If you’ve been lucky enough to be able to look up from your desk or windshield or kitchen sink in the last few days, you’ve seen the reds and yellows and oranges begin to splash across the treetops. The very beginning of foliage season is my favorite, when there is still a green background for the colors of fall and warm days thrill in contrast to lovely cool nights.
As I walked through the streets of Paris with my new bride this past summer, I experienced long periods of speechlessness. The spiraled ironwork, the bright flowers everywhere, the soaring church towers, the colorful clothing on both women and men, the unparalleled masterpieces, the understated cafes, and outrageous fountain statuary. And of course, the Seine flowing through the middle of it all with its elegant arcs. Paris fed some deep part of me that hungers for beauty.
And yet, I felt a twinge of guilt. As I beheld and revered the stunning heart of France, I wondered whether I was being superficial. I grew up in and continue to be a committed member of the United Church of Christ. Our spiritual ancestors were the Pilgrims who settled in this part of the world in the early seventeenth century. In their view, anything that satisfied human desire – aside from God – was to be deeply questioned and most often rejected as an idol.
Puritanism’s fear that beauty might draw us away from spiritual things is an understandable reaction to the Renaissance. However, I am fully prepared to claim that beauty is a gift from God. To be totally honest, I believe that beauty is one of the windows into the truth of God.
One caution: I have worked with high schoolers for almost thirty years and was of course a teenager myself once. Starting in high school, we tend to put way too much emphasis on physical beauty in my opinion. And we adults don’t help. Physically attractive teens get hired sooner for sure. My guess is they get selected for team or club leadership and are called on in class more often as well. This is not their fault.
When we are at our best, each of us can bring something beautiful to the table, whether it’s internal or external or both. And I hope the adults in our children’s lives realize that and work to empower each one to reach her or his potential for creating beauty.
The question then arises – and to me it’s a spiritual one: Does that mean we are wrongheaded if we appreciate physical beauty? I don’t think so, but we’ve got to keep ourselves in check, look for the beauty within each person, young or old or in between, and within each landscape and neighborhood as well.
The denuded hillsides of Scotland and the desert places of south central Asia have their own haunting splendor. And there are plenty of streets in Dorchester and Roxbury that at first glance may look rough, but contain good, loving, brilliant, and exceptionally creative people. Beautiful people.
So, I will continue to visit the Gardner and the Museum of Fine Arts to gaze at impressionist paintings, classical sculpture, and medieval mantelpieces. And I will make the annual trek to Manhattan with my son this fall to listen to world-class jazz at Birdland or the Bluenote or the Village Vanguard. And I will venture to the White Mountains and snowshoe in the Pemigewasset Wilderness, just to see the snow-laden evergreens on the side of some mountain this winter and listen to the absolute silence.