Surprised by Beauty

Article excerpt

I WAS AWAY on a retreat recently when the mirror surprised me. Normally, I can hardly bear to see my own face in the mornings, so it was only by chance that I happened to glance into the mirror as I turned on the light switch. There was my face looking back at me. My wet hair was sticking up every which way, and water was trickling down the side of my nose. And I was smiling. Pleased with the person I saw there, I smiled in return.

Then it hit me. For the first time in my whole life I was looking in the mirror and liking what I saw. I was happy at the sight of my own face; I was enjoying the shape of it, the appearance of my eyes and mouth, my nose and wet, silly hair. In that moment, I found myself beautiful.

I found myself beautiful? What a terrible thing for a polite person, especially a religious person, to say. But I don't mean "pretty"; after all, "pretty" has no more to do with "beautiful" than "nice" has to do with "good." "Pretty" is measured against another standard. It is a comparative term, having more to do with what our culture tells us we ought to look like if we are to be desirable and successful in it. It is like grading on a curve: in order for one person to be pretty, 29 people have to fail to meet the mark. No, in these terms, I wasn't pretty and never will be.

Beauty, however, is something else entirely. For a single moment, I had seen myself as God sees me and sees each of us, stripped of all the daily judgments we render against ourselves and each other for our failures to live up to our own and others' expectations. In short, what I saw that day in the mirror was the image of God within me, which makes each of us beautiful just as we are. There is no grading curve when it comes to measuring beauty.

Most of the women I know live out their lives, both private and at work, under a burden of expectation that has nothing to do with goodness or beauty or truth. We all seem to be vulnerable to the disapproval or approval of others.

Yet in my retreats to St. Benedict's Monastery in St. Joseph, Minnesota, I have come to know a group of women who don't live this way. Yes, they are burdened like the rest of us with work and schedules, sadness, anxieties and aggravations. But they embrace the world more on their own terms than other women I know. The sisters don't seem to worry about appearing "womanly," whatever that means. No one apologizes for the way she looks. They are also fearless in conversation: I can talk to them about anything and know that they won't be frightened of it. They are living out a powerful call to ministry by being who they are in the midst of a larger culture that rejects what they stand for, yet this doesn't deter them from enjoying life and each other. They are proud of each other's character, work and creative efforts. They like each other as well as love each other, and laugh, grieve, think and celebrate with their whole beings.

It was when I was with the women at St. Benedict's that I saw and rejoiced in my face in the mirror. I believe that the beauty I glimpsed that morning is related to God. A little treatise called "On the Divine Name" helps me explain. Sixth-century Christian theologian Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite (commonly called Pseudo-Dionysius) talks about the nature of God and how that nature is reflected in the world.

      [God] is given this name [Beauty] because it is the cause of harmony and
   splendor in everything, because like a light, it flashes onto everything
   the beauty-causing impartations of its own well-spring ray. Beauty "bids"
   all things to itself ... and gathers everything into itself.... From this
   beauty comes the existence of everything, each being exhibiting its own way
   of beauty. …