Other Parousians have posted on the topic of beauty, analyzing it from a more sophisticated point-of-view and offering profound bits of wisdom and understanding. I am offering something slightly different – a firsthand experience of the transforming effect of suffering on the conventional idea of beauty into a recognition of beauty as determined not by shapeliness and symmetry but by faithfulness and poorness in spirit.
My wife has recently pulled through one of the most trying experiences she will ever face – brain tumors that left her completely debilitated for a period of approximately half a year. For both of us, this experience of suffering worked wonders at adjusting our vision, which could actually be qualified more as blindness rather than vision. Blindness to our own insufficiencies and hypocrisies may have been more debilitating than her physical illness, yet it was the illness that helped to open our eyes, particularly mine.
It was Beth’s intense beauty that first drew me to her, but of course at that time, my understanding of beauty was the result of complete acquiescence to what was socially and culturally defined as beauty. It was a conventional view of beauty, and Beth certainly fit the conventional mold. Watching her waste away in her hospital bed was another level of suffering, but also an invitation to modify and purify my limp standard of beauty. She no longer had the strong and shapely legs she once had. In fact, I remember thinking that they now looked like the legs of a frail, thin, 80 year-old woman. Her eyes were crossing and her hair was falling out in clumps. The smell of tube-feeding seemed to emanate from her body all day every day. With face gaunt, skin unnaturally pale, and nails yellow, it was as though my wife had disappeared. But what struck me throughout all of this was that though I saw this, my love for her never dimmed. It only grew stronger. In fact, the more she lost her conventional beauty, the more I loved her. I still believed she was beautiful, not because of her thin legs or her gaunt face, but because of her. This was my wife, flesh of my flesh and bone of my bones. How could I think anything else of her?
What the loss of her conventional beauty did was open a door that I never thought existed. It was as though her physical beauty stood as a dense fog or a veil before a door that opened to the heart of true beauty, a sanctuary of holiness. Once the fog lifted and the veil was torn in two from head to toe, from top to bottom, I was able to lift my eyes upon a soul strong and alive with holiness. In the midst of all the suffering, Beth remained completely faithful, never crying out of self-pity and always calling upon God for strength. While I should have been the one to comfort her, more often than not it seemed as though she was doing the comforting. She constantly reminded me that I needed to learn to trust God and that our earthly life was not the greatest good. The word that keeps coming to mind is magnificat, for her soul truly did magnify the Lord. If God is Beauty Itself, then to magnify Him is to magnify Beauty. It is only in complete docility to God’s will for us that magnification of Him becomes possible.
This was the beauty I finally began to see – the beauty of holiness through submission. And what a privilege it has been to be called by God to minister to her, attending to her and guarding her.