How to Find Beauty

Polynesian Island

I came across four beautiful, reflective short talks by Gai Eaton online some time ago. Ideally, they are best read outdoors, in a garden or park. Here’s the first one, in full.


I returned the other day from a holiday in France, staying for a while with friends in the South. They have bought an old farmhouse, right up in the mountains, and rebuilt it with space for a dozen or more people. Both husband and wife are trained psychologists, and they hold courses for townspeople who’ve lost all sense of purpose in their lives. They try to help people who are not exactly sick, but who are empty, and I’m sure they do help them. But I’m equally sure that the astonishing beauty of the landscape in which that farmhouse is set also contributes to the healing process, for healing is related to wholeness and, in such a place as that, you begin to feel “whole”, at home in the world (because it’s so beautiful) and at home in yourself.

Speaking as a Muslim, this is just what I would expect. The very word “Islam” comes from a word meaning “peace”. The most basic principle of the religion is Unity:- first the unity of God, who is One without equal, without associate, then the unity of His creation in which every element, however tiny, has its place and its function, and finally the unity achieved in every man and woman once they know who they are and where they are going, at peace with their Lord, at peace in the world, at peace with themselves.

That peace is closely bound up with the awareness of beauty. In one of his most famous sayings, the Prophet Muhammad told his people: Allahu jamilun yuhibbu’l-jamal – “God is beautiful and He loves beauty!”. Now that is not a statement about feelings or impressions. It is a statement about the nature of Reality. And that, in turn, suggests something very important. It suggests that ugliness – and, Yes!, there’s plenty of that in the world in which we live – is not on an equal footing with beauty. It’s not one of a pair, like hot and cold, black and white; it represents the spoiling of beauty, the unmaking of what had been well made, the denial of God or His seeming absence. You might compare it to a hole in the pattern, a stain on the fabric, and it belongs to that class of things which, so the Quran tells us, last for but a short time and are then wiped away, while beauty endures. To know this is to possess a sense of the sacred and so to be aware of the radiance that illuminates unspoilt nature from within and which may be found also in the things we make, when these are well and lovingly made. The tragedy of modern man, in the midst of his riches and his technological achievements, is that he has lost this sense of the sacred and lives in a world drained of light.

No wonder the people who come to my friends’ farmhouse need help. They live in cities from which beauty has been banished as an irrelevance, as though it were a luxury which we can do without, and this is an environment in which it is difficult to believe in God since it has been constructed in forgetfulness of Him; and – in Islam – to forget God is the greatest sin, or the root of all other sins. Those who have told us, over the past century, that “God is dead” should have had the honesty to complete the sentence:- “God is dead, therefore man is dead!” When nothing in our surroundings reminds us of Him, then He does – in a sense – die in our hearts, and all that makes life worth living dies with Him.

But those visitors to the farmhouse are fortunate. Not everyone has such opportunities, to say the least. Of what use is it to suggest to the majority of city dwellers that they should turn to the empty spaces of virgin nature, where the sacred is nakedly apparent and where souls are healed? Their lives are restricted to the narrow streets in which no one has the time to say “Good day!” and in which the roar of traffic drowns the human voice. Is there no escape for them, no possibility of healing? God willing, I hope to take up this point next week.

(Broadcast by the BBC in August 1987 in the Reflections series of short Friday talks)

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