March 18, 2016

Beauty betrays eternity

What is that phenomenon we call ‘beauty’ and why does it lie at the core of both collective civilisation and individual desire, even as we value it precisely for existing outside of practicality?

I was a hemisphere away when the news of my grandfather’s death reached London, and the weight of it was alleviated by 6,000 miles restricting daily familiarity and intimacy. Growing up on a separate continent, it was considered generous to spend even a few days of each year together.

Still, he was my father’s father, my flesh and blood. Given the otherwise artistically dry genetic landscape, our family always attributes my creative inclinations solely to him; Grandfather was a renowned Chinese calligraphy artist working within a society that considered his craft among the most respected of ancient traditions.

Though grateful and proud of his legacy, I have often wondered how one man can dedicate his life to the subjectivity of a brushstroke and inspire such fiery admiration, envy, honour. What is that phenomenon we call ‘beauty’ and why does it lie at the core of both collective civilisation and individual desire, even as we value it precisely for existing outside of practicality?

In his essay The Weight of Glory [1], C.S. Lewis explains it as an echo of eternity, imprinted upon humanity as an indication of our origin and destiny. This longing manifests itself in both the profound and pedestrian; it is the eerie, breathtaking satellite image of some faraway nebula and the brief respite of a morning stroll through Hyde Park; it is the quivering, operatic note held at the climax of an aria and the easy catharsis of Glastonbury music festival under a summer sky. According to Lewis, all these instances are ‘the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard’.

Experiencing physical thirst implies that our bodies were designed to require hydration. Couldn’t this mysterious echo of eternity, so well disguised yet omnipresent, suggest that we are all designed for some eternal destination?

Although our very existence—all its most ‘beautiful’ moments, the best stuff of this life—resonates with the eternal harmony beyond death, it is an appetite impossible to fully identify and satiate on a finite Earth. If we become complete upon dying to this world, surely we should confront our mortality with patient hopefulness rather than the fear, reluctance, and avoidance that dominates the Western mindset. Why the discrepancy?

Perhaps our most profound discomfort surrounding death has little to do with morbidity or loss, and everything to do with an unwillingness to confront the eternity imprinted upon our souls. The idea of Heaven is anticipating a state of infinite existence in incomprehensible perfection, an everlasting unity with God. Modern society has brushed it aside, chuckling at a mental image of clip-on wings and fluffy white clouds; anything we can’t test in a well-equipped laboratory is easily dismissed as another fairytale spun by the uneducated, primitive, or brainwashed. Relegating it to the realm of ridiculousness seems easier, and then at least it is safely categorised. We’ve made a laughing stock of Heaven, yet traces of it haunt us daily. It compels yet confounds us like a word constantly on the tip of our tongues, but in a language we have never known.

And still it is better than we could imagine, though we have trouble imagining it at all. We can appreciate the singular flavours of egg, sugar, and butter without fully understanding or tasting the magnificence of a three-tiered Victoria sponge birthday cake with freshly whipped raspberry buttercream frosting. Even when we feel satisfied reading every cake recipe in the world, how exceedingly joyful is the affair of being surprised with glowing candles, surrounded by singing friends and family, to share and sink your fork into—as it were—a slice of heaven. This world can offer appetising whiffs of vanilla and even the best cookbooks, but that metaphoric cake awaits beyond time and space if only we believe it is accessible by grace through Jesus Christ, the bridge between God and Man, between infinite and temporal. He urges us now just as he did his disciples thousands of years ago: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?’ [2]

My grandfather was just here, and now he’s not. By the time I arrived in Taiwan, the funeral was long over and what remained of his physical presence fit neatly into a few boxes for museum donation. Our lives are a vapour in the wind, but I like to think of my grandfather’s life work as a calligraphic echo of infinity, brushstrokes of Nostalgia, an inkling of Heaven. In death, he finally assumes the state of sublimity that his art had always evoked, fanning the flame of eternity in many others along the way.

[1] The Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis was originally preached as a sermon in Oxford 1942
[2] John 14:1–2 is attributed to John the Evangelist (New International Version) 

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