The Terror of Beauty

“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.”Rainer Maria Rilke

It began with a dream: I was walking slowly in a teeming crowd. It was any of a hundred urban areas. As in many of my most remembered dreams, I was looking for something or someone. As I surveyed the passing faces, looking for some hint of recognition, some glimpse of familiarity, I heard a voice from all around me, “What you seek is visible in a million pretty faces, but all are merely signage directing you on the way toward my beauty. It is through invisible strands of love I draw you.” And I woke.

Ever since I was a child I’ve been intensely moved by depictions of beauty. For the purposes of this blog, I won’t go into all of the philosophical aspect of aesthetics. I’m not qualified. Nor will I address, with completeness, what part our subjective perception plays in our apprehension of beauty. But I intend to put forward that all that which has been called beautiful inherently possess an element of terror; that which intimidates and raise our hackles because we all know we are not beautiful in the sense of evoking absolute perfection. We are beautiful in the sense that we are each made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26; Ps. 8:6).

Beauty, along with Truth and Goodness have come to be known as the Three Transcendentals. From Parmenides to Plato; on to Aristotle, St. Augustine, and on into St. Albert the Great and his pupil, St. Thomas Aquinas; all have contributed volumes of discourse on the subject of beauty. There’s so much more. In my considered opinion, beauty gets rather short shrift in terms of its evangelical potency, but that’s where the terror aspect comes in . You see, to the extent you and I do not measure up to the object of beauty, be it a person, thing, a landscape (think Grand Canyon), an idea, a cathedral, and most sublimely, God, we feel a measure of terror. We may not identify it as such, but we feel it or have felt it at some point in our lives.

In Peter Kreeft’s book, Doors In The Walls Of The World, he states simply, “The purpose of art is to break our heart.” He’s right. As a devotee of art, I can tell you that my own heart has on more than one occasion been broken by a great painting or sculpture. Isn’t that only one of the ways God reached out to us? But is that terrible? I would say ‘yes.’ Anything terrible, aside from the modern usage of the word as that which is considered ‘bad’, can be considered terribly beautiful. And it is so because we are not the kind of beauty we therefore behold.

To illustrate this from Greek mythology, let’s consider Titian’s Death of Actaeon:

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

What is being depicted is the death of the hunter Actaeon by wild beasts. The woman in the foreground is the goddess Diana, and she’s responsible for his death since she is, after all, goddess of the hunt, amongst other things. Actaeon’s crime? He dared to think he was good enough to be a suitor for Diana. It turned out not so well for him. That’s the short version of the story. What it illustrates, however, is that like the vision of Diana’s beauty, Beauty, itself, has a power to dissemble us, to “tear us apart”, if we allow it. Have you ever gazed in rapture at a beautiful sunset? Of course you have; that’s Rilke’s “beginning of terror” from the start of this blog post. Beauty transforms us; and that is, in a very real way, a death of sorts to what is tawdry or unworthy in us. The Apostle Paul writes to Titus, “To the clean all things are clean, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is clean; in fact, both their minds and their consciences are tainted” (Titus 1:15). And in his First Epistle, the Apostle John writes, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed[b] we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” [emphasis mine}

As it has been aptly written over and over again, “We are what we behold”. Before that transformation takes place, though, there can be, and usually is, terror. As a corollary to Kreeft’s statement that art’s purpose is to break our heart, I offer a fragment of a poem from C.S. Lewis:

“Have you not seen that in our days,

Of any whose story, song or art

Delights us, our sincerest praise

Means, when all’s said “You break my heart?”

May our hearts be similarly broken as we gaze upon the beauty of the Lord in Adoration, at Holy Mass, in our homes, or wherever we are.

Note: A version of this blog will appear on the Pauline Laity Blogspot:

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