Attending to Beauty


It is easy to recognize how beauty can be understood as ‘being in the eye of the beholder.’ As such, we think of it as a feature of our ‘subjective’ perception and experience. So, a concept of beauty may be ‘in here‘ (between my ears) as a component of my consciousness. Yet, beauty may also be important to me because it is first ‘out there‘ as an object of my subjective experience. For beauty is ‘there’ to behold, in the world around us, and is not simply something we project outwardly upon the face of Creation.

One way to discern this is to reflect upon art that is representative, especially landscape paintings the beauty of which grabs our attention. As with Monet’s painting, The Magpie (above), we view and are affected by an artist’s rendering of something he or she observes in nature. At first, an aspect of Creation captures the painter’s awareness. The painter then offers what she or he sees, for us to appreciate. Something which was ‘there’ for the artist is also ‘there’ for us, even if it appears differently as a result of its representation. This is beauty that we recognize, rather than merely something we imagine and or synthesize.

Within our broader cultural tradition, beauty can be thought of as the first of the three so-called ‘transcendentals’ ~ beauty, goodness, and truth. These three, considered in this sequence, are associated with the thought of the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard.

In common human experience, many of us are at first most attentive to the phenomena of beauty, to things in our perception that summon our positive regard and give us pleasure. As we mature, the concept of goodness —especially as manifest in human acts— also arouses our interest and our concern.

Attentive reflection upon beauty and goodness can lead us to ask significant questions about them. Such as, where do they come from, and why are they part of the world? Why are they important to us? Asking such questions may then lead us to pursue the concept of truth, and to begin to appreciate this third transcendental in relation to the other two. Indeed, in a way that is parallel to the Christian concept of the inter-relationship between the members of the Holy Trinity, our appreciation for beauty, goodness and truth gains depth when we consider them in relation to one another.

Sensing that beauty is real, and something with which the order of Creation is imbued, becomes a doorway to appreciating the reality of goodness and truth. This reality is not dependent upon our acts of perception and imagination. Scripture provides support for this, and for recognizing how beauty exists as an aspect of Creation and as a quality of the Creator. With the Psalmist, we can pray these words: “One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD… (Ps. 27:4).” Or, “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth (Ps. 50:2).” Or with Isaiah, “You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord… (Is. 62:3).” These words are fulfilled as we live in Christ.

In Morning Prayer, we say, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: Come let us adore him (based on Psalm 96:9, KJV).” We do so because “honor and and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are his sanctuary (Ps. 96:6).”

Attending to beauty in ‘the book of nature’ is like attending to the revelation we find in ‘the book of Scripture. Both have the same ‘author,’ and there is much ‘there’ for us to find and discern in each.


The image above is of Claude Monet’s painting, The Magpie. A thoughtful reflection upon its significance, in connection with a quote by Henry David Thoreau, can be found in Christophe Andre’s book, Looking at Mindfulness: 25 Ways to Live in the Moment Through Art.

The Beauty of Gray



When asked, I used to say that gray was my favorite color. Correctly, some would respond that gray is not a color, but the series of shades marking the region between black and white. Gray often represents a mixture of the two in pigment.

Examined more patiently and reflectively, and in a less technical way, gray is alive with color–but subtle color. Just look up “Payne’s grey” (note, U.K. spelling), and you will see.

Perhaps my childhood in Japan, as well as my adult experience in England, formed my appreciation for the beauty latent within the world of gray. I love James McNeil Whistler’s paintings, and especially those that employ fields of gray permeated with subtle color. Many of these were influenced by Japanese prints.

I consider these things as I reflect on the recent film, The Giver. Though people will say it starts “in black and white,” I think it can be described more properly as immersing us in a visual field of gray. The film is compelling, and not simply sentimental or youthfully romantic (which it might easily have been), because of how positive aspects of this gray world are thoughtfully presented. A thematically ‘black and white’ film would portray a more polarized contrast between the forgotten past of color, which included both conflict, hate and violence as well as their alluring opposites, and a hypothetical present world, deceptively gray, where—eerily— all seems well. A gray world might imply moral ambiguity rather than moral neutrality.

As we emerge from adolescence into adulthood, don’t we seek stability as we move away from the up-and-down emotional life of our teenage years? Don’t we assume that monastics—like us— seek something spiritually akin to a world of gray, enabled by their departure from our world of distraction, competition and self-promotion?

The Giver risks presenting a gray world as desirable, and then fearfully threatened and upset by a young man’s journey into the forgotten past. There is beauty to be found almost everywhere, in a world filled with heart-breaking contrasts of emotion and alive with color, yet even in one where affectively numb persons find everything appears in a field of gray.

I don’t question the value of the hero’s journey, nor its evocative results. Yet, I continue to muse about what made the gray world attractive to those who shaped and promoted it. Simplicity, even a morally reductionist simplicity, has abiding appeal.


Above: James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne: Blue and Gold—Southampton Water (1872). Note the reference to color in the title of a very gray-looking painting.

Creation as Revelation

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“Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” Writing to the Romans, Paul suggests that all people have an opportunity to learn about God through our experience of the world. Visible beauty speaks of invisible mystery. Some call this common grace, and others refer to general revelation.

We learn about God in other ways that complement the ‘special’ revelation given to Israel and in Christ. This ‘general’ revelation from God through nature provides true knowledge even if it is not saving knowledge. Saving knowledge comes to us solely through special revelation. Therefore, to say that all can learn from God through his Creation does not imply that all will be saved. Only that all may experience delight and wonder from him.

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork.” Psalm 19 celebrates how the beautiful ordering of the world reflects our Creator and speaks of his purposes. We find this ancient insight at the heart of a modern prayer:

“Almighty and everlasting God, you made the universe with all its marvelous order, its atoms, worlds, and galaxies, and the infinite complexity of living creatures: Grant that, as we probe the mysteries of your creation, we may come to know you more truly, and more surely fulfill our role in your eternal purpose…”

When Paul visited Athens and spoke to civic leaders at the Areopagus, he built his message on a similar assumption. Having found an altar dedicated “to an unknown God,” Paul revealed to his listeners the identity of the deity whose existence they had implicitly acknowledged. According to Paul, the Creator had fashioned the world in such a way that all people “would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him.” Though the Athenians did not yet know the God of Creation by name, they had already encountered him.

Regardless of their inclination or efforts to discern deity, Paul tells the Athenians that God “is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’.” Remarkably, within this statement, Paul quotes one of their poets to make a theological observation, and in the process identifies himself with his listeners.

The God in whom we all live reveals his divinity in the beauty and patterns of creation.


See Romans 1:19-20, Psalm 19, and Acts 17:16-34, which is the first reading appointed for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Year A. The Prayer is found in The Book of Common Prayer, page 827. (Note: Beginning the week of May 25, I may post less frequently during the summer.)

The nautilus photograph is from Wikimedia Commons. For more on the logarithmic spiral discerned in the nautilus shell, and reflection on how the spiral may be diagramed in relation to the golden ratio proportion, see the web page <http://www.goldennumber.net/nautilus-spiral-golden-ratio/&gt; by Gary Meisner.

Beauty and Grace



A 4th century liturgy speaks to contemporary concerns, particularly our attention to the health of the created world around us. It helps us see that we have more than an ethical motivation for our interest in respecting the ordered patterns we find in nature. Our flourishing, and that of other living things, also depends upon how nature mediates grace, and how the Creator infuses the whole world with divine presence.

The opening paragraphs of this prayer express the mystery of God’s transcendence and immanence. First, God’s transcendence: “It is truly right to glorify you, … for you alone are God, living and true, dwelling in light inaccessible from before time and for ever.” Next, God’s immanent presence: “Fountain of life and source of all goodness, you made all things and fill them with your blessing; you created them to rejoice in the splendor of your radiance.”

Discerning the beauty of God’s presence throughout creation is part of our our calling as human beings who are made in the divine image and likeness. Naming God’s presence, and helping others see it, also number among our vocational tasks. “Joining with [the countless throngs of angels who stand before God], and giving voice to every creature under heaven,” we acclaim our Lord, and glorify his Name.

The song we sing with the angels, in every eucharistic prayer, echoes Isaiah’s words in the Temple, and the seer John, in his Revelation: “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory…”

Because the earth is full of God’s glory, we are in a position to notice and celebrate its reality. By doing so, we give voice to every creature under heaven, and especially to creatures unable to speak or recognize how the whole world mediates the Creator’s grace. For “ever since the creation of the world, his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” *

As long as we remember that God is both utterly beyond and absolutely near, it is appropriate to associate the beauty of this world with God’s mediated presence. When we are moved to praise the glory of nature, we should always remember to sing praise of her Creator and sustainer.


The evocative photo of the Japanese Garden in Portland, Oregon, is by William Woodward, and is reproduced here under “Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial.” Visit his website at http://www.wheretowillie.com. Also, see Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8; *and Romans 1:19-20. Eucharistic Prayer D, in the Book of Common Prayer, is based upon the Liturgy of St Basil.

Another Emmaus Perception

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The writer of Psalm 8 asks God, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

The Psalm answers its own question, in part by pointing back to the wisdom of Genesis. God made human beings as the crowning point of a sequential process of creation, and entrusted us with a stewardship role meant to mirror God’s own stewardship of his handiwork. But after the long history of Israel’s defection from the patterns of creation and God’s covenants, many wondered whether the Creator’s original intentions for our role in the world still remained.

We discern the most decisive answer to Psalm 8’s question, in Jesus’ resurrection. This Easter mystery has two dimensions. Clearly, the first centers on Jesus. But we don’t understand the first dimension until we perceive the significance of the second, which concerns us. Through Baptism, God raises us to a shared-life with Jesus, where we dwell in the presence of unqualified truth, pure goodness and absolute beauty.

When Jesus ‘opened the scriptures’ to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Luke tells us that, “he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the Scriptures.” The Psalmist’s question was surely one of the texts Jesus connected with himself, and then with them.

Jesus’ resurrection appearances to his followers nurtured a process of recognition that began prior to his death. Earlier, his teaching and his ‘signs’ prompted some to say that God was with Jesus, acting through him in a powerful way.

But after experiencing his resurrection and through having the scriptures opened to them, they perceived something further. Instead of saying that Jesus is from God, their eyes were opened to see that Jesus is God. And whereas, before, they could say that Jesus reveals the lord God, they could now identify Jesus as the lord God. To call him lord was more than to honor him as an esteemed teacher, and more than a pointed contrast with the emperor who used the same title. By beginning to confess Jesus as Lord, they identified him with the God who had revealed himself to Moses.

As the two disciples discerned on the way to Emmaus, in the risen Jesus we meet and are brought into fellowship with the One who was, and is, and is to come.


The above 11th century stone carving, Disciples of Emmaus, is found in the Cloister of Santo Domingo de Silos, in Burgos, Spain. The road to Emmaus story is found in Luke 24:13-35.