"Christian philosophers have been singularly alive to the sadness which beauty may provoke. 'When we admire the beauty of visible objects, we experience joy certainly,' observed the medieval thinker Hugh of St. Victor, 'but at the same time, we experience a feeling of tremendous void' . . . . Beauty, then is a fragment of the divine, and the sight of it saddens us by evoking our sense of loss and our yearning for the life denied us." (Alain de Botton, in The Architecture of Happiness)
It's 11:38 p.m. You just finished paying the last bills, put away the dishes from dinner, put in a load of laundry, folded what seemed a hundredfold small articles of clothing, fed the animals, and put the toys back in the toy chest (even the Matchbox cars pushed under the sofa). You hoist a brimming laundry basket and, dimming the last light, wearily turn and head up the stairs. At the top of the stairs you set the laundry basket down, thinking you will look in on your son and daughter where they sleep. You stand at the side of their bed and watch their deep breathing, the sweetness of a face at peace, see the perspiration on their face as the surplus energy of a full day of play oozes out. A feeling of joy wells up in you, unbidden, the kind that swallows up all your deep weariness. And then you sense something else underneath the joy, something you recognize as a profound sadness, and you turn to leave, an unspoken prayer caught in your throat.
It's late June, and you just walked the over 300 steps to the top of Bridal Vail Falls in the Yosemite Valley. You recognize the reality from John Muir's detailed descriptions or Ansel Adam's black and white photos. You're out of breath from the ascent, but the view from up top is rewarding. The water in the fall is full, thundering over the edge of the cliff, filling the air with mist, a dramatic evidence of purposeful and not accidental creation. It is enough to provoke a prayer of praise, heartfelt and, yet, woven into the prayer, a longing for more and an inarticulatable sense of loss.
Saturday evening there is a party in your home. Good friends gather around a fire, laughing, enjoying memories. You're talking about your children, when they were young, laughing at some funny comment, remembering some shared event. Laughter almost brings tears. You sip a cup of your favorite English tea, the mug warming your hands. Looking at the familiar faces around you, you exhale a great thankfulness, happy for this moment together. Then, a certain wistfulness begins to impinge, stealing some of the intensity of that sense of wholeness. You know the time together will end.
On the other side of whatever beauty we experience --- whether family, nature, or friendship --- lies a sense that it is incomplete, temporal, and sure to be dashed by some event, word, or deed. When we know beauty, it's as if we stare into Eden, for a moment, our soul flooded by a sense of what it is like, and yet close behind comes the realization, common but displaced by temporary amnesia, that the way back to Eden is barred, "cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life" (Gen. 3:24). A neon sign flashes "NO RETURN." An ominous guard, feet squarely planted, arms crossed, bars our path. Trespass is not allowed.
In his commentary, Matthew Henry says that this image was, for Adam and for us, a reminder of God's displeasure, of his judgment, that the way of deliverance and of wholeness is not back to Eden but on to a new heavens and earth, promised through the seed of the woman. Viewed this way, what we sense when we peer into a moment of sublime beauty is both the judgment of the Fall --- that temporal and incomplete feeling of joy, thankfulness, and peace we have in an experience of beauty --- as well as the hope and expectation of something more --- a recreated, perfect heavens and earth. God gives us a vivid visual reminder that the way back to Eden is foreclosed as a prompt to set our hearts on what He promises --- an experience of beauty and wholeness that will never end and which is not undercut by sadness or longing. The beauty we now experience, whatever its manifestation, is, as C.S. Lewis once said, "not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news of a country we have never yet visited." This beauty "must bear at best only a symbolical relation to what will truly satisfy."
Many people stop at beauty. Don't. Look through it both to see the way to Eden foreclosed and, yet, the promise of true Beauty yet to come. "No longer will there be any curse" (Rev. 22:3). In this Great Reversal, we'll be bidden to take and eat of the tree of life. And we will.