation has a voice that “goes out through all the earth,” declaring “the glory of God,” (Psalm 19:4, 1). Sun, moon, tides, flowers, and snowflakes all speak, saying every day, every season, every cycle: “God is good. God is beautiful. God is glorious. God is powerful. God is present.”
God made the beauty to pierce us: He designed our hearts to hear through beauty the Voice of the One we were created to love.
The Piercing of Affliction
Why then are we numb to this joy? Why do I notice another kind of pain when I see beauty? Because the pain I feel is twofold:
~ A heartbreak of the sweetest kind: How is it I am free to drink this glory into my soul? Can I even contain it, or will I fly apart?
~ A heartbreak of the saddest kind: How can such beauty exist in a world where Boko Haram steals girls and straps them to suicide bombs? Is my response to beauty a lie? Is there only cold indifference behind the glory: impersonal molecules dancing like smoke and mirrors?
The piercing of affliction and its message of abandonment, chaos, and meaninglessness, threatens to overpower the piercing of beauty and its message of order and goodness and hope.
The Contours of the Most Beautiful Face
The psalmist who penned Psalm 136 speaks to this. He repeats twenty-six times in twice as many lines “His steadfast love endures forever.”
He says God made the heavens, “for his steadfast love endures forever,” and He spread out the earth and the waters, “for his steadfast love endures forever,” and He made the great lights – the sun and the moon – “for his steadfast love endures forever.” And He remembered us in our low estate, “for his steadfast love endures forever.”
The psalmist underscores that God’s enduring and steadfast love is the reason for it all ~ everything. The psalmist knows we are prone to miss it.
So when I see the Rocky Mountains, I must remember. I must reject the falsehood of God’s indifference. I must open wide the ears of my heart to hear the beauty whisper-shouting: His steadfast love endures forever.
For the psalmist says behind the beauty is a heart, a face, a Being – the I AM.
In this figurative sense, the blaze of the sunset, the peaks of the Rockies, the shimmer of the sea, and the delicacy of the newborn’s fingertips hint at the contours of the most beautiful face:
A face too Holy, too powerful, too glorious for me to look upon, and a face once bloodied and spat upon for you and me. A face with eyes a blazing fire of wrath over evil done to children, and of unending, purifying love. A face that calls me to trust His goodness with my heart when I cannot understand.
The beauty is revelatory.
May we hear the Voice of the beauty and believe “His steadfast love endures forever,”
Sunset Image by Alvesgaspar (Wikimedia commons). Mountain Image Public Domain. Space image: Image Credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/PSU/L.Townsley et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI; Infrared: NASA/JPL/PSU/L.Townsley et al.