It’s Sunday, and the subject of Beauty is on my mind again, as it is often on Sundays, especially when we’re at church. It’s hard not to be thinking of such things, while the Holy Scripture is being read and I’m reflecting on God and the beauty of the Mass and the music. It’s summertime, so all the women are wearing their summer dresses and the men are tanned and athletic and the children all seem lifted from a Norman Rockwell painting. It’s something like the opposite of going to Walmart. (Kidding!)
Artists, poets and philosophers have been trying to define Beauty since the first man drew breath. More lately, our culture seems content for Beauty to be defined by scientists, or more often, by journalist science groupies who write articles about the nature of life, the universe and everything, but always with the same materialist viewpoint and the same dubious assumptions about everything being explained by “survival of the fittest” and “evolutionary processes.”
As a scientist who understands that theories must be verified, I know that’s absolute rubbish, of course. I can’t wait for our culture to outgrow such childish and simplistic assumptions and get back to the serious study of the beauty of the real world. There is so much glorious complexity that the materialist view ignores. Take human beauty, for example. The way Bouguereau did. The French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau painted a great deal of human beauty, at least 826 known paintings, like the ones accompanying this essay. They range from the “naughty” to some of the most beloved religious works ever rendered by human hands. You see, he recognized not just natural beauty, but the supernatural, as well.
Bouguereau knew that Beauty was inextricably linked to the divine, but others have not always entertained that notion. When he lived in Paris, in the mid-19th-century, there were plenty of salons where the most sophisticated minds talked of materialistic ideas that would soon be lumped under the umbrella of Darwinism. Long before his death, scientific men in France had adopted Darwin’s evolutionary theory as “fact.” They believed then, as many scientists believe now, that human beauty is merely a product of natural selection; that preference for certain facial structure and body shape is reinforced by our choice in mating. Nothing more.
In fairness, it was a plausible idea, physical attractiveness being so closely linked to mating choice, and mating itself being so essential for survival. The process seems pretty straightforward. But if it were actually true that this is the sole driver in our makeup, then ugly people would have vanished long ago from the face of the earth. Surely, after all this time, every man would have a big, square, chiseled jaw and every woman a top-heavy hourglass figure. Or at the very least, every sub-group would be composed, by tautological definition, of exactly the physical characteristics that they happen to fancy. Alas, this is not what we see, because reality is complex and our genes are not built to be so fluid. The degree of variety and unpredictability in our genes is stunning, and the occurrence of striking beauty remains quite rare.
I remember being mesmerized, about fifteen years ago, by the beauty of just such a strikingly beautiful woman. She was the rare kind, more beautiful than any Hollywood actress or supermodel, and like many such women, she was not famous, but had a rich husband and a thriving social life and a prominent place in the community. I first saw her in church as she gathered with the other Eucharistic Ministers to assist in distributing communion to the congregation. As she stood there next to the other men and women, her fine clothes and perfectly coifed hair stood in real contrast to everyone else. I did not stare, nor did I feel anything inappropriate as I stood there next to my good wife and family in the pew. But I could not help but wonder about the nature of such physical perfection, and how God viewed women like her. Clearly, men and women admired her. Did God also view her in that way? Or was it quite the opposite?
And what of the shorter, mildly-pudgy, frumpily-dressed woman standing next to her with the care-worn face and the short, blondish hair? How did God see her? I began to compare the two women in my mind, speculating on their value before God, and exactly how much their beauty factored into the equation. Was it true, as our Christian faith sometimes implies, that physical beauty is unimportant, and that only interior virtue matters to God? Surely the outward beauty that God created cannot be without any goodness or value whatsoever? Or is it that Beauty, itself, is simply more vast a subject than that? Perhaps it is our view that is defective, and it fails to grasp the true nature of Beauty?
Soon, my internal thoughts and questions merged into prayer as I asked God explicitly to help me approach this dilemma. The prayer was answered quickly by something of a minor vision, though perhaps it was just imagination. I began to see in broad view aspects of the lives of both these women: husbands, children, jobs, studies, service to others, future mis-steps, joys and fears. When it was over, my perception of them had changed dramatically.
It seemed to me that in God’s eyes, the beauty of the one woman was a great gift, carefully and lovingly made and worthy of praise. But the praise only made sense when directed at the Creator. It was unearned by the woman and carried with it a great responsibility, one that had only been partially fulfilled by her. She was a good woman, but her love of money and fine things seemed to cheapen her in God’s eyes, and I sensed an air of tragedy about her, like a broken promise or failed potential.
The other woman, likewise, appeared entirely different after the vision. But where she had seemed unremarkable and invisible before, she now seemed to shine with a sort of supernatural brilliance. It was like the glory of her quiet achievements shone all around her. Her superficial appearance that had, at first, seemed unkept, now testified to a thousand other gifts to others and promises kept, children encouraged, husband dearly loved. This was my perception, and I couldn’t explain it, nor did I take it to be fact at the time, although the perception has been supported by the facts since then.
We see the woman of “rare beauty” often, and during the last fifteen years, she has seen her marriage crumble and children drift away and other tragedies besides. She is still very attractive, and that has served her well, but she still seems to have accomplished nothing very real, as far as I know.
But, in the meantime, I have enjoyed a wonderful side effect of that little vision fifteen years ago. Since then, my perception of my wife has changed dramatically. Where I used to pester her about her weight, which seemed so very critical to me years ago, I now see her in a different light. I am frequently in awe of her beauty, and it’s the truest and most real beauty that I’ve ever beheld. I know that how I see her is influenced by my knowledge of her spiritual serenity and faithfulness and loving concern for everyone around her, but it’s more than that. I actually see her as a radiant, glorious, beautiful creature. Being around her is a great source of pleasure to me. I think often of these verses from Sirach 25 and 26:
Blessed the husband of a good wife, twice-lengthened are his days; A worthy wife brings joy to her husband, peaceful and full is his life. A good wife is a generous gift bestowed upon him who fears the LORD; Be he rich or poor, his heart is content, and a smile is ever on his face.
A gracious wife delights her husband, her thoughtfulness puts flesh on his bones; A gift from the LORD is her governed speech, and her firm virtue is of surpassing worth.
Choicest of blessings is a modest wife, priceless her chaste soul. A holy and decent woman adds grace upon grace; indeed, no price is worthy of her temperate soul. Like the sun rising in the LORD’s heavens, the beauty of a virtuous wife is the radiance of her home.
If Beauty were merely a construction of our genetically-fixed preferences, then how would our perception of it change over the course of our lives? And how could it be that here in the 21st Century, we would settle on the same perception of true Beauty as that described by wise men 5000 years ago? Shouldn’t it have evolved? No, some things never change. And that is a beautiful thing.