The other day I was on the phone as I arrived at school, and I waited in my car in the parking lot until the conversation was over. All of the sudden a gold finch (the state bird of Washington!) landed on a shrub just outside my car. I was so happy. They are somewhat rare here in Illinois, but as one who hails from the Evergreen State, I was overjoyed at the sight. It was a gift, a beautiful gift!
I’m currently reading David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth, and one of his recurring criticisms of philosophy, especially its practice apart from theology, is its inability to see existence as utter gift, sheer gratuity. We can explain what something is, but we cannot explain that it is. What is more breathtaking and beautiful than the Trinity, in which the giving and receiving of love happen eternally and perfectly? And for us who receive the gratuity of being, that is, every human being who has been called out nothingness into existence, an existence designed for communion with the Trinity (The Father begets the Son eternally in love, and the Son accepts this eternal gift of fellowship and in his reception of the gift gives it back to the Father, and the Spirit is the gift of love that is exchanged, who also simultaneously gives and receives this divine love because he too has his own personhood within the unity of God), what better response could we offer as recipients of this gift than thanks and praise? What a criticism of philosophy without theology: a pursuit of knowledge, wisdom, and even God, yet lacking in thanks and praise.
My wife’s Opa (et lux perpetua luceat e[um]) was notorious for bringing fresh flowers home to his wife, her Oma. Flowers are fleeting “like the grass,” but their beauty is unmistakable and completely gratuitous. To spend money on something that has already begun to die when we buy it sounds absurd, and yet what a noble purchase. To feed one’s soul with gratuitous beauty is to participate in the liturgy of heavens: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!” “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, the One who is and who was, because you have taken your great power and have begun to reign.” (Rev. 7.12; 11.17)
I conclude with a quote from one of the best theologians of the past century, Hans Urs von Balthasar:
Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name, as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past, whether he admits it or not, can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.
Article republished with permission from: φιλοκαλία (filokalia): love of the beautiful