When we find beauty, remember that truth is the fiery chariot that follows quickly behind it.
To begin, it has been nearly a week since I posted my first blog on SME titled, Seeking Slávy Dcera. Since that day, several people have contacted me to clarify how I, an American, see Slovakia with such adoration and beauty? One dear friend in Veľky Lovče even said that I must have a very unique set of rose-colored glasses! That made me smile.
This friend was almost correct. Though I do not have a special set of glasses, I have learned something special about how to see, (vidieť). To describe how I see, I am afraid I must reveal an ancient artist’s secret.
This secret has, almost, been lost to time. If you want to be an artist of any sort, (a painter, sculpter, writer, or poet, etc.), you must learn how to see beauty. Now, you may laugh at this because we all think we know how to see beautiful things. “Dear Jeff,” you might say, “Just look at the High Tatras, the Eiffel Tower, or the Grand Canyon. What is so secretive about that?” True, these are beautiful things, and many more beside. This would mean, then, that the world in which we both live is a very dull place except for a few objects or spots on our globe. Let me share with you an illustration.
When beginning artists ask me to teach them how to paint, we take our outdoor easels and go into the city or country, it doesn’t matter where, but it is always the case that the new, eager artist wants to quickly set up and paint something beautiful. That’s fine. I let the new artist choose her spot. Then, after teaching to the artist the technical matters of how to mix colors or hold a paint brush, the real lesson begins—and I know what is about to happen, but I must be quiet and allow the artist to discover it on her own. It is a very difficult lesson for the student to learn.
The student, you see, wants to paint something obviously beautiful, (those Hight Tatras, the Eiffel Tower, or the Grand Canyon, etc.). After slaving away at the painting, the artist is almost always crushed in her spirits because the results are disastrous! The painting has failed. At this point, all of the fun is gone and the artist feels like a failure. Now for the real lesson, and I must share with her the secret I am about to share with you. That lesson is this: while there are many beautiful things to look at, “true beauty” is not apparent, you cannot see true beauty, it is always, always, hidden.
You have experienced this many times yourself. You are on a trip and you are taking photographs of beautiful mountains, or sunsets, or whales in the North Sea. Then, when you come home later and look at your pictures, (excited to see those beautiful things you have experienced), the pictures are a disappointment. What happened to the beauty? Where did it go? Why does that which excited you in real life seem rather boring in the photographs? If you have experienced this, then you are beginning to see.
Beauty is something more than what the eyes can see.
Trust me, for years my paintings failed, one after the other. But I kept asking, what is beauty? What is it I am seeing, but cannot interpret? This is why, I believe, poetry can be life changing, it uses words that we see all of the time, and yet uses them to show what the words themselves are not able to say. Beauty.
So one day, as I am out painting, something amazing happened. Beauty revealed herself to me. I was shocked! It was only a slight glimpse, and what I saw was not in the subject that I had determined to paint, it was unexpected, nothing but a small gleam of light hitting a tree in the middle of a parking lot. I saw this, setup my easel, and right there in the parking lot I began to paint. The painting was finished in just thirty minutes. Most of my paintings had taken several hours. This changed everything.
That was the day I discovered the answer to the question I had pursued for so long: what is beauty? The answer is the ancient secret I mentioned in the beginning: Beauty is Truth.
As you can imagine, this discovery allowed me to begin painting better paintings. And if this discovery had given me nothing more than better paintings, I would be content. That’s not what happened. I learned that beauty has a price, and the price we pay for finding true beauty is having to contend with the truth it reveals. Did not Pilate himself, before our Lord, ask “What is truth?” This is where beauty gets dangerous.
Beauty and truth, we learn, are the sharp edges of the same sword. It is dangerous because if you pursue authentic beauty, and indeed find it, then you must also bear the consequences of the truth it reveals. Conversely, neither can we hide our eyes when we seek truth and find it, because truth always reveals beauty, and sometimes it is the type of beauty that we do not want to see.
This changes everything.
It changes the way we see and challenges our prejudice. Instead of looking at the High Tatras or the Grand Canyon for beauty, we begin to see it in the elderly widow who cannot afford food, (truth), and yet will offer to us her last piece of bread (beauty). Even Gerlachovský štít pales in comparison to this. Or if we see an adorable child laughing and at play with his puppy and it warms our heart (beauty), but then we see his Romani parents come to fetch him, and suddenly we are forced to face our own prejudice (truth).
How else can we explain the early Christians? To the Early Christians, their eyes were opened, and they began to change the world. Truth, once found, led them to beauty that had never been seen before, and was counted as foolish by the world—by those who did not see. Beauty and truth are both about seeing. Find truth and our eyes see beauty. Find beauty and our eyes see truth.
Find beauty, and truth is like a fiery chariot that follows.
So, to my friends who wonder how it is that I see beauty everywhere I look in Slovakia, I hope this article has offered a helpful answer. To my friends who have wondered if I, like so many Americans before me, will quickly lose interest and move on to something else, it is my hope that this also puts that notion to rest. This, I understand now, is why my Slovak friends were, at first, a bit reluctant to accept my friendship. They now see, I believe, that one day I may be like an adopted son to this country I love as home. Indeed, one person even wrote to me along this line. She said this week: “If you are going to pursue Slovakia as your love, please, remember that she is a woman who has been raped, beaten, torn and battered throughout all of her long history. Even now, many who are young do not know her history and are beginning to forget. But you, do not forget. Many have tried to dominate her. Many have abused her. So when you see that she can be at times very hard and cynical on the surface, remember that beneath her hard surface beats a powerful, passionate heart, but that heart is very fragile. If you are going to love her, love her for the truth of who she really is.”
Find beauty and truth is the fiery chariot that follows behind it.