We are creatures of longing. Born with hungers and thirsts, with deep longings and desires for…something that can be hard to name. But there it is, deep within us. We long for it, even if we don’t always know what it is.
Lately I’ve been thinking about beauty—whether expressed in art or music or stories or nature or any number of things—and the way beauty awakens deep longings in us. Like the classic novel Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. My wife and kids have been listening to the audio book in the car, and on a recent trip, I got to listen in on a portion of the book with them.
If you are unfamiliar with the book, it tells the story of four sisters. Beth, the third sister, is known for being kind to the unwanted and unloved, patient beyond measure, exceedingly shy, and as one who loves music, especially playing the piano. In the chapter I heard, the family’s grandfatherly but somewhat intimidating neighbor, Mr. Laurence, told the sisters they could come play his grand piano any time they wanted. Beth overcomes her terrible shyness after a great struggle and begins going regularly to play the piano at Mr. Laurence’s home. A beautiful relationship develops between them. Beth, who gives and gives to all around her while asking nothing for herself, experiences kindness she never anticipated and is overwhelmed with gratitude. The whole scene—Beth’s goodness, the kindness of Mr. Laurence, the relationship between them—stirred deep longings in me. Before I realized what was happening, I was overcome with emotion. I was being drawn into beauty.
Why do things like that have such a profound impact on us? Like a beautiful sunset, or a musical piece, or an act of kindness and generosity. What is it about them that so deeply moves us?
In the novel Chasing Francis by Ian Morgan Cron, there’s a scene, following a magnificent orchestral performance, where some of the characters discuss why the performance elicited such emotion from them. One of them proposes that in these experiences with beauty, we unconsciously sense Someone standing behind the beautiful, Someone who is its source. Another character wonders if art, music, dance, theatre, literature, and film aren’t “all a way of speaking in tongues…spiritual languages that communicate truths about God that human language doesn’t have words to express.”
Could that be why we’re so moved by beauty? Could it be that the longings that are awakened in us are really longings for the Beauty behind these beauties? Could it be that these beauties are speaking to us in a language beyond words?
C. S. Lewis seemed to think so. Of created things that delight us with their beauty and bring us pleasure, he said,
This heavenly fruit is instantly redolent of the orchard where it grew. This sweet air whispers of the country from whence it blows. It is a message. We know we are being touched by a finger of that right hand at which there are pleasures for evermore.1
In another place, Lewis wrote,
“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing…For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”2
Do you hear it? The link between beauty and longing? According to Lewis, what comes to us through beauty is longing. And our earthly experiences of beauty—these longings—are echoes, whispers, messages. They speak to us of another place, and of the One who is their source.
I read recently that “The beauty of the world around us is nothing less than the mark of the Creator left visible, in an act of grace, in the dark nightmare of futility in which we wander; and yet, we wander in hope (Rom 8:20).”3
The hope, which beauty testifies to, is that there is a Beauty behind all the beauty. Our longings are for him, and the beauty of this world is a taste, a whisper, an echo, a pointer to him. Beauty speaks of him. He speaks to us through beauty.
The Psalmist says as much:
“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork…Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world (Psalm 19:1, 4).
God, I think, invites us to learn this language, to pay attention to the beauty around us, to listen as it speaks, and to recognize in our longings the true Beauty who stands behind the beauty and is its Source. He is the One for whom we long.
1C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Letter 17.
2Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 30-31.
3Travis Bohlinger, “Beauty and Its Non,” The Logos Academic Blog, May 9, 2019.