We Sisters of Notre Dame are divided into smaller groups that meet once a month to share faith together. Using scripture, other readings, music, and prayer, we try to share our faith more deeply with one other, often focusing on a certain theme. Last month’s theme was beauty.
I shared excerpts from an article I saved from the Notre Dame Magazine (August 2012). The article, by Scott Russell Sanders of Bloomington, Indiana, was entitled “Useless Beauty.” Some of the thoughts in this reflection are based on his beautiful article.
Sanders does not define beauty. He leaves that to philosophers. But he does describe many examples of beauty from the natural world. He concludes that some beauty is useful. In fact, some beauty seems specifically designed to increase the chances of survival for organisms or species. The peacock’s tail, for example, is attractive to mates. The zebra’s stripes confuse predators. The monarch butterfly’s bright orange, gold, and black wings, shout to predators: “I’m poison! Don’t eat me!” The blinking of fireflies, the courtship dance of sandhill cranes, and the chirps of spring peepers all can be a result of natural selection.
But what about useless beauty, that is, beauty that seems to have no purpose—except to be? Sanders gives a host of examples of useless beauty; for example, the pearly interior of the nautilus shell. No one sees this beauty—except the nautilus and a two-legged predator who now collects these shells and slices them in half, thus exposing their interior beauty for other two-legged animals to see—and hopefully buy!
The extravagance of useless beauty is seen in geodes. Inside these brownish-grayish lumps of sediment are orange agate, bands of purple amethyst, strands of pale blue chalcedony, and bursts of red jasper. Useless beauty is found in some beetles “bearing scrawls on their backs as jazzy as urban graffiti.” The color, scent, and shape of many flowers are designed to attract pollinators, yes. But aren’t some flowers much fancier than they need to be—fuchsia, bleeding hearts, wild columbine, the iris, to name a few?
And what about the useless beauty found in the nonliving world? What about sunrises and sunsets, the northern lights, the stars, the sea with its vast expanse and its steady drumming on the shore? What about clouds, waterfalls, glaciers, mountains, canyons? There is useless beauty everywhere!
What effect does beauty have on humans? Recall a recent experience of beauty that you had. How did it make you feel? Sanders uses these words to describe such an experience: enthralling, nourishing, invigorating, thrilling. If we are alone, we often find ourselves calling out to someone else to come and share the experience. We might find ourselves wanting to protect the source of this beauty for our children, grandchildren, and children yet to be born so they too may have the same experience of awe.
What does all this beauty reveal about the Creator? Says Sanders, “The Designer must be inordinately fond of beauty.” Anyone who believes this would view beauty as sacred and deserving of our care. Unfortunately, a utilitarian ethic is present in our world, an ethic that says nothing has value unless it is useful to humans. “What good is a wilderness if we can’t drill it for oil or mine it for minerals? What good is an ancient forest if it doesn’t yield board-feet of lumber? Why protect wild salmon if we can grow fish in concrete vats laced with chemicals?”
How then should we live in a world saturated with beauty? We must make time for beauty in our every day. We must rejoice in this beauty, give thanks for it, care for it, “and strive to add our own mite of beauty, with whatever power and talent we posses.”
Recall an experience of beauty that you had. How did it make you feel?
Do you make time for beauty in your every day? If so, how?
How are you adding your own “mite of beauty” in the world through your power or talent?
The song today is one I often use for retreats: “Creation Calls” by Brian Doerksen. (The second version has the lyrics.) This video celebrates the beauty and diversity of the planet we call home. After every viewing, I find myself asking, “What must God be like?”
I welcome your responses to this reflection. Enrich us with your “mite of beauty” below…