Thursday, 7 January 2010

On desire and beauty: an Augustinian anecdote

Some years ago, I remember taking an afternoon walk down the quiet suburban street where my wife and I were living at the time. It was early summer, a warm breeze stirred the languid jacarandas that bloomed beneath the cloudless Queensland sky.

After rambling around for half an hour or so, I noticed a woman walking towards me from the far end of the street. I had left my glasses at home, as I often do when I am out for a stroll – but even at this distance I could make out her slender waist, the curve of her hips, the dark tresses falling about her shoulders. A long skirt swayed as she walked, and I saw that she was carrying a baby at her side. I had never seen her before – I'm sure I would have remembered her. I knew most of the people around here, she must be new to the neighbourhood. I am by nature a shy person, but on this occasion I decided I would pause to chat with this lovely apparition as she passed me on the street. I would catch her eye and smile, welcome her to the neighbourhood, ask where she was from, perhaps make some innocent flirtatious remark. I continued to observe her figure as she drew closer, my thoughts lulled by the jacaranda breeze and the easy rhythm of her hips. And then, with a disorienting shock of pleasure and recognition, I saw – what I would have seen at once had I been wearing my glasses – that it was my wife, strolling in the sun with our baby daughter perched on her hip.

Augustine’s Confessions is in large measure a record of misplaced desire. Our hearts well up with idolatrous desire for created things. We turn to the world of beautiful things instead of turning to the one who is Beauty itself. “In my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you had made.” But even in our corruption and confusion, God remains the hidden object of our desire. God uses our misplaced desires to draw us, in spite of ourselves, to God. “You were with me, and I was not with you.” In our desire for beautiful things, we are suddenly ambushed by God’s beauty, deep and secret and seductive – just as, that summer afternoon, my wandering desire for the lovely form of a woman was ambushed by the woman I love. “You were radiant and resplendent, and you put to flight my blindness” (Confessions 10.27.38).

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