“There is but one sin,” wrote G.K. Chesterton: “to call a green leaf grey.” Which is to say, every kind of sin derives from a willful refusal to see and enjoy the beauty, the glimmers of transcendence that surround us. The serpent, remember, stood with Eve in the beauty and abundance of Eden and said, in effect, “Can’t you see that God is holding out on you?” To refuse to see beauty—to call a green leaf grey—is to say that God is not good.
Beauty is a kind of grace. It comes from outside and changes something on the inside, and it usually comes as a surprise when it does. When I experience beauty I am very aware that something is happening that I could have never ginned up within myself. I feel gratitude. I feel longing. I feel that there is more going on than I can account for. But I can’t feel pride as a result of experiencing beauty. Consider by contrast other aspects of religious experience—truth, say, or morality. When I understand truth (or think I do), I am in constant danger of considering myself better than those who don’t understand that truth. When I practice morality, I am in similar peril. I don’t wish to belittle either truth or morality; beauty wouldn’t be much good without them. I mean only to suggest that when it comes to understanding what grace is and how it works, beauty is a pretty good guide.
Beauty is sneaky like grace, fulfilling desires and healing hurts we didn’t even know we had. It slips past our defenses. Beauty isn’t quite irresistible (we all make ourselves blind to beauty from time to time), but even the hardest heart would have to be vigilant indeed never to be affected by a wide sky or a bright eye or a well-turned poem.
In the end, however, the real work of earthly beauty isn’t to fulfill our longings but to stir up longings it could never fulfill. Beauty sidles up and whispers, “What do I remind you of?” Then it slips away and leaves us wanting more.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we’ve ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.