A Navajo blessing petitions, “In beauty may I walk” and with “Beauty all around me, may I walk.” Life is beautiful in its amazing variety and wild abundance, and spirituality involves amazement at fierce landscapes and constantly changing seascapes.
Despite the amazing world in which we live and the wondrous complexity of our own inner lives beauty is often underestimated in the practice of spiritual formation. Mysticism is often identified with asceticism and world denial. Some spiritual teachers counsel that love of God and love of the world conflict with one another. In contrast, I believe that beauty is at the heart of spirituality and that, with poet W.H. Auden, spiritual growth involves loving God in the world of the flesh. God is beautiful and we can experience God’s beauty in all things, because ultimately “God is in all things, and all things are in God.”
Scripture celebrates beauty. The King James Version of Psalm 96:9 proclaims, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” The New Revised Standard Version translates the same verse, “Worship the Lord in holy splendor.” God’s beauty is celebrated in Psalm 148 where all creation praises God and Jesus delights in the lilies of the field, birds of the air, and playful children.
Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead asserts that the teleology, or aim, of the universe is the production of beauty, involving a dynamic blend of contrasts, hues, order and chaos, and novelty and stability. In that same spirit, author Patricia Adams Farmer counsels us in one of her books to embrace a beautiful God. Yet, sadly, we are often beauty deprived. It’s not that beauty is absent from our lives but that we are too busy to notice it. We simply think we have better things to do than amazement at God’s world and delight in God’s handiwork or we believe that productivity conflicts with receptivity and appreciation.
Alice Walker suggests that we miss something important about God’s nature when are oblivious to beauty:
I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.
God is the ultimate beauty maker and God enjoys the world in all its diverse flora and fauna, culture and civilization, color and creativity, and wants us to enjoy the wonders that God has brought forth. Enjoying beauty is a form of thanksgiving.
How do we move from beauty deprivation to embracing a beautiful God and God’s beautiful world? How do we emphasize beauty in our spiritual practices?
As always, there are many paths toward beauty and wholeness, each appropriate to our particular life situation, schedule, and responsibilities. First, we can pray to become more aware of beauty. We can pray in the spirit of the Navajo prayer, “May I walk in beauty,” asking God to awaken your senses to the beauties of each moment. Second, we can intentionally pause throughout the day to notice what’s around us. Often we are too busy to notice what’s all around us. A good practice is to take what Patricia Adams Farmer call taking a “beauty break.” Intentional times to pause and open to beauty throughout the day can transform our lives.
Third, we can pray with our eyes open. If, as Meister Eckhardt says, all things are words of God, then we can experience God’s beauty everywhere. These days I live in a place of great and obvious natural beauty—oceans, dunes, woodlands, wildlife and sea life, and ponds. But, prior to coming to Cape Cod, I lived for a year in a high rise in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Even in a village of high rises, in the hustle and bustle of our nation’s capital, I took time to wake up at sunrise and listen to the birds as I took my morning walk. I found beauty in the flora and fauna of my urban neighborhood. I even discovered a “half acre wood” similar to Winnie the Pooh’s “100 Aker Wood,” where I could retreat in the shadow of majestic trees and towering apartment buildings. Once the city awakened, I took time to gaze at the wondrous panorama of human life, and notice the uniqueness of each person, quietly looking for the divine within them. I took time to notice the architecture of the city. While humans have brought much ugliness to the world, human artifice can also reveal divine creativity and wisdom.
Fourth, become a giver of beauty. Beauty is a matter of vision, of seeing more deeply into reality—of pausing, noticing, opening, yielding and stretching, and then responding, as spiritual guide Gerald May counsels. Look for beauty and then bring it out of its hiding places through acts of beauty and compassion. Mother Teresa reminds us to do “something beautiful for God.” We can join God’s beauty-making process, or we can add to the ugliness of life. For those who notice beauty, the protection and cultivation of beauty becomes a daily vocation. This is a moment to moment decision, which bids us to pray both “May I walk in beauty” and “May I bring beauty wherever I go.”
A spirituality of beauty joins praise, thanksgiving, amazement, wonder, and healing and compassionate action. May we, as we go through our day, walk with beauty all around us,” rejoicing in God’s good earth and adding to its beauty.
Bruce Epperly is the author of many books on spirituality, including the recently released Becoming Fire: Spiritual Practices for Global Christians, available now.