by Bishop Irenei of Richmond and Western Europe
This text was originally published in Spiritual Spring (2014, no. 3), the Diocesan magazine of the Western American Diocese. We reprint it here, slightly edited, as a text that addresses important themes relevant to current circumstances in the world.
“Beauty Will Save the World”
When Fyodor Dostoyevsky penned the phrase, “Beauty will save the world” into The Idiot in 1869, three years after his immensely successful release of Crime and Punishment and still a full eleven years before what would become his magnum opus, The Brothers Karamazov, he could little have imagined how often this singular phrase would be quoted over the century-and-a-half that followed. While few English-speaking readers have read The Idiot in its fulness (it has never gained the popularity of Dostoyevsky’s other major works), one would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the Orthodox world, or anyone who has ever contemplated the Christian understanding of ‘beauty’, who is not familiar with this singular line.
In one phrase, Dostoyevsky seems to have captured something uniquely Orthodox: the degree to which beauty — what scholars like to call ‘aesthetic’ — is something powerful and transformative in our faith and life. Beauty is not an adornment ‘added on’ to the work of creation and salvation: it, itself, is saving. It is something that shapes us. Re-shapes us. Transforms us into something good — into the beauty of God.
Beauty is not an adornment ‘added on’ to the work of creation and salvation: it, itself, is saving. It is something that shapes us. Re-shapes us. Transforms us into something good — into the beauty of God.
But what does this mean? It has become one of those phrases heard so often that we rarely stop to ponder just what it discloses, and just how that truth can shape our lives as Christians. For whether Dostoyevsky meant to sharpen a powerful theological truth down to a single phrase or not (there is considerable debate over just what he himself meant when he wrote the words), the fact remains that beauty does save the world — and this revelation is at the heart of our lives as Orthodox Christians. If we understand it rightly, it changes who we are. It shapes our relationship with God. It draws us into a deeper Life in Christ.
The background to the famous phrase
I don’t wish to forge, here, any kind of academic study on the textual history of Dostoyevsky’s works; my interest is in the concrete spirtiual wisdom to be gained. However, there are dimensions of his personal history in the years leading up to writing The Idiot that teach us something important.
The book was written at a unique time in the author’s life. Dostoyevsky had been imprisoned in Omsk, Siberia from 1849-1854: years of confinement and labour (during which, interestingly, he was — as a “dangerous criminal” — permitted to read only the New Testament, except during illnesses when the camp hospital offered additional reading materials), that would shape his outlook for the rest of his days. Almost immediately after being released on 14th February 1854, Dostoyevsky began a flurry of publishing. He wrote one of the first novels about life in Russian prisons (The House of the Dead, 1862), only after writing a ‘romance novel’ (Humiliated and Insulted, 1861) which began to develop the themes that would consume him: the value of suffering, the place of humiliation in redeeming life, hope that comes through anguish. His own life was a series of ups and downs after prison that made these themes not only reflections on his incarcerated past, but also his tumultuous present: he married into a difficult marriage. He fell in love again at the death of his wife. He travelled across Russia and Europe, making small fortunes from his works then losing them almost as quickly through a gambling habit that was effectively to bankrupt him several times.
But in late 1866, with Crime and Punishment having been serialised to tremendous success (though not to overwhelming fortune — only 7,000 roubles), Dostoyevsky returned to St Petersburg, where he would meet Anna Gregorievna Snitkina: the pupil of Dostoyevsky’s stenographer and the woman who would help him organise his writing and transform his general disorganisation into a productive work pattern. She would also become his great love. The two were married on 15th February 1867 in that flourishing city. Their honeymoon was delayed by debts, but by April they were off for the Europe that Fyodor had got to know so well on his earlier travels, focussing on locations in Germany and Geneva that he felt encouraged his writing.
It is here that we find Dostoyevsky’s personal setting for The Idiot. He was newly married, this time to a woman that he loved. He was in a land — Western Europe — that he knew well and that inspired him. There was tremendous joy and bliss; but there was also immense sorrow. Fyodor and Anna bore a child in March 1868, but the infant Sonya was to live only three months before succumbing to pneumonia. Dostoyevsky was shattered. And it was precisely during this period that he was working on The Idiot. He began writing in 1867, before the birth of his daughter (the novel began to be serialised in January of 1868), while he and Anna were living in Baden-Baden. Once tragedy struck, they began to move. They went to Vevey, then Milan, then finally Florence. There The Idiot was completed, its final section published in The Russian Messenger on February 1869, a month shy of a year after the birth of his now-reposed daughter.
But things were soon to change. Whether Fyodor knew it at the time, Anna was already pregnant with their second child at the time The Idiot was finished. Lyubov was born in September of 1869, restoring a certain joy to Dostoyevsky’s life. It initiated a new period of creativity and work, including the family’s return to Russia, where they would spend the rest of Fyodor’s life.
I have focussed on Dostoyevsky’s history to this degree, because knowledge of what was happening to, within and around him as he wrote helps us understand what he meant — and what he didn’t mean — when he wrote that famous phrase into The Idiot: “beauty will save the world.” So much in his life at that time was beautiful: new love, a new beginning in marriage, the beautiful scenery of landscapes that Dostoyevsky cherished. Birth, and new life. But there was also exceptional tragedy. There was the memory of prison, the oppression of suspicion over his person and his tenuous relationship with the government of his fatherland, and above all the anguish of the loss of a child.
And it is precisely in this mix — amidst joy and sorrow, life and death, freedom and oppression — that Dostoyevsky writes about beauty. He was clearly not writing about superficial ‘beauty’: in other words, things that are merely pretty. There was too much tragedy in the mix for that. But neither was he being simple-minded. The kind of true beauty found in, for example, the birth of a child, rattled him with something fearsome. On one level it did not ‘save’. His Sonya had still died.
Beauty that is more than beautiful
Again, there is great debate over what Dostoyevsky meant when he wrote “beauty will save the world,” but the fact remains that the circumstances of his life caused him to reveal a deep truth about our Orthodox life. Oftentimes, the deepest proclamations of the truth come ‘accidentally’, God’s Providence disclosing reality whether or not we are aware that it is happening. For what Dostoyevsky’s phrase reveals is that beauty is something more then ‘being pretty’, and that salvation is something more than ‘escaping tragedy’.
The intersection of joy and grief in Dostoyevsky’s life led him to realise (and this is reflected in so many of his works) that the two are interconnected. In this, he reflects on a reality we must understand as Orthodox Christians. Though this world was created for joy, though our lives were fashioned to be free of “sorrow and sighing” (as we say at the funeral service), sin has altered the reality in which we live — and God in an unspeakable, unknowable mystery allows this condition to continue, that He might use it to our benefit. And so we find ourselves in a world where pain and happiness are not opposites, but often intertwined; where joy and sorrow are not only woven together, but often help one another in propelling us towards a better life (what St. John Climacus called ‘Joy-creating sorrow’). And it is this reality that our Lord and God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, embraced when He took flesh for our salvation — for do we not sing, even today, that “through the Cross, joy has come into all the world” (Feast of the Precious Cross), giving eternal voice to the mystery that such an instrument of pain and suffering could be the birth-place of joy and endless life?
This is real ‘beauty’ as we understand it in the Church. In the mix of our tormented lives and tortured world, God takes His stand and creates joy. Death may still exist, but it has no power. It has been defeated. Suffering may yet continue, but it can become something life-creating, rather than simply life-defeating. The world may appear (and may be) dark and sorrowful — yet in this world God lives, and acts, and sanctifies unto new life.
And so we, as Christians, are presented with the most remarkable opportunities to see beauty. When we watch the world consume itself with greed, anger and hatred, taking what is natural and good and transforming it for evil, yet at the same time we see water made holy through a prayer, or wood-and-stone structures made into Temples of God’s dwelling, we see something beautiful. When we behold angry and embittered hearts which yet, in the midst of that anger, find repentance and forgiveness through Christ, we see something beautiful. When we watch a fellow human being suffer, but take that suffering as an opportunity for Christ-like struggle, wrenching it from the hands of the devil and offering it to God as an opportunity to hope and spiritual growth, we are beholding something truly beautiful. And perhaps the most mysterious of all, we find beauty even in death. Though it is always a cause of sorrow, there is nothing on this earth more beautiful than a good, pious death. In that strange mystery our hearts grieve, yet they rejoice. We behold the end of life, yet we experience its beginnings. We stand witness to “the end of all created things,” and yet taste with absolute certainty the fact that “when God so wills, the order nature is overcome” (Great Canon of St. Andrew) — that eternity touches the present. We experience something truly, profoundly beautiful.
“We cannot forget that beauty”
This is the kind of beauty that saves: the beauty of God standing fast with creation, with us, in all our sorrowing and grief, and making of it — and of us — something holy. Of showing Himself forth in our world, not as ‘apart’ from our condition, but with us in all our trials; and thereby making us aware that, in those very trials, in this life, God is here. This is true true revelation of real beauty: the very phrase we proclaim so solemnly at Great Compline: “God is with us!” When we behold what is truly beautiful, something salvific happens: we know God is here. We know His love. We know His compassion. And we know that He longs to draw us to Himself.
Perhaps the most famous summary of this profound truth is, rightly, one of the most oft-cited. Taken from the Russian Primary Chronicle, the memoirs of St. Vladimir’s emissaries, sent out over all the earth to find a good and fitting religion for the peoples of Rus’, recount their coming to Greece (to the great Temple of Haghia Sophia in Constantinople) in AD 987. They had formerly visited the Bulgars, the Germans and others; but, in their own words (as set down in this later document):
“Then we went on to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept that which is bitter, and therefore we cannot dwell longer here.”
It is important to recognise that these emissaries would have ‘understood’ little to nothing of what they were beholding during their first Orthodox service in that magnificent Temple. They knew nothing of Christian theology, nor did they understand the language of the Divine Service, nor the culture of its people. But as they stood there, beneath that magnificent dome which can still be visited today, they beheld that which changed their hearts. In the mosaic icons (which in Haghia Sophia were like none other on earth) they saw the stories of sin, of death, but also of life and eternity. They heard music which was at once mournful and joyful. They saw beggars, paupers and emperors in one and the same space, radiant by a power that touched the lives of the unwashed and the noble-born alike. And what did they say? Not, “we were moved by their faith” or “we were impressed by their theology,” but “we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.” This mystery of life and death, joy and sorrow, grief and redemption — it disclosed to them another world, “for on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty.” And in the midst of all of this, they knew one thing above all else: “We know only that God dwells among men.”
God is with us! This is the salvation that true beauty reveals. It has the power to change a heart beyond anything that words can describe. It can make a mark upon the soul that is everlasting, and that mark can lead a heart into new life. And this is a truth that needs to be heard, desperately needs to be heard, in our world today. For here, in our own darkness, in our own suffering and sorrow, God is still with us. He is present in our pain, our grief, our fear. And He is present not as observer, but as Saviour: the true Lover of Mankind who, in His glory, will bring joy into all the world.