Beauty and Authority


A noticeable antipathy toward “authority” pervades our culture. We think of authority as external to us, and as having the capacity to constrain our free choices and self-expression. Modern and ancient examples support this impression. Think of recent stories about the Port Authority of NY & NJ and the closure of traffic lanes leading to a major bridge. Or the Gospel centurion who referred to himself as “a man under authority,” who also had soldiers under him.

Given this, it may seem incongruous to mention the words “beauty” and “authority” in the same breath. But then, compare these sentences: “I was arrested by the authorities;” and, “I was arrested by her beauty.” Beauty has authority!

Years after studying with Oliver O’Donovan, I remain curious about an insight he offers concerning authority. Put in my own words, an authority is something that makes our responses or actions intelligible. When we defer to an older person, we are responding in part to the authority of age. If we set aside a long-held idea when presented with a compelling reason to see the matter differently, we respond to the authority of truth. The natural authority of beauty functions in a similar way. By selecting a stunning handmade cross for our church rather than one from a religious supply catalogue, we are responding to the authority of beauty.

These examples help us recognize how authority functions internally within us as we respond to the world. Authority is not simply a feature of our encounter with various officials and institutions, and it does more than compel. Authority invites responses by summoning our attention and prompting our discernment. This concept of authority imbues a prayer for the feast of The Transfiguration:

“O God, who on the holy mount revealed… your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty…”

The beauty of the King arouses our deference by his appearance. As we look at him more and more, we disregard competing objects of attention. Beholding the fair beauty of the Lord, we will seek him in his temple  (Ps 27).

The above painting, Transfiguration (2003), by Armando Alemdar Ara, is reproduced with permission from the artist. The prayer is a collect in the Book of Common Prayer, p. 243.

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