“The personal inability to perceive truth and beauty is related…to a lack of wonder….It is troubling that in a universe replete with mind-boggling fascinations masses of people live dull and drab lives.” (The Evidential Power of Beauty by Father Thomas Dubay).
“The contemplative attitude – such as the contemplation of an object of great beauty and the pure, restful joy it yields – is free from that dynamic tension towards the future: it implies, not a hastening forward but a dwelling in the present.” (Dietrich von Hilderbrand)
We are talking here about what Father Thomas Dubay calls “being alive to beauty,” especially beauty in the external/natural world, and also about the impediments which prevent us from perceiving, experiencing and living beauty. Our conclusion will be that beauty can be trans-formative – truly enhancing our well-being – if we are open to it.
Father Irala, in his popular book, Achieving Peace of Heart, tells us that “we must live beauty.” He maintains that we need to be “reeducated” to “receive the external world.” This means, in one context, that if we are looking at a beautiful river we should spend some time peering into it –contemplating it – so that we may receive the vital influx of its beauty. Father Irala says that we should let the beauty “enter deep into us.”
Pope Francis made this observation in his recent encyclical on the environment, saying, “In some places, rural and urban alike, the privatization of certain spaces has restricted people’s access to places of particular beauty” (no. 45). Thus, one formidable impediment to experiencing the beauty of the natural world can simply be our access to it. Another obstacle, as Father Dubay points out, is our lack of wonder. We need to nurture a desire to explore and experience the beauty of the natural world, freeing ourselves from that technological world of artificially created images that keep us trapped in a world of inner-subjectivity detached from truth and beauty.
But most of all I want to stress in this note the mechanics of being receptive to beauty in the natural world, a simple process which will have powerful and tangible results. Father Irala calls this process the “reeducation of receptive power.” It is critical that we re-learn to be receptive to the beauty of the external world and the vital influx of its beauty.
Father Irala laments that many of us fail to have “clear sensations” of the beauty of the external world. “Only rarely,” he says, do we come out into the exterior world, beautiful and joyful as it was created by God” (especially if we are experiencing emotional difficulties). We are preoccupied, worried, and caught up in our own subjective world. Some people even find it difficult to put down their cell phones as they walk along a beautiful nature trail.
However, we can relearn to receive the true “sensations” of nature’s beauty. Here are instructions given by Father Irala to improve our receptive power in areas of sight and sound.
Sight: “For your re-education you should apply your sense of sight for about ten or twenty seconds to a landscape, an object, a detail. Keep a tranquil or almost passive attention. Take your time. Consider the object before you and no other. Pay no attention to any other idea. Let the object enter within you as it is in itself, without any special effort. Look at it the way a young child does. [Remain] loose and relaxed.”
Hearing: “Apply your hearing to a near or distant noise. Let yourself be penetrated by the sounds, as above, naturally, without mental discussion of the fact or its cause. Be a mere receiver of sound and perceive it with pleasure and relaxation.”
Father Irala tells an interesting story about a businessman who was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It was apparently felt that the overworked businessman needed some time away from his hectic office to unwind and rejuvenate, but since this remedy wasn’t feasible his physician requested that “an aquarium of tropical fish built in his private office and that he spend an hour every day peacefully watching the graceful convolutions of those little creatures.” It is related that “before the year was out he sent a donation to [his physician’s] hospital as a token of gratitude for his cure” (p.41).
“At first,” says Father Irala, it is not so easy to practice these fully conscious sensations with no attention at all paid to anything else. So, in your first attempts, you might find yourself thinking about the process itself, or the cause, effect, or some circumstances, instead of what you perceive. But in a few days, after a series of good tries, you will succeed in separating the pure sensation from accessory mental processes. And then you will find joy or rest in the sensation itself.”
Commenting on the healing power of nature, Saint Pope John Paul II made the following observation: “The aesthetic value of creation cannot be overlooked. Our very contact with nature has a deep restorative power; contemplation of its magnificence imparts peace and serenity. The Bible speaks again and again of the goodness and beauty of creation, which is called to glorify God.” (John Paul II, 1990 World Day of Peace Message, no. 14.)
And the great Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain, states: “The part played by the senses in the perception of beauty is even rendered enormous in us, and well nigh-indispensable…only sense knowledge possesses perfectly in man the intuitiveness required for the perception of the beautiful.”
In conclusion, our senses open to us a world of incredible beauty that has a “deep restorative power” to heal us and make us happy. We can train ourselves to be more perceptive to the “clear sensations” and the “vital influx” of the beauty of the natural world. To shut ourselves off from this beauty is certainly unwise and most likely harmful. But to immerse ourselves in the beauty of the natural world is profoundly healthy and rejuvenating – the way God meant it to be.
Tom Mulcahy, M.A.
Ref. Achieving Peace of Heart by Father N. Irala and The Evidential Power of Beauty by Father Thomas Dubay.
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Absolutely spot on. Living here in Michigan with our change of seasons makes it easy to see God’s bountiful blessing of nature!