The garden, somewhat the worse for the rather ugly buildings we have mentioned, was laid out in four intersecting paths round a drainage trap, and a fifth path ran round it flanking the white boundary wall. The paths enclosed four square plots bordered with box. Mme Magloire grew vegetables in three of these, and the bishop planted flowers in the fourth. There were a few fruit trees. Mme Magloire once said teasingly to him: ‘Monseigneur, you believe in making use of everything, but this fourth plot is wasted. Salads are more useful than flowers.’ ‘You are wrong,’ replied the bishop. ‘The beautiful is as useful as the useful.’ Then, after a pause, he added: ‘More so, perhaps.’- (Hugo, Victor. Les Misérables. Trans. Norman Denny. London: Penguin, 2012. Print.)
Do I understand beauty?
I like to think I happen to have a great appreciation for the finer things - an artistic eye, keen to aesthetics, that exceeds the norm in society. I strive to absorb God’s decorative creation and the subcreated art from millions of human beings who have all sought to express something, whether a feeling, an idea, a perception, a worldview, or any of a vast multitude of items worth expressing.
Sometimes I think I may try too hard to feel that “intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind” that my dictionary defines as the result of beholding a beautiful object. But other times that shiver runs down my spine and I get goosebumps when I’m not even waiting for it. I smile inwardly and I lose myself in my thoughts at the mere suggestion of something beautiful. There are moments I am keenly aware of the tremendous miracle of life, and maybe all I did was glance at a snowflake. It’s times like these that I can convince myself of my love for beauty.
But do I understand it?
How is beauty useful?
Well, to precisely determine the usefulness of beauty, I imagined a world without it. And call me crazy, but at first it looked better to me than the world we live in. Imagine a world in which we didn’t have a significant portion of our pre-teen girls idolizing the image of some kid named Bieber just because he’s somehow considered ‘cute.’ Or where it didn’t matter what you look like, but your hireability is based solely on your skills. We wouldn’t have companies wasting thousands on trying to make things look better, but would be able to focus on making them work better. Kids in school wouldn’t feel dejected because they weren’t pretty or handsome enough to be popular, and we wouldn’t be distracted by all sorts of things that only take up space and are of no real value to constructing society. We, as a human race, could focus on more doing.
Isn’t that better? Doesn’t that sound good?
Well, far be it from me to innovate and critique God’s masterpiece.
I followed this image of a world without beauty even farther. The human race became overly engrossed in what they could accomplish. It was cold. Everything felt like a prison, mechanical, timed out to achieve the same, bland, outcome every time. There was no color. There was no diversity. Humans all looked the same, with the only difference in appearance being the anatomical differences between male and female. But even worse than all that, our accomplishments seemed to mean less. It was just what it was supposed to be. There was no room for creative expression or the mark of any author. It was all cinder-blocks, steel, unpainted blankness. I don’t think I can describe a world without beauty, because there wouldn’t even be language. Or at least it would be the most basic, practical form of language, like binary or morse code - but there is even an element of beauty in that. This world would be a skeleton. No flesh, no lifeblood.
We need beauty. Imagining a world without beauty has not only helped me see the usefulness of beauty, but also reminded me of how far beauty reaches into every imaginable aspect of life. Without beauty there is no appreciation for the uniqueness in each individual, in each little bit of creation.
Tears are a beautiful expression of grief. And that is why they are useful. They help us to feel what we feel, and to show to others the twisting knot of hopelessness we feel inside. Tears in their beauty cleanse our eyes, washing away the filth that had gathered on the portals to our souls.
Laughter is a beautiful expression of joy. And that is why it is useful. We laugh to share with others the bubbly rich feeling that starts deep within the spirit and resonates throughout the body in a way that is contagious, and what was the symptom of the emotion in one person becomes the catalyst in the next, cascading from body to body until the entire room is full of joy.
Beauty is beautiful, but its expressiveness makes it more useful than the useful. Yes, a salad can provide me with the nutrients I need to keep my body breathing and functioning for a few more hours. But what is that, why does it matter without the flower? The flower which I look at and, as I see the blush of life in its vibrant colours, am reminded of the glory of its Creator.
Beauty, creation, expression. These words are all part of the everyday miracle we cannot get away from, no matter how hard we try. The miracle of the Holy Spirit breathing life into everything that exists, so that we may see undeniable evidence of God in our presence. Because that world without beauty that I described earlier? It’s Hell. And I don’t just mean ‘a really bad place,’ I mean the real, literal Hell that actually exists - the absence of our Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer. But we serve Emmanuel, God with us. A God of beauty.
So, friends, surround yourself with beauty, because to surround yourself with beauty is to surround yourself with God. Let your tears flow, cry your rivers to show the world the vibrancy of emotion; let your laughter bubble out of you into that contagious air of joy. Intentionally place yourselves smack dab in the middle of the gift God has given us that we might better appreciate and feel Him.
Tend to your gardens and grow flowers - don’t neglect them for the salads.
Caleb R. Joyce
Psalms 48 + 96