Seeing something beautiful can change our hearts. That is why the great French philosopher of the twentieth-century, Jacques Maritain, wrote, “The beautiful goes straight to the heart.” The perception of something truly beautiful stops us in our tracks and can give us a moment of pause, a moment of rest or wonder – the “aha!” moment of delight, if you will. For a brief time, the heart rests in the beautiful because the beautiful finds a home in the heart.
Nothing could be further from such rest than many of the current events of our day. The Covid-19 pandemic, which has disrupted the lives of people across the globe. Many are suffering from unemployment, and its negative effects on the human person – physically, psychologically, and spiritually. Thousands have died across the globe. Covid-19 is ugly. Now there is the sad and horrible death of George Floyd at the hands of police brutality and the subsequent senseless and destructive violence in its wake. Screams for justice fill the streets. Riots and mobs filled with hate and revenge vandalize communities. Shop owners find their stores broken into, their merchandise looted, and their livelihood threatened. This, too, is ugly.
What these harsh realities reveal is that as much as beauty can arrest the heart so can ugliness. The ugliness of sin, suffering, and hatred can distort the capacities of our minds and hearts to perceive and enjoy the beautiful. When the mind and heart are infiltrated by the ugly, the heart cannot rest. The result being a loss of meaning and purpose, often filled with bitter rage and hate, anxiety and chaos. The ugliness that suffering and sin usher into the world – without the antidote of God – can fetter the heart to this ugliness and lock it into place.
I have often encountered people in my work as a priest who seem bound in this way. One strategy I have employed to help them is to try to introduce them to something beautiful. Without directly confronting the issue in their life, sometimes it is a simple invitation to view or listen to something beautiful that can begin to make a new pathway. Perhaps it is listening to a great piece of music from Bach or Coltrane, or maybe it is introducing them to the paintings of Michelangelo, Raphael, or my favorite, Van Gogh. Maybe it is helping them see something of the quiet calm of a sunset over the ocean or the splendor of the sunlight breaking through the tree-line on a hike. Perhaps it is showing them the interior of a gothic church with its arches that reach towards the heavens or to bask in the light and intricacies of the stained-glass windows. Maybe it is even having them take a moment to remember someone who has been a role model or a witness to love in their life, even in the smallest of ways. In other words, where can they find something beautiful in their life or in the world that challenges – or even begins to change – the narrative of ugliness. The place where a little radiance can be found.
One of the key characteristics that St. Thomas Aquinas attributes to beauty is this radiance or clarity. However, this radiance is not just of the senses, as if it were only about the brightness of color or the vigor of song, but it is an intelligible radiance. It is a radiance that we perceive within our mind as something containing truth and goodness. Beauty is something that radiates in our minds beyond the sensible world. But with this acknowledgement, what makes something to be beautiful is that this radiance gives way to a joy in the heart. It is as if the mind grasps something wonderful and takes it on a journey to the heart so that the heart may experience a rest from its own restlessness in the fruit of the beautiful. As Maritain affirms,
“The beautiful goes straight to the heart, it is a ray of intelligibility which reaches it directly and sometimes brings tears to the eyes. And doubtless this delight is an ‘emotion,’ a feeling.”
While this is certainly an emotion, it is not merely a biological emotion — rather, it is properly called a gaudium, a joy in the intellectual capacities of the human person. It is “an altogether special feeling, one which depends simply on knowledge and the happy fullness” which something sensible procures for the mind and heart. When someone truly grasps something beautiful, the very hardness and ugliness of heart they may have begins to scatter by the radiance of this new, penetrating light.
The ability to rest in the moment with a little bit of beauty has more power than we usually afford it. It is a helpful remedy to the ugliness we find in our world. Without sacrificing our desire for justice or losing focus of the vigilance we need amidst a pandemic, to stop and recognize that which is beautiful can change our hearts for the better and offer us a little moment of rest. It is a rest that mirrors what our hearts truly desire: our rest with God.