Beauty – Katrina Lambert
In the hollow of the itch you can’t reach.
Its first gift is a jolt of recognition –
A reflection of something
Deep and hidden within us.
In the stitched line of the horizon.
Its second gift is the joy of communion –
A joining of our inner world
With the boundless sky of billions of heavenly bodies.
A time beyond time.
Its third gift is the glory of eternity –
As we are pulled through a pinhole in the present
To the infinite beyond that is our true home coming.
The best poetry doesn’t need analysis, but the author of this poem is also a preacher and her thoughts on beauty are as sharp as they are splendid. Katrina Lambert recounts the three gifts of beauty and I want to use her thoughts to explore beauty as a gift in itself, that is, as a gift of God, given in the first advent of Christ and promised in his second.
1. THE JOLT OF RECOGNITION
According to Lambert, beauty presents us with that taste of something delicious we’ve been hungering for, or as she describes it “a reflection of something / Deep and hidden within us”. When we encounter beauty it tugs at our spirit. It triggers a sense of familiarity, even when it’s something we’ve never seen before. That’s because hidden deep within us is an unconscious yearning for perfection, and anything sublime or flawless stimulates that longing.
C.S. Lewis named this yearning sehnsucht, a German word that describes “the inconsolable longing in the heart for we know not what.” It’s a feeling of nostalgia that instead of calling back into the past turns us towards the future. Lewis explained it this way, “That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”
But it’s not these things themselves that we desire. They only kindle a deeper longing. Lewis continues, “…they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not visited.”
When beauty gives us that tweak of recognition we can be sure it is evidence of our spiritual intuition at work (I always feel sorry for those who can walk blithely past the most beautiful vista or painting or fail to hear the most stunning strains of music).
The story of Advent is the news that our hunger can be satisfied, our yearning can be sated. Christ has come to fulfill our deepest desires, known and unknown, acknowledged and unacknowledged. The hopes of all humanity are found in the birth of Christ, and that hope will be fully satisfied in Christ’s second Advent.
2. THE JOY OF COMMUNION
As much as beauty tantalises us with recognition of a deeper, more existential longing, it also roots us deeply to the earth. As Lambert writes, “In the stitched line of the horizon. / Its second gift is the joy of communion – / A joining of our inner world / With the boundless sky of billions of heavenly bodies.”
An encounter with true beauty moves us to greater empathy with the temporal. It joins us to the universe. Why are we so drawn to mountaintops and riversides? Why do we find so much peace in starry night-skies and beach walks? It’s because beauty connects us with creation, and in turn with the Creator. The great conductor, Arturo Toscanini, renowned for his intensity and perfectionism, once visited the Grand Canyon and upon starring into its vast expanse, burst into applause. It was all he could do. As a man who traded in the sublime, he knew true beauty when he saw it, but he also knew true beauty is not self generating. To applaud the canyon is to honor its creator.
That’s why we always feel so much closer to God in nature, and why certain music and architecture can take us to a place of rich spiritual connection. When I gaze upon a painting like Jan Davidsz de Heem’s Still life with flowers in a glass vase (featured throughout this post), I feel communion with nature – the flowers, the ants, the snail, the butterfly. I also feel some odd connection with de Heem himself. I admire his skill and enjoy his playfulness. And I’m grateful to God for all his good gifts, the temporal and the spiritual, and especially his Son Jesus.
3. THE GLORY OF ETERNITY
In the most beautiful stanza of her poem, Katrina Lambert writes, “Beauty inhabits / A time beyond time. / Its third gift is the glory of eternity – / As we are pulled through a pinhole in the present / To the infinite beyond that is our true home coming.
Beauty pulls us through a pinhole in the present. It opens us to a time beyond time, to our true home. In saying this, Lambert reflects C S Lewis’ idea that beauty stimulates a longing that can never be truly satisfied in this life. Rather, they are pointers to another place, somewhere inaccessible to us now. In Mere Christianity C S Lewis wrote, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
Like the “forward-facing nostalgia” of sehnsucht, these desires pull us through that pinhole, directing us toward the heavenly home for which we were created. In this respect, the story of Advent isn’t just a preparation for Christmas. It is the story of the Christ who came to inaugurate his reign, and the story of the Christ who is yet to come to consummate his glory and make all things new. The one who will rescue, repair and renew all of creation, freeing us from the ugliness of sin and death and evil, and making everything beautiful, is coming again. And every glimpse of beauty, every sublime strain of music, every gorgeous painting or photograph or building or poem, is a hint of the world for which we were made.
In coming days I will explore three more gifts inherent in our celebration of Advent.
[All images from Jan Davidsz de Heem, ‘Still life with flowers in a glass vase’, 1650]