THE SEARCH FOR THE SELF


THE BEAUTY OF THE INNER SELF

There are some people we see with our eyes but we do not really know them because we don't know what their internal life, what their dreams are like. There are others whom we have never seen but whom we know intensely because we know of their love and affection for us. We cannot endure some of those whom we see physically because we do not truly know them. The beauty of their inner self remains hidden until it is revealed by some outward sign.

Letter 205, 1


Augustine believed that the essential characteristic of beauty is unity. It is for this reason that the absolute unity that is God is the most beautiful of all existing things. Created things cannot replicate that absolute "oneness" but they imitate the divine unity through the order among their various parts. All created things are beautiful to the extent that they have parts that are not in conflict. For example, Augustine once declared that, he could become absolutely lyrical in his praise for the beauty of the lowly worm, the brightness of its coloring, the pleasing round shape of its body, the arrangement of its various parts from front to rear organized to preserve its unity. Even the worm (he asserts) has the beauty of due order, even though its beauty is far surpassed by the beauty of the human spirit. No one would like to be an unhappy human but still no one would prefer being a happy worm as an alternative.(On True Religion, 41.77) The difference between the grandeur of the human and the grandeur of the rest of the universe comes down to this: the non-human universe is beautiful because it was made through the "likeness" of the beauty that is God; the human spirit is beautiful because it was made as a reflection of the "likeness" of God. (Incomplete Commentary on Genesis, 16.59)

The universe is beautiful not because of the immensity of its spaces and length of its time but because of the order of its inner workings. (On True Religion, 43.80) So too, in the human being the outer self and inner self have their own proper order and beauty. The beauty of the outer self consists in the symmetry of its parts and in the order of the processes that constitute a person's physical life. (On True Religion, 40.74) The beauty of the inner self is found in the symmetry between its good choices and the order of reality. This inner beauty is more remarkable in that it depends on free choice. It is created by a spirit of justice, the ordering of things whereby each is given its proper due. (Commentary on Psalm 44, 3; Commentary on Psalm, 58.18) The order of the physical universe depends on the free choice of God making it so; the order of the moral universe depends on the free choice of human beings. The moral order is fragile because it depends two creators: God who established it order and human beings who choose to observe it.

The moral order is an order which does not "have to be" and when it is preserved by good human choice it is indeed a miracle of freedom and grace. When humans choose not to observe it, the tragic effects are more terrible than any bodily deformity. It is worse to have an ugly soul and a beautiful body than simply to have an ugly body. (On Christian Doctrine, 4.28.61) The reason if obvious: our inner self (the most important part of our person) is centered in our soul, not in our body.

This fact is brought out by an understanding of what is meant by true love for another human being. Augustine believed that we cannot claim that we love another if we are only drawn to them by the beauty of their body. He writes:

Whoever loves another as himself ought to love that which is the person's real self. But our real self is not our body. Therefore we should not desire or take too seriously a person's body. Whoever loves anything in his neighbor other than their real self does not love him as himself.

On True Religion, 46.89

What is most beautiful and desirable in any human being is that which is within. The beauty of the body may attract our attention but only the beauty of our loved one's inner self can attract our love. (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 32.2.1)

The marvelous aspect of such love is that when we are passionate about the beauty of our lover's inner self, we are enabled to love them even when they are far away. The inner self is not confined by space or time because it moves towards its loves not by foot but by affection. As with our love of God, we race towards our human loves not by walking or running but by our craving for them. This is the force that draws us towards them even when they are far away. (Letter 155, 13) Physically they may be at a distance but the bond of our affection for each other makes us present to each other. When I stand here and think about my distant love and reach out to them with my desire, I no longer am where I was; in some strange way I am now with them. As I sit here in my solitary space, my spirit flies to them and rests in their heart. (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 32.1,1)

Of course, it would be preferable to have my earthly loves physically present, to be able to embrace them with my arms as well as my heart. But this is not always possible and sometimes not appropriate. The body of a loved one may be committed to another in that total bonding of person to person that is the essence of marriage. But hearts may be shared with many. To love a spouse deeply does not preclude a love of children or parents or a dear friend. There is room in the spirit for many loves which do not necessarily contradict each other. The beauty of the inner self may be (and indeed, must be) shared with many if we are to be true to the divine mandate to love our neighbor as ourselves, a command explained by Augustine as the need to love everyone as friends or in order that they might become friends.

It is a very good thing that our beauty does not depend on (though it sometimes may include) the beauty of our outer self. Physical beauty is dependent to some extent on passing fashion and taste. My "ugly" may be your "pretty". Moreover, whatever our tastes, the "splendor of order" that is bodily beauty is a passing phenomenon in the lives of most of us. Even Augustine (perhaps seeing his ageing face in the mirror for the first time) saw fit to notice this. He remarks:

Christ did not promise a long life to us who seem to believe that living a long time is a great thing. He did not promise us that we would live to be old (with all of its debility), an age which everyone seems to desire when it is a possibility but complain about when it is a reality. Certainly he did not promise that our bodies would ever be truly beautiful, a beauty which inevitably is destroyed by disease or very old age. Everyone wishes to be beautiful and to grow old, but the two conditions are opposed to each other. When you are old you will not be beautiful. When old age comes, beauty is long gone. The vigor of beauty and the groaning of old age cannot exist in the same person.

Commentary on the Gospel of John, 32.9.2

Augustine clearly believed that, as far as the body is concerned, there is a inherent contradiction between being old and beautiful (though in my experience there is no similar contradiction between being young and ugly). But he also believed that if humans make the daily effort to renew their spirits, they will grow old only on the outside. As he wrote to his friend, Paulina:

The inner self is renewed day by day, even though the outer self is falling apart either because of starvation or ill health or an accident or increasing age. This last breakdown from age is inevitable even for those who have enjoyed a lifetime of good health. The solution is to raise up the spirit of that inner self where you will not die when your outer self begins to deteriorate. In your inner self you will not waste away even when your life has become weighed down with years.

Letter 147, 2.

Inside, the beauty of the spirit remains always young. The inner self can be constantly reborn even as the outer self decays day after day. (On True Religion, 40.74) Even in our old age we can remain as young in spirit as a child. (Commentary on Psalm 112, 2)

This does not mean that our outer self should be ignored completely nor that it is wrong to make it presentable. After all, it is as much a part of the person who is "me" as my inner self. There is no harm in dressing it up from time to time. Indeed, Augustine believed that one of the signs of the goodness of the universe is that there are so many things that can make our poor old body healthy and even some that will help make it pretty. (City of God, 22.24) But there are dangers in cosmetic obsession. Even in his own day Augustine noticed that ...

The more attention people pay to the ornaments and frills of the body (the outer self), the more they seem to neglect their inner self. The less concern people have for the trappings of their outer self, the more the inner self is decked out with the splendor of beautiful behavior.

Sermon 161, 11.

Certainly the value of how we appear is much less than what we are inside, but at the same time our spirit should seek out those things that are good for the body. It should seek nourishment that will make the body healthy and beautiful, assimilating into the body those things which do it good and quickly disposing of any unwelcome and unhealthy residue. (On True Religion, 40.74) But it would be silly to be more concerned about the passing beauty of our outer self than about the possible eternal beauty of our inner self, to worry more about the shape of our body than the shape of our lives. There is nothing wrong in having a modest posterior but it is infinitely more important to have a successful anterior, that eternal life that is in front of us. It is important for us to stop looking "behind" and continue moving "ahead" by our love for what lies ahead. You cannot "keep on walking" while examining yourself in a mirror. As Augustine told the people in his parish:

If you are thinking about the things that are to come, forget what is past. Don't look back lest (like Lot's wife) you get stuck there where you turned around. You must be dissatisfied with yourself now if you are ever to make progress. If at any point in your life you become satisfied with what your have accomplished, at that place you will be stuck forever. So always plunge ahead! Keep on walking into your future!

Sermon 169, 18

Perhaps the strongest reason for us to search for our own inner beauty is that if we never grasp its wonder, it will be hard for us to begin to love ourselves. It is not too disastrous if, shocked by our reflection in our morning mirror, we declare "I hate my body"! Our disgust may even have a good effect. We may begin an exercise program and diet plan to reshape our crumbling vessel and give it a few more years of vital life. But if we declare "I hate myself" it can be only because we have discovered no beauty, no value anywhere in our person. We have looked at our inner self and have found nothing to love.

This indeed is a sad state of affairs because with all of our shortcomings there is still much beauty there. We are alive. We still have the power of mind to know, the power to wander to places past and future and into lands that can be only imagined. We still have the power to choose and through that power we have the ability to love. Through that love we can be drawn outside of ourselves to the very heavens. Through that love we can embrace again the memories of all those lovely persons we have met in our lifetime. It is the recognition of this beauty that dwells within that will open us to the world outside, even to the God who is above all. Embracing now our own existence we can approach that one who eternally is. As Augustine writes:

If you more and more have a will to be, the closer you will come to him who supremely is. Always be grateful that you exist. The more you have loved being alive, the more fully will you thirst for everlasting life.

On Free Choice of the Will, 3.7.

Put simply, if we find and value the beauty of our self, we have taken the first step in finding and loving God. Only by perceiving the beauty of our inner self can we be led to choose life and look forward with anticipation to a life that goes on forever. In the beauty of our inner selves we will discover the hand of the God who has made us beautiful, the God who promises us that if we choose life, he will insure that our lives will be eternally bathed in love.


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