Our culture is obsessed with beauty yet knows very little about it. We spend countless hours and dollars to acquire and maintain physical beauty. And while beauty of face and body is a true form of beauty, it is also one of the most difficult to cultivate and certainly the least fulfilling.
There are far more beneficial forms of beauty worth pursuing: one of the most rewarding is the beauty of the ordinary.
Seeing Ordinary Beauty
Ordinary beauty refers to the glory to be found in everyday things. We can see this glory in three particular aspects of ordinary things.
First, they are glorious simply because they exist. Elaine Scarry, a Harvard professor of aesthetics, argues that “Beauty always takes place in the particular, and if there are no particulars, the chances of seeing it go down.” Ordinary things are beautiful, first of all, because they are particular things. They simply are. And furthermore, they have been given to you.
The Apostle Paul once wrote, “What do you have that you did not receive?” And the answer is: Nothing. Everything has been given. All is gift, but this is especially true of ordinary things.
Think about all the ordinary things in your life: buttered toast, lilac bushes, goldfinches, warm showers, hot coffee, notes from friends. Where do these things come from? Ultimately, from God. Why do these things come to you? Because God is your Father, and He loves you. Marvel in that reality.
Ordinary things are glorious also because they are so abundant. This is the marvelous grace of the ordinary: that God gives us so much of it. Every day begins with a sunrise and ends with sunset, and in between is filled with hundreds of ordinary things—God’s good gifts of love to us. The problem is that we don’t see them very well.
Writing about our all-too-common blindness to the glory of the ordinary, G.K. Chesterton argues that God can delight in repetition and monotony because He has the eternal ability to see the beauty of the ordinary. He writes,
“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old and our Father is younger than we” (Orthodoxy, 66).
We often ignore the ordinary precisely because it is so commonplace. But Chesterton argues that the very abundance of ordinary things makes them quite extraordinary. The grace and glory of the ordinary is the fact that God gives us so much goodness in each ordinary thing—and then gives us so many ordinary things so often. We grow tired of the ordinary not because it is not beautiful, but because we are sinners and our delight and gratitude grow weak so quickly.
The third way that ordinary things are glorious—and therefore beautiful—is by their testimony to God’s constant (and therefore ordinary) faithfulness. Ordinary things are sacramental proof of God’s constant fatherly favor. The cracked crust and soft crumb of a warm slice of bread is proof of the loaf’s goodness. But when we have cultivated the ability to see the loaf as a gift, the loaf becomes more than a simple loaf. It becomes sacramental: it is itself and it points us to see the goodness of God Himself.
Just as the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper are simply bread and wine (and beautiful in their simplicity), they are also the body and blood of Christ (whether by symbol or by substance). They are themselves, but they are also more than themselves. The eyes of faith can look at ordinary bread and wine and see Christ. The same eyes can look at buttered toast and see a loving Father.
This vision of Christ in ordinary things is waiting for us in hundreds of things throughout each day, each morning. We can see God in our scrambled eggs and smoked bacon, in the juice and squeeze of fresh fruit, in the rumble and toss of a spring storm. Ordinary things sing God’s praise constantly—we just lack the ears to hear what they say.
The Habits of Ordinary Beauty
Three significant things happen to our souls when we develop the habit of looking for ordinary beauty.
First, we become increasingly more aware of the things around us. When we develop the habit of looking for ordinary beauty, we focus on things outside ourselves. We begin to notice things we usually take for granted. This develops in us a habit of being aware of and caring for things that others usually overlook—whether inanimate objects or unnoticed people.
Secondly, the pursuit of ordinary beauty increases our gratitude toward God. The more we see the rich grace of scrambled eggs, softs sheets, and clean floors, the more we see the lovingkindness of the God who gave us these things. Ordinary things sing praise to God—and if we are willing to listen, they teach us how to sing in gratitude as well.
In a poem about ordinary beauty, Anne Sexton writes how she so often overlooks the abundance of good things that fill her life each morning. She concludes with conviction,
“All this is God,
Right here in my pea-green house
And I mean,
Though often forget,
To give thanks,
To faint down by the kitchen table
In a prayer of rejoicing
As the holy birds at the kitchen window
Peck into their marriage of seeds” (“Welcome Morning”, ll. 17-26)
Sexton’s sudden awareness of the ordinary beauty around her gives her the desire to praise God, to join the “holy birds” in thanksgiving.
Finally, the more we pursue ordinary beauty, the more our love for others grows. As our gratitude toward God increases and our vision of ordinary beauty expands, so grows our desire to share the beauty we see with others. We replicate the beauty we are grateful for by finding ways to give it to other people. We set the table with care and precision. We share the toothsome crumb of homemade bread by taking a loaf to our neighbors. We take half a minute to pray with and comfort someone in pain.
We strive to pass on the sacramental goodness of the ordinary to others because we love them. We love them because we have come to love the ordinary. And we love the ordinary because it has taught us so much about God’s love for us.
But the blessings of ordinary beauty don’t stop here. The disciplined habit of looking for ordinary beauty not only teaches us how to love God better, but also how to love our neighbor and our world better. And, paradoxically, it also teaches us how to love ourselves with the right kind of love.
True to the central irony of the gospel, by learning to see the beauty in other things, we ourselves grow more beautiful. Perhaps it is only by abandoning our quest for personal beauty that we can one day realize that we have indeed grown truly beautiful.