Have a friend who recently took time to gaze on the original Vermeer masterpiece, The Girl with the Pearl Earing, made famous in the novel and the subsequent DVD. Of course the novel and the DVD are at least two interpretive moves removed from the original, and affecting as they are they leave us at a distance from the thing itself. To search out an original masterpiece, like this Vermeer, and to contemplate its detailed loveliness, is to allow yourself to be taken into an immediacy of experience that permits great art to disarm you, render your mind and heart and spirit vulnerable to beauty, and open your being in responsiveness to the power of beauty to recreate and renew the way you see the world.
Theologians have long known that beauty, one of the three transcendentals, sets off deep in our human consciousness, reverberations and affinities with those feelings of longing and spiritual yearning we associate with prayer at its most inarticulate yet intimate. We can't find the words, but we recognise the pull towards that which is beyond us and yet which beckons, and that powerful undertow draws us away from ourselves and towards God. Simone Weil, French philosopher, mystic and marginal visionary of life, wrote about some of this:
the beauty of the world is almost the only way in which we can allow God to penetrate us...for a sense of beauty, though mutilated, distorted and soiled, remains rooted in the heart of humanity as a powerful incentive. It is present in all the preoccupations of secular life. If it were made true and pure it would sweep all secular life in a body to the feet of God...
The paradox of beauty is that it has the power both to break the heart and to restore it; it tells us both what we have lost and what we long for; it shows the world in its actuality as flawed and imperfect, and also provides a vision of an alternative world where perfection need not be impossible; it reminds us of our finitude by allowing us to glimpse that which is beyond our knowing, that which is defiant of calculation, that which radiates with those other two great transcendentals, Truth and Goodness.
My own recent sorties into the realm of the beautiful include patient waiting before several paintings like this, the first hearing of and then repeated listening to Tallis's Spem in Alium, an encounter with a perfectly formed white rose, and a re-watching of an old film in which human life was explored with generous compassion, thespian genius, humane sentiment laced with just enough realism to remind me that life has its anguish as well as joy. In each experience, there was a sense of being taken out of myself, invited, persuaded, coaxed perhaps even catapulted, out of the mundane ordinary routine of a life more or less interesting, and for a few brief moments, taken to a new level of awareness - that life, this life, my life, is suffused with splendour if only I could see it. We are dust, but dust of glory. We are finite, but with eternity in our hearts. We settle for the possible, but then beauty awakens desire for the impossible, teases us with intimations of the perfect, tantalises us towards the fulfilment of all we have it in us to be. That's what great art does, like this Vermeer painting of The Girl with the Pearl Earing. And that's what God the master artist does - persuades us with beauty, invites our gaze, opens our eyes to splendour, and wounds the soul with that which only ever finally heals us, love.