Experiencing Beauty, Pain, and Eternity in the Now
This summer, at long last, my life’s dream came true and I traveled to Paris. Paris, France—for s-e-v-e-n whole days (bébé)—was mine to roam, explore, taste, smell, and touch. All the places I’d read about from poets like Cummings and novelists like Hemingway, all the art I’d only seen miniature glossy reconstructions of—Bosch, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Monet—I saw with my own eyes. I ate buttery croissants full of chocolat, drank café in little cups, had cheese and baguettes, cheese and jambon, and more cheese (s’il vous plait). I wandered through antiquated streets, raced through the maze of avenues and rues, and lost myself in the labyrinthine haze of the Paris metro. By the time I found the Notre Dame cathedral, Versailles, or the Louvre, I was already breathless. What is my point? I promise that it isn’t to leave you with a little je ne sais quoi (even if we all could use a little more mystery).
My point is this: Paris was beautiful. It was beautiful in the golden morning light, in the blue hues of evening, and in the glittered litter of stars at night. Built, molded, and fashioned over the course of years and eras, the city was beautiful in a timeless way. It was a beauty that had been worked for—with sweat and blood, hope and ardor. And it was a beauty you worked for, even if only for seven days, just to see it. Lines were long, crowds were thick, and the July heat was humid and compressed. You would walk for miles just so you could find the Mona Lisa, and then press your way to the front of a crowd to steal a mere moment with her. And it would be worth it. The pleasure you’d feel would have that painful twinge that only truly beautiful things give. On this earth, in this life, beauty usually is like that, non?
All my life I’ve heard the cliché that nothing is ever free. After Paris, I found myself agreeing with this a lot more. Beauty is something we typically have to pay for in some way—even if not monetarily. Perhaps we don’t buy plane tickets to go to Paris; but we buy the gas in our cars, we give our time, we exert our energy to go to ‘X’. For us in the now, beauty is often made or experienced in light of a spectrum. As creatures of this spectrum, we expend to experience the beautiful, and the beautiful itself expends us, depending on the echelon of its aesthetic. And what of the pain? Surely the beautiful hurts because it is a taste of the Eden we have lost, a glimpse into eternity that, because of our fallen states, must somehow be earned for it to be ours. From the outside, it hurts to look into heaven.
And here is the real je ne sais quoi about beauty: It hurts because it reminds us of eternity, but the actual beauty of eternity itself is only given freely. Beauty with a capital ‘B’—the beatific vision of God himself that everyone from Augustine to Clairvaux spoke of—the Creator of the created—this we cannot earn, work for, or make with our own hands. Instead, we can only receive it. Paris is not free; but paradise—knowing God, gazing upon his holy hill—is for all who trust in Christ alone for their salvation, because it has been fully paid for already by our Lord. There is no work that needs to be done by us to earn Beauty. We are free, by grace alone, simply to enjoy Him.