Why do we long for beauty?

June 8, 2022

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Experiences of beauty enrich us, pull us out of ourselves, and fill us with a sense of joy. But curiously, moments of beauty seem to pass almost as quickly as they arise, leaving us wondering if beauty is a pointer to something real that lies perhaps just beyond our reach or nothing more than a cruel delusion.

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    Human beings hunger for beauty. We look for it everywhere— in music, art, film, poetry, fashion, furniture, nature, novels, math, science, love and relationships. We seek it in others and also ourselves. No one would want to not be beautiful. Our experiences of beauty fill us with an unutterable sense of intense longing. But curiously these moments of beauty seem to pass almost as quickly as they arise, leaving us feeling a heightened sense of emptiness that we wish we could satisfy once more.

    I suspect to one degree or another we’ve all had an experience of beauty that we can hardly put into words. It enriches us, pulls us out of ourselves, fills us with a sense of joy— but then just as we are about to grasp it, the moment is gone. It slips through our fingers, leaving us wondering if beauty is a pointer to something real that lies perhaps just beyond our reachor nothing more than a cruel delusion.

    The Oxford professor C. S. Lewis had several such experiences as a child. The first took place when the fragrance of a flowering currant bush in the garden triggered a memory of his old house. A second occurred when reading a children’s story which suddenly sparked an intense desire for what he could only call “the idea of Autumn.” These experiences filled him with an unsatisfied desire that he said was even more desirable than any satisfaction. Though fleeting, Lewis began to wonder if the visible world was simply a curtain that veiled a vast, uncharted transcendent realm. But given his penchant for rationality, Lewis eventually dismissed these fantasies as nothing more than a childhood dream.

    That was, until, he became a Christian. The possibility of God cast beauty in a new and different light. He came to see that God is not only inexpressibly beautiful, but also the source of all beauty in human experience. The ineffable desire and delight we feel are not ends in themselves, but rather they direct us to the one in whom true beauty can be found.

    Lewis expressed the wonder of beauty in a remarkable sermon entitled “The Weight of Glory.” Lewis says: “The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing… They are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited…We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”

    For now, that may seem like an impossible fantasy. “At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door…But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”

    In other words, the ultimate Beauty we long for is God himself. The promise of Christianity is that one day we will see this God face-to-face—in all his beauty. Not only that, we will be united with the beauty we see. His beauty will become our own. And this time, the experience will not be fleeting. No, this time our deepest longings will be satisfied for the simple reason that the beauty will last.

    Written by Jason Harris
    Produced by Mary-Catherine McKee
    Filmed and Directed by Andrew Walker