In his book Til We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis wrote: “It was when I was happiest that I longed most...The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing...to find the place where all the beauty came from.” In my own life, I believe I have been on that same journey—to find the place—to reach and even be enveloped by the place where all the beauty comes from.
What is beauty? Can it truly be defined? Just when you think you have got it—the explanation slips through your fingers. Is it goodness, holiness, godliness? brilliance, brightness, glory? loveliness, charm, elegance? symmetry, balance, order? Maybe it is like a multi-faceted diamond where all the parts make the whole. While we struggle to define what beauty is, somehow we know it when we see it, when we hear it, when we touch it, taste it and smell it. We notice when it is present and we notice when it is absent. Beauty takes on form after form, showing itself in a million ways at one moment then changing at the next with equal or even greater potency. Though we often ignore it, beauty is all around us, speaking message upon message to those who would hear. It speaks into our souls, reaching places that other voices cannot go. The Psalmist observes:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
Psalms 19:1-4 (NIV)
What is it about a brilliant sunset, or a quaint town covered in glistening snow, an exquisite piece of music or a towering wedding cake that takes our breath away, lifting our spirit, causing us to exclaim, “Beautiful!” When colour, light, geometry, form, sound, rhythm, texture, spice and all those diverse facets that combine to make the world that we experience each day come together in certain arrangements then beauty shows up like a Divine visitation. Equally mysterious is the life that is beautiful. What makes it beautiful? What are the ingredients that combine to make a life that so powerfully and sweetly ministers to another’s soul? I think if we were to look no higher than the skies above us we would not come very close to an adequate explanation of this thing called beauty. But if we look beyond the skies, even beyond the galaxies to the Heaven of heavens, the throne-room of God and deep into the heart and mind of God Himself, then I believe we come closest to understanding beauty—though we may never fully grasp it. (For beauty, may well prove to be as infinite as God Himself).
Perhaps when we sense beauty around us or even within us, we are really sensing the nearness of Heaven. Perhaps we are perceiving expressions or manifestations of the mind and heart of God—we are grasping something of the Divine presence and the timeless attributes of the radiant Ancient of Days. Surely there can be no true beauty apart from God. Therefore, when we are enjoying beauty we are ultimately enjoying God. And this would explain why beauty has such a way of speaking to and ministering to the soul.
This is echoed in the book Captivating by John Eldredge:
“Beauty speaks of heaven to come, when all shall be beautiful. It haunts us with eternity. Beauty says, There is a glory calling to you. And if there is a glory, there is a source of glory. What great goodness could have possibly created this? What generosity gave us this to behold? Beauty draws us to God.”
When we think of all the things that we need for a healthy life I suspect that beauty is one thing that would not be on most people’s lists. It’s obvious that we need shelter, food, work, relationships and clothes. We learn that we should exercise, eat healthily, make time for fun and fellowship and get good sleep if we want to be at our best. In our brokenness we will read books, listen to podcasts, visit counsellors and seek prayer to help us get to a place of healing. But how few of us recognise that beauty is an essential ingredient to our flourishing and healing. Have you ever stopped to wonder why we spend time decorating our house, planting a garden, selecting certain clothes and choosing a particular fragrance to wear? Why do we give someone who is grieving or ill a bouquet of flowers? Why do lovers choose to watch a sunset together? Why do children pick flowers or chase after butterflies? And why are so many older church buildings adorned with exquisite stained glass windows? We are naturally drawn to beauty—somehow we recognise our need for it even if we rarely articulate it. We are longing for the delightfulness, the radiance, the loveliness, the majesty, the awesomeness and sweetness of Heaven and ultimately, the God of Heaven. We need beauty’s presence in our lives—without it we wilt and shrink.
In his book Desire, John Eldredge describes a counselling session with a woman Kathleen who was a victim of rape. He was wondering what possible advice could help bring healing to this hurting woman. Noticing the little flowers embroidered on the collar of her shirt he eventually inquired about them. Kathleen responded, “Ever since the rape, beauty has meant the world to me. No one seemed to understand why. Sometimes I would spend hours just gazing at my garden and the woods behind my house. Only beauty helps.” Eldredge then refers to his own experience with beauty following the death of his friend Brent:
"I understand completely. As the shock of Brent’s death began to wear off, the searing pain of intense grief took its place. It was too difficult to read my Bible. Conversation required more than I was able to give. Frankly, I didn’t want to talk to anyone, not even God. The only thing that helped was my wife’s flower garden. The solace I found there was like nothing else on earth. I wrote in my journal, Sitting outside this evening, the Shasta daisies swaying in the gentle breeze on their long stems, the aspens shimmering without light, the full moon rising over the pine-crested bluff...only beauty speaks what I need to hear. Only beauty helps.
Simone Weil was absolutely right—beauty and affliction are the only two things that can pierce our hearts. Because this is so true, we must have a measure of beauty in our lives proportionate to our affliction. No, more. Much more. Is this not God’s prescription for us? Just take a look around. The sights and sounds, the aromas and sensations—the world is overflowing with beauty. God seems rather enamoured with it. Gloriously wasteful. Apparently, he feels that there ought to be plenty of it in our lives."
Eldredge’s recollections echo in my own life. Following a very challenging period of ill health I found that I could not pray and the cover of my Bible seemed strangely heavy. The pain was crippling. But in that pain, beauty beckoned and I found myself poring over interior-design books and gardening books. Somehow, it occurred to me as I was doing this that I was glimpsing Heaven and I imagined the glories of the life to come. In this way, God spoke to me, and Heaven ministered to my hurting soul and gave me hope for the future. In this way too, I was speaking with Heaven as my aching heart silently cried out for its nearness, healing and soothing.
So, perhaps beauty is God’s way of speaking to us at a level where mere words cannot reach. And maybe when we think God is silent, He is actually communicating to us through the language of beauty, embracing and holding us fast in His arms and singing His love over us in a thousand different ways. And somehow, though words and prayer may escape us, as we seek the healing power of beauty we are expressing our need for God (whether we realise it or not). Beauty is a balm to the hurting, a hope to the hopeless and a light to those in darkness. Beauty nurtures and nourishes, it holds and comforts, it uplifts and makes glad. Wherever beauty is, Heaven is not far away. If these things are so then should we not make more room, more time for beauty in the warp and weft of our lives? And shouldn’t Christians, who walk in Heaven’s light, of all people be bringing beauty into the lives of those thirsting for its presence? What if, among the goals we set for ourselves, one of the chief goals was to be ministers of beauty to those around us? Is this not in line with the mission God has for His children—to bring Heaven near to those who are far from it? This is something that each of us can do, in our own unique way, with perhaps little effort.
We all know the blessing of being invited into someone’s home to share a meal at their table. It is a taste of Heaven as we banquet together, savouring the food and the fellowship, eating off the best crockery and being made much of as the honoured guest. We delight in a bouquet of flowers at a time of celebration or at a time of grieving. How beautiful it is when someone speaks to us with grace and warmth as if Heaven itself were speaking. We have walked into buildings where the drabness of the world has been shut out, transporting us to a place of tranquillity and quiet delight—with colours, lights, textures and scents refreshing the depths of our souls. And we have shared a moment with a loved-one as they beckon us to sit a while and drink in the sweet strains of a piece of music recently discovered.
One does not need to be an artist, an accomplished musician, a chef or a great orator to bring the gift of beauty to others. It often just takes a little thought, a little preparation, a little care, a little ingenuity or a little creativity. It can be done with money or without it. Beauty is not limited by our constraints. It simply waits for us to act so it may be unleashed. And may I comment that there is a feminine beauty, which might spring to mind more easily but there is also a masculine beauty—like that which heavily features in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy—a noble, even rugged beauty, the beauty of fellowship—of friendship and the beauty of bearing arms together. No one is excluded from beauty’s reach and use.
Think about how you might bring beauty to those around you—or bring those around you to beauty. Cook a meal, plant a garden, take a journey to somewhere breathtaking, speak a timely, gracious and loving word. Hug the hurting, pray with those in need, buy someone a new coat. Throw a party, decorate a room, write a poem or go for a picnic. Paint a picture, take someone to a concert or call a friend out of the blue. Sit and listen to someone over a good cup of coffee or tea. The possibilities are endless. Somehow, as we do these things, Heaven draws near and lives are blessed—even healed.
When you cook a meal for someone, serving it tastefully or even sumptuously, with love, your honoured guest is drawn to the banqueting table of Heaven. The garden that you plant is an extension of Eden (though imperfect) and God walks there with you in the cool of the day. The journey you make to glorious vistas is a taste of the far green country that awaits you at the end of life’s journey and God meets you there. The words you speak in kindness may well be the very words of God and be like a healing “cordial made of the juice of one of the fire-flowers that grow in the mountains of the sun”. * A hug can be as the very arms of God—Heaven’s welcome, reassurance and affirmation. Praying with someone always seems to lift the person prayed for and the person praying to the Heavenly realm and somehow the burden is lightened and light pours in. A new coat is a reminder that the God of Heaven clothes the lilies of the field and cares infinitely more for the needs of His children than he does for beautiful but fleeting flowers. Parties are a taste of the celebrations yet to come and are birthed in love. A room decorated speaks of mansions being prepared as our eternal dwelling. Concerts bring the sweet and powerful strains of Heaven into the depths of the soul where little else can reach. A phone call out of the blue reminds that Heaven’s friendship is forever. The simple act of pouring a cup of tea (an almost sacred ritual, in my opinion) says that Heaven is here with us—that divine conversation is at hand. I think by now you see the pattern—Heaven’s sunlight refracting through the everyday stuff of life, casting the shimmering colours of God into the needy places of the heart.
How many people do we rub shoulders with whom are hurting or without hope, longing for a touch from Heaven to minister to their pain? We have the wondrous opportunity to bring the balm of beauty to them. Some have grown weary of life—we can refresh their souls, restoring them to an abundant life. Others need to taste and see that God is good—that He is desirable, wonderful, awesome and not least, beautiful. Let us not underestimate the power and potential of beauty in bringing Heaven near, and God even nearer.
I close with the words of Augustine, from his Confessions:
My Father, supremely good, beauty of all things beautiful.
* Lucy Pevensie’s healing cordial in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.