“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.
Thank you for this beautiful green leaf, JR. It leaves me wanting more, and makes me want to thank Someone.
Ah, yes, “…the real work of earthly beauty isn’t to fulfill our longings but to stir up longings it could never fulfill.”… to be homesick for glory…
Jonathan, if I had another son…he would have been named Jonathan. As such my beloved son is named Joshua. He is beautiful!
I have been pondering the difference between intellectual knowledge and the ways of the Holy Spirit that are beyond understanding. The word that came to me is “Beauty” and when I stop and pay attention I find “Beauty” all around me. Paying attention is worship. Worship the Lord, in the beauty of holiness.
Thank you for opening a vein in your heart and pouring it out on paper (or splashing it on an illuminated screen) I am going to print it out. It will go into my journal to ponder.
Great thoughts JR. I love that the words beauty and strength are interchangeable biblically as you read different translations or see it in a footnote as an alternate translation because like grace it’s disarming in its effect on our lives and at times overwhelms us in a powerful way. Happy Thanksgiving!
I’m particularly struck by the uniquely humbling characteristic of beauty, and its connection to grace. One of those things I’ve felt, but hadn’t found words for.
Thanks for this, Jonathan.
Thank you, Jonathan.
It seems every time I turn around these days I’m reminded that beauty is everywhere. And also that the most beautiful work of the Holy Spirit in my life comes when I am not trying to make things work; those delightful surprises of grace and beauty that come when I’m letting Him work.
“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.”
Best definition of “Sehnsucht” I’ve read since “The Weight of Glory”. Love this!!
I had a “Yes! This is it!” moment while reading this. Thank you so much.
Yes, thank you for sharing this and lightening my heart.
Hi, I know this is an old post, but the Chesterton quote has been floating around in my head and I was wondering where it came from. Where can I find the rest of the essay? Thank you for quoting it; this is a lovely article.
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