Beauty Is An Ecstasy
According to the poet, Kahlil Gibran, there are many different ways to understand this thing we call Beauty. For instance, the wounded speak of Beauty as kind and gentle. She glides past us “[l]ike a mother half-shy of her own glory.”  The “passionate,” on the other hand, claim her as a tempest, loud and powerful and dreadful, like a terrifying sense of wonder.
To the “tired and weary,” she speaks to their spirit “like a faint light,” while to the “restless” she shouts as loud as stampeding hoof beats and roaring lions. The “watchmen” see Beauty in the sunrise, and “wayfarers” see her in the sunset. When it’s hot, we think she comes in Autumn; when it’s cold, we imagine she can be found in summer’s heat.
So many places we think we hear, feel, see Beauty, but, according to the poet, this is not really who she is. That which we call beautiful is whatever fulfills our desires and unanswered needs, yet Beauty, Gibran writes, “is not a need, but an ecstasy.”
According to him, to find beauty, you must be guided by her, and you cannot speak of her unless she gives you the words to say. Beauty can strike at any moment. She can surprise and amaze us. Yet once we begin to look for her, she hides. Then we see not the wonder of the universe, the amazing glory of the creation, but the longing of our own hearts.
The Common Whitetail
Perhaps it is like enlightenment. You will know the answer when your heart opens in the right way, but you cannot force the crack yourself. A moment of incongruity leads to the revelation of wisdom, but not because you figured it out. Enlightenment often arrives suddenly, like the whirring flight of the hummingbird, or the roaring of a lion, or the pattering of rain on our faces. Beauty, it seems, comes to us in the same way.
This morning, after pulling grass from the garden and refilling the bird bath, I turned to go back inside, when a dragonfly swept past me and settled onto the warm stone that lined the raised bed, close enough that I could make out the veins in its wings. I froze in mid-step, my skirt clutched in one hand, gazing at the common whitetail, a male dragonfly with black squares on its wings that looked to me like flags. Its white abdomen pulsed as it rested in stillness in the sun.
I cannot say the creature was beautiful from any human aesthetic, but what is beauty if not the wonder we feel at the mystery of life? The poet writes:
It is not a mouth thirsting nor an empty
hand stretched forth,
But rather a heart enflamed and a soul enchanted.
It is not the image you would see nor the
song you would hear,
But rather an image you see though you
close your eyes and a song you hear though
you shut your ears.Kahlil Gibran, “On Beauty”
Does this mean Beauty is not found in the dragonfly or the rain, but in our own hearts? Was my soul enchanted by the insect? What if I felt less ecstatic and more peaceful?
We Just Have to Look
A few weeks ago, when I started this column, my cat was pressed against my leg, purring. The window was open to let in the sound of rain on the patio. The air smelled fresh. Night was settling over the city. The kiwi leaves shimmered in the amber glow of sunset. I felt tired, but it was a weariness of fulfillment, not exhaustion. My belly felt full; nothing ached. What could be more precious than this?
Does that make me “aggrieved and injured” because I found beauty in the gentle kindness of a day lived, a day without war of suffering? Or is it beauty after all, because it was not looked for, only noticed?
While writing with my cat beside me, I sought nothing. I never called the dragonfly, nor enticed it. It simply appeared. How blessed I am. All around me, things exist that share with me their loveliness. For this, I am grateful.
Because of this, also, I am healed. Beauty soothes us. She fills the hole that festers in our hearts and brings completeness to our spirit. When Beauty reveals herself, our faith in life is renewed.
Perhaps that is because, if the poet is to be believed, Beauty is part of us. She is “life when life unveils her holy face.” What a wonderful way to describe those surprising flashes of the sacred. How lovely that life’s “holy face” would reveal itself to us in odd moments.
Yet life isn’t doing this for us. When my cat purrs, when the dragonfly lands a few feet from where I stand, no one is purposefully opening up or announcing herself. Beauty does not offer special gifts. The wonder of life unveils itself all the time. We just have to look.
No One Less Beautiful
The irony, though, is that when we look outside ourselves for life and the beautiful, we will not find their true selves. For instance, we may think Beauty is wealth or advancement or even music or theater or great art. It’s not that these things can’t be beautiful. We can appreciate the glittering of gold without getting caught up in its addictive lure, but that doesn’t mean that, by doing so, we see Beauty’s wholeness. At least, not if Gibran is correct. According to him, if we look to the things of life, we don’t see Beauty herself, but our own need.
Beauty, says the poet, lies within us. She may heal our soul, yet our soul is where she resides. Life may show us her face, but, as Gibran tells us, we, too, “are life,” and we, too, “are the veil.”
Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror.
But you are eternity and you are the mirror.Kahlil Gibran, “On Beauty”
We are the veil, and we are eternity, and we are the mirror into which we look for answers. In the end, if Life’s face is holy, then so is ours. So is everyone else’s. As the mirror, we can reflect this holiness so that all might see the sacred in themselves. We can only do this, though, if we understand that we are life, that we are beautiful, and that there are no exceptions to this. No one is less beautiful than we are, nor are they more.
This feels counterintuitive, of course. Is there no such thing as ugliness? Don’t we need Beauty’s opposite to understand her, as we need dark to know light or hunger to know satiation? How would that work if Beauty is eternity, the ultimate, the everything?
Why Love Everyone?
We think we can tell when something is ugly, but can we? We already ascertained that we do not find beauty in the surfaces of things, so why should we see ugliness there? Surely they both reside in our spirit. So who is to judge my spirit and yours? Who has the power to label us sinful or despicable? Which of us, because we lack some definition of beauty, should be rejected? Who gets to decide, and how?
Perhaps we should reject no one. Beauty and Life throb within us even in the places where our sin and ugliness hide. Our souls are wondrous and miraculous, as is the world in which we live. Perhaps the rest of it is the false face we create to protect our wounded hearts, the judgments we weave from our resentments and loneliness.
To be the mirror that reflects beauty into the world, we must first learn to see the beauty even in the parts of us that make us cringe, in the places where we feel shame, in the twinges of pain and violence and inconsistency. It’s hard work to open ourselves to beauty. Indeed, it’s counter-cultural. Yes, there are pockets in every community where people strive to love their neighbors and themselves, yet there is always fear. That nagging emotion can keep us alive through flight or fight, but it also separates us. It dulls our mirror. We stop reflecting our true selves.
After all, who wants to see beauty in the most reviled person? That goes against what we are taught. It goes against our instincts of preservation and protection. It’s not natural to let Beauty claim us, to absorb Life’s loveliness. So why bother? Why love everyone, for that’s really what we’re talking about.
Walk In Beauty
Why? Because, if we can do this work of loving, we will change. If we honor the beauty and the life within us, we will stop trying to protect ourselves from the truth. We will see more clearly and accept more easily. Over time, we will become more whole. We will heal and grow into our best selves.
Then we can begin to offer this beauty and this life, this acceptance and this healing, to others.
Of course, not everyone is interested in this. Some people scoff at the idea that they have needs or desires they cannot fulfill with strength and determination. Let them try. They are looking for something, even if they do not know it. We are all looking.
Yet anyone can become ready, at any moment, for that burst of enlightenment. Life surprises us as the dragonfly surprised me. In an instant, everything can change. We can decide to stop looking and start opening to what is.
If we breathe, notice, feel, live, embody all and embrace all, Beauty will find us. Wisdom, truth, enlightenment, and life itself are like a whisper you can almost hear or a shadow at the corner of your sight that wavers and flickers and refuses to solidify. But they are there. Trust them.
The mystics tell us that we would be well served if we would look within. What we need resides there, nestled within the ecstasy. By observing the holiness within the recesses of our hearts, by sitting in that place of open-heartedness, we will come to know Beauty, just as we might know enlightenment. With time, as we become more comfortable walking in Beauty, we will become the mirror. One day, if we do not give up, we will become love.
In faith and fondness,
- Gibran, Kahlil, “On Beauty,” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/148571/on-beauty-5bff0f2d45329, accessed June 21, 2022.
Photo of dragonfly by Andre Mouton from Unsplash
Photo of flower by Barbara Stevens
Copyright © 2022 Barbara E. Stevens. All Rights Reserved.