A Crisis Of Beauty


by Fr. Stephen Freeman

There is a crisis of beauty within my culture. That is a very kind way to say that much of the world around me, at least the civilizational part, is ugly. It is not an ugliness born of poverty (though poverty is very ugly around here) – unless we understand that there is a poverty within the human spirit that begets ugliness. My thoughts on my environment are not just my opinion. In the late 1940?s, John Gunther, author of Inside USA, dubbed Knoxville (the hub of our metro area) the “ugliest city” in America. The city has worked hard to overcome the moniker.

Such a designation only makes our city the “ugliest of the ugly,” for the truth is, it looks like most of America. American towns have been driven by utility. There is no central, cultural notion of what a building should look like. The cozy villages of Europe were the products of a cultural consensus. American architectural landscape is best described with words like “sprawling,” and “franchise.”

The small town I live in, built in the 1940?s to house the “Manhattan Project,” America’s effort to build the first nuclear weapon, bears some of the marks of its wartime heritage, but is mostly just a collection of successful and unsuccessful franchised America. The unsuccessful ones tend to leave their “bones” behind (empty buildings). There’s a former Pizza Hut with its uniquely shaped windows that is now, I think, a medical clinic. It was a jewelry store for a while. At least the roof is no longer red.

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Of course, I also live very near one of the most wonderful National Parks in America: the Great Smokey Mountains, part of a mountain chain that is perhaps the oldest in the world. Much of it is unspoiled – a treasure-trove of natural beauty.

It is tragic to associate human activity with ugliness. In our part of the world, those who champion beauty are also committed foes of development and the expansion of the human habitat. They have a point.

Beauty is a reflection of the Divine Nature. From the greatest expanse of stars to the most microscopic parts of creation, beauty is woven into all that exists. Human beings are beautiful as well – inherently so. It is for this reason that our modern penchant for the mundane, banal and empty is so striking.

I was recently interviewed by someone collecting opinions from area leaders about their take on our local needs. I was asked about “crisis” areas. I surprised myself when the first words out of my mouth were, “We have a crisis of beauty.” Surely I think something else is more important. But I’m not sure that I do. Our lack of beauty is both symptom and the lack of a cure. For the lack of beauty can only be healed by the presence of beauty. My region of the nation was also recently dubbed as the most “Bible-centered” city in America. This is tragic.

One of the instincts of Orthodoxy is that of beauty. Orthodox Churches are not accidentally beautiful. They vary across the world, but their beauty, even when simple, is as intentional as any aspect of the Liturgy. The doctrine of icons – their making and veneration – is a liturgical incarnation of the doctrine of beauty. Icons are not art – they are representations of beauty in the Truth of its Existence.

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We are now in the season of Great Lent. It is a serious season – a time of fasting and of intense prayer. But it is not a season in which the Church is stripped bare and nakedness allowed to reign (I reflect on such tendencies in a number of Western Churches). Oddly, my Lenten vestments may be the most beautiful set that I own. They are dark (black) and intense. But on the night of Pascha, a rich hymn of beauty will be sung. We sang it (as a sort of farewell and remembrance of our goal) last Sunday during Forgiveness Vespers as we began the journey of Lent.

It is a song of Pascha:

Pascha of beauty, the Pascha of the Lord, a Pascha worthy of all honor has dawned for us.
Pascha! Let us embrace each other joyously. O Pascha, ransom from affliction!
For today as from a bridal chamber Christ has shown forth from the tomb and filled the women with joy saying:
Proclaim the glad tidings to the apostles.

This is the day of resurrection. Let us be illumined by the feast.
Let us embrace each other.
Let us call “Brothers” even those that hate us, and forgive all by the resurrection, and so let us cry:

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

A Pascha of beauty begins in the soul. It is there above all that I find the crisis of beauty. Lord, have mercy.

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