In this time and place in history, in which so many millions of people suffer in myriad ways from poverty, hunger, oppressive regimes, or simply the daily struggle of living in the modern world, why do those who follow the Orthodox Christian faith seem so preoccupied with beauty? With a steady stream of bad news ever capturing our attention, it seems thoughtless at best, and irresponsible at worst, for Orthodox Christians to figuratively stick their heads in the sand and spend time contemplating the nuances of egg tempera icons or the majesty of early Byzantine architecture or the light play of a resplendent brocade, much less allocate valuable resources of time and money to these pursuits.
But rather than the actions of people who are delusional, or attempting to escape from the dire realities of a damaged and despairing world, for an Orthodox Christian, each and every act of beauty—whether inside or outside of a church building—is an act towards and with God, a beautiful Lord of the Universe who is full of love, mercy, light and truth. Cooperating and participating in beauty means to cooperate and participate in God’s love, His unfailing mercy, and the transformation of the cosmos.
This is the simple yet life-changing truth of the Incarnation, of the Divine Logos taking on physical matter and thereby bringing the material world into a state of redemption, restoration, and transfiguration. The physical world is how Christ came to meet us, to draw close to us in order that we can draw close to Him. It is an ultimately beautiful act by a beautiful God.
As Orthodox Christians we find our truest meaning in desiring to be united with Christ, and much liked a lover who can think only of his beloved, we do what He does and this means that we engage with the physical world by beautifying it. We look for opportunities to bring more beauty into the world, whether it is a kind word spoken to someone in need or bringing a lovely bouquet of roses to the church or building a masterpiece like Haghia Sophia, all of these acts are understood to draw us closer to our ultimate goal of union with the Divine.
We have a deep and abiding understanding that as we work on these beautiful things, they will work on us, transforming and transfiguring us so that we can be ever more and more united with the Divine in the Universe, Christ in the cosmos. We understand the work of beauty to be a holy work, one that brings truth and joy and healing to all things.
As we walk this path of beauty that we are called to by our Incarnate Lord of the Universe, we find that this work of beautifying the cosmos has implications for our own individual souls. I dare you to take on a work of beauty and not experience deep and profound change within your own soul. This is the wonderful, dizzying, unique paradox of beauty in the Orthodox Christian Church—when we work to beautify the cosmos we cannot help but be personally transformed and transfigured. This practice of beauty is a mysterious and mystical, albeit utterly practical way, in which to transform the universe and our souls in turn.
While the work of beauty is the sublime and heavenly vocation of all Orthodox Christians, paradoxically, it can be some of the hardest work in which we will ever engage. Learning a centuries-old handcraft like iconography or vestment making requires a decades-long commitment to tradition and a laying aside of the self that can be just as demanding as the ascetical works of monastics, albeit using a different set of spiritual tools. In company with these craftsmen and monastics can be the sacrificial giving of the donor, another path of beauty which anyone can walk. Some take up the needle, some the paintbrush, and some the checkbook, but if the intention is to beautify the cosmos, all are holy and good and redemptive.
In our day and age, we are accustomed to a “cause and effect” arrangement in which we do one specific task for a specific and desired outcome. We hear about injustice and oppression in a third-world country and want to do our part, so we give a donation to an organization that fights that specific type of oppression or injustice. This is a very modern way of looking at change in which we aim to change only the thing right in front of us that we can see. Conversely, as Orthodox Christians, we have an ancient viewpoint, one espoused by admired philosophers such as Plato and venerated saints such as St John of Damascus, in which we believe that any act of beauty is a way of participating in the redemption of the cosmos.
It is these continual works towards transforming the cosmos that will change the world. Just like the proverbial butterfly effect, a single act of beauty can save the world. This is what motivates us to practice and effect beauty in every arena in our lives as Orthodox Christians, because it is a profound, practical, and mystical way to heal ourselves and the universe.
At the closing of every Divine Liturgy, we address to God the prayer “Sanctify those who love the beauty of Thy house”, but we often neglect to notice that the prayer is followed by a promise that God will “glorify them in recompense.” This glorification is the transformation of the cosmos, the true saving of the world by beauty.
So this is why as Orthodox Christians we pray for those in need and do what we whatever we can for them, but we also are careful not to neglect the practice of beauty in our lives and in the Church. It is a salvific work and the truest, most authentic path we walk towards the ultimate healing of ourselves and the universe. In the words of Dostoevsky, beauty certainly will save the world.