No Beauty We Could Desire: Thoughts on Beauty and Faith

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by Laura Smit

Not What My Hands Have Done

In church this morning we sang a great old hymn by Horatius Bonar.  Some people might hear this as a depressing hymn about our powerlessness, but I find it very comforting.  I already know through hard experience that I’m powerless to be good.  I don’t have the will power, or the clarity of purpose, or the love of what’s good and true to pursue virtue with any consistency.  Left to myself, I will never be the sort of person I’m supposed to be.  Since that’s not news to me, I don’t find admitting it at all depressing.

But I always need again to hear that there is grace to carry me where I need to go.  “No strength but that which is divine can bear me safely through,” and that strength is offered.  Therefore, “I rest on love divine.”  Given how messed up the world is, I’m grateful that I don’t need to depend on my own power to resist the darkness.  Given how messed up I am, I’m grateful that I’m not only accepted just as I am; I’m given strength to become something different.  


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Magnanimity – Hard to Say, Hard to Practice

I’m starting a big project on magnanimity, and it’s likely to come up a lot in what I write over the next year or so.  It’s not a word that we use a lot in everyday conversation, but it’s really fun to say once you get your tongue around it.  Whenever I talk about this virtue, I feel like Mr. Rogers:  Can you say mag-nan-im-ity?  

Naturally, I’ve come to the virtue of magnanimity via C. S. Lewis.  In The Abolition of Man, Lewis argues that contemporary education produces people who lack the integrating virtue of magnanimity to unite intellect and appetite.  Quoting the 12th-century monk Alain de Lille, Lewis says, “The head rules the belly through the chest.”  Our intellect or reason (the head) governs our appetites (the belly) by means of disciplined, stable, ordered emotion or desire, i.e., magnanimity (the chest).  In the absence of such disciplined, stable, ordered emotion or desire, the intellect doesn’t have a prayer of controlling our appetites.  Knowing what’s true isn’t enough.  We have to find the truth compelling.  We have to be drawn to the truth.   

Now any virtue that’s about the discipline and ordering of emotion and desire must be primarily an aesthetic act.  Since theological aesthetics are my thing, this is what especially interests me about magnanimity.  Lewis doesn’t say this, but I don’t think he needs to.  The classic definition of beauty is “the object of desire” or “that which attract and draws us.”  So a virtue that’s about desire is necessarily about beauty.  Magnanimity is essentially training yourself to experience truth and goodness as beautiful and desirable.

So how do we train ourselves to do this?  By means of imagination – also an aesthetic act.  In his essay “Bluspels and Flanlansferes” Lewis says that the reason deals with truth, but the imagination is “the organ of meaning.”  It’s not enough to know what’s true.  We have to be able to see the significance of that truth, to imagine what living it out might be like.  We can’t move from one way of being to another without imagining the new thing first.  Imagination is the only way we have to know what’s not yet actual, just potential.  (I have a chapter on this in Loves Me, Loves Me Not – the chapter on imagination.)   So the truth that we understand and know needs to be imaginatively appropriated in order to have control over our appetites and actions.  

And in order for that control to be lasting, the imaginative vision has to be habitual, stable, and ordered – not some impulsive dream that entrances for a few moments.  Magnanimity is the virtue of using our imaginations to embrace a vision of virtuous life as desirable and beautiful.  When that vision is really compelling, then the reason can control our appetites, but when the vision is missing, our appetites just take over.  

The frightening corollary: those of us in the Church who are committed to passing on the great Christian tradition to the next generation need to do more than teach what’s true.  We also need to present that truth in a way that is so beautiful, so desirable, so enticing that it captures people’s imaginations, and not just for a few minutes during a sermon but for the rest of their lives.  


Which is why I quote C. S. Lewis so often.  He did this for me.  He continues to do this for me.  But I find the challenge of doing it for other people pretty daunting.              



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Meditation on a Poem by C. S. Lewis, part 3: Sacramental Particularity

Having turned away from the search for God in the natural world and in our own nature, and having acknowledged that God is the pursuer in this relationship, Lewis now keeps his “appointment” with God.

Not in Nature, not even in Man, but in one

Particular Man, with a date, so tall, weighing

So much, talking Aramaic, having learned a trade;


Not in all food, not in all bread and wine

(Not, I mean, as my littleness requires)

But this wine, this bread . . . no beauty we could desire.

The place where God pursues is not in the books of the philosophers or the romance of poetry or the beauty of the stars.  It is in the body of Jesus, who is the Way.  The gospel of John says that Jesus’ body is God’s temple (2:21), the location of an encounter between God and humanity that we can at least perceive, even if we cannot understand.  In Miracles, Lewis says, “The world which would not know Him as present everywhere was saved by His becoming local.”  (Surely that sentence was in his mind when he wrote this poem, or perhaps it was the other way around.  I can’t find any information about when this poem might have been written.)  That locality requires particularity.  Jesus is not Everyman.  Jesus is a particular man – whose voice has a specific timbre, whose eyes are a certain color, who occupies a particular place.  In other words, He is like us – in every way but sin.

But now the body of Jesus is ascended.  Calvin says that Jesus is now locally present at the right hand of the Father – still incarnate, still particular.  However, the only way I now have access to His local presence is through the sacrament.  My own understanding of the sacrament is that it is our participation in the ascension of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit unites my humanity to the humanity of Jesus, my body to His body, in order that it might no longer be I who live but Christ who lives in me.  It appears that I consume Him, but in fact He consumes me.  It appears that I hunt for Him, but in fact He captures me.

When Lewis closes by describing the bread and wine as “no beauty we could desire,” there seems to be a double meaning.  On the one hand, he is quoting Isaiah 53:2.  “He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him” (KJV).  But the change from “should” to “could” strikes me as significant.  Isaiah is telling us that the beauty of the Messiah will not be obviously visible, and Lewis agrees.  There is a veiling of divine glory and omnipresence in this particular, local, finite man, this particular, local, finite cup of wine and loaf of bread.  But Lewis seems also to be telling us that our own powers of desire are insufficient to desire the beauty of Jesus.  Not only are we incapable of capturing God; we are also incapable of desiring to capture Him.  This beauty requires a passionate desire that is beyond our capacity.  The sehnsucht that drives us out into the world trying to capture the divine is a weak and inconstant desire compared to the desire that would be necessary for us to pursue Him rightly.

Here is why this poem is so precious to me, why it’s worth spending this much time on it.  Desire is the tie that links us to our telos, our final cause, who is God Himself.  But this desire is not something that I manufacture.  Even my desire is a gift from God.  In his poem “The Naked Seed”, Lewis confesses that he cannot desire God as he ought and asks God to do the desiring for him– an idea drawn from Romans 8.  (I’ll look at that poem some other time.)  I need to long for God in order to be drawn to Him, but my desiring powers are too weak, so the Son takes humanity to Himself and desires on our behalf, and then the Spirit unites us to the Son so that His desire becomes ours.  This particular human being Jesus longs for God the way each one of us ought to, and by communicating that longing to us He connects us to God.  It’s as if each time we come to the table He renews a magnetic connection between us and the Trinity, so that from now on we will not be attracted to the darkness, to the nothing, but to the end for which we were made: to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.


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Meditation on a Poem by C. S. Lewis, part 2: Not Pursuer but Pursued

C. S. Lewis’ poem “No Beauty We Could Desire” begins by acknowledging that the task of finding God by exploring the natural world is beyond us.  We pick up God’s scent, but we can never catch Him.  Some people would then argue that even if we can’t find God in the surrounding world, we should be able to find God in other people, and maybe even in ourselves, since after all human beings are made in God’s image.  In the last post, I quoted Dorothy Sayers on knowing the Trinity from her great book The Mind of the Maker, and much of her argument there is that we can find things out about God when we examine our own creative process.  But – at least in this poem – Lewis is having none of it.  He dismisses this option as well:

Therefore I turn my back on the unapproachable

Stars and horizons and all musical sounds,

Poetry itself, and the winding stair of thought.

He turns away not only from the stars, but also from the quintessentially human qualities of music, poetry, and thought.  At this point, we might be forgiven for being a bit skeptical.  C. S. Lewis is turning his back on poetry and thought?  Really?  The great writer of imaginative fiction and of Christian apologetics is rejecting both poetic imagination and reason?  It seems unlikely.  And then too, he’s telling us about his turning away from poetry in a poem.  So is this Lewis looking back on his career and, like Thomas Aquinas, seeing it all as just so much straw?  I don’t think so.  He’s not denying that music, poetry and reason are all valuable.  However, even though these are all good things, they are not a net in which we can capture God.

Lewis is saying no to one thing in order to say yes to something else.  No, we can’t catch God.  Yes, God is hunting for us.  Which is much better news than any reassurance about being able to see God in the world or in ourselves.

Leaving the forest where you are pursued in vain

– Often a mere white gleam – I turn instead

To the appointed place where you pursue.

This is the real issue, isn’t it?  We are not the pursuers.  We are not the hunters.  We are the prey.  As a Calvinist, I believe that God always captures what he hunts, but here as elsewhere Lewis stops short of endorsing the irresistible nature of grace.  He must allow himself to be caught.  He must “turn … to the appointed place,” where God is ready to pursue him if only he will show up.

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Meditation on a Poem by C. S. Lewis, part 1 : The Futile Hunt

It seems fitting to begin this blog with a few posts exploring the poem by C. S. Lewis from which I’ve taken the blog’s name: “No Beauty We Could Desire.”  The poem begins by acknowledging the possibility of natural theology, a path to God that leads along the way of affirmation.  This kataphatic approach understands every good quality in the creation as pointing to God, who is then understood as both the source and the preeminent exemplar of that quality.  I see beauty in the world, and I conclude that God is the greatest Beauty from which all other beauty flows.  I see goodness in the world, and I conclude that God is Goodness itself, the source of all that is good.

          Lewis acknowledges that such a path can be followed in theory, but argues that it’s not so easy to find in practice.

Yes, you are always everywhere.  But I,

Hunting in such immeasurable forests,

Could never bring the noble Hart to bay.


The scent was too perplexing for my hounds;

Nowhere sometimes, then again everywhere.

Other scents, too, seemed to them almost the same.

These lines make me think of the confused, meandering journey of The Pilgrim’s Regress, in which John tries in vain to reach a beautiful island he has seen only in glimpses from afar.  Of course God is present in the world.  God is omnipresent; there is no spot in the cosmos where He is not fully present.  But that doesn’t mean that we are equipped to capture Him.  When we try to take on the role of the hunter and make God into the hunted, everything is backwards.  Or, to use a metaphor that’s closer to home for most of us than that of hunting, when we try to take on the role of the scientist and make God into the specimen we are studying, everything is backwards.

Image           It is God’s very omnipresence that makes Him so difficult to pursue.  As Dorothy Sayers explains in The Mind of the Maker, everything in the world reflects God’s Triune nature, so the mysterious quality of the Trinity is not a function of God’s distance from us.  Quite the reverse.  It is a function of His presence.  “[T]he Trinitarian structure of activity is mysterious to us just because it is so universal – rather as the four-dimensional structure of space-time is mysterious because we cannot get outside to look at it” (chapter 3).

Lewis himself says much the same thing in Miracles.

“[T]he fact which is in one respect the most obvious and primary fact, and through which alone you have access to all the other facts, may be precisely the one that is most easily forgotten – forgotten not because it is so remote or abstruse but because it is so near and so obvious. . . . The Supernatural . . .  is a matter of daily and hourly experience, as intimate as breathing.  Denial of it depends on a certain absent-mindedness.  But this absent-mindedness is in no way surprising.”

But in “No Beauty We Could Desire,” Lewis is saying more than that he is too absent-minded to find God.  Even when he tries, even when he is focused and attentive and searching, the hunt is beyond his ability – whether because of finitude or because of sin, he does not say.  His theory has been that he has only to change his point of view, and he will see God all around him.  But in this poem he acknowledges that he is not capable of making that change.   The poem will end optimistically, but to get there requires this confession as a starting point.

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