Searching for Beauty—and God—in the Age of Instagram
A few weeks ago, my mom came back from a trip to Moab, Utah, bearing gifts: a miniature orange buffalo made of calcite, a flamingo-pink ball cap and a half-dollar-sized hunk of fool’s gold. My family chatted around the dinner table as I rolled the cool rock around in my palm, new hat on head, letting it glint in the kitchen light. “Man, this thing should be beautiful to me,” I thought to myself. A hundred little surfaces winked gold, shadow, gleam.
And it was beautiful—but somehow it also wasn’t. Because, since my toddler days, I have lived and moved in a world where fake rubies adorn fuzzy dress-up gear, where the gift shop at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science lets you snap up crystals like they were Cracker Jacks and where I can buy myself a pair of 18-karat gold-filled earrings for $50.
An alarm sounded: Beauty isn’t dawning on me like it should. There was something beautiful in front of me, but somehow the beauty itself wasn’t registering. It didn’t make me feel a thing. Have I been desensitized? If beauty reveals, as Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote, “the truth and goodness of the depths of reality,” am I a welcoming host to its revelation?
At the same time I haven’t been recognizing beauty every time it is before me, I also haven’t been recognizing God. What if those disconnects are related?
The beauty itself wasn’t registering. It didn’t make me feel a thing. Have I been desensitized?
In a society driven by productivity and immersed in overstimulating environments, where social media has actually programmed us to ignore inflections of beauty because they’re “just another pretty picture” or song or face, we have become numb to the constant beauty that is unfolding God before us. But beauty speaks. As with beauty, God is. God unfolds. God gives the breath, and God takes it away.
Early in 2020, before the pandemic hit, I spoke with a Carmelite named Sister Maura. Her monastery sits a mile down Benton Street from Santa Clara University. Visitors can walk next to an olive grove, among redwoods and roses and wisteria. At a certain point, I was walking there nearly every day to taste the peace. I wanted to learn about this sanctuary for the final project of my senior seminar, in which we were studying the rhetoric of place. I focused on the idea of history and how commemorative plaques form collective memory—everything (everything) communicates.
When I asked Sister Maura how she thought the monastery’s space communicated rhetorically, she told me: “It all points to God.” All the rooms carry stark simplicity, she explained: white walls, wooden crucifix. There are no distractions, she was saying. All God.
It made me think about the beauty of a simple line—the meeting of three walls at the corner of a room. Trinity. What points to God, and how we might be missing it.
The industrial revolution democratized certain forms of beauty, but it may have also taken away a certain sense of beauty’s novelty.
The internet has become a sort of distribution center, especially for the visual. I might not bat an eye at a photo of a green-eyed Himalayan snow creature, or at the jade-water mountainscapes of Thailand—exquisite—because since I was 15 I have used phones that have tossed photos of impossible, faraway things at me daily. Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, Tumblr, not to mention Hallmark cards, billboards, TV; there are calendar stores full of these images.
I can capture every spectacular moment of life on my iPhone—a beautiful reproduction or object around every corner, on every visit to social media, slapped on what seems like every surface imaginable. The saturation makes me feel like the full force of beauty itself is being subdued; like I’m becoming desensitized. I’m being programmed to scroll right past it.
I don’t think life was always this overstimulating, and the overstimulation has something to do with influx. The advent of manufacturing in the late 1700s in Europe, and then the invention of lithography in 1796, made printed art mass-producible. In the United States between 1870 and World War I, factories of the second industrial revolution began to streamline on-demand beauty. For the first time fabricated splendor became available to the masses: sets of china that didn’t cost a fortune, rhinestones that lit up the human body (with no need to dig into the earth to bring forth that precious glimmer).
This revolution democratized certain forms of beauty, yes—very good—but it may have also taken away a certain sense of beauty’s novelty; its shock value, its grab-you-by-the-shoulders lightning bolt of awe. Now, over a century later, I possess and see so much beautiful stuff that much of its frank, intrinsic beauty is somewhat lost on me. Sensation dwindles. Not because these things aren’t beautiful, but because I’ve been around these lovely things so much I don’t always bother to pay attention.
I possess and see so much beautiful stuff that much of its frank, intrinsic beauty is somewhat lost on me.
And for many of us in this pandemic, our immediate walls and ecosystem have become the world. Our screen time skyrockets. As March stretched into April and leaped into summer and fall, my iPhone so kindly notified me every week of the growing minutes I was spending glued to the screen. If I was addicted to Instagram before, now I’m really in deep.
Our phones connect us to one another and the world in profoundly vital ways moment to moment; but the intimacy we share with these rectangles of light toys with our energy, health and attentiveness! It is light, and it can bring us a timeline of delight (or misery). But we are letting beauty elude us. The extraordinary has become humdrum.
And in the thick of this disease, of viral chaos and isolation, our bodies are craving the intimacy of beauty, whether we know it or not. We probably crave beauty because we crave God, and beauty reveals something of God. Especially in these trying times, our need and desire for God’s love might be laid bare, if it wasn’t obvious before.
I am sure many of us may have, in different moments during these months, been brought to our wit’s end. We need God deeply, and so we need beauty deeply, too. Do we perceive every ounce of it, the beauty that hangs so delicately and intimately on each quark of this little universe?
In Heaven and Hell, Aldous Huxley writes that “modern technology has had the same devaluating effect on glass and polished metal as it has had on fairy lamps and pure, bright colours.” Huxley cites John of Patmos, who is possibly the author of the Book of Revelation. He writes: for “John of Patmos and his contemporaries walls of glass were conceivable only in the New Jerusalem.” A “glut” of glass and metal, Huxley calls it: “surfaces [that] wink at us in the bathroom, shine from the kitchen sink, go glittering across country in cars and trams.”
There are some days I want to sweep all my belongings into trash bags, scour my shelves and walls of all things thing until there’s nothing left but me and bare walls, bare wood. All I want is God—the good and the true and the beautiful. This “glut” of modern lifestyle just might subdue my intimacy with the truth of being itself.
There are some days I want to sweep all my belongings into trash bags, scour my shelves and walls of all things thing until there’s nothing left but me and bare walls, bare wood.
An artist who renders a still life has always reminded us that the bare, everyday bits of life are lifegiving. Transcendent. God the Beautiful is in communion with the present world.
In her poem “Evidence,” Mary Oliver writes:
Beauty without purpose is beauty without virtue. But
all beautiful things, inherently, have this function—
to excite the viewers toward sublime thought. Glory
to the world, that good teacher.
Are we wholly allowing the world to be that good teacher?
St. Ignatius Loyola dug into the constant presence of God. Different versions of his Daily Examen prayer exercise instruct us to look back on our day with careful, God-seeking vision. We ask for the ability to notice God’s presence in each moment; we give thanks for particular experiences of the day and then look back on them to see where God was. Finally, we seek forgiveness for those times we failed to love, and we close with a petition for grace to fill tomorrow. This prayer and intention is also beauty-seeking vision. Asking to see where God is revealed might be the same as asking to notice the beautiful. And beauty arrives. Constantly.
I am most thankful these days for the sunlight that shines out of gasoline puddles and skyscrapers alike; the pudgy shuffling of dachshunds on tiny, perfect legs; the laughter of a stranger (or a roommate, through the wall) that has nothing to do with me but beats its wings between us anyway to sit in my chest; the creature of my body that does exactly what it pleases when a good song plays—any good song, any sort of good; the playground of shadows that comes out at night, when Thomas Edison keeps us awake and looking.
Are we wholly allowing the world to be that good teacher?
Poetry, prayer, mindfulness and art all have something in common. They can defamiliarize the reality that unfolds before us, make experience spring up anew. Some things that have gone numb need a good dose of resurrection. This includes the moment. When we pray, we see things as if for the first time. When we notice what’s right there in the moment, it is God.
In “Of Nicolette,” the poet E. E. Cummings presents the lily in soft glory:
a Winged Passion woke and one by one
there fell upon the night,like angel's tears,
the syllables of that mysterious prayer,
and as an opening lily drowsy-fair
(when from her couch of poppy petals peers
the sleepy morning) gently draws apart
her curtains,and lays bare her trembling heart
Poets most simply notice. Everyone has this power. Our daily life can rise up in “syllables” of “mysterious prayer” if we take the time to revel and stew in it. Ross Gay offers an embodied sort of prayer in “becoming a horse”:
touching my nose to his made me know
the clover’s bloom, my wet eye to his
made me know the long field’s secrets.
Life is calling us to touch our noses to the moment, fix our wet eyes to whatever hint of heaven may be present. How can we, in this saturated society, craft our lives and cultivate our psyches to realize the beauty present there, in a way that opens us further to grace?
Some things that have gone numb need a good dose of resurrection. This includes the moment.
On a recent trip to Albany, N.Y., with America’s video team to film a short documentary, I was pulled back into the world of photography in which I grew up. My mother is a photographer and an artist, and much of my childhood was spent in front of the camera or fingering through photographs of water lilies and cathedrals—faces and landforms from a lifestyle of overseas travel and Colorado living.
I wasn’t that into it as a kid. But being handed a fancy camera again this past year, as I entered my 23rd year of life, has been like being handed new eyes. The viewfinder and process of capturing a particular moment in eternity opens up this posture of looking—of surrender to the beautiful—that is possible and present in every direction if we take the time to reframe ourselves.
As Richard Powers writes in The Overstory, “The only dependable things are humility and looking.” Most of what a camera does is what eyes do—what consciousness does. “Looking” in the way of seeking. Noticing. Focusing. Click.
Can touch be beautiful? Have you ever felt your own skin? And the sound of cars beating like waves down the highway. A spring rain in the nostrils. You know! The glide of water across our hands and backs—water, our birthplace. Water! That glossy little mango sitting on your table, that never-ending lineup of windows that bend light across the entire town to get to you, that stupid hunk of fool’s gold that now follows you around like a kid that won’t stop nagging, Look! Where is the beauty in it? Where? Where?
I want God. I want every reflection. If I were a minimalist; if I kept clicking the red X over the Instagram app forever; if I closed my eyes a bit more often and asked that opening them would bring revelation; if I wrote a poem every day; if all that was left on my walls was the engraving of clay hands reaching for the sun that hangs there now; then, might the beauty of both earth-made and human-made creation—line, color, wave—spur me into greater awareness of God as God, God as love, God as life itself?
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