Holiness & Beauty

February 27, 2008

I was profoundly struck by the discussion we had in one of my classes about the relation between holiness and beauty—specifically the definition of holiness as that which is beaubeauty of holinesstiful. Being an amateur philosopher and a lover of the liberal arts, beauty and aesthetics have always fascinated me. The image of God as Creator, the ultimate source of creativity, has inspired unspeakable awe and wonder. The idea that beauty embodies holiness, or that one may find holiness in the experience of beauty (visually or as we said in class, through the beautiful act or the recognition of beautiful character), has sent me back to my undergrad days, reading Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, meditating on the character and mind of God.

The relation between holiness and beauty was an especially apt concept for me last week as I prepared to do something new and rather innovative (relatively speaking) in Presbyterian Chapel. We had our first “Worship with Creative Arts” chapel. As I sat in the prayer room the week before, I thought about this definition of holiness as beauty, and I began meditating on that relationship. I thought about how God’s holiness is reflected in the beauty of the earth God has created—with just a word! What creative power that word holds! We, in response, can participate in that holiness when we participate in beauty—enjoying it and creating it. So in chapel this morning, we spread out art supplies all over the room and asked people to meditate on Isaiah 58:11 and Matthew 6:28-33 and respond to that meditation by creating something—anything—to offer to God at the end of the service. What a response! It was truly inspiring to see Presbyterians (traditionally the “frozen chosen”) able to glorify God by participating in the services with their gifts and their creativity.

I started out with these two verses, asking what they told us about God. The nature imagery grabbed my attention: the well-watered garden, the sun-scorched desert, the splendor of Solomon, the lilies of the field. And then the context of these verses struck me: Isaiah 58:11 comes as a promise in the midst of fasting, observing the Sabbath, and serving the poor andwell-watered garden marginalized. Matthew 6:28 comes in the midst of the sermon on the mount, as Jesus taught his listeners how to live and serve God. These passages, these promises, require action on our parts. They require response! Yet they promise in the midst of stress, grief, brokenness, doubt, uncertainty about the future that God will sustain. They promise that whether we bear concerns of finances, employment, community, love, wisdom and discernment, gifts (creative, intellectual, or spiritual), God will provide. And our response in chapel? We sang a song and drew a picture.

In my own meditations on these theme verses, so many more began to come to mind: Psalm 8—what is the human that God is mindful of us? Psalm 42—the deer pants for water. Isaiah 6—the imagery-laden call in God’s throne room. Revelation 22:17 – all who are thirsty come to the river of life. 1 Kings 10:23-25—an account of Solomon’s glory. Particularly with Solomon, I think it’s interesting that with all we can do and create on our own, with all the glory that Solomon amassed, it cannot hold a candle to the creative word of God that would speak a lily into existence. God’s creativity and beauty, as God’s holiness, are so wholly other; yet we are made in the image of that creative and beautiful and holy God, and our words contain the power to create as well.

I thought also about John 15:1-17—the fruit of the vine that results when we abide in the vine that is Jesus. It is from God that we get our creative gifts, but to use them properly and to their full abundance, we must remain attached to the God through whom flows that creative power. That holiness. That holy, holy, holy holiness. Otherwise we are nothing more than Solomon’s glory, amazing for a moment but lost forever because of the disconnect with the holiness and beauty of God. Also Psalm 29 – the beauty of holiness, this is not a new thought! The Israelites understood this deep connection between beauty and holiness, this innate part of God’s glory that must be recognized and responded to. This creativity is what we were created for (Gen 1-2), to bring forth fruit from the earth.

As I sat in chapel last week, watching my fellow “frozen chosen” mold play-dough, cubeautiful lilyt up pieces of paper, glue glitter on card stock, and paint the beautiful bouquet of lilies my friend gave me for Valentine’s Day—as I listened to the gifts of music and poetry being offered throughout the hour—I was overwhelmed with the presence of God among us. Out of our chaos, out of our disordered and last-minute scrambling, out of our lifeless planning and preparing, out of our concerns and fears and misunderstandings, in the midst of our stress and grief and doubt, God moved. God moved powerfully. God spoke in our hearts, and we responded with crayons and glue. And God was honored. God was glorified. We experienced the holiness and beauty of God in our communal creation for God’s name this morning. A bunch of Presbyterians made Sunday-School artwork for God. And what a blessing it was to us all!

That is my meditation on the relation between holiness and beauty, inspired by class. I don’t have it all worked out yet. I’m still thinking and wondering. I still want to know how exactly those words are related in Hebrew and Greek. I still want to know if it’s the beauty of holiness or the holiness of beauty. Or both. I’m still deciding whether it’s the heart or the head that experiences this intertwining of holiness and beauty. Maybe it’s both as well. What I do know is that God provides. God sustains. God by that creative word speaks life into us, and we in turn are able to speak life into each other, into the world. And that is—for me—a holy, awesome thought.

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