With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Creation of Beauty as a Meaning of History

If the final destiny of humanity lies in eternity, is there any role or significance to history? Does our work and accomplishments upon the earth actually matter? What role are Christians to play in the world – should they live out their eschatological end by renouncing the world and all that is within it because of its transitory nature? Time and again these and similar questions have been asked, and time and again Christians have struggled to answer them without giving away to any oversimplification. This is because of the paradoxical nature of our lives – we know we are made for eternal life -- we are made to be partakers of the divine life in the beatific vision. However, we live here and now, in history, and we are not called to reject the world; the world was created by God, and he called it good. To forsake it would suggest that God made a mistake – both in creating the world, but also in putting us here in the world, in its history. Any answer to this question must understand that while our destiny is eternity, what we do here and now relates to eternity, such as the world and its history, in the end, will not be destroyed but transfigured with us, as we enter into eternity. “The Christian attitude toward the world can never be either an ascetic or eschatological negation. It is always an eschatological affirmation, that is, the constant going beyond the here and now toward the end point,” Paul Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty. Trans, Steven Bigham (Redono Beach, California: Oakwood Publications, 1996), 64-5. Thus what we do here is important; we should not despair and think that what we do in our lives is meaningless.

What, then, is it that we are expected to do? Possibly one of the best answers we have was one given to us by William Morris: the goal of life is to make the world beautiful, to leave behind us a legacy of beauty, and anything less than this and its realization makes us less than human (cf. William Morris, “The Beauty of Life,” in William Morris On Art and Socialism, ed. by Norman Kelvin (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1999), 37). To make the world a better place, to make it a more beautiful place, does not mean we all must become artists in the most specific sense of the word (that is, we don’t have to become painters, sculptors, or the like). While the work of the artist is a very important way of realizing our role in the world, it is not the only way; there are many other ways to make the world more beautiful. We must realize that beauty is inherent in our nature, and we need only let ourselves be ourselves (which is only possible once we have abandoned sin) in order to accomplish our task. Beauty is created when we make the world a better place to live in, when we treat others with kindness and respect, when we become the stewards of the earth God meant us to be. Beauty generates love; love is experienced through beauty; by being lovers of each other and of the world around us, beauty will follow. “Love alone, properly speaking, proves that the human person is in the image of God, by making his self-determination submit to reason, not bending reason under it, and persuading the inclination to follow nature and not in any way to be at variance with the logos of nature.” St Maximus the Confessor, “Letter 2” in Maximus the Confessor. Trans. and ed. Andrew Louth (London: Routledge, 1996), 86 -7.

God is beautiful, and this beauty is manifested in his holiness; being in the image of God, we are beautiful; in our essence, in our core, this beauty shines out, and no one can destroy it. No matter what we have done, no matter how ugly our physical appearance might at first seem to others, behind it all is the beautiful image of God. Those more attuned to the things of the soul see no one is ugly, because they see the image of God in everyone reflecting the loveliness of God. “For the beauty of any person pleases the soul not insofar as it lies in external matter, but insofar as an image of it is comprehended or grasped by the soul through sight,” Marsilio Ficino, Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love. Trans. Sears Jayne (Woodstock, Connecticut: Spring Publications, 1994), 87.

Scripture tells us, however, that we are more than in the image of God, but also in God’s likeness. God’s image is his potentiality, God’s likeness his actuality. In the creation of humanity, like God, our potentiality and actuality were one; we were created to be free, to be given a choice. That integrity could not be preserved by us alone; in order to keep it, we needed to be open to the work of God in our life. When we believed we could do it alone, when we cut ourselves from God and tried to make ourselves into God, sin replaced the presence of God, and with the advent of sin, we could no longer actualize our potential While that potentiality still remains within, that is the image of God has not been rubbed out, we destroyed the likeness we had of God. Our new likeness reveals who we have made ourselves to be. What does this mean? No one, not even ourselves, can destroy the God-given beauty we have at the core of our being; but we are given free reign in how we manifest it: we can create a rather ugly persona, if we so wish. It can be so ugly, that we no longer seem to radiate God’s beauty. When this happens, we no longer know ourselves as we should be; all that we see and feel is the ugliness we have created for our lives. Such ugliness can even make it feel as if God’s presence has been eradicated from our lives.

Our life history is, in part, the record of how we have manifested our internal beauty. God in his likeness is as beautiful as he is in his image: his image and likeness are one, how he is in potentiality is how he is in actuality. We should aim for the same. “Let us always, therefore, contemplate that image of God that we can be transformed to his likeness,” Origen, “Homily on Genesis I,” in Origen. Homilies on Genesis and Exodus.. Trans. Ronald Heine (Washington, DC: Catholic University Of America Press, 1982), 66. When we again manifest our internal nature perfectly (and this can only be done with God’s grace), then the likeness of God, which we once had and then lost, is said to return. Then like God, we will once again unite our potentiality with our actuality.

We are called to beautify the world, but how are we to do this? It is true that our mere existence begins the process, because our mere existence radiates the image of God, however obscured we have made it by our deeds. However, we are called to do more than this; we have been put into the world to represent God to the world, to act out that portion of God’s image within us, to show the world the reason God created us in his image. This means we are called to do the deeds God made us for. Contemplating the fact that our existence is temporal, something fascinating is revealed. While in our origin we contain the potential to be something great, if we had continued to live in and with God, that potential itself would have grown: it would have been deified. The world, however, is the same – it was created good and beautiful by God, but the full realization of what it was meant to be is not to be found at its origin, but only in its consummation, only in its eschatological, transfigured end. We have been put into the world, not only to actualize our own potential, but also to help bring out the world’s potential as well, and with the world, all that lies within it – including each other. “The world was created with time, and this means that at the beginning, it had not reached its full development; it was only an embryo. The purpose of this type of creation is to allow the prophets and ‘good workers’ to arise throughout history and lead creation toward a synergy, that is, cooperative labor, of human and divine activity. This common work is to continue until the Day when the embryo will attain its full maturity,” Paul Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty, 57. We have been put into time to help in the development of the world; because we are a part of it, what we do to improve ourselves will help in improving the world. This does not mean we should go off into some corner, hide ourselves from the rest of humanity, and try to be reach perfection in isolation. Because we are beings who exist only in relation to others, to be the most of who we can be, we must not cut ourselves from the rest of the world; our perfection can only be found when we raise it with us. We are called to contribute to creation, not hide from it, to be co-creators in the world in union with God, helping the world achieve its final end, seeing it perfectly united with our own.

As we are called to share in the loving work of God, we must not abuse this vocation, that is, we must not think it gives us a right to overrule what God has done. Instead, our task must take into account God’s divine plan; we must look for it, and not thwart it. Then we can realize that this task is not ours alone, but the task of all creation:

But wisdom, being in ground and principle one and the same, is expressed differently in different creatures, just as the rays of the sun, which in their essence are one and the same, acquire different colors in different glasses, and just as water acquires different colors from the different colors of the plants contained in it. That is why we must investigate the Creator’s creation from the small to the great in order to discover in them the signs of wisdom hidden in them. That is why we must penetrate into them and meditate on them to receive a more or less clear understanding of them.
--Pavel Florensky, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth. Trans. Boris Jakim (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 204.

There is no monistic answer for how we should live. There is no one way to be human, even as there is not just one kind of flower – the world would be a boring, dull, and even ugly place if everyone acted the same way and did the same thing. Thus, even in the world, there are many ways of expressing what it means to be human, many ways of beautifying the world, with each person representing a different quality or characteristic of divinity. Thus, while humanity helps finish creation, to do so properly, humans need to freely discern what their own individual vocation is, what their own individual expression of divinity is, and what way they can best express it. This means that we must accept there are indeed some called to the religious life, to a monastic, celibate existence. This call comes much responsibility but even greater temptation: their existence lies in the fact that they express self-denial in imitation of Christ, however, in that self-denial, it is so easy to turn their denial into destruction, and asceticism to rejection of the world. When this happens, they no longer are true to the religious life they have been given. “The genuine Christian ascetic is essentially connected with all of creation and does not despise anything that belongs to creation,” Pavel Florensky, Pillar and Ground of the Truth, 199. Monastic life, if lived properly, seeks in their self-renunciation a vision of God which can only be found in the very center of their being, once all their egoism has been removed. This is done so at last they can let God live through them, radiating through them, transfiguring the world through them. The goal of any monk or nun is the same with the rest of us, but the way they go about it is just one of the many ways this can be achieved. Moreover, their vocation reminds us that humanity is itself not self-sufficient, and should never be confused as being something more than it is – in their self-renunciation they show us that human expression can only finally be affirmed outside the self, only with God.

Beauty can manifest itself in many ways, revealing many glorious aspects to its nature. When we look at a great work of art, when we listen to a wonderful piece of music, when a forest reveals itself in its glory to us, what is it that attracts us, what is it which makes it beautiful? Analyzing what we experience, and dividing it into its constituent parts, do we find that all the parts are equally beautiful? Or do we find that it is their integral unity which generates beauty by harmonizing its diverse elements together? A banging sound by itself might be rather crude; put in its proper place in the middle of a symphony it lifts up the spirit of the listener. Beauty reveals more of itself when divergent parts are brought together as one, but they can only be one if there some mediating principle which unites them. What is ugly by itself reveals an inner beauty when it is placed in its proper context.

When our lives are lived out selfishly, we try to set ourselves up as self-subsistent entities; our life is out of balance, our inner and external harmony is lost. The proper balance which lets our own individual uniqueness and glory shine through is lost; sin creates a defiled life, it makes our life ugly; holiness is a beautiful life lived out in all its splendor. Proper balance requires for us to have an openness to the world and its mediating principle – call it the Tao, the Dharma, or the Logos; we must let that principle guide us as it suggest a multitude of opportunities for our lives, each of which could lead us to our own proper fulfillment, to our own happiness. “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God” (John 1:1). This Logos is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15). We learn that the Logos is not merely a guiding force, but a guiding person, who, as the express image of the Father, reveals to the world the transcendent glory of the Father (John 14:9). Taking on the flesh of man, the Logos mediates between God and man, by being both in one person – the God-man Jesus Christ. There is only one such God-man, one such mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5 -6), and as mediator, Jesus seeks to restore us to our inner beauty, to bring us back into a holistic, balanced life. When we have ignored his gentle, loving call in the past and sinned, it should come of no surprise that our life loses all sense of meaning, and we feel hopeless, stricken in grief, in the ugliness we have created. But there is hope, because the Logos does not give up on us; he has not left our side; he still mediates for us, calling us back to its loving ways. If we listen to his call, he is willing to heal our spiritual infirmities, transforming us to show us how even our most ugly of actions can be made beautiful in his loving, harmonizing hands.

But let us not forget if we are created in the image and likeness of God then this mediating role of the Logos is itself something we are to imitate, to follow through in our own life. “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1). While we are not the God-man, we are godlike in existence, and called to act as mediators in the world; history is meant to be the process of our mediation in the world, where it build it up and beautify as a pure act of worship and love for God.

“Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so as depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12: 16-18). One way we can live out our role as mediator is in how we build relationships with others, from how we build up our families, to how we build up our society. “When men and women provide for themselves and their families in such a way as to be of service to the community as well, they can rightly look upon their word as a prolongation of the work of the creator, a service to other men and women, and their personal contribution to the fulfillment in history of the divine plan,” Gaudium et Spes in Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations. Ed. Austin Flannery, O.P. (Northport, New York: Costello Publishing Company, 1996), paragraph 34.

But as mediators, we must be like the God-Man, the Mediator, who thoughtfully guides us and shows us our way, by acting out the role of mediator to the rest of creation, harmonizing its divergent parts so it can reveal its inner glory, a glory was given to it by God the Father. “Already in creation God the Father has bonded himself to all his creatures, since he has handed over to them as their own the very powers and laws that make them what they are,” Hans Urs von Balthasar, “The Christian Form,” in Explorations in Theology IV: Spirit and Institution. Trans. Edward T. Oakes (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 58. If we are to be mediators to the world, to be the stewards of creation that God meant us to be, we must find a way to experience the mark of God hidden in all things. “I want creation to penetrate you with so much admiration that everywhere, wherever you may be, the least plant may bring to you the clear resemblance of the Creator,” St Basil, The Hexameron. Trans. Blomfield Jackson in Basil: Letters and Select Works Volume 8 in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Series Two (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishing, 1994), 76. Attuned to the world in this manner, we can find the simple joy of St Francis of Assisi as our own; that troubadour of God was loved by the people because of the artistic way he was able to guide the world to reveal its inner beauty. Ask an artist what it is that inspires them to create, and more often than not, they will say they only revealed to the world what was already there. “Artistic inspiration is a mode of letting-be, of letting the outlines of form slowly dawn according to their own terms. It gathers disparate elements into a form and gives them the movement of life,” Hans Urs von Balthasar, “The Christian Form,”60. In the same way, as the Logos guides and shapes us to let us reveal true nature and selves to the world, so we must in our creative guidance of the world, give room for the world to reveal itself, with just the slightest nudges here and there to keep everything in beautiful balance, centered upon the spirit of life.

The path to the Deathless is awareness;
Unawareness, the path of death.
They who are aware do not die;
They who are unaware are as
--The Dhammapada. Trans. John Ross Carter and Mahinda Palihawadana (New York: Book of the Month Club, 1992), 16 (Ch II.21)

To do our task properly, we need to center ourselves upon our true center: God. We need to open ourselves up to the Logos, to the guidance the Logos is willing to give us. We need moments of silence, with no external distraction; then we can become aware of the most gentle, most loving embrace of God upon our lives, nourishing our heart and soul, giving it the peace and rest which we strongly desire. This is the meaning of prayer, where we are open to the fullness of God in our lives, and God in his heartfelt love for us, is open to us, open to feel our pain and sorrow, our wants and desires, to be moved by them even as we are moved by him. When St Paul exhorts us to be in perpetual prayer, he is exhorting us to be in perpetual communion with God, having learned to feel the joy of his presence wherever we are, in whatever we do. But when we fully encounter God, we join in with God’s love so that our love is God and God is our love. Then, as Balthasar points out, “Christian contemplation encounters the love of God in no other way than in its commitment for the world,” Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Beyond Contemplation and Action?” in Explorations in Theology IV: Spirit and Institution. Trans. Edward T. Oakes (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 303. God’s love reaches into the world, and is committed to beautifying it; thus when we center ourselves upon God, not only does this give us the strength and rest we all so desperately seek, but it does more – it leads us back into the world, leads us with a stronger commitment to the world, to be the mediator in the world God wants us to be. We become like Christ to the world. “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them” (John 14:21).

The Sermon on the Mount is a commentary on love; it reveals to the world not only what God expects out of us, but also the rewards we will receive when we live out this love. Blessed are they who follow the commandments, for they shall see the kingdom of God within themselves, radiating out, transforming the world. Blessed are they who love so much that they are poor in spirit and hunger after righteousness; that desire will be fulfilled. They will be made pure at heart, they shall see God! But who exactly are they who shall see God? They are God’s children, the peacemakers, meek and humble ones who have inherited a stewardship over all the earth. In the madness and folly of their love, they will go so far as to give their very lives for the world, renouncing all claims to the world themselves but finding that it is God and God’s call which is all they need. By losing their life in love, God returns it to them; they are resurrected in eternal, heavenly glory, and have a life more beautiful than they ever could imagine; the foretaste of this is enough to transform even the greatest of sinner into a saint. They find out, holiness is not theirs alone, it is not something which can be grasped and stoppered up as if in a bottle. It spreads, and touches all those who come in contact with the saint. “Spread over and permeating the whole person, the light of Divine love also sanctifies the boundary of the person, the body, and, from there, radiates into the nature that is outside the person. Through the root by which the spiritual person reaches into the heavens, grace also sanctifies all that surrounds the ascetic and flows into the core of all creation.” Pavel Florensky, Pillar and Ground of the Truth,198.

Here, at last, we return where we started, we return to our original answer. What is the meaning of life? It is to be like holy artists, making the world beautiful, and this is done by turning ourselves into incarnations of love, imitating the Logos who is The Incarnation of Love. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16). Or, as Nicholas Cabasilas says, “What then may life be more fittingly called than love? For that which alone survives and does not allow the living to die when all things have been taken away is life – and such is love. When all things have been passed away in the age to come as Paul says (1 Cor. 13:8, 10), love remains, and it alone suffices for life in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom is due all glory for ever.” Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ. Trans. Carmino J. deCatanzara (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), 229.

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