Contemplative Life, Creation

Encountering Beauty (and God) in Nature

86. From Aurora Leigh
By Elizabeth Barrett Browning

TRUTH, so far, in my book;—the truth which draws
Through all things upwards,—that a twofold world
Must go to a perfect cosmos. Natural things
And spiritual,—who separates those two
In art, in morals, or the social drift
Tears up the bond of nature and brings death,
Paints futile pictures, writes unreal verse,
Leads vulgar days, deals ignorantly with men,
Is wrong, in short, at all points. We divide
This apple of life, and cut it through the pips,
The perfect round which fitted Venus’ hand
Has perished as utterly as if we ate
Both halves. Without the spiritual, observe,
The natural’s impossible,—no form,
No motion: without sensuous, spiritual
Is inappreciable,—no beauty or power:
And in this twofold sphere the twofold man
(For still the artist is intensely a man)
Holds firmly by the natural, to reach
The spiritual beyond it,—fixes still
The type with mortal vision, to pierce through,
With eyes immortal, to the antetype
Some call the ideal,—better call the real,
And certain to be called so presently
When things shall have their names…

Elizabeth Barrett Browning describes those who separate the spiritual world from the natural world as “wrong, in short, at all points.”  Those are strong words.  The natural world loses its form and motion, she says, without the inclusion of the spiritual.  And we cannot appreciate the spiritual world without the natural world because we would have no senses with which to muster any.  And she makes the claim that “twofold” man houses the spiritual and the natural within himself, using the natural parts as a way to reach the spiritual realms.

So the natural and the spiritual are linked, tied together in eternally important ways that we, intrinsically as humans, carry within us as we operate in the world, whether we know it or not.  And, whoever you are, wherever you go, there is a way to sense beauty in the natural world, especially through nature itself.  Nature is beautiful.  God is its author. There again we see that the two are linked forever, as the latter spoke the former into being.

Annie Dillard prompted, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “the real and proper question is: why is it beautiful?”  God could have created something that wasn’t beautiful to look at.  The natural world could be completely uninspiring, flat, unvaried, and colorless.  But it is exactly the opposite.  Why?  Because we are meant to understand a small portion of God’s beauty through his Creation.  We are meant to know a small portion of his love for us through Creation.  In his authorship of the natural world we see, we are meant to know him better.

Back in his SOUNDINGS post from February, Bill Haley made the excellent point that beauty can be used as an Icon, a way that one created thing can point us to a way to look at God.  He said about icons, “You don’t look at them, the point is to look through them.”  Dante Alighieri says, “Nature is the art of God.”  God spoke, and there was darkness and light, the heavens and the earth, and so much more.

Nature, in all its beauty and wildness, can also be a thing to look through to get a better picture of God.

Even as our “mortal vision” sees the trees down the road grow branches, lose leaves, bring forth blossom and fruit, or die, if we look through the tree, looking for God through what he wrote and spoke into being, the work of his hands and his very being, shouldn’t we expect “to pierce through with eyes immortal to the antetype some call the ideal, – better call the real”?  I think so.

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