Daily Meditations

Divine Beauty (2)

By Fr John Breck, March 2, 2009

The preceding column in this space spoke of finding beauty in the little things of our daily life, including in their imperfections. In some cultures, children are imbued from birth with sensitivity toward the visually unusual and appreciation for its deeper meaning. From a jagged crack in an ancient vase to the radiant smile of a Down’s syndrome child, realities considered by many people to be objectionable—the evidence of imperfection—can reveal a transcendent beauty, a true perfection, to those who have eyes to see.

That kind of beauty invites participation. When we look for the first time at an unfamiliar, marvelously executed painting, or contemplate by microscope the symmetry that underlies chaotic systems, or uncover a crystal from a mass of rock and mud, we tend to hold our breath in wonder. The same thing happens in our engagement with people: Jesus healed a paralytic or a blind man, “and all the crowd was amazed.” Once we move beyond the external impression, however, and look into the depths of an object or a personal encounter, we find ourselves actually “moved” by the experience. We are struck particularly by beauty, when it exists, and that beauty creates within us a desire to share in it, to penetrate it, and to know it in its fullness. Genuine beauty incites a movement of the soul. And it inevitably points beyond itself to its source in Divine Beauty, the goodness and the glory of God.

The translators (we might even say “the authors”) of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible—our Old Testament—were keenly aware of this beauty-inspired movement. In one of their most striking divergences from the Hebrew text, they totally transformed a passage at the close of the Book of Genesis. In 49:14, Jacob’s son Issachar is compared favorably to an ass, a faithful and dependable beast of burden. The “Seventy” who, according to tradition, produced the Greek version, read the verb hamad (“to desire”) for the noun hamor (ass, donkey). Thereby they transformed a physical description into a spiritual one, declaring: “Issachar sought after [or longed for] the good” (to kalon epethumêsen). In his commentary on this passage, Hippolytus offers a symbolic reading: “The text metaphorically and allegorically signifies the Savior through Issachar. Only this one [among the sons of Jacob], in fact, wished for the good since his childhood….”[1] Once again the key term is kalos, which can mean both “good” and “beautiful.” To the translators of the Septuagint, Issachar is a typological figure who points forward to Christ, the Savior, and does so with desire or longing, not merely to behold Christ, but to participate in him and in the salvation he offers. Hippolytus understands the object of Issachar’s longing, according to a familiar Hellenistic motif taken up by early Christian theologians, to be for the ultimate Good, the ultimate Beauty of God.

That Beauty, St Maximus the Confessor holds, is ecstatic. It moves out beyond itself to embrace all of creation. “The Cause of all things, through the beauty, goodness and profusion of His intense love for everything, goes out of Himself in His providential care for the whole of creation.”[2] Elsewhere, Maximus refers to Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai, taken by the Church Fathers as symbolic of the soul’s entry into the divine darkness, a “formless and immaterial realm of spiritual knowledge.” There Moses obtained “knowledge of the prototypes of all created things.” The spiritual person, Maximus declares, can do likewise. Acquiring such “noetic” knowledge, that person, like Moses, “depicts in himself the beauty of divine excellence,” becoming like “a faithful copy of archetypal beauty.”[3] Thereby the spiritual person can become an example to those who wish to imitate him. Receiving experiential knowledge of the Divine Beauty, a person is transformed by that beauty to become an example of it and a witness to its saving power.

The divine, Maximus continues, “is subject to movement; and as that which is intensely longed for and loved, it moves [or draws] towards itself everything that is receptive of this force and love… In other words, [the divine] moves others and itself moves, since it thirsts to be thirsted for, longs to be longed for, and loves to be loved.”[4]

The dynamic quality of Divine Beauty and Divine Being is such that it can never be conceived as “immobile,” as an “unmoved mover.” Beauty actively reaches beyond itself to fill all of creation, and it draws to itself all those who seek it, to transform them into its own splendor. Thus St Gregory of Sinai can speak of the “angelic life” as one that “through the power of the Spirit [and] with the help of the Logos, made your flesh—your natural form of clay—a resplendent and fiery image of divine beauty.”[5]

Finally, we may recall the words of St Gregory Palamas, who quotes St Basil the Great’s commentary on Psalm 44. Palamas declares that the Uncreated Light of Mount Tabor, witnessed by the disciples at Jesus’ Transfiguration, “is the beauty of God contemplated by the saints alone in the power of the divine Spirit.” This beauty, he continues, is Christ, who manifested to his disciples “what he really was.” “He is the True Light (John 1:9), the beauty of divine glory.” And that light, that glory, is “the beauty of the age to come.”[6]

Like Palamas’ adversaries Barlaam, Gregoras and Akindynos, most of us are unable to behold that light or to fathom its divine origin. The beauty of that Light, however, remains dynamic, moving ceaselessly to embrace and transfigure into its own glory the created world and ourselves. That beauty, that transfiguring luminosity, is Christ himself, who “reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature” (Heb 1:3). He is Beauty personified, the “Light of the world,” which Palamas can describe in lyrical terms that possess their own beauty. This is the “divine and inexpressible light, God’s divinity and kingdom, the beauty and resplendence of the divine nature, the vision and delight of the saints in the age without end, the natural ray and glory of the Divinity.”[7]

~Orthodox Church in America (OCA), https://www.oca.org/reflections/fr.-john-breck/divine-beauty-2.

[1] Hippolytus, “On the Blessings of Isaac and Jacob,” #21 in Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scriptures, vol. II (Gen 12-50), InterVarsity Press, 2002, p. 337.

[2]“Fifth Century of Various Texts” #86, in The Philokalia II (ed. Palmer, Sherrard, Ware; London: Faber and Faber, 1981), p. 281.

[3] “First Century on Theology” #85, ibid., p. 133.

[4] “Fifth Century on Various Texts” #84; ibid., p. 280-81.

[5] “On Commandments and Doctrines,” Philokalia IV (1995), p. 221.

[6] “Natural and Theological Science” and “Declaration of the Holy Mountain,” Philokalia IV, p. 415-422.

[7] “Natural and Theological Science” #147, ibid., p. 415.


See the source image