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Beauty and Sadness


In the introductory essay to a collection of poems evoking joy, Christian Wiman says there is a “special kind of pain” associated with joy.

It is a homesickness for a home you were not aware of having. A longing you hardly knew you had… there is nothing you want more to have, not this experience again exactly, but the larger one that it let you glimpse, intensified. But there’s no forcing it. Clamoring after joy leads only to fevered simulacra: professional echoes and planned epiphanies, the collective swells of manipulative religion, the manufactured euphoria of drugs. Thus do addictions begin. (Joy: 100 Poems, edited by Christian Wiman, xx)

Real joy can’t be bottled. Demanding an encore won’t help.

Wiman’s observation could be applied to beauty, as well. One of the effects of encountering beauty is sadness. Because beauty opens the heart to reality, we become more aware that something is “off,” or has been lost. When I return from a vacation in Yosemite Valley, my home surroundings appear diminished.

In her poem “Music,” Anne Porter describes her mother’s beautiful piano playing, which made her cry. Her poem asks:

Why it is that music
At its most beautiful
Opens a wound in us
An ache a desolation*

 The poem goes on to suggest that the beauty of the music triggered a faint memory of Paradise. This was also the view of J.R.R. Tolkien:

We all long for Eden, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most human, is still soaked with the sense of exile.

The Letters of Tolkien

Being an “exile of Eden” helps to explain why, when I am in a beautiful place, I feel a mixture of euphoria and exclusion. It’s like I am experiencing the mountain’s beauty only partially, and the joy is fleeting. Even so, I don’t avoid this wound. I actually want it! C.S. Lewis referred to this wound of beauty as a “piercing sweetness,” and gave words to its desirability:

The experience of God is one of intense longing. Though the sense of want is acute and even painful, yet the mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight…But this desire, even when there is no hope of possible satisfaction, continues to be prized, and even to be preferred to anything else in the world.

C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress

So then, beauty is a strange thing, giving both pleasure and pain, and subverting our attempts to control it. But without welcoming the gifts of beauty bestowed by God, life becomes consumerist and utilitarian—everything becomes an object to be used.  Even God. To learn to meditate on the beauty of the Lord involves enjoying him for who he is in himself, not as a means to get what I want. Does this mean we shouldn’t ask God for things? Oh no. But when we glimpse his beauty, our prayers are not driven by anxiety.

*To see Anne Porter’s full poem click below:

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