by Libby Baker, Class Five Teacher
We do not talk about Beauty enough. We do this for a host of silly reasons. We don’t want to be considered cliché, or we do not want our more spiritual neighbors to perhaps consider us worldly. Much worse, we simply do not care. But all the while, our
lives are inundated with what must be considered truly beautiful.
In his own essay concerning Beauty, Ralph Waldo Emerson, “warned by the ill fate of many philosophers,”(1) shied away from giving a fixed definition of Beauty and I must follow his wise example. But nonetheless, the soaring notes of an exceptional orchestral piece, a poem brimming with both profound emotion and truth, and a beautiful painting all should remind us of the inescapability of Beauty. Summertime especially, full of its lake vacations, blossoms, and chirps, shows the natural world a thing of Beauty as well. The fact cannot be denied: we live in a beautiful world created by a beautiful Creator who continues to nurture His creation through a host of human creators. There are many ways to react to Christ’s bountiful Beauty. In Pensées, Pascal famously expresses his dread of the eternal and sublime, but there is another Christian response as well.
In July, I had the privilege of attending the CiRCE Institute Conference along with Clapham’s new teachers and leadership team. This year’s conference centered upon the topic of Creation, but throughout the three days of discussions, breakout sessions, and plenary addresses, the speakers kept returning to the subject of Beauty. To most, the Beauty of Christ, his “good” Creation, and the beauty of the liberal arts were inextricably linked. To delight in one is to cultivate a delight in the others. David Hicks, conference speaker and author of Norms and Nobility, summed up this point profoundly. He said,
“To desire God is to know him… It is the Beauty of Christ that makes us desire [God].”
At CiRCE, I found a host of exemplars of Hicks' thought: a man moved to tears while explaining the majesty of Holst’s Planets, a woman whose recitation and explication of a Robert Frost poem gave everyone in her audience goose-bumps, and an educator unashamed of his deep admiration for the prehistoric cave paintings at Chauvet. This man, Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image Journal, reflected on art and religion’s shared capacity to inspire the deepest of questions about ourselves and about our relationship with God. Wolfe noted how we lost something when art and religion were divorced from each other. He reflected on the importance of recognizing Truth in Beauty and in responding through creativity. He emphasized three ways to participate in Christ: in prayer, in penance, and in imagination. At Clapham, we have an opportunity to do all three. I left the conference with a renewed enthusiasm to discover Beauty and to cultivate a similar desire in my students.
At one of the many tables selling curricula and teaching tools, a friendly classical education enthusiast from Image Journal gave me a sticker saying, “Beauty will save the world.” I thought the sentiment alarmingly appropriate and took the proffered sticker happily. I can think of no better sentence to sum up what CiRCE’s conference on Creation taught me. After all, Christian classical educators, certainly the ones at Clapham, do not seek to educate children so they can impress people with their Latin grammar or get into the right college. While we do not begrudge our students their hard-won head knowledge, we seek something far more lasting. We educate children so they will be inspired and empowered to live a godly life of virtuous intellect and imagination. We believe an exposure to Beauty--in books, in music, in nature, will cultivate, as David Hicks noted, a ‘desire for God.’ After all, Beauty is not something to shy away from; it is a way to be led to Christ.
1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and English Traits (New York City: P. F. Collier, 1909), 311.