Beauty Will Save the World
“His music gets inside of you so that you become the amplifier for it.”
So said my mother as we were driving home from a family gathering not long ago. Roo Panes’ latest album, Quiet Man, played on the stereo system. My mother’s comment struck me as unexpectedly profound. Having been an admirer of Mr. Panes’ music for some time now, I was pleased to see someone else share my deep appreciation for his lyricism, voice, unique arrangements, and uplifting themes. More than that, I was astounded that she so quickly articulated the truth about beautiful music and beauty in general—it becomes part of you for you to project to others.
Beauty has such an elusive, haunting, nostalgic quality to it, yet the experience of beauty is undeniable. It strikes to the core and remains with us for a long time. But what do we do with our experiences of beauty? Surely we’re not meant to horde them to ourselves.
Perhaps the most well-known passage from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot is the adage that “Beauty will save the world.” Much has been written and discussed concerning this mysterious proverb and its interpretation. One simple way to interpret it is to think of it in terms of evangelization. When we experience something truly, transcendentally beautiful, we should make it a point to share our experience with others. Most likely, we will already be inclined to tell others about it. But just in case we’re not, if we’re hesitant to mention the time we saw a stunning sunset or a magnificent mosaic to our barber or beautician, we need to remember what power beauty has to move hearts. Indeed, if it has moved us, it may move others, even if they only experience it secondhand through our witness.
We are all called to engage in the effort to evangelize, to help transform our culture from a culture of death and decay to a culture of life and love. Yet actually doing so can seem like a daunting prospect. Not everyone is a trained apologist or feels comfortable standing at a street corner handing out rosaries and leaflets. But we all experience beauty in our lives. Where beauty leads, truth and goodness tend to follow. If everyone shared something beautiful that deeply impacted them with an acquaintance, how many seeds could be planted in the process? Sincerely witnessing to that which has already been planted in us can do more to attract souls to the Faith than we often imagine. It is not for us to know what we reap. Yet we must continue to sow. We must continue to amplify the beautiful songs we hear. We must continue to echo the beautiful poems we know. We must continue to reverberate the beautiful books we read and films we watch. We must trace and retrace all of the beautiful images we see.
For although beauty soaks through and becomes part of ourselves, it must not end there. The mark of true beauty is that it leads us out of ourselves. When we experience beauty, we become transfixed in a spirit of awe and wonder, which leads us to blossom outward in thanksgiving and praise. If we live our lives in this spirit, then we begin to take on a beauteous luster too. In this case, living a beautiful life means living a rightly-ordered, self-giving life like Christ or one of His saints. It is not the hedonistic life of superficial beauty which someone like the character Dorian Gray might pursue.
Ultimately, beauty leads us to the One who is beauty, “beauty ever ancient, ever new,” according to St. Augustine. We can’t expect to convert every person we meet with our stories of beauty or our attempts to live beautifully. But, thanks to the mysterious workings of God’s grace, we can help prepare their hearts to be open to Him and to deeper encounters with His beauty, truth, and goodness. We do this by offering others, whenever possible and prudent, little glimpses of the little glimpses He gives us of His glory and His loveliness.