Despite the differences in our contexts, the words of William Wordsworth name our feelings in moments when we feel we are unraveling…
The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;— Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon; The winds that will be howling at all hours, And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers; For this, for everything, we are out of tune; It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.[i]
Writing in the nineteenth century, Wordsworth was concerned with the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution and the demoralizing effects of materialism. Out of step with nature, distracted from reflection on our circumstances – we have given our hearts away and we are out of tune. The world is too much with us…and we lay waste our powers.
How can we regain our connection with the natural order and realign ourselves with greater purposes than our own? That IS the question, is it not?
Beauty may be our avenue to travel outside ourselves and into a larger dimension. Beauty can capture our imagination in ways that prompt us to consider the broader universe. It can grab hold of our focus and lift us outside of our normal thoughts, our normal understandings.
Natural Beauty connects us with God. With the Natural world:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor ... [ii]
If we shared our experiences of beauty in the natural world around tables at Fellowship time, I’m sure that most of us would have something to share…
A time of walking in silent woods in the fall of the year – and being struck speechless by the beauty of the colors lavishly splashed on trees and ground and walking, almost breathless, through the beauty. We wonder at the generosity of a creator who would so decorate the transient leaves.
Sunrises, and sunsets that make us pause in wonder at the gift of a new day, especially sunrise over the water, or as we are flying over the ocean.
Stars in a rural spot, or over the ocean where they are not hidden by the lights of the city. …clearer and brighter than ever we’ve seen them before. Stars with brilliant pulsing and throbbing, encompassing us all around.[iii]
Mountain vistas, whether gentle Appalachians or the stark beauty of the Rockies and Tetons, that create in us a sense of wonder and awe at what God has done in creation. “I lift my eyes to the mountains…”
Or perhaps the wonder of birth, as a child comes new into the world. We cry with joy as we give thanks to God who gives life to each of us. The beauty of a child…of possibilities…and the experience of being washed with a fierce love to care for and protect that child.
Yes, the beauty of creation has the power to lift us out of ourselves to glimpse beyond our own experience to something of the loveliness of God.
But not just in Nature. Art and music both have this capacity as well. We can get lost in a poem, or a painting or in music so we leave our usual limitations behind. We are carried beyond ourselves as we are awash with beauty.
Drawn into a painting. As children, we have no trouble imagining Alice stepping through the looking glass, or Eustace getting drawn into the picture of the Dawn Treader if we have visited the Art Institute and been drawn into a painting ourselves. Or heard a child say, “I want to go there,” or “I want to know that person…” Art at its best is an expression of our deepest truths, or a reflection of the beauty of nature. [iv]
Music. Or we listen to the rich harmonies of Rimsky- Korsakov’s Schederazade and close our eyes and leave this world for a time of adventure, or Holst’s Planets with the violence of worlds being born, or a more recent folk song that carried us away with its truth and beauty.
These human expressions of beauty tap into something beyond our own experience and point us to something broader and deeper than our own moment – perhaps to God.
Beauty in both nature and art can carry us outside ourselves into a larger universe and open us up to new possibilities. Jonathan Edwards described the beauty we see as “secondary beauty” which attracts us as shadows of God’s beauty and loveliness, which is the “primary beauty.” It is God’s moral agency – God’s goodness – that makes God’s power lovely. God’s holiness and a disposition to love defines God‘s beauty – which is reflected in God’s created order.[v] It is this which attracts us, and lifts our spirits in nature. Things and people are beautiful as they share in the nature of God and are engaged with benevolence in the world.[vi] Beauty, a reflection of the divine, lifts up our spirits, restores our souls, and opens us up “for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes.”[vii]
Beauty has largely fallen out of favor in our culture. Productivity, profit and efficiency have become our gods. Our metaphors center on earning: Time is money. We introduce ourselves with our professions. We consider our worth in terms of financial investments. We focus on money. Most of our days we do not take time to attend to what is beautiful. BEAUTY doesn’t “GET” us enough to “SPEND” our time on regularly. “We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon…”
Beauty itself is vulnerable. It is for sale to the highest bidder -- whether it is art at auction, sacred burial grounds, or our National Parks. Those National Parks don’t PRODUCE income for the special interests that buy our elections – so let oil and gas develop them. They will create profit for the people in power, for those who own the people in power. Greed is destroying our planet. LITERALLY. “Getting and spending, we lay waste…” – not only OUR POWERS – but those of God’s creation. We’re in trouble. BIG TROUBLE. “We are out of tune…”
Where does our help come from? Our help comes from the Lord….not our own capacities. Our help comes from the Lord – who made the heavens and the earth.[viii] If we destroy the beauty that points to God, ignore the stories of faith because they aren’t simple – mired as they are in ancient worldviews and understandings we no longer hold – what will point us to God?
Beauty points us to the Beautiful – the source of Beauty – to God. Ed Farley says that “Beauty is intrinsic to the life of faith because it is a feature of the divine image which is distorted by sin – and restored by redemption.”[ix] “Beauty is not simply one of various human powers, faculties or sensibilities; it is the deepest and most central way in which the human being is transcendentally engaged beyond itself.”[x]
SCIENCE may help us here. Many of our outstanding scientists have been people of faith. They see the beauty, whether through Scatter patterns in particle physics, or the Galaxies or with human genetics and point to God. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health wrote in an essay for CNN, “I have found there is a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith. The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. God can be found in the cathedral or in the laboratory. By investigating God’s majestic and awesome creation, science can actually be a means of worship.”[xi] So maybe science will help us.
Relationships may help us. Beauty is present in the best of our relationships – where kindness and compassion, moral virtue and love with the best interests of the beloved are at place. Beauty shapes our human relationships and our lives of faith and helps them become better, more caring.
But nature may be even more convincing. If we take the time -- in fields of grass and flowers in the spring…. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning did in her poem, “Out in the Fields with God.”
The little cares that fretted me, I lost them yesterday Among the fields above the sea, Among the winds that play, Among the lowing of the herd, The rustling of the trees, Among the singing of the birds, The humming of the bees.
The foolish fears of what might pass I cast them all away Among the clover-scented grass, Among the new-mown hay, Among the hushing of the corn, Where drowsy poppies nod, Where ill thoughts die and good are born — Out in the fields with God.
Our experiences of beauty point us to God as MORE – much more than we ourselves, MORE than just making it through the work week, MORE than we can usually imagine on our own. GOD. As beauty helps us glimpse the divine, it lifts us above the mundaneness of life and gives us wings.
Perhaps as we find ourselves hurling our bodies through the day, when “The world is too much with us,” and we find ourselves “getting and spending” instead of living, we should stop and attend to beauty. Beauty may lift us up past our feelings of being forlorn, may answer our questions about purpose and meaning in the chaos. Our doctors would tell us that attention to beauty in the day would help our blood pressure. More than half of all scientists would say that paying attention to the world will reveal something of God.[xii] The Psalmist would tell us doing so will connect us to God – and nourish our souls. Beauty lifts us out of ourselves and into deeper relationships with God and all of the created order.[xiii] Beauty offers us transcendence, caring benevolence – and even wings to fly a bit closer to the heavens we, like Icarus, long for. So let us find ways to be “awash in loveliness” – it might just point us to God
[i] William Wordsworth, “The World is Too Much With Us,” 1806.
[ii] Walter Harrelson’s translation.
[iii] Madeleine L’Engle describes the stars this way in “The Arm of the Starfish” as Adam sees them while flying over the Atlantic.
[iv] Yes, art can depict ugly truths as well. See Farley, 111. Yet even so, in portraying truth there is something of beauty in the depiction even if as implied opposite.
[v] [v] Edward Farley, Faith and Beauty: A Theological Aesthetic. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Pub., 1991. 46.
[vi] Farley, 47.
[vii] e. e. cummings, “I thank you god for most this amazing”
[viii] Psalm 121.
[ix] Edward Farley, Faith and Beauty: A Theological Aesthetic. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Pub., 1991. viii.
[xii] 51% as reported in the Huffington Post article above.
[xiii] Farley, 48, 118, 120.