From Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light
One night bandits came to the hermitage of an old monastic and said: “We have come to take away everything in your cell.” And the monastic said, “Take whatever you see, my sons.” The bandits gathered up everything they found and went away. But they left behind a little bag with silver candlesticks. When the monastic saw it, he picked it up and ran after them, shouting, “Take these, take these. You forgot them and they are the most beautiful of all.”
hat may be most missing in this highly technological world of ours is beauty. We value efficiency instead. We want functionalism over art. We create trash. We bask in kitsch. But beauty, right proportion in all things, harmony in the universe of our lives, truth in appearances, eludes us. We paint over good wood. We prefer plastic flowers to wild flowers. We reproduce the Pietà in plastics. We forego the natural and real for the gaudy and the pretentious. We are, as a people, awash in the banal. A loss of commitment to beauty may be the clearest sign we have that we have lost our way to God. Without beauty we miss the glory of the face of God in the here and now.
Beauty is the most provocative promise we have of the Beautiful. It lures us and calls us and leads us on. Souls thirst for beauty and thrive on it and by it nourish hope. It is Beauty that magnetizes the contemplative, and it is the duty of the contemplative to give beauty away so that the rest of the world may, in the midst of squalor, ugliness, and pain, remember that beauty is possible.
Beauty feeds contemplation, and Beauty is its end. A sense of Beauty evokes in us consciousness of the eternal in the temporal. It calls us beyond both the present and the past to that everlasting. Now where Beauty dwells in perpetuity.
Beauty, in other words, lifts life out of the anesthetizing clichés of the pedestrian. An encounter with the beautiful lifts our eyes beyond the commonplace and gives us a reason for going on, for ranging beyond the mundane, for endeavoring ourselves always to become more than we are. In the midst of struggle, in the depths of darkness, in the throes of ugliness, beauty brings with it a realization that the best in life is, whatever the cost, really possible.
Beauty takes us beyond the visible to the height of consciousness, past the ordinary to the mystical, away from the expedient to the endlessly true. Beauty sustains the human heart in the midst of pain and despair. Whatever the dullness of a world stupefied by the mediocre, in the end beauty is able, by penetrating our own souls, to penetrate the ugliness of a world awash in the cheap, the tawdry, the imitative, the excessive, and the cruel. To have seen a bit of the Beauty out of which beauty comes is a deeply spiritual experience. It shouts to us always, “More. There is yet more.”
Beauty is not a matter of having enough money to buy anything in sight. It is a matter of having enough taste to recognize quality, depth, truth, harmony when we see it. “Beauty is truth and truth beauty / That’s all we know and all we need to know,” the poet John Keats wrote. A thing is beautiful, in other words, when it really is what it purports to be. There are cures, of course, for a deprivation of spirit. We could take down the billboards that turn the landscape into a junkyard of old ideas. We could clear away the clash of colors and things that saturate space and make seeing into the soul of a thing impossible. We could refuse to allow people to turn marble statues into plastic replicas. We could study the order, the harmony, the proportion of a flower. We could strain our eyes to look for what is beneath the obvious in the wrinkles of age, the misshapened knuckles of a worker’s hands, the meaning in every moment, the ultimate in every possibility, the essence of every encounter. Or we could simply own one soul-shattering piece of art ourselves, put it up in a solitary place over and against the commonplace which normally surrounds us. We could let it seep into the center of the self until we find that we can never be satisfied again, anesthetized again, by the visual platitudes of the world in which we live.
What we do not nourish within ourselves cannot exist in the world around us because we are its microcosm. We cannot moan the loss of quality in our world and not ourselves seed the beautiful in our wake. We cannot decry the loss of the spiritual and continue ourselves to function only on the level of the vulgar. We cannot hope for fullness of life without nurturing fullness of soul. We must seek beauty, study beauty, surround ourselves with beauty. To revivify the soul of the world, we ourselves must become beauty. Where we are must be more beautiful because we have been there than it was before our coming.
To be contemplative we must remove the clutter from our lives, surround ourselves with beauty, and consciously, relentlessly, persistently, give it away until the tiny world for which we ourselves are responsible begins to reflect the raw beauty that is God.