Can beauty save the world?
As a young woman, when overwhelmed with sadness, heartbreak or anger, I would walk or ride my bicycle to the Great South Bay. On the beach, I let the wide sky, soaring seagulls and gentle expanse of waves be a balm to my troubles.
We are hungry for beauty.
In a world where beauty is neglected for the sake of utility, frugality and profit, where glamour passes itself off as beauty, where we’ve turned the rural landscape into a treeless wasteland, we do nonetheless crave it.
Why else do we run, on our measly one-week vacation, to the ocean or mountains or desert?
“When we experience the Beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming,” writes John O’Donohue in his book, “Beauty: the Invisible Embrace.” “Some of our most wonderful memories are of beautiful places where we felt immediately at home.”
A few summers ago, the husband and I returned “home” to Long Island and went to dinner with friends in the Hamptons, between the bay and the ocean. As the sun sunk beneath the horizon of the bay, the moon rose over the ocean, shining on dark waters.
It’s not only the water that evokes this response. As I ride into the Blue Ridge Mountains and arrive under the leafy arms of the trees lining Skyline Drive, I feel every cell screaming, “Yes! This is where I belong.”
“We feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful for it meets the needs of our soul,” he writes. “In the experience of beauty, we awaken and surrender in the same act.”
Our experiences with beauty are fleeting, momentary. Yet it reminds us of who we are and how we want to live.
“Beauty does not linger, it only visits,” he says. “Yet beauty’s visitation affects us and invites us into its rhythm, it calls us to feel, think, and act beautifully in the world: to create and live a life that awakens the Beautiful.”
We experience beauty in music, color, movement, imagination, attraction, imperfection, death, God.
“In claiming the heart so swiftly and totally, the beauty of music crosses all psychological and cultural frontiers,” O’Donohue writes.
When you listen to music, says O’Donohue, you detach from this world and enter another place. The sound creates a world just as real as the clock, the field or the street.
“You breathe and dwell within that soundscape as though it were a world specially created to mirror and echo the deepest longings of your life,” he writes. “It is as though the music instinctively knows where you dwell and what you need.”
From music he moves on to write about that rare sound of the voice inside us: “In extreme situations, which have been emptied of all shelter and tenderness, that small voice whispers from somewhere beyond and encourages the heart to hold out for dignity, respect, beauty and love.”
O’Donohue — an Irish priest, poet, writer, speaker, scholar, mystic — spent three years researching and writing “Beauty.” It is filled with the best quotes: Rilke, Wordsworth, Helen Cixious, Keats, Rumi, Frederick Turner, Plato, Plotinus, Ann Carson, Eckhart and many more.
In “Weight of Glory,” C.S. Lewis writes, “What more, you may ask, do we want? ... 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.”
In the experience of beauty, we come home to our true selves. And so we are saved.