When spending time in natural parks, or when gazing up the beauty of a starry sky observable from a place without light pollution, or merely witnessing a sunset in which different shades of color appear and vanish, we can say with Augustine that “All these things, created by divine art, manifest in themselves a certain unity, beauty and order” (On the Trinity, 6.10.11). Augustine goes on to say that unity, beauty and order point to the “Maker of all creatures, and creatures allow us to discover in them, in their certain and worthy proportions, a vestige of the Trinity.” (On the Trinity, 6.10.11)
It is possible that the encounter with beauty God’s creation leads us to a search for God as the source and the perfect Beauty itself: “We shall have tarried then long enough among those things that God has made, in order that by them He Himself may be known that made them.” (On the Trinity, 15.2.3). It is also possible however that we can be confused in trying to understand the feelings that beauty evokes, and in our confusion we could attribute divine qualities to creation, as paganism does and Scripture rebukes: “And hence they are rebuked in the book of Wisdom, who could not out of the good things that are seen know Him who is: neither by considering the works did they acknowledge the workmaster; but deemed either fire, or wind, or the swift air or the circle of the stars, or the forceful waters, or the lights of heaven, to be the gods which govern the world: with whose beauty if they, being delighted, took them to be gods, let them know how much better the Lord of them is; for the first Author of beauty has created them. If they were astonished at their power, let them understand by them how much mightier He is that made them.” (On the Trinity, 15.2.3)
We can also respond to natural beauty by loving it in a way that distances us from God, especially human beauty, because the pleasure that human beauty can produce can be loved inordinately. In this way, a good, namely beauty, perceived in the wrong way, leads us away from God. Augustine compares this dynamic to how a stingy person relates to gold: “When the stingy person prefers gold to justice, it is through no fault of the gold, but of the stingy person; and so with every created thing. For though it be good, it may be loved with an evil as well as with a good love: it is loved rightly when it is loved ordinately; evilly, when inordinately.” (City of God, 15.22)
In order to properly approach beauty, we might need to be educated to love beauty righly. One way to know if we are being formed in the perception of beauty is to come to expand our perception of beauty to recognize that there is not only beauty perceived by the senses, but also there is beauty of the soul, which is even greater than the beauty perceived by the senses: “Justice is a kind of beauty of the soul that makes people beautiful even if their bodies are deformed and weak. The soul is invisible and also its beauty.” (On the Trinity, 8.6.9)
This step of recognizing immaterial beauty can in turn help us to recognize that the sublime and most perfect human beauty is not apprehended by the pleasure it produces by way of the senses, but how it conveys love and truth. Our savior on the cross lacks all bodily beauty since he assumes in himself the ugliness of sin, but Christ crucified is perfect love and His beauty surpasses all other beauty: “How beautiful is he beyond the sons of men, with a certain beauty that is the more to be loved and admired the less it is corporeal” (City of God, 17.16).
Arriving at this recognition of incorporeal beauty, after having wandered through the earlier part of life seeking only corporeal beauty, Saint Augustine exclaims:
“Late have I loved you, beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you! For behold, you were within me and I was outside myself, and there I sought you; I, unlovely, rushed heedlessly among the things of beauty You made. You were with me, but I was not with You. Those things kept me far from You, which, unless they were in You, they would not exist. You called, and cried aloud, and forced open my deafness. You gleamed and shone, and chased away my blindness. You exhaled your fragrance, and I drew in my breath and now pant after You. I tasted, and now hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I burned for Your peace.” (Confessions, X.38)
Saint Augustine is a witness that the beauty of Christ has a transforming power. In coming to recognize the immaterial beauty of Christ, Augustine’s own life started to walk the way of beauty to conform his own life to beauty and become a beautiful life with time. Agustine’s example reminds us that we are pilgrims on the way of beauty, and that being dazzled by natural beauty can be only the first steps to contemplating by the grace of Christ, His eternal beauty.