Beauty is gloriously useless; it has no purpose but itself. ― David Bentley Hart
My spiritual director from the early 1990’s once pressed me to focus on praising God Praise, he said, is crucial to a healthy spiritual life as it seeks to honor God simply for being who He is and not for what He can give me. He counseled this new focus because when he had asked me that day what role praise had in my prayer, I shared with him that it was really a meaningless word in my prayer life.
In much the same way as Muslims recite the “99 beautiful names of Allah,” he asked me to write out a list God’s attributes, as many as I could conjure in my mind, and make a litany of praise that lauded God for being, for example, just, infinite, peace, mercy, truth, beauty, goodness, Trinity, and so on. He asked me to pray it every morning first thing, and to pray it slowly, allowing myself to linger over attributes that grabbed me. Very powerful. As I would pray through this list I would often get “stuck” on beauty. Psalm 27:4 stuck in my heart:
One thing I ask of the Lord;
this I seek:
To dwell in the Lord’s house
all the days of my life,
To gaze on the Lord’s beauty,
to behold his temple.
As David Hart says above, God’s beauty serves no useful function, but is merely the excessive and wasteful overflow of the magnificence of God’s esse, His being in all its eternal splendor. Beauty is the showing of who and what God is. How delightful it is to pause from the day and simply say to God, “I praise you for your beauty, O God.”
And I cannot help but say here, as I say ad nauseam, that divine beauty shows itself most perfectly, and so calls for the highest praise, precisely here:
Crucifixion Altarpiece (detail) – Matthias Grünewald. Taken from wikipaintings.org
Turn Your Praise
After praying this litany for a few months, my director asked me what fruits were I had derived from this spiritual practice. I said that the number one fruit was that this litany had worn down, in a good way, my tendency to make prayer utilitarian, i.e. God I need this, she needs that, help them with this, thank you for this other thing, etc. It made me lose my focus in Him and also made my prayer slide over into thanksgiving that God is who He is. That God is as He is is wonderful beyond all words, right? But more, thank you, O God, for being all of these for us! In His great economy, He places all of His attributes in our service, to serve our happiness and joy. It makes you want to explode with joy.
After I excitedly shared these fruits with him, my smiling director paused and said,
That’s so good to hear! But there’s one more fruit that I’d like you to glean from this, but this one will require you to work. I want you to act toward others in this manner, to look for discreet opportunities to praise them simply for who they are. Search out some laudable attribute and find subtle ways to magnify it; even secret ways where they won’t know you have found a way to allow others to see some good characteristic in them. And especially practice this with those who have far more attributes that you don’t find especially praiseworthy. Ask God to reveal these to you, and often you’ll discover no one has ever taken time to do this for them because they are so difficult. Do this for a long time and then share with me the fruits.
My director died two years after this conversation. I’m still working on it…