A man stood transfixed on the Acropolis in Athens, stunned at the beauty of the Parthenon. He turned to an old man standing nearby and said, “How lucky they must have been to live with all of this beauty.” He responded, “Ask, Stranger, what must they have suffered to need such beauty.”
Much of my writing is done late, after I awake from sleep in the middle of the night. I get up and look at the churches that PJ and I photograph. Often something happens that is hard to describe – I am so moved by the churches that I begin to weep.
I don’t think that these are tears of sadness or loss, but in response to some characteristic of beauty found in stones wrenched from the earth, shaped, and arranged by human hands. These most earth born objects were raised high in the air to became part of a soaring monument, a beauty indescribable.
It is not the pure beauty that moves me to tears, but something contained within that beauty – the suffering that made it necessary. Sophia Loren once said “If you haven’t cried, your eyes can’t be beautiful.”
It is often said that there is beauty in suffering. I think this is true at times, as evidenced by Therese Frare’s famous photo of the man dying of AIDS. There can even be beauty in horror, as shown by James Nachtwey’s photo of a victim of Rwandan genocide. But most of the time it is just suffering and horror – the pain is too close and too intense to elicit a reaction to beauty.
In “The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick”, the meditations on a series of hallucinations that that the author experienced in February and March 1974, Dick writes, “The beautiful and imperishable comes into existence due to the suffering of individual perishable creatures who themselves are not beautiful … This is the terrible law of the universe. This is the basic law; it is a fact … Absolute suffering leads to — is the means to — absolute beauty.”
But I do not believe it is suffering experienced that creates beauty, but suffering endured. It is this suffering endured that we find in all that is truly beautiful, and the intermediary step of creation allows us to gaze at even the greatest suffering and find the great human dimension of beauty.
Medieval man understood this completely while contemplating the suffering of the Christ Redeemer. The sacrifice was enough to make men and women weep with sorrow, but their eyes looked up at these magnificent churches to find the most moving and beautiful representations of the cruelest of crucifixions, transforming pain into salvation.
Modern man perhaps feels the beauty of the suffering in a different way. Kimon Friar wrote of the Nikos Kazantzakis “Odyssey,” “A man must then embrace the annihilating abyss without any hope, he must say that nothing exists, neither life nor death and must accept this necessity bravely, with exultation and song. He may then build the affirmative structure of his life over this abyss in an ecstasy of tragic joy.”
In this way both non-believers and believers find that their own suffering adds a dimension to the suffering of those who created the churches a thousand years ago. It is like a great shimmering arc of suffering reaching back across and through time, creating a new beauty, a beauty almost beyond bearing. This is the reason we weep when we see these churches.
In the quiet of our thoughts, our emotions drained, we are left with beauty that we cannot describe, perfections that we cannot express. We are left with the ineffable.
The quote with which I began this post is one that I remember from many years ago, but cannot find or identify. I reconstructed it not so much from memory as from the effect that it had on me. If anyone knows the source, or the real quote, please let me know. (Upon reflection, this may be from a lecture by the great Leon Katz at Carnegie-Mellon University).
A French version of this post was made by the site “En passant par Saint Vincent”.