Thought for the Week: The eye of the beholder

G Gordon Steel reflects on the ability to perceive truth and beauty

A Friend was moved and delighted, while on holiday in Scotland, to see a red squirrel and she told us about it in Meeting. I was glad to hear of her joy. She is a Friend who often finds inspiration in the world around her. As you might imagine, she went on to thank God for the red squirrels. I don’t know what she feels about their grey brethren but I do know Friends who express anger about them.

I, too, gain great delight from the world around me. I enjoy the sea, the countryside and the lakes. I have a beautiful garden and the lovely flowers are there partly due to nature, but they are also a result of human skill – the staff of our local garden centre, with a little help from me. I do not find myself thanking God for such natural beauty because I know that it is actually in my head: I take joy and pleasure in what I see.

There is no beauty in the natural world. It consists of living and non-living things, differing in form and reflecting colours of solar radiation. It is our eyes (and brains) that transform this into shapes and colours that please us. Beauty is absolutely in the eye of the beholder. And when we look at the living world, unencumbered by so much Christian teaching, we see not only beauty but also a great deal of ugliness. The truest thing that we can say about nature is that it is red in tooth and claw. Animals, plants and microbes are at one time predators, and at other times they themselves become prey. They kill and eat and starve one another. The grey squirrels have been driving out the red ones. We humans are animals too and we have the same basic instincts, but by some amazing process we have evolved to rise above them (most of the time) and even, with some exceptions, to have a caring concern for the animals that we farm.

So, there is a higher level of spiritual perception that sees this when we look at nature and we can cope with this in Meeting. Some Eastern religions find this easier than we do. We can have a sense of acceptance of an amazing but merciless world. We can endeavour to appreciate and cultivate beauty wherever we are able. We can resolve to fight against ugliness, suffering and cruelty. If we are minded to thank God in Meeting we might first wish to thank him for the human eye – for our ability to perceive truth and beauty.

You need to login to read subscriber-only content and/or comment on articles.