Our old friend, Dietrich von Hildebrand again. This time on the subject of contemplation. From Transformation in Christ, Chapter 6:
In order that contemplation may bring out its full meaning and attain its perfection, another feature must be present. The object must affect us not only with its isolated specific content, it must elevate us into the world of valid and ultimate reality. We must, in contemplation, meet that world as such, so as to acquire suddenly a comprehensive new attitude towards all things.
Who of us does not know the supreme moments when a great truth, a glorious beauty of art or of nature, or the soul of a beloved person manifests itself to our soul with a lightning-like splendor, gracing our eyes with a vision of ultimate reality and prompting us to exclaim, “O Lord, how admirable is Thy name in the whole earth!” (Ps. 8:10)?
That other feature of contemplation which must be present, to which the feature noted above is an addition, is the sense of timelessness. In contemplation proper, we are taken up out of the world of time, or rather, the temporal world around us ceases to exist.
In regards to the question in the second paragraph quoted above, I am afraid of the great awkwardness with which many people in 2008 would answer such a question. Dietrich von Hildebrand was by all accounts a highly cultured and educated man with a supreme appreciation for beauty, whether it be found in nature, art, or music. Perhaps only he could ask such a question with child-like naivete. He may have been unaware that not everyone has the gift of being able to appreciate beauty or even recognize it as he did. Nevertheless, I will trust, or at least hope, that everyone has had the kind of “supreme moment” noted above; if not a full realization of such contemplative joy, at least a hint of it.
However, if there are many who have not had such an experience, it is certainly because of the noise that fills our world. Without silence of heart and soul, contemplation is impossible. Our soul needs silence so that it can hear the voice of its maker.
“And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.” I Kings 19:11-12 (RSV)
Compounding the problem of our inability to assume a contemplitive posture, we appear to have also lost a true appreciation for beauty. We are not sure why we need to study poetry anymore, or why we should care about making art that elevates the soul, or why we should care about the great works of Mozart and J.S. Bach. We can’t even agree about what is beautiful. I suppose even a trash can full of shit can look beautiful if you’re depraved enough to see it. Have you seen what counts as art these days?
I am reminded of the famous words of Fyodor Dostoevsky through his great character Prince Myshkin: “beauty will save the world.” It would seem so. Beauty will save the world because it will draw us back into contemplation. When authentic beauty is appreciated and reverenced in our culture, it is a sure sign that our souls have once again found value in silence and can once again hear the voice of God.
Imagine a world in which beauty is reverenced. What place would there be for war? How could rape or any sort of violence against a human being exist when the essential beauty of each person is apprecated in its fullness? How could pornography exist in a world that honors true beauty? Of course, sin will always be a reality of our world, but if our culture, with all its great power to influence and shape minds, would only embrace goodness, truth, and beauty, what a different place this world would be.
Indeed, beauty just might save the world.