“Nothing is as Beautiful as a Human Being”

I remember a day several years ago, when I was training for ministry, that I sat around a table and talked with a group of Christian friends, all male, about lust. One of the men was a pastor at the church where we were all members. As we discussed various ways of trying to practice “custody of the eyes,” the pastor made a statement to this effect: “No one would be tempted by lust if you were standing in front of the Grand Canyon right now. Or in front of Bridalveil Fall at Yosemite National Park. The splendor and grandeur of those places would be so overwhelming that you’d turn from fantasizing to wonder at their beauty instead.” This was meant, I think, as a strategy: Learn how to crowd out whatever fascination with an image of a human you’re nurturing with something more overwhelmingly fascinating.

At the time, that comment struck me as… let’s just say highly unworkable. It still does. As much as I love nature — I spent much of my high school years hiking and camping in the Rocky Mountains of New Mexico and Colorado, and I consider Yosemite to be the most jaw-dropping instance of natural majesty I’ve ever had the good luck of witnessing — nothing holds my fascination like the human form. I thought of all this again when I read this tweet from another pastor, Vito Aiuto, this week:

If that’s true for more people than just Aiuto and me, our strategy for resisting sexual temptation has to look pretty different than what my pastor was recommending, doesn’t it? When the temptation comes to nurture fantasies that cannot be rightfully fulfilled, to treat others as mere objects for our titillation, even if only in the privacy of our thoughts — when the desiring gaze lingers “like a slug on a rose,” in Cyrano de Bergerac’s yucky phrase — surely the answer cannot be to start trying to picture boulders and forests and creeks instead. That sounds to me like a counsel to fight a conflagration with thimbleful of water.

In an essay on the lure of pornography and how one might say no to it, theologian Jason Byassee wrote this:

Christians have resources with which to aid [the] recovery of genuine eros, though they’re a bit dusty at present. I think here that Orthodox iconography, when done right, is beautiful beyond words. It had better be: Worship bears the Church up to heaven into the presence of God. Liturgy is a drawing out of our true selves, our best selves, in union with God in reflection of God’s union with us in Christ through the Theotokos. It’s erotic in a chaste sort of way…. But how does it work? Surely it’s more complicated than giving a horny kid an icon and teaching him how to pray before it…. Or is it?

… A friend of mine likes to say that the Christian answer to pornography is soup kitchens. All our senses are engaged there in community with others for the sake of serving Christ in the poor. What could be more erotic? That is, what more could draw us out of ourselves toward another?

The challenge, it seems, isn’t really the replacement or the eradication of fascination with the human form (as if that were possible) but its redirection. “We have these parts, these desires, for a reason,” is how Byassee’s essay ends: “to love and be loved by God.”

I think I know — or I think I’m learning — what he means.

Years after that Christian roundtable on lust, on my first trip to Italy, I found myself wandering museums and taking in dozens of nude sculptures and paintings. The Berninis at the Galleria Borghese, the Michelangelos…: it wasn’t just the pagans who crafted the human body. Many of these nudes were Christian. Clearly, these were artists captivated by the human. As Marguerite Yourcenar’s elegiac Hadrian muses:

In Egypt I have seen colossal gods, and kings; on the wrists of Sarmatian prisoners I have found bracelets which endlessly repeat the same galloping horse, or the same serpents devouring each other. But our heart (I mean that of the Greeks) has chosen man as its center. We alone have known how to show latent strength and agility in bodies in repose; we alone have made a smooth brow the symbol of wise reflection. I am like our sculptors: the human contents me; I find everything there, even what is eternal.

Hadrian was no Christian, but it’s a short leap from what he says here about the greater beauty of the human form above nature to classic Christian articulations of the imago Dei. The wonders of nature are hymned in Scripture, yes, but the highest paeans are reserved for humanity. “Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5).

That’s why it doesn’t work for me to try to resist lustful imaginings by turning from the human to the inanimate creation. I mean, certainly, sometimes it’s best to leave the house and go for a run. But the ultimate way to do battle with sexual temptation can’t be to turn away from the human; it must be to struggle for a kind of purified gaze, to try to rediscover what erotic desire is for in the first place.

My trip to Italy ended in Florence, with a visit to the San Marco cloister. Inside each of the monks’ cells there’s a scene from the life of Christ painted by Fra Angelico. It was interesting to notice how the usual touristy hubbub died down once people stepped into the cloister and paused at each of the cells’ doorways to pause before the frescoes. A hush fell. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such obviously devotional art. These meditative pieces by Angelico seemed as if they were born from a kind of holy attention that I haven’t encountered before in quite that way. It was affecting, and I paid the museum fare a second day just to have more time with this art.

All of the frescoes were, of course, dominated by human figures: Jesus above all, but also Mary, Peter, James, John, Mary and Martha, Moses and Elijah, the Magi, and others. Painting with Christian devotion, in other words, didn’t mean for Angelico a turning away from the human form. Just the opposite. He was one of the first to exemplify what would become commonplace in Renaissance art: an exquisite attention to the expressions of emotion and personal particularity.

Fra_Angelico_040

Here’s what I’m trying to gesture towards, I think: Chastity isn’t about a turn away from the human, a refusal to meet the eyes of others out of fear of temptation or contamination. Resisting sexual temptation — or, putting it positively, pursuing the ascesis of sexual purity — is instead about turning toward others in a love that’s no less real for not resulting in sex. And it can be breathtakingly beautiful. Indeed, it can lead, as it obviously did in this instance, to some of the most wonderful artistic expression our culture has. It can be done with such compelling power that it makes even a group of jaded tourists fall silent.

7 thoughts on ““Nothing is as Beautiful as a Human Being”

  1. Just as “turning toward others” in love borne out of purity can be “breathtakingly beautiful,” your description of pursuing sexual purity—especially in relation to our fellow bearers of the imago Dei—is exquisite. Thank you so much, Wesley, for helping us better understand what it is we’re pursuing through the process of sanctification and ways God will work that sanctification in us. You are a blessing.

  2. Pingback: Hill: “Nothing is as Beautiful as a Human Being” | Strength of His Might

  3. Well said. I do wonder, though, whether we don’t tend to draw the circle of purity too broadly. Even when I feel drawn to someone, my mind rarely turns towards fantasies that cannot be properly fulfilled. That said, my mind may sometimes turn towards fantasies that cannot be practically fulfilled in a homophobic culture that tends to accept the Freudian lie that every desire for interpersonal intimacy is just a disguised desire for sex.

    In that sense, I’d echo @staystronger’s request for a “how.” I love the idea of vowed friendship set forth in Wes’s book. I’d love to see us make material progress towards reviving that tradition within the coming years. I reject the Side A effort to confine vowed same-sex relationships to a restrictive social narrative modeled after heterosexual marriage. But what is the embodied alternative that Side B has to offer? Sometimes I fear that Side B is too afraid of challenging homophobia, and therefore shies away from proposing embodied social narratives that offer a viable alternative to the Side A narrative.

    • I would follow up my earlier comment by emphasizing that we cannot sit back and simply hope that our churches will come around on this issue of homophobia. They won’t.

      Despite the credible allegations of past opposite-sex pedophilia leveled against Roy Moore, more than 80% of white evangelicals still voted for him. Bear in mind that Moore’s main campaign promise centered almost exclusively on re-criminalizing gay sex. And an evangelical megachurch, Briarwood Presbyterian Church (the de facto Vatican of the PCA), played central role in promoting Moore’s candidacy, even after the allegations against him emerged.

      Most evangelical churches are so tightly committed to a homophobic worldview that I see little hope in waiting for evangelical institutions to change. Thus, as I see it, the main task is to help the small minority of non-homophobic evangelical churches to transition to an alternate institutional framework that lacks the homophobia, misogyny, and racism that generally characterize mainstream white evangelicalism.

  4. Thanks for this article. I have two thoughts:

    “The sky is more beautiful than the earth, and fire than water, and the stars than precious stones, and we admire the rainbow far more than the violets and roses, and all other flowers which are upon the earth. And in short, if it were possible with the bodily eyes to behold the beauty of the soul, you would laugh to scorn these corporeal illustrations, so feebly have they presented to us the gracefulness of the soul. Let us not then neglect such a possession, nor such great happiness, and especially when the approach to that kind of beauty becomes easy to us by our hopes of the things to come.” – St. John Chrysostom, 347-407

    I’ve also heard a priest tell the story of two monks who met a beautiful prostitute while walking. The younger diverted his eyes while the older monk engaged the woman in conversation. Afterwards, the younger monk asked the older monk why he was looking at and speaking with the prostitute. The older monk replied that he saw the beautiful soul and didn’t even think about whether the person was a woman or man. (Does anyone have a citation for this story?)

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s