Beauty, the Healer5
June 22, 2013 by lucieromarin
Recently, I found myself in conversation with a woman who told me she felt sure she’d have no regrets about leaving the world suddenly, because, being so rotten, it meant nothing to her. It was clear that the rottenness distressed her. (In fairness, she was a recent revert, still working through her relation to the culture that used to be hers. Given time, she’ll mellow.)
Many of my best thoughts are those that I have two days after they’d actually be useful. This conversation was no exception. A day after it, I wished I’d told the woman about an invaluable practice I acquired during a difficult time. It was this: every day, without fail, notice something beautiful. Look around you, all day – go for a walk on your lunch break, if you have to – until you’ve seen it. Take a mental snapshot of that image; store it in your memory; return to it throughout the day, each time your circumstances cause worries or sadness to rise within you. Once, my snapshot was the sight of vivid orange bobbles (some kind of fruit?) on dark boughs, set against a grey sky; I saw it first thing in the morning, on the way to work. Once, it was the sight of branches against the fading red paint on the second storey of a building on a busy street. Once, it was a fluffy, light-ginger cat curled on a bench painted dusty pink, both warmed by a beam of winter sun. Once, it was the sight of the stars in the night sky just above the pointed roof of a local church. You get the idea.
I never understood why this worked; I just knew that it did. I started mulling it over again when, during another time of sorrow, I discovered that getting dressed up every day made me feel stronger (I don’t mean going about overdressed.) Then, I read this post on Orwell’s Picnic, and followed the link to the portraits of Russian peasants. Some of those paintings made me cry.
Beauty, clearly, is not a luxury. It’s a healer. Sure, it’s not a magic wand that can wave troubles away (the most beautiful vestments in the world can’t rescue a tedious sermon from its own tedium), but it’s not an indulgence, and it can be part of a programme of healing and strengthening oneself. Why? How?
I think I know. The components (for want of a better word) of beauty are order, proportion and radiance, right? Right. And what is peace? Peace is the tranquility of order; this means that looking upon that which is beautiful or experiencing beauty in some other way (hearing it in music or wearing it on your person) lets you experience that tranquility of order. Saving a beautiful image in your memory, seeking it out during the day, or at home or in the liturgy, calms and heals, because to experience order is to experience peace.
There’s this also this: think of a well-designed home, warmed by the radiance of a single fireplace. The order and proportion doesn’t make the radiance possible; it makes it available. The order and proportion in the beautiful reveals the fundamental goodness of a thing, a radiance that’s already there, a radiance that can illumine everything around it, if its way isn’t blocked.
I’m not advocating a false aestheticism here; beauty can become an idol just as easily as anything else. However, there are plenty of people in the world like the woman who spoke to me, who was in no danger of making an idol of beauty, but was in real danger of being driven to despair or over-zealousness on account of ugliness. Most of us don’t live in slums. This means that, for most of us, the first glimpses of a greater, richer, daily happiness are all around us, just waiting to be seen.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve taken comfort in the beauty of the sky – blue, grey, night, day – doesn’t matter. And thankfully, it’ll always be there, even if I wind up living in the slums!
“There lives the dearest freshness deep down things” kinda thing? It cheers me up to think that GM Hopkins had similar consolations in his miseries, and turned them into poems for us.
I can find beauty, sure – but it is hard to find when you live in cookie-cutter suburbia like I do, where even the grass looks like as if it’s being inspected by Kaiser Wilhelm.
That does sound pretty challenging. Perhaps, like Charlie’s Sister, you could enjoy the beauty of the sky…or in miniature, perhaps, in tiny things. I like noticing the colours of fallen leaves against the footpath – but it sounds your area is so tidy that they might all have been swept up!
On closer reflection, I see beauty in people, like my friend, who looks absolutely stunning when she sits for a portrait.
Back when I was away for university, it was much easier – the fields of oranges outside my apartment, the ruins of the old railyard, the architecture of downtown. And of course on the bus whenever I’d see a certain Mexican-American family and their rambunctious gaggle of kids, which annoyed my fellow passengers but for a brief moment gave me hope that maybe we’re not going into the apocalypse just yet. And the Mission Revival architecture of Downtown.