Beauty Never Lies

By

One great delight of having a composer for a brother is the fact that he passes the best of his studies on to me. Joel explores reams of classical music that I could never find on my own, and every time he’s home from school he loads my iPod with a few of his newest-found gems. At Christmas this past year, he gave me hours of music, as glad to pass on his beauties as I was to get them. But the rush of winter and spring swept my listening hours away, and it wasn’t until just a few weeks ago that I finally managed to taste the new songs. I was on a road trip through Texas, adrift amidst endless miles of flatland with my sister driving, so I stuck in my earphones. Night was just coming on as I relaxed to the first song and closed my eyes, expecting to snatch some sleep along with the music.

But the first notes struck me wide awake. Like sunlight on closed eyes, the music glimmered into my sleepy mind, blazed into my ears. First the throaty hum of a cello and its rise into a chorus of violins. Like open hands lifted to catch the sunlight, the instruments formed a cup into which a choir poured its song. A simple choral piece was all it was (I later noted that it was Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna: Introitus), but to me the music was light, it was hope. The song was one of those beauties that arrest you with a clear wordless truth; God is real, grace is a hand that holds you through every change, goodness follows all of your days. I could hear it in the music. A great relief came to my soul, as if I had been holding my breath through the work of months, striving to endure the battle of life. The fear that is always with me, of failure, of pain, fell away before the song just as the night flees, grieved and dark, at the onslaught of dawn. In that odd Texas moment, just for an instant, I was smacked with the full joy of heaven and it was real as the breath in my throat and beat of my heart.

But then I opened my eyes. It was an accident, a reflexive blink, but what should I see but a chain of billboards for a famous outlet mall. Gaudy letters blazing an invitation to get vast amounts of new somethings for nothing. I glanced beyond the boards at the glare of a dozen fast food signs. Cars whizzed by, frantic, red-eyed machines in the brooding dusk with frenzied humans at their wheels. And the hope I knew in the music was shattered. The song seemed actually to fade in my ears as the sight of concrete, commerce, and human striving met my eyes. I thought of the million and one tasks I needed to do, the money to be made, the deadlines to be met. Something like grief grew in my throat and the old fear came back. My brain filled with the incontrovertible fact of daily need, of machines and commercialism and a world that never slows down.

It was a moment of hopeless juxtaposition–the whisper of a transcendent beauty against the pragmatic chorus of survival.  My whole life seemed torn between those two realities. I felt again the heat of all my deadlines, and with it the fear that I could not do enough, be enough, make enough. The old doubts I bear about my life as a writer joined swiftly in. The old wrangle my heart carries on with my head, “what good is beauty?” began again. In the face of need and sickness and the demands of a fast-paced society, what good is the making of one little story, the writing of a poem? Why hunger after dreams when money must be made, bodies fed, and futures built? Surely God himself scoffs at the little dream worlds in which I live.

But then, as if my own soul shouted down my brain, a thought came, crisp and commanding to my mind: “None of that craziness is an ounce as real as your music. Grace is the real thing.” I was astounded at the thought. I sat up straighter, ready to consider this claim of my heart. I closed my eyes and the music roared back to life in my ears, filling my brain so that the strife of the outer world seemed, in its turn, flimsy as a child’s dream. Which world was true? I stared ahead into the Texas sunset, thinking hard until I suddenly remembered something I knew as a child and had almost forgotten. Beauty tells the truth.

Since I was a tiny lass, I have called my experiences of beauty “knowings,” because I felt that those encounters communicated something true about the world. I first discovered this in Celtic music; I remember one particular song I heard as a child when I tasted an exultation beyond anything I had ever known. Amidst the rise of a fiddle, the keen of a penny whistle, and a beat like that of many hearts throbbing together, I was filled with an image of all the world in a dance, of many peoples joined in one great movement of joy. And I knew that it was true, that someday just such a dance would happen when all the struggle of earth was ended and the feast of heaven had begun. I am convinced that somehow, in that music, I was able to grasp a picture of the someday world to be.

I think most of us have these “knowings.” C.S. Lewis called them “joy,” the great gladness that startled him into his faith. L.M. Montgomery (author of Anne of Green Gables) called them “the flash.” Tolkien called them “eucatastrophe,” the unexpected grace of a happy ending. But all of them mean the same; the taste, in an instant of beauty, of a joy beyond anything we know in this world. A certainty of some good that dwells beyond the limits of what we can see. We know, bone deep, even if only for the instant of song or sight, that there is a joy to outlast all sorrow, a grace that justifies our fight to overcome the darkness in which we all strive.

Beauty really is truth and that was what my heart was telling my brain in that odd Texas moment. To dwell in an instant of beauty is to stumble into a pocket of eternity as it bubbles up in time. A song like the one I heard exists half here, half in the realm of the eternal. Time is suspended because that one sustained note, or a leaf in a crimson-edged turn, or the happy ending of a story bears a truth that will live beyond the moment in which you taste it. The knowledge that comes to me in a moment of art or song is a truth from outside the circles of time and decay. This is why I hunger for beauty, why I sense it to be a “realer” thing than much of the hurry of modern, daily life.

This is also why I write. To capture even a hint of that sure loveliness, to embody that elusive, certain grace in what I create, this is my work. To present the beauty I have found in a story of my own is to offer my time and people the most precious thing I have ever found. This is no waste, no child’s dream. This is a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven as it invades the world. I suspect most artists sense this as they work; a hint of redemption at their elbow as God speaks into their work from outside the circles of pain, striving, and blindness. My own “knowings,” are just one glimpse of God’s far country. But to tell of that world beyond this earth is the work of God’s own kingdom, because the beauty is his. The joy is his love. The life is his own holy self, throbbing through all of creation, calling us back to the wholeness for which we were made.

I finished my song that night. Savored the last of the notes and opened my eyes. This time I didn’t panic. I looked out on the frenzied twilight world of the Dallas suburbs and knew that the beauty I had tasted both transcended it all, and yet was also the promise of its redemption. The song was not a dream of hope that would fade, it was the promise of a hope that never ends because beauty tells the truth. And I believe it.

Profile photo of Sarah Clarkson

Sarah Clarkson is the author of several books including the best-selling The Life-giving Home, which she co-authored with her mother, Sally Clarkson. Sarah is currently studying literature at Oxford University where she's not only a brilliant thinker and writer, but is also the president of the C. S. Lewis Society.


42 Comments

  1. mike bates

    You have allowed us to “capture a hint of loveliness” with your post. Sometimes when we are still and quiet, God allows small peeks into the “real” reality. They overwhelm me with their beauty and send a longing to see and know more. Thank you.

  2. Jess

    Oh, thank you, thank you, Sarah. Praise God for grace and those who speak its message (like you).
    It’s interesting that you should post this today. I often don’t find time to listen to classical music amidst my list of favorite bands and artists. But last night I listened to some Andre Rieu on my iPod, expecting, like you, to be lulled to sleep. And the song I heard broke the night and lifted me in a whirl of something that I have never experienced before with classical music. It left me out of breath as it ended, only able to listen to the different (and yet, somehow, so similar) music of the wind in the aspen outside my window. How good is grace when it comes when we need it, but how awesome it is when it surprises us.

  3. caleb

    This is such a beautiful read. You said a lot of things that I often find myself trying to say. The whole thing reminds me of the “eternity in our hearts” spoken of in Ecclesiastes.

  4. Loren

    And this post, too, is beauty.

    I’m reminded of “deep” discussions we had years ago in my high school AP English class on “What is beauty?” It revolved around the question of whether there was an absolute when it came to defining beauty. But there is! We have only deluded and blinded ourselves if we never catch a glimpse of it.

  5. April

    Oh, gorgeous! Your post led me to think of the thousands of “knowings” I’ve experienced at the feet of composers and poets and artists and architects and creation…and Creator… Beauty everywhere…

    Thank you.

  6. Kristin Nichols

    Malcolm Muggeridge called them “Hints of Heaven”

    (and here I go choking up…it is so awesome)

  7. Megan H.

    Very beautiful. The first time I felt the “flash” of Emily Starr was listening to Phil Keaggy’s “Beyond Nature”. And again as I grew to love Celtic music. That’s when I feel the magnetism of glory, when I strain to be lifted from this world into the next. And it’s only a tiny fraction of a glimpse of the awesome, fulfilling longing to know the Great Songwriter. I can’t wait!!!!

  8. Melinda

    What you have written is so true to my own experience. These “knowings” have often come to me from music–a Bach etude… a Mozart symphony… certain beloved hymns… Rich Mullins or Andrew Peterson… I think the most intense experience I have had came as I walked along a platform at the Salzburg, Austria train station, about 20 years ago, earphones on and a Rich Mullins tape playing on my Walkman. Though I’d heard the entire tape several times during my travels, during that walk from the train to the station, I really listened to the song “If I Stand” for the first time, and it took my breath away. I listened to the song over and over again, almost wearing out my rewind button, longing to recapture that initial feeling of joy, that longing for something more. Suddenly, I understood exactly what C.S. Lewis was talking about in Surprised by Joy, and what you have written here makes perfect sense to me. Thank you, Sarah, for this beautifully written reminder! And now, time to close my eyes and listen to “If I Stand” a few times before I try getting back to work on my own writing.

  9. kelli

    Ah, Sarah…when reading this piece, I had “the flash.”

    Makes me long for Home:)

    Thank you for this!

  10. Leigh Mc

    Emily Dickinson tied truth and beauty together, too: “I died for beauty/but was scarce/adjusted in the tomb/than one who died for truth was lain/in the adjoining room/he questioned softly why I failed/”For beauty,” I replied/”And I for truth–the two are one–we brethren are” he said/and so as kinsmen met a night/and talked between the rooms/until the moss had reached our lips/and covered up our names…”

  11. Charlene

    An impatient search for headphones, a hurried search thru Youtube. Morten hears a Who… no I mean, Lux Aetena: Introitus… Well, in fact Morton did hear a Who? and like you wonders about the world that is and the one that is to come and the space between the two where music and art bridge the gap. Can it be real? My heart tells me so. Oh thank you, thank you! I cried. Thank you.

  12. Amber Leffel

    Mmm.

    Thank you.

    I logged onto the Rabbit Room to find something to inspire me to go outside and run. I have found a lot of good to be the result of running… The wind flushing my face, the pants I can all of a sudden fit into, the nice feeling of the stretches afterward… And I even woke up to gray skies and some light rain, the perfect weather inspiration for me. But… For me, running is striving. Any exercise at all proves to be striving to my soul.

    So I came looking around the Internet for something to convert my striving soul to freedom, because Freedom is the thing that keeps me running, anyway — striving only serves to wear me out.

    This post is beautiful. Yes, another one of those “knowings” — like Owen Barfield, I call it Home.” And I am having Home right now. The gray skies and light rain have turned to a full-blown torrent of rain with thunder and lightning to match, and about half an hour ago there was darkness in this Illinois town that made me wonder if it wasn’t 10pm instead of 8:30 in the morning. (And still, though pounded with rain, louder than even the thunder the birds sing.)

    I don’t know that I got inspiration to run outside, but on this, my birthday of all days, I got inspiration to search. I was wanting someone or something to stir up in me a Desire for Adventure (“maybe if I desire adventure I’ll imagine that a run will cure it and away I’ll go”), and what this post inspired me to was… Not forgetting. Not forgetting the Life.

    I pulled up the song on Youtube and listened to its beauty. Normally I find myself able to experience the same things as other people when they’ve described them to me… But I couldn’t conjure that up. All I felt, all I knew, was how the Lord ministered to me, not to you. Much Beauty revealed itself to me in it, and for that I am grateful… But what caught me in all the experience was not the thing for which I was looking.

    Had I prepared for a “moment,” I would’ve put on a dress, curled my hair, played the latest album from Fleet Foxes, and made myself some Chai. But instead… Here I am with the fluorescent desklight on and books strewn about me, looking up and copying down and typing in phrase after phrase; here I am in my workout clothes (and I still haven’t exercised) with no make-up and straight hair in a ponytail and… This is where He came. He met me in the thunderstorm outside my window, in this bamboo-scented candle on my desk, in the Rabbit Room post written with such beauty and (thus) applicable Truth . Yes, this is where He met me, profusely invited but yet announced; and I, the grateful dumbfounded one, can only bask and say, “thanks.”

    Thanks for this post. The Beauty of the Lord through His people. Bless you.

    And maybe one day I’ll learn to run…

  13. Christina Rouse

    Thank you Sarah. I turned on Lauridsen, read your post, and “knew” beauty with tears in my eyes.

  14. Abbye West-Pates

    While on a bus in the middle of a city in China, with headphones in, I would sometimes have this “knowing”, “an instant of beauty, of a joy beyond anything we know in this world. A certainty of some good that dwells beyond the limits of what we can see.”

    And since I was also sharing original music, other writings on this trip, God also revealed to me that those words and melodies, too, were giving others those same “knowings,” or often in this context, flashes inside hearts that are yet “on their way” the Kingdom, but have yet to arrive…

    Grateful that you’ve put words here for us today and revealed beauty and truth for us.

  15. Kenny Clark

    Thank you for sharing this. Am I the only one wanting to see the rest of this playlist from your brother? I’m always on the hunt for great music like this.

  16. Janice

    Thank you so much for putting into words those those ‘pure joy’ moments.

    I, too, would love to know about the playlist!

    Blessings!

  17. Chris Yokel

    Lightning strikes twice! Thank you for another wonderful piece Sarah. It reminds me of the tug and pull I often feel when I try to silence myself before beauty–the tyranny of the now seems to rush in even greater, wanting to pull me away. It’s hard to just “be” in such moments. But thankfully beauty does tell the truer tell, and those moments are little preludes of what is to come.

  18. Ashley Elizabeth

    Funny thing? Just last weekend I bought a print of the picture heading this article. I was drawn to it’s beauty and couldn’t exactly pinpoint why. Sarah Clarkson, you’ve captured it. Again. I am grateful for your words of beauty and the place/direction they give to my heart.

  19. Demetrios Leiloglou

    “…promise of a hope that never ends because beauty tells the truth. And I believe it.”

    Amen! Thank you so much for your beautiful words of encouragement and hope. Makes me very homesick for my real home 🙂

  20. J. A. Roelfsema

    Good post, only one contrary comment: beauty can lie. Two quick examples, the fruit in the garden of Eden and Richard Wagner’s attempt to construct a new “worship experience.”

  21. Leighton

    Hmmm… Didn’t like this post.

    One, because I have never been able to nurture a love for classical music. Second, any Celtic music I play, (as in, get out the bagpipes or the pennywhistle or the bodhran or the piano and LITERALLY play it as well as plug in the earbuds) has to be greatly contemporarified for me to like it much or get anything out of it.

    Also… there have been a lot of ’emotive’ essays posted recently on the RR instead of the good stuff. Sorry, it’s just my opinion. No-one else seems to be complaining, so it’s probably just me. 😛

    And, the title of the post is SOO wrong.

    – Leighton

  22. Amber Leffel

    Leighton and Roelfsema,

    I think what Miss Clarkson was referring to was the True Beauty, which is Christ. And in Him, where only True Beauty comes anyway, there is nothing false.

    As for the fruit in the garden of Eden, the fruit did not lie. The fruit offered eternal life and that is what it gave. Satan, the Enemy, was the one who lied.

    Glory be to God!

  23. Fellow Traveler

    An interesting discussion could be had here about the ancient connotations of the word “fair.” It was believed that external beauty really could be an indicator of internal goodness, and vice versa. Comes up in Shakespeare constantly.

  24. Kristin Nichols

    I appreciate all sincere comments – Leighton’s was also sincere and thought-provoking. I do believe he was speaking his truth and, as Keats defined truth: Beauty is truth, truth beauty…” My personal reaction is that I do not seek “emotionality” when I seek truth. And the moments of “knowing” are so powerful because they are a mind/heart/spirit trifecta, much more than only emotive. God’s children are so diverse in their tastes/styles – I trust we will all encounter what speaks truth to our own hearts – and that we will know it when we experience it. Consider this: Beautiful is . . . full of beauty. True beauty is not perverted by the Deceiver, but pure and holy. May we all savor our precious beauty-full moments.

  25. Janna Barber

    Just a quick word about how the Rabbit Room works, though I think Pete or AP could elaborate. This site is the result of a collective of people who volunteer and submit pieces as they see fit. However, we all have differing schedules and time restraints, so there may be a week when Pete receives several pieces from one or two writers and nothing from anyone else. In my opinion, everyone here writes good stuff! However, if there is a writer you prefer, perhaps it would be better for you to wait for their posts and join those discussions rather than criticizing (though I’m sure you didn’t mean it to be so harsh) the ones you do not prefer. And now I am sounding harsh. Oh the stupid internet! Cheers everyone!

  26. Leighton

    Hey, I’d just like to say that I re-read my previous comment and realized that I must have sounded ignorant and nit-picky. Although I meant what I said, I didn’t mean it quite how it came across. I’d like to mention that the post is well written and very emotionally packed.

    The type of beauty mentioned in the post may not lie, but that does not mean that all beauty never lies. I can think of many instances in my personal life in which I encountered deceptive beauty.

    – Leighton

  27. Fellow Traveler

    You’re fine Leighton. I didn’t see a problem with your earlier comment. You were offering your honest opinion in a light-hearted manner, and you made reasonable points. Maybe the thin-skinned type might take offense, but it was just a normal comment. 🙂

  28. Janna Barber

    Thanks for clarifying your comment, Leighton. I can get a little too defensive at times, but I do value the freedom we have here to express our opinions and create an honest discourse.

    Sarah, how did you get to be so much younger and still have so much more life experience than me? Celtic music as a wee lass? Sheesh! Your mind continues to impress, and your heart toward all these things is so tender. Thanks for showing it to us.

  29. MS

    What a gifted writer you are, Sarah. This post amazingly encouraged me and spoke to my present situation. I agree with you–beauty leads us to the truth in life– the invisible Beauty of his reality and presence. Love your writing — it always feeds my soul. Let’s have more of it!

  30. Sarah

    I have to say first how much I loved reading all these comments about the particular “knowings” you all have each had. They brought a great dose of joy my way. To hear how beauty speaks and sings to each of us, in the smallest of ways every day, is a picture of the hope that is always reaching out to claim us. I now have some music from you all that I want to taste as well. Thanks for sharing your stories of beauty here. I savored each one.

    I definitely want to address some of the comments concerning objections to the title, but at the moment, I am so jet-lagged from my trip home from England that I can’t see straight! I’ll comment further tomorrow.

    For tonight, I leave you with music. For those who requested it, here is my brother’s playlist:

    Lux Aeterna, by Morten Lauridsen
    The Lark Ascending, by Ralph Vaughn Williams
    Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, by Ralph Vaughn Williams
    Tenebrae, by Osvaldo Golijov
    Requiem in D Minor, by Mozart
    Violin Concerto in A Minor, by Bach
    Mysterious Mountain, by Alan Hovhaness
    Suite for Solo Cello No.1, in G Major, by Bach
    Chopin: Preludes, by Frederic Chopin, played by Ivo Pogorelich
    The Thin Red Line Soundtrack, by Hans Zimmer

  31. Leighton

    I realized I have another disclaimer I have to make about my original comment. lol

    I actually like movie soundtracks (and not just when hearing them while watching a movie) and tend to group them differently then most classical music, just because they are really totally different. Since they’ve been composed to video, (and usually exciting, fast paced or emotionally bittersweet video) and by people who compose movie soundtracks and only movie soundtracks they are chock full of the same stuff, and when you watch it together with the video, it improves the watching experience triple.

    I would know this fact, considering I am a CG motion graphics artist and have made several videos that we had a dude composing original score to the video. (composer = http://jonmmusic.blogspot.com/ – HE’S AWESOME!)

    When he got the soundtrack back to us, and we played it with the video, it as I said, increased the power of the video threefold. Music is a wonderful thing. 😀

    In case any of you want to see the final video we did, check it out: http://www.youtube.com/v/zfMBqEkB1lE

    – Leighton

  32. Profile photo of Sarah Clarkson

    Sarah Clarkson

    @sarahclarkson

    Just briefly about the title- what I wanted to describe in the essay is the unchanging beauty of God, a sacred beauty, as it wells up in various corners of experience. Amber hit it on the head when she said I was describing the beauty of Christ, the experience of his goodness reaching out to us in art, music, nature, etc. That sacred sort of beauty really does tell the truth about God and the hope to which we are called.

    As a side note though, this whole discussion has me thinking about the nature of beauty and whether it can, in its essence, lie. Of course I agree that beauty can be corrupted, manipulated, and used for downright evil. But I wonder – and I’m just beginning to think about this- if every good and perfect thing has its origin in God, then beauty, by its nature, must tell the truth about him. Can evil create beauty? It can distort, corrupt, or manipulate anything good, but can it originate beauty? If not, then the intrinsic nature of beauty is to tell the truth about its Creator, however obscured or twisted that truth may be. Interesting to think out. I think I have some research to do before I decide. Thanks for the discussion!

  33. Leighton

    I would agree that evil cannot create beauty, only God can. Of course evil can twist and manipulate it, as you said. The only problem I had with the title was the lack of specifism as to what beauty was being spoken of God’s Beauty or any random beauty. 😛

  34. Monday Morning Worthwhile Reads (7/4/11) « The Recovering Pharisee

    […] Beauty Never Lies (by Sarah Clarkson) I think most of us have these “knowings.” C.S. Lewis called them “joy,” the great gladness that startled him into his faith. L.M. Montgomery (author of Anne of Green Gables) called them “the flash.” Tolkien called them “eucatastrophe,” the unexpected grace of a happy ending. But all of them mean the same; the taste, in an instant of beauty, of a joy beyond anything we know in this world. A certainty of some good that dwells beyond the limits of what we can see. […]

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