beauty communion

The Problem of Sharing Beauty

9:39:00 AMAlexander S. Anderson

When When we first encounter something beautiful, after we appreciate it ourselves, our first inclination is to share it with someone else. When we encounter a new and beautiful song or piece of music, we want to share it.  “Listen to this!”
On a crisp night when the moon is big and beautiful, we want others to look up at the night sky., “Have you seen the moon?”
We don’t attempt to hide the moon under the proverbial bushel basket, secreted away  for our own enjoyment. We don’t keep music to ourselves, content to have a treasure others don’t. Our experience of beauty awakens in us the desire for others to have the same experience, and perhaps to enjoy the experience together.


Unfortunately, sharing beauty is not always that straightforward.   We sometimes find that the person we have called on to respond to the beauty we see does not respond. He is indifferent to or even actively dislikes that which we find so beautiful. We explain away:
“Look at it from a different angle.”
“Focus on something specific.”   
Explanations just  may not be enough to get our friend to see the beauty that we see. We get frustrated. That which is so clear, so obvious to us is hidden and unavailable to our friend.


We can’t just “hand over” the experience of beauty like food or information. We can simply hand over a chocolate bar to our friend, or simply tell him that Louis XIV was born in 1638, but he cannot be handed over the beauty of Michelangelo's David. Beauty has to be communicated slowly and indirectly, first via an appreciation of harmony, sophistication, simplicity.  - Explanation and prodding alone  can never give our friend the experience of beauty that we experience. The best our words can do is hopefully help awaken an experience of beauty in the other. We can only point our friend in the right direction: he himself has to find the treasure.


Why is this? Why can’t we simply hand over the beauty we want to communicate? Why is sharing beauty different from  sharing a snack or sharing a story? Dietrich von Hildebrand answers this question, reminding us that beauty is not just a sensual thing:


“In the concept mentioned above, beauty was spoken of as if it were a pleasurable sensation of the eye and the ear. That is, manifestly, a gross error. If a light blinds me, my senses experience pleasure, yet know one will say that this light is ugly or in bad taste.” [1]


Beauty is not something we can calculate by adding up the sense data of an experience. We can hand our friend a photograph, and we can be reasonably sure, barring some deficiency (maybe he’s blind, maybe he forgot his glasses) that he will receive the image that the photograph shows. But we cannot be  sure that seeing the image will allow our friend to see the beauty of the image. That beauty is something that he needs to be awakened and  attuned to.

That joy is doubled when,  by a great mystery, the beauty which we enjoyed on our own is enhanced by successfully sharing it. There’s something glorious about seeing our friend “get” beauty for the first time. This glorious, mysterious sharing is the goal.  And it’s this glorious mystery we aim at when we share beauty with others.

Here we have a paradox: that which we most desire to share cannot be shared. At least, not directly. This makes sense, though, because this difficulty makes the successful communication of beauty even more momentous. The obstacles overcome make our joy even greater when a friend finally sees the beauty he could not see before. That joy is doubled when, by a great mystery, the beauty which we enjoyed on our own


(1) Dietrich von Hildebrand, Beauty in the Light of Redemption, 84.

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