This past July on a warm summer afternoon, I attended a family friends’ poetry night—a classy little shindig with hors d’oeuvres, heels, sophisticated people, and, of course, poetry. A few months later, one of these poems unexpectedly resurfaced in a conversation with a friend. It was a poem entitled “A Fair World Tho’ a Fallen” by Christina Georgina Rossetti:
You tell me that the world is fair, in spite
Of the old fall; and that I should not turn
So to the grave, and let my spirit yearn
After the quiet of the long last night.
Have I then shut mine eyes against the light,
Grief-deafened lest my spirit should discern?
Yet how could I keep silence when I burn?
And who can give me comfort?—hear the right.
Have patience with the weak and sick at heart:
Bind up the wounded with a tender touch.
Comfort the sad, tear-blinded as they go:—
For tho’ I failed to choose the better part,
Were it a less unutterable woe
If we should come to love this world too much?
After spending some time in discussion over Rossetti’s work, my friend and I ended with a question: “Is it so bad to simply love the world?” This is a question that warrants reflection, because the implications are important in a quest to live well and truly.
In the classic trifecta of truth, beauty, and goodness, beauty is often overlooked. It is the trait that somehow seems least relevant to Christianity, and seems to play a less active role in a life of true intellectual pursuit. Of course, we can gush over a beautiful art piece, a perfected mathematical proof, or an eloquent speech—all elements of a good liberal arts education. But what is beauty’s actual function, aside from being the arm-candy of truth and goodness? Its greatest function arises in love. Love itself is a part of another great trifecta: faith, hope, and love. This one is specifically Christian, and love here receives more attention than beauty does. Indeed, Paul said, “The greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 13:13) Its function and place seem more tangible than that of beauty; we can easily point out examples of love, and we can clearly see its effects on others.
To love is to see beauty. A quote attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky says, “To love someone means to see him as God intended him.” Loving another man is seeing the light God bestowed upon him at his creation—not merely in the little flashes we see in everyday relationships, but in its full, shining potential. Every man is created in the image and likeness of God, giving him the eternal beauty of God, intrinsic in him despite his fallen state. When we truly love someone, we see firsthand this God-given beauty. In this way, it is truly profound—how could seeing someone as God intended him not be the most intimate of actions?
Seeing this beauty, it is nearly impossible to simply ignore it and move on. Any small reflection of God’s beauty and love on this earth ought to be recognized and pondered, much like when we stop and recognize simple temporal beauty. And how much greater is God’s eternal beauty! If we choose to see the full potential of this beauty and light in whomever we meet, we must then treat them as this beauty deserves. It deserves love: the same love God has for us. This love, though, is not reserved for just one person we see every day and truly know. This love is active and widespread. It cannot be contained in just one man—as Rossetti says in her poem, “Yet how could I keep silence when I burn?” When we make the choice to see every man’s beauty, we ought to burn to love them. We are not meant to stay passive.
This, then, gives beauty a much weightier role. It is not merely there for show. It is integral to love’s role as well. And since this love is so widespread, beauty must also be widespread—and it is our duty to search for it wherever we go.
What, then, does it mean to see beauty everywhere? First and foremost, it means that no man can be excluded from our love, and no man can be counted as less than another. This might seem an obvious statement, but the implications are drastic.
In today’s society, men and women deemed “successful” are those who have climbed a totem pole at work, earn a tidy annual sum, and are able to live a life of luxury. A pitfall Christians can fall into, however, is to view these men and women with distaste, and condemn them as selfish, gluttonous, or impious. Indeed, it can seem much easier for us to love the poor and the homeless than to love the entitled and the successful, many of whom may even be our peers. Instead, we can judge them for living with loose morals and write them off as though they will never stand a chance of receiving God’s never-ending mercy.
Conversely, we can also look at men and women who seem to have fallen from this “state of grace”—those who once had the potential to be successful but now live in the rough part of town, spend their money on nightclubs, and cover themselves with tattoos. We often see them in the same way as we see the successful: with judgment and condemnation. This is the inequality we as Christians truly struggle with today. This is where we count one man as less than another, and this is where our love is truly necessary.
Loving our peers does not mean condescending to them or preaching the Gospel at them. It means recognizing the intrinsic beauty of these people, despite their sins. This in turn means we cannot live in a bubble and shut people out. There is beauty in the lives of our peers, our superiors, and our subordinates; just because they do not live by the “ideal” moral standards we set as Christians does not mean they can be written off. We find beauty everywhere—in every human, and in the physical world in which we live. God created man in a physical world, and to live in the world he made for us but not rejoice in it is to let it go to waste. The world’s brokenness does not negate its beauty. We must instead choose to see the beauty by which we are surrounded—despite the shortcomings that come alongside it—and love whomever we meet, be they poor or rich.
We often see “perfect” Christianity as following the letter of the law, or following a pre-established morality. But if we follow the letter only, something is missing—even if we are well-intentioned. Christianity is not about simply attending church services every weekend; it is not about checking boxes so we can pass a test and get to heaven. It is about something much deeper, and no amount of indoctrinated practices can encompass it.
One of my own favorite artists, Jon Bellion, captures this in his music. He sings of his life of fame, passing his nights at nightclubs, dropping thousands of dollars on shoes, and spending nights with women. Yet in each of these songs he sings also of the tension inside him: “Pray with me / that I don’t lose my soul in luxury,” and “I always fear that I’m not living right / So I feel guilty when I go to church / The pastor tells me I’ve been saved, I’m fine / Then please explain to me why my chest still hurts.” He sings of his struggles in a way that makes it hard to condemn him for his sins. Instead of a young man who seems to live a misguided life, he shows us a young man singing in earnest of his deep desire to understand the human condition. He removes the distance between us and the people we so often judge, and through his music, shows us the beauty of every man, despite their sins. He humanizes the people we fail to see as beautiful.
Jon Bellion has something right about the world. His songs, often explicitly Christian, show us that to be Christian is not necessarily to live according to a checklist. To be Christian is to love both God and others, despite our circumstances, despite our sins. After all, did not Jesus give us two commandments? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40) Nowhere in these commandments does Jesus require of us a trip to church every weekend.
Of course, our Christian doctrine is important—it gives us the opportunity to draw closer to God by showing us examples and guiding us. But again, the point of this doctrine is not doctrine itself. Our goal should be, first and foremost, to love God and to love others. Any Christian morality after should be secondary—but should follow naturally from our pursuing these primary goals. After all, the function of our Christian faith is to show us how to love because, being human, we’re bad at it. Of course, love should not be used as a “get-out-of-jail-free” card; an attempt at a true Christian life is still essential. However, as long as we pursue, genuinely and truly, the love of God and every fellow person we meet, we cannot go wrong.
Here is the answer to that question raised by “A Fair World Tho’ a Fallen:” No, I do not think it is a “less unutterable woe / if we should come to love this world too much.” Loving this world—loving the people in it by having patience with the weak, binding up the wounded, and comforting the sad—can never do us wrong. This ought always to be our priority, before any doctrine or expectation. Seeking beauty will lead us to this love. And then, if we all pursued this common goal, how much more beautiful our world would be!
Katie Michalak is a freshman studying Latin and English.