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The Beauty We Long For, Part 2

If you had to pick a song that best captured our human experience—an anthem for our existence—what would it be? I don’t know for sure, but I think U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” would be up there on my list. Maybe you’re familiar with the lyrics:

I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you
Only to be with you

I have run, I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls
These city walls
Only to be with you

But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for

The song expresses the deep yearning of the human heart for satisfaction, a longing to be with the One we were created for. But this longing remains just that—a longing—this side of eternity. In my last blog, I said that beauty awakens these longings and touches something deep within us because beauty, by design, is intended to point beyond itself to the eternal. There is a Beauty behind all the beauty, who is the Source of all created beauty. Our longings are for Him, and the beauty of this world is a taste, a whisper, an echo, a pointer to Him.

The former pope, John Paul II, was well-known for his theology of the body, sexuality, and beauty. He once wrote a letter to artists in which he spoke of beauty as “an invitation to savor life and to dream of the future.” In other words, beauty is not meant to satisfy us fully now, but only to inspire and awaken a hunger in us that will be satisfied when we see God face to face. It’s like the lick of the cake batter scraped from the pan. In itself, it doesn’t satisfy you but only makes you excited and hungry for the real thing. “That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy,” John Paul II says. “It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God.

It’s crucial that we understand this. Created beauty is only intended to awaken, to enflame, to stir our longings and desires, NOT to satisfy them completely. If we miss that, we’ll spend our days searching for some experience of beauty or pleasure to satisfy the hunger in us, rather than letting beauty and pleasure point us to the Source who alone can satisfy us, in whom we will one day experience the fullness of what we longed for, but only tasted, in this life.

C. S. Lewis expresses the difficulty we sometimes have in realizing this:

When the real want for Heaven is present in us, we do not recognize it. Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy.1

Does that sound familiar? “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

What beauty and pleasure are trying to tell us is that created beauty and earthly pleasures are not what we’re looking for. Behind the longings that art or music or sunsets or sensual passions awaken in us is a longing for God. If we recognize this, we can enjoy beauty and pleasures as they were meant to be enjoyed, as echoes, pointers to the Divine. If we fail to recognize this, we will spend our days in futility, seeking a greater experience of beauty, a different pleasure, and only growing frustrated when the longing isn’t slaked.

Long before U2 sang their anthem, Augustine famously said, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Restlessness is not a bad experience if we recognize it for what it is and let it direct us to the One for whom we were made.

So in this life, our experience of beauty and the pleasures it brings are gifts. We receive them with thanksgiving. But we must never expect them to satisfy us, only to intensify our longings. That’s why they’re there.

Lewis says it like this:

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.2

In this quest, beauty aids us by whispering to us of an experience of Beauty to come toward which all our longings in this life are directed. Beauty helps keep alive our desire for our true country.

For now, U2’s song is our anthem. We haven’t yet found what we’re looking for. Not fully. But one day the song will change. We’ll be able to joyfully proclaim: “I’ve found it, and it was worth the wait.”


1C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 135.
2Lewis, Mere Christianity, pp. 136-137

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