Thursday, April 10, 2008

Beauty, Conversion, and just plain Waking Up

John Murphy's got an interesting article over at Godspy about beauty, what it is, why we need it, and the startling lack of interest in it in our culture.

Two immediate thoughts strike me as particularly relevant to the discussion we're having here. The first is simply that without beauty, none of us could find the infinite, the mystery, attractive at all. It is all well and good to call the truth good, but there has to be something beautiful in it for me to find it attractive. The article quote John Paul II:
Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savor life and to dream of the future…It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God which a lover of beauty like St Augustine could express in incomparable terms: ‘Late have I loved you, O beauty ever ancient, ever new: late have I loved you!’
As such, it seems that any kind of cultural transformation has to have its roots in the beautiful. I need it to, because I'm too easily distracted by the frustrations of daily life. I need the beauty of it, the consistent and eternal newness, calling me back constantly to the true and the good.

My second thought is actually more of a question: what to do in a culture that teaches people to ignore the beauty around them and to stay focused on efficiency and production? Murphy cites a Washington Post experiment, where the Post convinced Joshua Bell, a world famous violinist, to play for an hour in the L'Enfant Plaza Metro stop during rush hour. Bell collected 30 bucks - far less than his typical $1000 hourly rate - and never had more than a couple of passersby watching at any point. However, every child who walked by tried to stop and watch. Something drew the kids to it, and something else convinced the adults to keep going.

Its seems that the starting point, then, in any sort of cultural or personal transformation has to be an awakening to the existence of the ever-present need for beauty. I have to understand that I need something else in order to seek it, and I have to understand that I need to be something else in order to become it. How do we do this, in ourselves and in the wider culture? How do I make sure that I (and those around me) are not so caught up in distractions that we miss the obviously beautiful around us?

At the end of John's Gospel, Peter and the others are out fishing when Jesus calls to them from the shore. Peter doesn't recognize Him, and keeps on fishing. But John sees who it is, telling his companions, "It is the Lord." Immediately upon hearing this, Peter dives in and swims to shore. He can't wait to be close to this source of truth, beauty, and goodness. But it takes someone else pointing out its presence to him for him to notice it at all. Is this part of the starting point? And how do we do this for each other?

Dostoevsky said, "Beauty will save the world." I believe that this is true. But in order for this to occur, we need to wake up and see it, and we need to help each other do so as well.

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