We might exclaim “Beautiful!” when we have an experience that is more than just pleasing to us, as in witnessing a reconciliation between two persons formerly estranged, or viewing a work of art, a scene in nature or a new-born baby. We readily distinguish between those things we identify as pretty from those we spontaneously describe as beautiful. Sometimes we share with others similar responses to the same objects or experiences, some of which are given a societal recognition of beauty. But our individual responses cannot be induced by the opinions of others, no matter how great their authority as judges. We are each solely accountable for recognizing and acknowledging as beautiful whatever we find as such.
As with any mere word, we can over-use “beautiful” as an exaggerated way of talking about relatively trivial things. The word is not as important as is what takes place within us when we encounter beauty in all those forms which transcend mere superficial appearance. Experiences of beauty are marked by movements in our hearts that are in complete resonance with our thoughts, or that are so powerfully affective that only after reflecting on what has happened are we able to think about them.
Even though we cannot directly cause the feelings that arise when we experience beauty, we can deliberately place ourselves in the presence of persons, events, and situations where we are likely to have such experiences. We can re-visit outstanding memories of previous occasions or we can follow-up on the recommendations of others, whether given us personally, or through study, reading or other engagement of likely options for encountering beauty. Art museums exist for people to have experiences of beauty more than to simply preserve the displays. And nature: almost anything can be seen as beautiful if we observe with open minds and hearts.
Much of what we recognize as beautiful in life has to do with the choices we make, especially about love. Whomever we love is beautiful to us, though not necessarily pretty. Whatever we decide to deeply consider, examine or study is liable to become beautiful for us, though not necessarily for others. One person can find great beauty in mathematical constructs, but never give a moment’s consideration to the properties of water, while another person can deeply appreciate watching a stream tumbling over rocks, without once thinking about the inherent numerical relations involved in the flow of fluids.
Seeking the beautiful is wholly in keeping with our humanity, and definitely an aspect of our spirituality, for God is beautiful, and the source of all that is beautiful to us. Would any of us deliberately choose to become occupied with anger rather than with beauty? But we are capable of falling into a trap that is like a huge black hole among us: good people, without seriously reflecting on the consequences to themselves, can focus their attention on all that is ugly and disordered in life rather than holding suffering and pain as part of a reality that is ultimately beautiful. Love is our highest calling, not anger or a fixation on the faults of others.
Even a small amount of time deliberately recalling or opening ourselves to a beautiful experience can keep us properly oriented towards God. Love, after all, is beautiful.
Father Randy Roche, SJ, Director of the Center for Ignatian Spirituality, has an M.A. in Theology from Santa Clara University, and an M.S. in Counseling from San Diego State. He has served as LMU Director of Campus Ministry, Rector of the Jesuit Community at Jesuit High School in Sacramento, Director of Studies and Spiritual Director at the Jesuit Novitiate, and as Pastor, Superior, and Director of Diocesan Campus Ministry at the Newman Center in Honolulu.
Throughout his years of ministry, he has continuously deepened his own experience of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, while also acting as a guide in the Exercises for lay people and religious. Not surprisingly, his specialty is Ignatian spirituality as a tool for discernment in decision-making.