The Lily and the Jasmine: Beauty and Hope

Beauty is a balm for the soul, for it strengthens and maintains our hope.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “The Resurrection of the Lord,” ca. 1655
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “The Resurrection of the Lord,” ca. 1655 (photo: Public Domain)

I have a bouquet of pink hydrangeas on my desk at the moment, and everything about them makes me happy: the striking contrast of the dark green leaves with the delicate pink petals, the way the petals are jumbled together in a kind of reckless abundance, and the way each flower contributes to the shape and texture of the whole. We often associate beauty with joy — a spiritual uplifting that finds its best expression in a smile. This is why we bring flowers and balloons to a sick friend, or give flowers to a loved one, or go to the symphony, or an art museum, or the theater. Beauty is a balm for the soul. But have we ever considered that an encounter with beauty can also help us to strengthen and maintain hope?

It’s important before we go further to distinguish between natural and supernatural hope. Supernatural hope is the theological virtue that leads us to trust completely that God will honor his promises and through which we rely on God’s graces, and not our own strength, to bring us to Heaven. Natural hope, put simply, is the confidence that our efforts will see some kind of success. And without this natural virtue, it would be difficult to move forward in any aspect of our lives. All our actions require this kind of hope: hope that the stove will turn on when I turn the knob, hope that the ball will move when I kick it, hope that the piano will play when I strike a key. If we had no confidence in these outcomes, we wouldn’t bother trying.

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In his article “Hope as a Natural Virtue,” Peter Leithart argues that hope, in both its natural and supernatural forms, is the foundation of our work in this life: “Hope isn’t merely that things will be put right at some distant last day. We act as we pray, confident God’s name will be hallowed, his will done, and his kingdom come on earth as in heaven. In our tumultuous times, this is the virtue we most need: absolute confidence in the One who speaks, in the cross and the empty tomb, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’” Without hope, we cannot act, but hope is sometimes elusive, and discouragement is so easy. But God in his infinite wisdom and goodness has surrounded us with proofs of his love, and that brings me back to the hydrangeas on my desk.

In Episode 4 of The Quest, Father Thomas Esposito discusses the parable of the Lilies of the Field, and he notes the beauty of creation is most evident in its profound order — its kosmos (kosmos in Greek means “order”). In Episode 4, we focus on the power of the beauty of the natural word to reassure us of God’s love for us, especially in those times when we face darkness or confusion in our lives. As Christ says in the parable of the Lilies of the Field, “And if the grass of the field, which is today, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, God doth so clothe, how much more you, O ye of little faith?” (Matthew 6:30). The natural world is a witness of God’s love, and so beauty, in a very real way, gives us the hope and confidence that God knows our needs and will provide for us.

If we’re not sure how we can use the beauty of the natural world to encourage us in hope, we can look to the writings of Etty Hillesum, the young Jewish woman who died in Auschwitz, whose story runs through the narrative of The Quest. As she faces the horrors of the Holocaust, she continually returns to the beauty around her as an anchor that keeps her from despair. The jasmine on her balcony, the sun, moon, stars and sky suggest to her that there is an order that runs deep beneath all things, even the darkest and most terrible things. And beauty also gives her courage. 

When they tell Etty that she is off to an “unknown destination” — that is, the concentration camp — she responds by anchoring herself in the stable things of this world: “I am off to an ‘unknown destination.’ That’s what they call it. But wherever I go, won’t there be the same earth under my roving feet and the same sky with now the moon and now the sun, not to mention all the stars, above my grateful head? So why speak of an unknown destination?” She fixes her gaze on the deep stillness of the natural world, which endures in spite of the evils that surround her, and this gives her enough strength and hope to endure those evils too.

The order and beauty of God’s creation reassures us that he governs all things well and provides for what is necessary. As Christ tells his disciples in the Lilies of the Field parable, “For your Father knoweth that you have need of all these things. Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:32-33).

So if we feel overwhelmed by doubts or if our hope is wearing thin, we should remember the lilies and the jasmine and remind ourselves that there is an order to all things. God is in control, and he loves his creation abundantly. The beautiful leads us on a sure path to the true and the good, and it helps us to face the great adventure of this life with courage.

The Quest will air March 27-31 at 10pm CT on EWTN.

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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