I KEEP FRESH FLOWERS AROUND THE HOUSE as regular reminders that I love my wife and that, in the midst of the distracting ordinariness of everyday life, beauty is real. The overworked adage, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, is wrong. Beauty may not be tangible (Latin – tangere: to touch) in the physical sense, but beauty reaches out to touch the part of us that longs for transcendence—a sense of something greater and more glorious beyond the confines of our own cramped souls.
This is not mere sentiment nor is beauty itself simply prettiness or frivolous adornment. There is a weight to beauty—like a strong evening sun playing on an alpine massif—and a sharpness, like the fire on the edge of a cut diamond.
“CONSIDER THE LILIES, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Luke 12:27). The genus of the lilies Jesus calls his disciples to consider and contemplate can’t be identified with certainty. It might have been lilium candidum, which is currently native to Israel, but the Greek word in the New Testament can refer generally to any attractive wildflower. So the flowers Jesus bids us to consider as sensory reminders of a spiritual reality were not cultivated, they are flowers “of the field”. God, not a human hand, clothed in beauty the mountainside where Jesus taught the Sermon of the Mount. What makes Jesus’ point at this moment is the arresting visual splendor displayed by small, seemingly insignificant parts of the God’s creation. The implication here is that earthly beauty has intrinsic worth; it exists because God values beauty and desires beauty enough to bestow it freely and gratuitously.
BUT WHAT, EXACTLY, IS “BEAUTY”? Beauty is one of those fundamental things, like time, which we think we understand until we try precisely to define them. But some description is still helpful, and most helpful is Thomas Aquinas’ description of beauty as consisting of wholeness, harmony, and radiance. Wholeness in an object or experience indicates a sense of completeness, of lacking nothing. Harmony is the satisfactory and pleasing union of parts into one integrated whole. Radiance does refer to visual brightness or luminosity, but it also means the “shining out” of any sensual property, whether color in visual beauty or the radiance of tones and sounds in birdsong or musical compositions. This doesn’t exactly define beauty; there is still irreducible mystery in considering beauty, as there is in considering any fundamental aspect of creation. But reflecting on wholeness, harmony, and radiance puts us in the ballpark.
God has created a world which he has endowed with beauty, glory, splendor. To what ends has God created such a world?
Next Week: “Consider the Lilies” – Beauty as Revelation – Part 2: Beauty Beckons