The Restorative Power of Beauty

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What is it about beauty that refreshes me and puts my mind at rest? It’s not simply looking upon a beautiful scene or object that restores and delights me. It’s looking upon that beauty and knowing that it has the very fingerprints of God all over it. The truth that it comes directly Him, and is a reflection of His beauty, is what gives everyday beauty meaning and causes me to delight in it.

There is something about beauty that has the power to elevate the human spirit in the worst of circumstances. When Corrie ten Boom and her sister, Betsie, were imprisoned during WWII, they were living in separate cells at one point. Corrie was wondering how her sister, who so loved beauty, was surviving the drab dungeon-like atmosphere of a prison cell. One day she had the opportunity to view her sister’s cell, and described what she saw there:

“…Unbelievably, against all logic, the cell was charming… the straw pallets were rolled instead of piled in a heap, standing like little pillars among the walls, each with a lady’s hat atop it. A headscarf had somehow been hung along the wall. The contents of several food packages were arranged on a small shelf… Even the coats hanging on their hooks were part of the welcome of that room, each sleeve draped over the shoulder of the coat next to it like a row of dancing children…”[1]

Betsie made that horrible place as beautiful as she possibly could for all of its inhabitants. Beauty is a gift that we can give to those who share the spaces we inhabit.

What about when we live in a place in which it is more difficult to see beauty?

 

In my former home, I was swimming in it… literally. After school, I would walk down the road to the Strait of Georgia, where I might spy a blue heron standing on one leg, or spot a seal surfacing not far from the shore; all against the breathtaking backdrop of the coastal mountain range.

 

 

 

On rainy days, I’d go out my back door into the west coast rain forest, where the moss hung like tinsel from the fir trees, and the raindrops bounced off the lacy ferns that lay at my feet.

After a long day’s work, I would look forward to these times in nature, and would return home refreshed and feeling almost as if I’d had a bath (perhaps in the rain, I had!)

I went through a kind of beauty withdrawal when I moved to the city. Beauty is here, but it isn’t as easy to get to. However, the joy and surprise when I unexpectedly encounter beauty now is a wonderful gift.

Today, I walked to a neighborhood park and spied some lovely trees all dressed in their autumn best, with a delicate carpet of leaves spreading out beneath them.

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I realize that I appreciate beauty more now when I see it. It’s like a cool drink of water in a desert of concrete and graffiti.

It’s also a very special gift from the One that I love. When I appreciate His gifts, it causes my heart to rejoice in the Giver of those gifts. It reminds me of His beauty, for He is the most beautiful One of all.

Lately I have been considering how we help children to appreciate and enjoy beauty as a gift from God and a reflection of who He is. Not beauty for beauty’s sake, but beauty as it points to God’s glory and grace.

I was on a hike through some spectacular scenery recently, and one of my fellow hikers pointed out the hollowness of trying to enjoy the beauty we were surrounded with, if we didn’t have a God to thank and praise for it. I had to agree! Our loving God gives appreciating beauty meaning; otherwise our appreciation stops short of the full-orbed awe and wonder it was meant to provoke in us.

When beauty leads us to rejoice in the goodness, power, and majesty of our God, then it serves its restorative purpose in our lives. It restores us to our humble position of gratitude before our Maker, the One who has made everything beautiful in its time.

 

[1] from p. 150-151, “The Hiding Place” by Corrie ten Boom with John and Elizabeth Sherrill, 1971, Chosen Books.

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The Moral Imagination

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by Tina Olesen

“Imagination is seeing with the eyes of the heart… Because being follows imagination, the battle is always for the mind… Imagination that is based on truth is tremendously powerful.” [i] Let’s not underestimate the power of the imagination in moral training.

Last year I attended a teacher training workshop on the subject of internet social media and our young people. After taking us through all kinds of sad and sordid internet train wrecks, where teens had posted things so outrageous that one just wanted to look away, the workshop presenter gave us his assessment of “why” this is happening. It is not because teens need to be taught how to have more shrewdness with the internet. He said (and I’m paraphrasing) it is because now that religion has been taken out of public schools, these youth no longer have moral training and so they lack moral judgment. I wanted to give him a standing ovation.

Think about what is feeding and forming the imaginations of our young people in today’s culture. Imaginations are no longer fed with truth and goodness, but with perverted fantasy that calls good evil and evil good. We have libraries full of books praising vampires, werewolves and witches. Zombies are celebrated and humor is often crass. Minds that continually dwell on what is vulgar produce vulgarity.

The problem with much of the so-called moral training curricula offered in our public schools is that it is not anchored in anything. It has no biblical basis and therefore it floats away on an ocean of moral relativism. Children are encouraged to do “whatever is right for you” which competes with whatever is “right” for their classmate, parent, or teacher. Moral absolutes are shied away from, and so children are set adrift on a stormy sea without an anchor. We wonder why we have so many shipwrecks!

Another difficulty with these supposed “character building” programs is that they are often obviously directive and trite, and our students resist the leading that resembles lecturing. Truth that impacts our hearts often comes to us indirectly; for example, in a story rather than a speech. The reception of the truth by the imagination can topple the prideful intellectual barriers to truth that we so often put up. Jesus’ use of the parable is the model for this method.

One of the finest things that a story can do is to awaken in its reader a hunger and thirst for holiness. By holiness, I mean that quality of character that only Jesus Christ perfectly exemplifies. Jesus was the master storyteller. He knew well the smug intellects and hard hearts of his listeners, and He used parables to circumvent their predictable rejection of His message. Concealed in a parable, His hard hitting Truth would either bounce off the stone cold hearts of His hearers, or slice like an arrow straight to the unsuspecting heart, bypassing the self-righteous intellect and penetrating the depths of the conscience. Some listeners responded by hardening their hearts further and walking away from Him. Others experienced the unexpected relief of conviction, humbled themselves, and submitted to His conquest of their hearts.

In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis wrote, “…the task is to train in the pupil those responses which are in themselves appropriate…” Children have to be trained even in the right responses – to rejoice in the triumph of good over evil, to be disgusted at that which is disgusting, to recognise and love that which is beautiful.

Our children ought to have more than warnings against moral evil; they should be given a captivating vision of moral good. The tale of Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey illustrates this well. Ulysses was commanding a ship of men sailing near the cliffs when up ahead, they spotted the Sirens. These Sirens could enchant the men with their song, bewitching them into crashing the ship on the rocks. Ulysses acted quickly to have the men plug their ears with wax, and made them tie him to the mast of the ship. The enchanting song of the Sirens reached only the ears of Ulysses, who begged his men to untie him, but they did not heed. They safely sailed past the Siren’s song and the rocks. In the Argonautica on another ship, we see an entirely different approach. Orpheus also knew of the dangerous song of the Sirens. Rather than having the men block up their ears, Orpheus wielded his own weapon: his music. He played such a beautiful melody that he captivated the men’s attention (and hearts) away from the song of the Sirens. [ii]

What makes a story, or characters within a story, beautiful? A story is beautiful if it is morally true; that is, true to the holy character of God perfectly personified in His Son, Jesus. If a story stimulates a desire for that holy beauty, perfect order, satisfying justice and gracious humility that is exemplified in Jesus, then the story is imparting a hunger and a thirst that can only be truly satisfied in Him.

The beauty of Jesus Christ is captivating. He said, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” Let us lift Him up, not only with our lips, but with our lives.

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[i] An Affair of the Mind, by Laurie Hall, 1996, Tyndale House Publishers, chapter 10.

[ii] (Note: I first heard of this story in a retelling of it by Eric Ludy, titled A Sweet Song Beckons.)