The ancient Greek philosophers, and later the early church fathers, stated that there were three prime virtues: goodness, truth and beauty. Most Christians would readily affirm this statement and even proclaim that they are trying to live a good and honest life. However, how many of us would truthfully be able to say that we are actively pursuing a beautiful life? As Orthodox Christians we understand this to mean that we not only live our spiritual life in a beautiful way, but also our corporeal, tangible, and every day life. This ideally means that we are to physically beautify everything we come in contact with, be it a person (ourselves included), a meal, our home and church, our workplace, or city of residence. Now this can seem like quite a tall order, especially in this busy, stressed-out, frantic culture in which we live. It can become another checkmark on our to-do list, as opposed to an organic way of living an aesthetic life (“aesthetic” meaning to be concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty, not to be confused with asceticism).
In order to move forward in addressing the creation of beauty, we must first acknowledge the problems that are so often evident in our American culture. In my opinion, the primary issue is that we have traded the art of beauty for pragmatism (that which is useful) and efficiency (that which gets the job done). Our American churches resemble nothing of the old grandeur once delegated to places of worship. They unfortunately blend in, even in industrial parks. As an amusing, but not funny side note, we were driving by a local church with one of our children’s friends. He asked what store it was and when we told him that it was a church, he quite wisely stated, “It doesn’t look like one.” Even children seem to inherently realize the need for beauty. A secondary problem is that people (especially Christians) often equate the pursuit of beauty to selfishness or the pursuit of vanity. Nothing could, in fact, be further from the truth. Pure beauty blesses all that come in contact with it. One final observation is that for the most part we have forgotten or perhaps have never even identified that which we love. The classic childhood question asks, “What is your favorite color?” As adults we think this is silly and quickly brush it off. Why can we no longer answer this question? Why do we not have favorite colors, favorite smells, favorite foods, favorite flowers? If we do, why do we not routinely surround ourselves with them? Why must life become gray with age? If we will learn to fall in love with our physical and natural, and yes, even man-made surroundings, I daresay we will discover a new level of joy and delight in our creation and Creator.
Moving from the philosophical to the practical, how does this apply to everyday life? When I am working with clients in their homes, I use only one rule: they must love anything and everything that is brought into their home. Statements like, “This would be ok” or “This might work,” are problematic, in that people are looking to external criteria to define their tastes. True beauty must have its roots in love. It should be emotionally evocative. This is perfectly exemplified upon entering an Orthodox church. In one moment, all five senses can quite literally feel and absorb true beauty. It is in fact these five senses that provide an ideal framework with which to recreate beauty. With the holidays upon us, let us consider how this might be achieved. Visually, you could make your house sparkle by adding different forms of lighting…fire tipped, dripping candles of multiple heights and colors on a tray; twinkling rope lighting on a ledge; even by installing a dimmer to a dining room chandelier. The tactile dimension could be established with the use of soft, fuzzy blankets draped over a favorite chair by a lit fire; Christmas hymns in the background could provide an audible contribution, and the smell of sugar cookies baking in the oven would wrap it all up. The creation of beauty is much more comprehensive than simply decorating for Christmas. Now, in a simple yet profound way, you have brought the church into your home by creating the feeling of beauty. Our understanding of beauty is far too often reduced to only that which can be seen by the eye. It is much more properly understood in the integration of all senses.
In further examples, light a fragrant candle on an ordinary day while cleaning with your favorite music playing in background. Buy fresh flowers for no particular reason. Fix an unexpected dinner served on fancy china; don’t wait for that special occasion. Purchase plush and inviting pillows instead of scratchy, “pretty” ones. Then you will realize as the Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker states that, “Whenever you are creating beauty around you, you are restoring your own soul.” Whether we create beauty in small ways in our homes or in larger ways in the remodeling of our dear church, we have the incredible and humbling honor of serving as co-creators with THE Creator. In this, as Dostoevsky states, “Beauty will save the world.”