The Power of Beauty
Beauty has power. There's no mistaking it. It can be used to shine light in the darkness, pointing us toward truth and goodness and life, and bring about healing, or it can be used to point inward, toward selfishness, comfort, security, pleasure, and vain pursuits.
In Victor Hugo's classic story Les Misérables, the protagonist Jean Valjean, marked as an ex-convict with a "passeport jaune", spends a night resting at the home of a hospitable Bishop. In the middle of the night, Valjean decides to steal the Bishop's silver candlesticks and silverware and escape the severe parole restrictions he has to live under. He ends up getting caught by the authorities and risks going back to prison. The Bishop is confronted by the Brigadier as to whether it's true that he gave Valjean the silver (such as the ex-convict claimed). Instead of seeking punishment or revenge, the Bishop displays an act of grace and kindness that marks the beginning of Valjean's new life and the rest of the story we've come to love. In Dorothy Helen Albert's stage adaptation Jean Valjean and the Bishop, (9th Hour performed a short scene in the company's 2010 premiere Telling The Story) the merciful priest sends our "saint-sinner" on his way to a new life with the following declaration:
THE BISHOP: My friend, you must not forget this time to take the candlesticks. Here they are. Now, go in peace, but remember, when you come next time that it is not necessary to pass through the garden. The front door is closed only with a latch, day or night. Do not forget, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man. Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil but to good. It is your soul that I have bought for you with this silver. I withdraw it from evil thoughts and the spirit of darkness, and give it to God.
This was a 'transcendent experience' for Valjean, a transformative moment. This beautiful act of forgiveness was enough to begin his journey of healing, and move him toward a life pursuing justice and goodness for others, ultimately leading to brave acts of sacrifice and love.
When it comes to talking about 'beauty', we can parse out the differences between aesthetic beauty, artistic beauty, natural beauty, pleasurable beauty, comforting moments, beautiful experiences, and beauty that is subjectively satisfying to an individual. We can all acknowledge that those are good and have purpose and meaning in our lives. We can go further and ask: is there an objectively valuable beauty that exists, of transcendent or sacred origins, connected to the Divine, to Spirit, or to Love and Truth? Is there a beauty so good that one can't help but be altered by it? To re-order their life, priorities, and values because of it? A beauty that must be shared and experienced by all, and compels the one changed by it to center their life around it?
“We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be 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.” ~ C.S. Lewis (The Weight of Glory)
Another example of an encounter with 'beauty' is also fictional, but no less profoundly true. In Oscar Wilde's famous children's story The Selfish Giant there's a giant who owns a beautiful garden. After a long time away, he returns to find children playing in it, so he kicks them all out and builds a wall around it to keep them out. The seasons change, and it's spring again, except not in his garden, and so it started to die instead of being full of life and in bloom as it normally would be. He couldn't figure out why. One day, the children returned to the garden to play by crawling under the wall, and with them spring returned as well. The giant rushed out of his castle and they all ran away except one boy who was crying, as he had tried to climb up a tree without success. The giant picked up the child and placed him in the tree, and the moment he did that, the tree blossomed. The child hugged the giant, and the giant realized how selfish he had been.
The next day, the giant knocked all the walls down as he finally understood why spring hadn't come to his garden. He decided to let the children play in his garden whenever they wanted, and he even played with them, but the child he placed in the tree never showed up again. Years passed without seeing that child. He said to himself:
"My garden is beautiful, but these children make it more beautiful".
One day, in the dead of winter, when he was near the end of his life, he noticed the one tree blooming as if it were spring, and underneath it was the child he had missed and was looking for all those years. He ran out to greet him but saw nail marks on his hands and demanded to know who hurt him. Smiling, the boy peacefully replied:
"These are wounds of love. You let me play in your garden once. Today you shall come with me to my garden, to paradise."
That same day the other children came into the garden to play and found the giant dead beneath the tree with a peaceful smile on his face.
Beauty has the power to heal wounds, and wounds of love have the power to heal hearts, as is the case for the giant. Sometimes the power of beauty to heal comes about in unexpected and even counterintuitive ways. Such is the case for the Wounded Healer in the next example.
In the short play The Angel that Troubled the Waters by American playwright Thornton Wilder (which 9th Hour performed in the 2014 fundraiser "Hear My Song"), the story begins with people camping out around a pool that is supposed to have healing properties. Once stirred by the angel, the first one into the pool gets healed. Many with long-suffering and painful physical conditions have been there faithfully waiting for their turn. A newcomer arrives who doesn't appear to have any physical ailments or be in need of healing, and who is even a physician we find out. One veteran of the pool doesn't think the newcomer deserves healing.
When the angel arrives at the pool, the newcomer moves to go in but is stopped by the angel.
NEWCOMER: My work grows faint. Heal me, long expected Love; heal me that I may continue. Renewal, release; let me begin again without this fault that bears me down. ANGEL: Draw back physician, this moment is not for you. Healing is not for you. NEWCOMER: Surely... you are not deceived by my apparent wholeness. Your eyes can see the nets in which my wings are caught; the sin into which all my endeavours sink half-performed cannot be concealed from you... It is no shame to boast to an Angel of what I might yet do in Love’s service were I but freed from this bondage. ANGEL: Without your wound where would your power be? It is your very remorse that makes your low voice tremble into the hearts of men. The very angels themselves cannot persuade the wretched and blundering children on earth as can one human being broken on the wheels of living. In Love’s service only the wounded soldiers can serve.
Meanwhile, the veteran of the pool mentioned earlier is the first to jump in the pool and is actually healed. After leaping for joy and delight, he then pleads with the physician urgently:
HEALED MAN: Come with me to my home. My son is lost in dark thoughts. I do not understand him, and only you have ever lifted his mood. My daughter since her child has died, sits in the shadow. She will not listen to us.
There is a subjective beauty that temporarily satisfies ourselves, that momentarily remedies our pain or discomfort with life, and brings us immense pleasure. We can all point to and appreciate this kind of beauty, and we should. We can measure the objective value of beauty that would save the world by whether it generates or expands more love and freedom in the world or in our relationships. Despite the form or aesthetic it takes, the outcome or the fruit of engaging with or immersing in such beauty will be demonstrable and evident for others to observe. It will as a consequence contribute to or generate healing in ourselves so that it increases our capacity to love more. This kind of 'beauty' is powerful when put into practice.
This is Part 5 of a multi-part blog series about 'beauty'.