Finding Beauty: A How-To
This semester, I am lucky enough to be studying abroad in Toledo, Spain—not Ohio, as my mother originally thought when I texted her the good news.
I have already learned a lot, and much (perhaps even most) of this learning is occurring away from teachers and lessons and desks. It appears to me that the opportunity to spend a semester in a foreign land, among that experience’s many other benefits and intended ends, is largely a time that creates the space for seeking beauty. Museums, old buildings, new languages. Whatever the current object of attention, the study abroad experience, whether intentionally or not, seems to be one continually geared toward a perception and experience of the beautiful. Like other timeworn European cities, Toledo, with its medieval cobblestone streets and quaint, old-world shops, teems with beautiful things waiting to be ambled up to and gandered at. It is hard to walk more than a block or two in the city without encountering something truly breathtaking, if you have the eyes to see it.
Such vision requires a bit of nurturing. It must be learned and actively practiced. No one, save perhaps a true genius, could sit themselves down and listen to a Mozart concerto with no prior knowledge of music theory and understand, in its full depth, the beauty of that experience. The same goes for looking at a van Gogh painting or walking through an ancient cathedral. Without any previous study of art or architecture, the difference between a masterpiece and a catastrophe can be imperceptible. But to really prepare ourselves to encounter true beauty, whatever form it might take, we need more than mere technical knowledge. We must form ourselves to behold the beautiful. This requires a certain interior disposition from us that must be actively sought. Beauty, like many of the most worthwhile things in life, is an acquired taste, and my experience abroad has taught me a few of the ingredients of an aesthetic experience.
Perhaps more than any other thing, you need time in order to see or hear or otherwise experience something really beautiful. I know this to be true thanks to a recent experience of mine that was not at all filled with time. A few weeks ago, some friends and I took a weekend trip to Madrid where, among other things, we visited the famous art museum, the Prado. However, in an effort to “do” the whole city in just a short weekend (a turn of phrase I have come to despise), our trip to the museum became an effort to simply step foot in every room, and I quickly realized that our haste left little room for the invaluable beauty of our surroundings to soak into us. Just as you need sufficient silence to hear somebody else talking, to allow beauty to speak to you requires a certain interior silence, and the cacophony of hurriedness only chokes out that possibility. Being harried by time is the enemy of a true aesthetic experience.
In his novel A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken writes wistfully of “moments made eternity, meaning what are called timeless moments, moments precisely without the pressure of time—moments that might be called, indeed, timeful moments.” It is precisely this type of existence, the cultivation of this timeful living, that allows for and facilitates the perception of the beautiful.
If God really is the source of all beauty, then any earthly beauty available to our senses is, in the fullest sense, exactly what Vanauken writes about: Eternity invading the temporal—the Divine breaking into the mundane by means of the beautiful.
I think we have all had this experience in one form or another. You are walking outside and you turn the corner of a building, and you suddenly catch a breathtakingly beautiful sunset you had not seen just a moment earlier. You look up from your phone or stop talking to the person next to you mid-sentence while you simply stand and behold the beauty in front of you, arrested by what holds your gaze. You are, quite literally, frozen in time. This moment may not last long. You may quickly resume your conversation or go back to your text, but for a moment in time, time was transformed.
This is precisely what beauty is. It is mysteriously all at once totally transcendent, and yet poured out for us in the here and now—substantiated in the physical and available to our powers of perception. And for this, the experience of beauty creates “moments made eternity.” Beauty transforms time, but in order for it to do that, we must give it time to transform. We must slow ourselves down to find beauty and surrender ourselves and our attention to it completely, as I failed to do in the museum. Beauty unfolds slowly, and it often plays hard-to-get. You have to court it for a while before it presents itself to you.
Our current liturgical season of Lent is a brilliant time to begin or renew the spiritual practice of seeking beauty. Through our Lenten sacrifices and acts of prayer and almsgiving, we begin to see things anew. Spiritual askesis transforms our vision and allows us to see the beautiful in the ordinary, and even in the painful. Even an event as gruesome as Christ’s passion and death is seen as beautiful through the eyes of faith, for we hope in its promise. Perhaps making room for time quietly spent with true beauty these next few weeks could be a wonderful Lenten practice.
Michael Infantine is a junior PLS major who is currently studying abroad in Toledo, Spain. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.