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).

17 Comments:

Plessey said...

You lucky guy.

James K.A. Smith said...

Great story, Ben. It's precisely this dynamic, I think, that enables one to read "American Beauty" as a kind of Augustinian parable--Lester's "Confessions," so to speak. For while he thinks he wants Angela, at the very end he realizes he wants the woman who's been right in front of him the whole time: his wife, Carolyn.

Brad said...

Thanks for this, Ben.

roger flyer said...

I confess I've confused the form (and sometimes voice) of God with my wife's too.

Peter Carey+ said...

This is beautiful, thank you...!

Peter Carey+

Rocky said...

"Ambushed" by God. That'll preach.

Justin S. said...

Cool.

Marvin said...

Cue Rupert Holmes' "Escape."

Bob Covolo said...

Ben,

Beautiful meditation.

Have you read J.K. Smith's book "Desiring The Kingdom?" The streets Smith walks on are quite crowded.

-Bob

Todd said...

"Looking for love in all the wrong places" ...

Kampen said...

"ambushed by Love"...how wonderful! probably could be terrifying too (as I think of the stories of and around the birth of Christ).
There's a line in a persian poem that reading Confessions and now this post reminded me of: "Oh stricken one/love comes to you, it is not learned."

SJP said...

Reminds me of that Glen Hansard song from "Once" -- "Falling Slowly." He gives an explanation at the beginning of this YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=938XY6DX02w

Anonymous said...

"My soul is restless until it finds its rest in thee..."

Tyler said...

Ben, excellent reflection - thank you for sharing this!

And James K. A. Smith's observation about American Beauty makes me feel stupid for not having noticed that before, despite repeated viewings of the film! I like it!

Anonymous said...

Ben, Make sure you wear your glasses when out strolling! I intend to get my husband's eyesight checked immediately. Seriously, again and again in the Old Testament God uses the startling language of a lover. This is a passionate God and we are created in his image.

Patrik said...

This reminds me of Shopenhauer's comment on Kant, that he is like a man flirting with a woman on a mascarade and then when she finally takes of the mask it is his wife.

(The woman, of course, is theology).

Phil Sumpter said...

This is wonderful. I wonder if there is a slight divergence between your anecdote and what Augstine actually says ... In your version, it seems that the form is redeemed by the substance, the two come together. Augustine's language could imply that the form is superceded by the substance ... I'm not an Augustine expert however.

Be that as it may, I've just posted my own thoughts on this: Beauty and the Piss Christ. I try and reconcile your comments here with a post by Jason Goroncy.

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