By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.
Immortal lines from the pen of the Bard, yet often the profoundest depths of thought gain their blame-ably banal buoyancy, waterlogged and weary in the cenotaph of the cliché.
The beauty of a thing- whether lovely in sight or in sound or in scent- we are reminded is not found in the words and the noises that beckon its spectre in our minds, but in the thing itself, the unfathomable and unapproachable substance that lies beneath the face it puts forward to our senses.
But this token is but a step inside the door, for its very contours point beyond itself. We might say that a thing has beauty- that it is beautiful- but this is already an admission of lagging behind, or, from another perspective, being out in front.
For if this thing is beautiful, what does it mean to say another thing is as well? Is this merely an equivocation, a grammatical necessity?
Or does the structure of our words and the worlds they imbue and imbibe imply that the flower is not merely the end of the matter, but reaches further down and further in?
As I was refreshing myself on some theology of aesthetics, I happened to recall a section of The Divine Names by Dionysius the Areopagite. This enigmatic work was the product of some unknown Christian in the 5th or 6th century A.D. who, despite the anonymity, became one of the most influential theologians in Christian history, having a profound impact on luminaries as St. Maximus the Confessor and St. Thomas Aquinas.
In this remarkable passage, Dionysius is reflecting upon the divine names and how they speak negatively (that is, by negating all finite attributes in relation to divinity- see more here) about God and show forth themselves in creation. He comes to Beauty as a name for God (which he terms the Super-Essential Godhead) since God is not beautiful as things are beautiful but rather is beyond and above beauty so as to be the source of Beauty. He says:
And [the Super-Essential Godhead] is called 'Beautiful' because it is All-Beautiful and more than Beautiful, and is eternally, unvaryingly, unchangeably Beautiful; incapable of birth or death or growth or decay; and not beautiful in one part and foul in another; nor yet at one time and not at another; nor yet beautiful in relation to one thing but not to another; nor yet beautiful in one place and not in another (as if It were beautiful for some but were not beautiful for others); nay, on the contrary, It is, in Itself and by Itself, uniquely and eternally beautiful, and from beforehand It contains in a transcendent manner the originating beauty of everything that is beautiful.
This is, dare I say it?, a beautiful passage, and one that could be pondered profitably for quite a long time. But Dionysius makes a very interesting point- we call things beautiful that are not always so or that aren't in one place or another and so on.
Our bard's rose (by whatever name we may call it) furnishes the exemplar; the seed of the rosa rubiginosa is as inauspicious as any less fragrant plant, its true beauty coming to pass at a certain time and under certain conditions. The very sun which gives it life is breathtaking in its rising and setting, yet equally breathtaking (in a different way!) in a parched and barren wasteland.
In the constitution of our finite world as undergirded in its becoming, the beautiful is a fleeting thing; here today (or merely for the moment) and gone tomorrow- the grass of the field and all that. A poor reflection of its beautiful maker, the waning moon approaching the end of its syzygy.
But a reflection nevertheless.
In the book of Acts there is the familiar story of Peter and John happening upon a lame (i.e., disabled) beggar outside of the Temple. While the entire story is worth consideration, there is a nearly imperceptible detail that I have always overlooked. St. Luke describes that the lame man was positioned at a specific spot- the Gate called Beautiful, as he says. (The story can be found in Acts 3)
When we think of the term beautiful relating to an object like a gate, it is natural to assume the description is meant to invoke meticulous detail, intricate reliefs, an architect's prized work. And no doubt it probably was- something like the Temple in Jerusalem was a not-so-inexpensive venture.
What caught my eye is that Luke seems to be the only writer in antiquity who calls this gate the Beautiful Gate. Other contemporary writers name this particular gate something else. Maybe it was a local name- who knows?
However, it goes a little deeper than that. The term Luke uses here is not the normal term one might expect here- beautiful was commonly served by the term kalos.
(Its Latin equivalent is from whence we get calligraphy- literally, beautiful writing.)
In this instance, however, Luke uses the term horaios, which also means beautiful. However, it is derived from the term hora which essentially means hour; thus the idea is that something that is horaios is beautiful in its time or at the right time- in other literature it is often used for persons who are in the bloom of youth.
As such, this is not just a subjective beauty or a mere comeliness, but something mature, like a rose when it blossoms in the spring in all its color and vibrancy.
Now, I don't know if Luke intends this or not, but for the lame man there was certainly a beauty that came at the right time. Luke previously tells us that this man had been lame from birth and sat in front of this gate every day, but on this one day- this beautiful day- he finds healing. God can do anything and could have healed him at any point in his life, but this was the right time, this was the moment for the flower to open its petals to the sun.
In another place St. Paul makes mention of those who carry the Gospel to others, quoting the prophet who says:
How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!
In a world of dusty feet and dirty sandals, one might hope these feet stay wrapped up and out of sight! But surely our saint is not referring to calloused appendages but rather to what they bring- a herald is a face among the crowd, but one with good news is a welcome sight, a now beautiful face. In St. Paul's thought these are no accidents of history- rather than instants of chronos (linear time) they are moments of kairos. (just-the-right time)
The beautiful has its times, and the artist is someone who is constantly looking for and- most importantly- waiting for them. Just as Juliet's rose may smell sweet no matter what its name, in the dead of winter it may be withered and putrid. The pressures of life and of jobs and of deadlines often try to move the growth along, and sometimes we even settle for the plastic variety in a pinch.
More's the pity.
When I was about to propose to my wife, I spent a great deal of time planning and crafting the moment. It required a plane trip to Ireland, a rental car on the opposite side of the road in the middle of nowhere, a monastery on the edge of the sea and a quiet place in the land of ten thousand saints.
I had to write a song, fret about a ring getting there in time and not dying on the back roads of Northern Ireland.
To be sure, I could have proposed anywhere- pop out the ring and ask the question. And she would still have said yes. (Hopefully!) Admittedly it was hard to wait- after all, love in its ardor wants to unite itself to its beloved without delay.
But in the waiting and in the planning, in the crafting and in the working emerged a moment of beauty that is one of the fondest of my life (and now our life) that I wouldn't trade for anything.
Sometimes our prayers seem to go unanswered, but could it be that in this waiting and hoping beauty is lying underneath the surface, ready to blossom in its fullness at any moment? I sometimes wonder if I've ever treated prayer like I did my engagement and wedding, and if I did how much more deeply I would love and know God…
At the end of the story our lives are aimed towards the beautiful, because Dionysius' Super-Essential Beauty- God himself- spreads out the rays of his beauty and light upon us all. We catch glimpses here and there, and like the waning moon sometimes shine a little bit with a borrowed radiance before we are seen no more.
This dim glass can get awfully foggy.
But like the dormant seed of our bard's fragrant foil, the beautiful is just waiting for its chance to emerge, the right time to bloom in the flower of its youth. Someday our horaios will give way to kalos, as the not-always beautiful is clothed with the always-beautiful.
And then we can smell sweet forever.