Orthodox America

  Beauty Will Save the World

    Earlier this year 3.7 millions American households tuned in to the six hour television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and millions more, have made screen versions of Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion box office hits. One does not expect 19th-century dramas of British gentility, with their Victorian morality, studied politeness and restrained emotions, to appeal to those that have long ago been "liberated" from such strictures. What, then, accounts for the considerable revival Jane Austen is enjoying today? Is it that, as some commentators are suggesting, Americans have become fed up with the coarseness and vulgarity, the "let it all hang out" and "don't tell me what for," that characterizes so much of our modern culture?

       If Jane Austen's current popularity is one sign, there are other indications that such an analysis may be right. This year has seen the formation in Philadelphia of a commission, bringing together 48 prominent intellectuals, journalists, historians and sociologists, to discuss "the rising tide of rudeness" and -- if possible -- how to stem it. More recently, in Massachusetts, an anonymous donation of $35 million has established and endowed the "Institute for a Civil Society." The same thinking informs M. Scott Peck's latest book, A World Waiting to be Reborn: Civility Rediscovered. No one will argue that our society has long ago reached a state of crisis. It is encouraging that, increasingly, professionals and leaders in various fields are seeking solutions.

       In the last century, Dostoevsky proposed a novel solution to the ills affecting not only the Russian society of his time. "Beauty," he wrote, "will save the world." His bold, if enigmatic phrase, has typically launched discussions on the subject of aesthetics and the redemptive merits of various branches of the arts. While so much of contemporary art is divorced from beauty and reflects the coarseness and violence of our society, the purpose of art in past centuries was always to ennoble. And real art continues to do so. Of course, art, in its different forms, is but one vehicle for beauty. We have only to look at nature, the work of the Supreme Artist, to see beauty expressed in a myriad of wondrous ways. Even a very simple and small expression of beauty can serve its purpose. Life's Little Instruction Book counsels, "Always have something beautiful in sight, even if it's just a daisy in a jelly glass." 

       The Church has always employed the arts to elevate the soul above this material world, to provide the soul with a reflection of absolute beauty -which exists only in the Kingdom of Heaven. Church art, then, draws the soul towards spiritual beauty. As Professor Constantine Cavarnos writes,

      The love of spiritual, heavenly beauty, is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Byzantines. It is manifest in their architecture, most notably that of Hagia Sophia at Constantinople; and in their iconography, which in its depiction of holy personages emphasizes spiritual beauty rather than physical beauty. It is also evident in Byzantine liturgical poetry and music, which give emphatic expression to the aesthetic category of the sublime, the beauty of holiness (New Library, vol. III.) 

       Even church art, however, as elevating as it purposes to be, still belongs to this material world; it is perceived by our senses; it may be the most sublime expression of art, but its redemptive quality is still limited. In order to find the key to correctly understanding Dostoevsky's claim, it is evident we must search elsewhere. 

O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness (Ps 96:9 KJV) 

      There are numerous references to beauty in Holy Scripture, but one must be careful about understanding them in earthly terms. How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace (Rom. 10:15, is an obvious case in point. As Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich explains:

      Holy Scripture does not set store on physical beauty, it being something utterly transient. Thus it behooves every reader of Holy Scripture to have the care and wisdom to transfer the praise of physical beauty to the spiritual plane and spiritual values. Undoubtedly, spiritual beauty gives a wonderful attractiveness to the most unprepossessing body, as also spiritual ugliness makes repulsive even the most beautiful body. (The Prologue from Ochrid

      Now Scripture calls virtue the adornment of the soul (cf, I Peter 3:3) so how are we to understand spiritual beauty if it be not the beauty of virtue? And the beauty of holiness is to be similarly understood, for as Bishop Nikolai writes elsewhere, holiness "is the virtue that encompasses all the other virtues." The Prophet David addressing Christ, sings, Comely art Thou in beauty, more than the sons of men (Ps. 44:2), and, calling the Mother of God the daughter of the King, he sings, And the King shall greatly desire thy beauty (Ps. 44:10), "for he saw thee in the beauty of the virtues .. at the right hand of God" (Matins, canticle 9, Feast of the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos). Spiritual beauty is an attribute of all the saints, of anyone who has acquired virtue. Saint Clement of Alexandria, in persuading his flock against outward adornment, writes: "That man with whom the Word dwells has the form which is of the Word; he is made like to God; he is beautiful; he does not ornament himself: his is beauty, the true beauty, for it is God." (The Instructor

      Surely this is the beauty which has power to redeem the world But if this is so, are those seeking a revival of civility on the wrong course? Not at all. Our society is so far removed from any spiritual sensibility that in order to reach even the first rung of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, we must make sure we have some basic building blocks in place. Spiritual refinement develops most easily in a refined soul. We cannot aspire towards loving our neighbor until we learn to be courteous, polite, considerate. The courtesy of opening the door for someone -- this means thinking of the other person, giving him preference. Like so many small gestures of civility and "good manners," it aids us in cultivating the greater virtues. This groundwork should, of course, be laid in childhood. Well-mannered children are not only a joy to be around and an asset to society; they are at a great spiritual advantage.

      An appreciation for classical music, the fine arts, and other cultural refinements certainly enhances our life's experience, but it is only through cultivating the virtues -- at all levels that we can make our souls beautiful, and become partakers in that absolute Beauty, that summation of all the virtues, that will, indeed, save the world.

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