The most beautiful thing I have ever heard
Who could come up with such loveliness, wonders Barney Zwartz
There is a story, probably apocryphal, that the young Queen Victoria, lying in bed with Albert after an act of connubial bliss, said to him: “Do you think the poor people enjoy this as much as we do?”
It has always struck me as a great mercy of God that poor people can enjoy beauty in its manifold forms as much as the rich. Perhaps not so much of it, perhaps not so readily or accessibly – they are not so likely to live in a mansion with vistas of rolling hills and trees or the ever-changing sea or, if they do, it will be in staff quarters in the attics without the wonderful view. Even so, nobody can be deprived of beauty because, as has been wisely observed, it is in the eye of the beholder and we take it where we find it. It is all around us, often in the smallest details. It’s a cliché, but only because it is true, to say we might find it in the delicate veins and tints of a fallen autumn leaf, in watching the clouds blaze with colours that change and subside as the sun sets, in a magically mysterious chord change in a favourite piece of music, or in a child’s delighted curiosity.
There are many forms of beauty, as Katisha in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado reminds us: “There is beauty in the bellow of the blast, There is grandeur in the growling of the gale, There is eloquent outpouring, When the lion is a-roaring, And the tiger is a-lashing of his tail!”
I have often pondered the link between beauty and emotional pain, or at least profoundly disturbing emotion. Why are we moved to tears by beauty, rather than to laughter? We may have elevated thoughts, but they follow the experience; they are not part of it.
Of course, far greater thinkers have gone before me here. But why should the slow movement of a Mozart piano concerto – try No. 9, K271, or 20, K466, or the last, 27, K595, all plentifully available on YouTube – sometimes make me, a grown man, weep? Are they tears of joy? Perhaps, but there is certainly an element of emotional disturbance there as well. Bach’s cello suites, as rarefied and transcendent as music gets, strike me with awe, but it is a remoter reaction. These suites do not twist my bowels (as the King James Version might put it) in the same way. For my wife, it is the shifting modulations of Chopin’s Nocturnes.
And if this music means nothing to you, there is probably other music that does. I believe it is one of the most generous gifts of God to humanity that he should have created (most of) us to be moved by music. Others may have different sources. My former philosophy supervisor was far more sensitive than I am to the beauty of Shakespeare, and knew the Bard’s works far better. Mind you, I am more alert than the unnamed Bostonian who said to British Prime Minister William Gladstone: “Shakespeare? A great man! Why, I doubt if there are six his equal in the whole of Boston.”
But of all the forms of beauty in the world, none is more striking, more affecting, more penetrating to the depths of our souls, than moral beauty. By this I mean generosity, kindness, self-sacrifice, love – the sort of heroic acts performed by apparently unheroic people. When we see this sort of love, it captures us and I, for one, cannot help reflecting how far short I fall of this every day. Unfortunately, the inspiration, if resolutely ignored, soon fades.
My original shock at grasping the gospel is still fresh every time I consider it.
And I think the most beautiful thing I have ever heard is the gospel of Jesus Christ, that he voluntarily laid down his life to rescue humanity from our rebellion, our self-will, our sin – or, given the decline of that concept in post-Christian Australia, what Francis Spufford calls the human propensity to #&*% things up.
It is beyond comprehension that Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, emptied his will, that he accepted the humiliation of being an infant human being, then a poor Galilean, then the shame and agony of the cross. As Paul writes in Philippians, chapter 2: “rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!”
Familiarity can lead us to take this astonishing truth for granted, but we must avoid that. When I first read the New Testament in my 20s, having long scoffed at gullible religious believers, the beauty of this concept overwhelmed me. I thought that something so glorious must be true – who could invent such an improbable but wonderful account?
Nearly 40 years on I trust I can give a fuller and more nuanced account of, as St Peter puts it, the hope that is within me. By God’s grace I have never taken that sacrifice for granted, and my original shock at grasping the gospel is still fresh every time I consider it. But I am no more persuasive today, with a theology degree and decades of reflection behind me, than I was then to those disinclined to accept it.
It is the mercy of God that he draws us to him, and that we come.
Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow with the Centre for Public Christianity.