I’m sure there are times in everyone’s life when they need encouragement to see the beauty in the world instead of the ugly. Most of us live with little exposure to the truly ugly things in life, but perhaps in some ways many of us have become so used to beauty that it is more of an expectation than a privilege, or maybe we hardly have the time to really see it anymore, or maybe we have difficult things to work through and everything just seems ugly. Let me take a moment of your time to remind you why beauty is worth seeking out and really seeing.
I started the year with a challenge for myself: to take a photograph every day of something outside that gave me a little jolt of happiness at its loveliness. I chose to look outside partly because I wanted motivation to get outside, and partly because I wanted to focus on the beauty of God’s making instead of that created by humans, and I chose to capture it with a camera because I wanted to have a record of it.
I wondered if when I walked down the same paths every day, would I find myself only seeing the same things, or would new bits of beauty jump out at me? How would noticing this beauty make me feel? During the months, when the days were dreary, would I still be able to find something beautiful? What about the days when I felt dreary? Would beauty still be visible? And then, I wondered, what about the things that are not at first glance beautiful? Would I emphasize outward beauty so much that I would feel scorn for anything that was not beautiful? I am still in the process of answering these questions, but here are a few thoughts from my experience so far.
First of all, what is it that makes something beautiful? There is a certain kind of beauty that is obvious, it hits us in the face and we can’t not notice it. But beauty can also be found in unexpected places if we are looking for it. Possibly it is in the symmetry, the juxtapositions of colour, the simplicity or complexity of a thing. But beauty is not just perceived by the eye, it can also be appreciated by the other senses: the harmony of musical notes, the feel and aroma of a warm, pleasantly scented breeze, the sweetness of a ripe strawberry, even in the words of a touching story. All of these things are wonderful and gratifying; they fill up the part of us that is only filled with beauty and bring a bit of joy and hope to our lives.
I thought that the times between the seasons when everything seems to be dying, or is dead, would make it hard to find beauty. Yet I found beauty in the sky, in the sea, in brown, dead (but living) seedheads, and intricate frost-flowers. We can sometimes fail to appreciate the present by thinking all the beauty is behind or ahead of us. And, of course, sometimes beauty takes time and waiting. The extravagant bloom of a peony can take weeks from bud to blossom. The first beautiful moment when mother and baby can look into each other’s eyes comes after long waiting. But there is beauty in the waiting, in the growth, in the anticipation, and in the present.
Perhaps my idea of beauty, or where I find it, is a little different than yours, but taking the time every day to find and be awed by the little things all around me has helped me to believe in goodness even when nothing feels good. Whether it is a bit of colour in a drab landscape, or a lacy pattern of moss on a rock, light shining flame-coloured through a dead leaf, or reflections in a rain drop, they infuse a dose of positivity into my day and thankfulness for the One who cared enough to make this world such a beautiful place. It teaches me to expect beauty, and it connects me to the world around me and makes me care. And it helps me to appreciate the present moment.
The thing about beauty is that when we see it, we want to hold on to it, make it a part of us, and share it with others, but the trouble is that beauty is often fleeting. We can understand that when we happen to catch the sky, all flaring up in brilliant colours at sunrise or sunset. We have to be there to see it because it doesn’t last long, and we never know when the really stunning displays will happen. We can also see it in a flower, which is all shining glory for a few days, and then when its job is done, quietly fades and falls away. Today ephermal beauty can be captured on a camera or in a painting. It can stay with us and continue to awe us…but that makes me wonder, is the purpose of beauty simply to give us pleasure? Is appreciation the sole objective of beauty? Is beauty to be loved simply because it is beautiful? Is beauty only to remind us that God is a masterful artist? Or is beauty also a call for attention to something else?
I found that beauty in creation forges a connection, it prompts me to care. There are little spots I visit regularly. I know the little wild flowers that bloom there in the early spring, the striped maple that dangles its leaves over a little stream that winds through and tumbles over the rocks of the forest floor, and the bright green moss that covers the jagged edges. It is not mine, but it has become a part of me.
But is it right to only care for the things that we find outwardly beautiful? If something is ugly, is it not worthy of care? I thought of taking a month to photograph ugly things, just to remind myself that things don’t have to be beautiful to be worth caring for. But then I couldn’t find any truly ugly things in creation aside from the occasional bit of trash left behind by humans. Even the things that might be considered ugly, became beautiful when I took the time to learn a bit more about them like the gray, bumpy toadskin lichen, or the smelly piles of rotting seaweed on the shoreline after a storm. Sometimes beauty is not flashing out from the surface, but tucked into the function and purpose, or the response it creates. For example, recently our area was subject to wildfire which ravaged thousands of hectares of forest and damaged or destroyed homes. This was ugly at first, but there was also beauty in it because fire can actually be good for a forest, and because it resulted in communities coming together to help one another.
There is a trend today to speak of “beauty in the broken” and by this it is meant that there are times in life when we are broken by ugly things: grief, illness, addictions, loneliness, etc., but those things only add to the beauty of our lives when we are put back together by the love of God. The ugly makes something even more beautiful. Although we may expect to only find beauty in perfection, often those things that are not perfect are more interesting. In a field of flawless daisies, we may be more drawn toward one whose petals are not completely uniform, or whose colour is somewhat different. Its uniqueness makes it stand out. Beauty can often surprise us by showing up and changing the whole feel of a place, such as when a rainbow appears on a dreary day, or snow falls and covers up all the brown and dead. This feels like God’s way of telling us to look closer. Beauty is not just on the outside.
The first mention of beauty in the Bible is speaking of the clothing made for Aaron. A robe of fine linen, woven with gold, scarlet, purple, and blue threads, a breastplate of precious stones, and golden bells and pomegranates decorating the hem. The people worked together to make the tabernacle and all its bits and pieces beautiful. But it wasn’t just the outward beauty that was to be admired and valued, all together it called attention to the fact that God’s ways are beautiful, that holiness is beautiful.
Do we see beauty in holiness? At first glance, holiness may often seem like something beyond our reach or a thing that can divide people because there can be pretense and pride involved. It may be something that we do not fully understand or are not attracted to. This is because the holiness of God, and the holiness that God intended for His people is not obvious, it is not there for all to see, it has to be seen with eyes that can see. There was no beauty in Christ for those who thought beauty was on the outside.
If holiness is beautiful, then it must have the qualities that make something beautiful such as symmetry, simplicity, harmony, awe, joy, pleasure. It can be hard for us to imagine any beauty in holiness when it remains a rather hazy concept of separateness by rules and regulations, but when holiness is associated with colour, shine, music, and fragrance and connected to qualities like faithfulness, mercy, truth, and love, it is beautiful. The beauty of the tabernacle in the wilderness was hidden by a rather ordinary looking outward covering of drab colouring. But the people knew what was inside.
So what is it that makes people beautiful? Our society today has very superficial ideas about human beauty for the most part. It is the obvious, temporary kind that leaves nothing useful behind. Often the outside of people is how we judge beauty, but Jesus was missed by many because they didn’t look deep enough for the beauty. The beauty not just of attractiveness, but of the manifestation of all the beautiful elements of holiness: righteousness, mercy and truth. This is how we become beautiful people.
Seeking beauty conquers those things that can keep us from being joyful people because it can almost always be found if our eyes are open. It pulls us away from self-regard to regard those things outside of self. It calms the anxiety of trouble and fear because it focuses on the good. It puts a little spring in our step, and a little restfulness in our turmoil. In a similar way, true holiness turns the mind to those things that are true, honourable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise.
My little experiment with beauty has hopefully been changing me. It is like how gratitude can change your outlook from want to plenty, looking for beauty can change your attitude from discontent to contentment, from disconnection to connection. It has helped me to see the beautiful even in the seemingly unattractive. It doesn’t mean I am ignoring the bad and truly ugly in life, but it means I feel more inclined to look for the beauty that might be hiding underneath, to look for possibilities and potentialities. I am more inclined to be certain that there is some beauty to be found. It also makes me feel more connected to my environment: to feel more like a creation myself instead of standing outside of nature. I am often homesick for friends and family, but the little flowers I admire and the trees I touch and have come to know, the familiar rocks with their mossy decorations help me to feel at home. And it helps me to consider and make better decisions about the effects of my actions and decisions on the beauty around me. Ultimately it reminds me that God is a good and wise God, one who loves beautiful things, and because of that, His ways can only be what leads to life and beauty – His ways make us beautiful.
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels.