What is beauty? (August 18, 2010)

We are obsessed with beauty. I once read an anthropologist say that every culture is a cult of beauty. But what is beauty? A definition I found online says, “the qualities that give pleasure to the senses.” Another adds “and is associated with such properties as harmony of form or color.”

But beauty can also refer to that which the senses cannot see. Another definition says that beauty’s “intense pleasure and deep satisfaction” can arise “from sensory manifestations (as shape, color, sound, etc.)…or something else (as a personality in which high spiritual qualities are manifest).”

There is the rub. Do we think of beauty as arising from “sensory manifestations” or from something more intangible, like “high spiritual qualities”? Consider this in relation to someone like Mother Teresa. By the first definition, Mother Teresa was not a beauty. By the second, she was beautiful indeed.

The tension between these two definitions is very evident in the references to beauty and loveliness in A Course in Miracles. The Course’s concept of beauty is all about “high spiritual qualities.” Again and again, the Course pairs the word “beauty” with words like “innocence,” “sinlessness,” and “holiness.” For example, “What loveliness we look upon today! What holiness we see surrounding us!” (W-pI.291.1:4-5). In this sense, beauty equals pure goodness of character.

As rare as such beauty seems, the Course says that literally everyone possesses it, way down below the surface. According to the Course, if we had eyes to see, even the most hateful person would appear “so holy and so beautiful that you could scarce refrain from kneeling at his feet” (W-pI.161.9:3). If we really opened our eyes, it says, we would find ourselves literally surrounded by a world of overwhelming (inner) beauty. We would step “beyond all ugliness into beauty that will enchant you, and will never cease to cause you wonderment at its perfection” (T-17.II.2:6).

So what will beauty be for us? Which kind will we focus on? Will it be the beauty that gives pleasure to the senses? Is that what we will pursue in others and cultivate in ourselves? Or will it be the beauty of pure inner goodness, of innocence and even holiness? Will this be our focus, so that we devote our energies to drawing aside the veil and gazing on that beauty in others, and thereby allow it to once again flower in ourselves?

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