“Useless Beauty”

by Melannie Svoboda SND on March 18, 2019

We Sisters of Notre Dame are divided into smaller groups that meet once a month to share faith together. Using scripture, other readings, music, and prayer, we try to share our faith more deeply with one other, often focusing on a certain theme. Last month’s theme was beauty.

I shared excerpts from an article I saved from the Notre Dame Magazine (August 2012). The article, by Scott Russell Sanders of Bloomington, Indiana, was entitled “Useless Beauty.” Some of the thoughts in this reflection are based on his beautiful article.

Sanders does not define beauty. He leaves that to philosophers. But he does describe many examples of beauty from the natural world. He concludes that some beauty is useful. In fact, some beauty seems specifically designed to increase the chances of survival for organisms or species. The peacock’s tail, for example, is attractive to mates. The zebra’s stripes confuse predators. The monarch butterfly’s bright orange, gold, and black wings, shout to predators: “I’m poison! Don’t eat me!” The blinking of fireflies, the courtship dance of sandhill cranes, and the chirps of spring peepers all can be a result of natural selection.

But what about useless beauty, that is, beauty that seems to have no purpose—except to be? Sanders gives a host of examples of useless beauty; for example, the pearly interior of the nautilus shell. No one sees this beauty—except the nautilus and a two-legged predator who now collects these shells and slices them in half, thus exposing their interior beauty for other two-legged animals to see—and hopefully buy!

The extravagance of useless beauty is seen in geodes. Inside these brownish-grayish lumps of sediment are orange agate, bands of purple amethyst, strands of pale blue chalcedony, and bursts of red jasper. Useless beauty is found in some beetles “bearing scrawls on their backs as jazzy as urban graffiti.” The color, scent, and shape of many flowers are designed to attract pollinators, yes. But aren’t some flowers much fancier than they need to be—fuchsia, bleeding hearts, wild columbine, the iris, to name a few?

And what about the useless beauty found in the nonliving world? What about sunrises and sunsets, the northern lights, the stars, the sea with its vast expanse and its steady drumming on the shore? What about clouds, waterfalls, glaciers, mountains, canyons? There is useless beauty everywhere!

Somewhere in the Italian Alps (my niece Melannie recently hiked there and sent me this picture.)

What effect does beauty have on humans? Recall a recent experience of beauty that you had. How did it make you feel? Sanders uses these words to describe such an experience: enthralling, nourishing, invigorating, thrilling. If we are alone, we often find ourselves calling out to someone else to come and share the experience. We might find ourselves wanting to protect the source of this beauty for our children, grandchildren, and children yet to be born so they too may have the same experience of awe.

What does all this beauty reveal about the Creator? Says Sanders, “The Designer must be inordinately fond of beauty.” Anyone who believes this would view beauty as sacred and deserving of our care. Unfortunately, a utilitarian ethic is present in our world, an ethic that says nothing has value unless it is useful to humans. “What good is a wilderness if we can’t drill it for oil or mine it for minerals? What good is an ancient forest if it doesn’t yield board-feet of lumber? Why protect wild salmon if we can grow fish in concrete vats laced with chemicals?”

How then should we live in a world saturated with beauty? We must make time for beauty in our every day. We must rejoice in this beauty, give thanks for it, care for it, “and strive to add our own mite of beauty, with whatever power and talent we posses.”

For reflection:

Recall an experience of beauty that you had. How did it make you feel?

Do you make time for beauty in your every day? If so, how?

How are you adding your own “mite of beauty” in the world through your power or talent?

The song today is one I often use for retreats: “Creation Calls” by Brian Doerksen. (The second version has the lyrics.) This video celebrates the beauty and diversity of the planet we call home. After every viewing, I find myself asking, “What must God be like?”

With lyrics:

I welcome your responses to this reflection. Enrich us with your “mite of beauty” below…

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

John E Hopkins March 18, 2019 at 5:50 am

Good morning, Sister Melannie. The next time you see a rhododendron in full bloom take a look inside its flower and you’ll see its pollen (I think it’s pollen) is a yellow lattice of beauty. When I first saw it, I was stunned! I know it’s probably an evolutionary device to attract bees, but what of it; it’s beautiful!

Book suggestion: “In Praise of the Useless Life” by Br. Paul Quenon, a Trappist monk living at the Abbey of Gethsemane. Just amazing! Br. Paul spends a part of every day looking for and creating the type of beauty you mention above. And, may I add, your blog adds meaning and beauty to our days. It really does.

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Joy A Martin March 18, 2019 at 6:42 am

Food for my soul…Thank you…

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Thomas DeFreitas March 18, 2019 at 6:50 am

Thanks so much, Sr Melannie, for this topic!

Experiences of beauty: Seeing L. for the first time in the fall of 1989 at college. The sight of her left me exalted beyond religion and exhilarated beyond pleasure.

Reading Dylan Thomas for the first time. Who knew language could do that? — give one the feeling that one was listening to something primal, like the ocean in tumult?

My one religious retreat (Spencer, 1992) was sublime. The rhythm of silences and the Office, and bluejays outside the window of the guesthouse perched on crosses in the monks’ cemetery. (JH: thanks for the Quenon recommendation! I shall pursue!)

There’s a sad beauty, too, a seductive tristful cloying beauty: I find it in a piece of music called “Mesto, scanto, e spirante” by one of the Scarlattis. It’s part of a larger work called “Sulle sponde del Tebro.” (I know very little about classical music, but this music speaks to me of thwarted longings more eloquently than even Keats or Morrissey.)

There’s so much beauty in unlikely places. Poets such as William Carlos Williams and Ted Kooser alert us to the offbeat kind of beauties, the ramshackle beauties.

There’s someone whom I care for deeply. I find beauty in our encounters, always, which has nothing to do which how either of us look. I think that we heal each other, at least partially, when we are with one another. Hard to explain, but I hope I’m fumbling toward it!

I was surprised not to see my dear friend Oscar Wilde in this post, who opined, “All art is perfectly useless.” I think he meant to resist a certain kind of facile polemical art that is mere sloganeering, or to push back against the idea that poetry and other arts are only valuable if they “sell.”

There’s beauty in the way certain actors speak. Female: the late Audrey Hepburn. Male: Sidney Poitier, David Hyde Pierce.

Oh, I could continue! But I do need coffee. Thanks again, Sister, for a wonderful topic, fertile with associations!

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John E Hopkins March 18, 2019 at 10:09 am

Have always wanted to try Spencer, Tom. One day maybe. One of the most moving — physical — experiences I’ve ever had while reading a poem was reading Thomas’s “Fern Hill.”

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Barb March 18, 2019 at 7:19 am

What a beautiful way to start my day-thank you for the beauty you share with us each week!

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Kate March 18, 2019 at 8:19 am

Melannie,

Reading this reflection was a wonderful way to wake up to a Monday morning! My response: God must delight in the awe and wonder that rises up in us when we are captured by the beauty of creation! We all have had the experience of giving a gift and then waiting to see the receiver’s reaction. Those are wonderful moments!

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Kathleen Magiera March 18, 2019 at 8:26 am

Top of the morning Sr. Melannie!

I saw an amazing moon this morning on my way to yoga. It was orange and huge. . . the sky “saturated” with beauty.

Thanks for sharing your weekly view of beauty.

God bless.

Kathleen

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Pete March 18, 2019 at 8:29 am

As an avid hiker, I sit down for a rest occasionally and notice the beauty around me that God has created. It marvels me. As a retired dairy farmer, the birth of a calf , then having to give mouth-to-mouth to keep the calf alive is a beautiful thing. All Gods creations, much as the scenery in the song video. The old saying, “Stop and smell the roses” applies. I look forward to Monday morning and beautiful “Sunflower Seeds”.

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Meg March 18, 2019 at 9:15 am

A beautiful reflection this morning! Thank you, Sr. I recall the wonderful “Creation’s Call” video you shared last year at a Dayton, OH retreat. The current interest by all kinds of folks in “mindfulness” should encourage a very simple approach to ever be mindful of the “useless beauty” all around us throughout our daily activities and comings and goings. No technology or apps required! I believe humans makes many things way too complex and difficult than they needs to be. God’s creation alone may eliminate the need for shelves-ful of “how to” and self-help books and multi-step processes.

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Anita Comp March 18, 2019 at 9:23 am

I think useless beauty is there for us to treasure and get closer to God. And I agree with Pete, Monday mornings are so much better because of this blog Sister Melannie!

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Jean Canatsey March 18, 2019 at 9:47 am

Yesterday afternoon a Monarch emegerged from it’s chrysalis on our back porch. I called everyone in the household to come and watch as it pumped up it’s wings and prepared to take flight into God’s world. I shared pictures on Facebook and when a son came to visit later, I said, “Come and see our butterfly”. It made me feel at peace with the world and in utter awe at the beauty of God’s smallest creations.
I share my own “mite of beauty” when I play the piano at a local Nursing Home and when I describe the things I see and experience to the prison inmates I correspond with. They tell me I am their “window to the world”.

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John E Hopkins March 18, 2019 at 10:05 am

Wow! Seeing a Monarch emerge from its chrysalis! That is truly a miracle of the moment! Thanks for sharing.

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Maureen Spillanbe, SND March 18, 2019 at 10:02 am

Thanks you Melannie.
So very beautiful and what an awesome way to start the day. 🙂

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Jean March 18, 2019 at 10:54 am

Good Morning Sister Melannie,
God’s beauty is everywhere.
We are able to experience the sunrise every morning and it is always God’s gift to us.
Thank you for your words to begin the week.

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Janet March 18, 2019 at 11:01 am

Dear Melannie,
I appreciate your reflection on beauty. Beauty leaves me breathless and in great awe of our Good God. My family has invited me to go to Iceland with them this summer. When I see forms of beauty I have never seen before my understanding of God expands and I am ever more in awe of God’s generosity and goodness.

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Christine Holmgren March 18, 2019 at 12:20 pm

In the realm of Useless Beauty – “Prayer of Thanksgiving for Those Whose Work is Invisible” by an unknown author: For those who paint the undersides of boats … makers of ornamental drains on roofs too high to be observed … cobblers who labor on the soles of shoes … seamstresses who hem the insides of linings … dentists who polish upper molars … those who carefully trim overgrown trees & bushes … electricians … family cooks who lovingly prepare meals … surgeons whose sutures are things of beauty … artists who suppress what does injustice to their vision … those who pray unceasingly … those whose contributions are never acknowledged but whose efforts are known to You alone. Deo Gratias!

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marietta March 18, 2019 at 12:41 pm

Dear Sr. Melannie,
Thank you so very much for the wonderful reflection on beauty. I believe if there would be more thought/appreciation etc. of beauty there would be less violence in our world. I am very fortunate to be living in a place surrounded by natural beauty.
One of my favorite “mites” of beauty is tagging monarch butterflies every summer. Working with scientists on this project is my little way of helping to protect and sustain our beautiful earth.
Thank you for your helpful reflections,
Sr. Marietta

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fran March 18, 2019 at 1:31 pm

This past week we have had the beautiful experience of seeing clouds of thousands of Painted Lady butterflies flying on the winds as they migrate from Mexico to Oregon. It fills the soul with the wonder of God’s creation. Magnificence before our eyes. How awesome our God to share creation!

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Marty March 18, 2019 at 2:32 pm

And when He finished He looked around and said “This is very good”. Then he created humans to share in this good(beauty). I love wildflowers(they seem to have a mind of their own, blooming where the wind takes
. them as shown in the song by Dolly Pardon. Wildflower. When a person, place or an event makes my day blessed I tell them they are a wildflower from the heavenly Garden and that I will put them in a gratude prayer bouquet back to God. Sometimes when people, events are not as I would like they are the dried or a little wilted flower that every bouquet needs, for they too were once from His garden and will also be in my prayer bouquet. God has not created anything useless.

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Nancy Frederico March 18, 2019 at 3:17 pm

Hi Sr. Melannie

Thank you for another wonderful reflection! We see and feel God’s presence in all that is seen and unseen.

Thank you for your efforts and for keeping us pondering by your insightful blog posts.

With much appreciation!

Nancy Frederico

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Sister Ruth Gehres March 18, 2019 at 10:55 pm

Sister Melannie . . . thank you for this wonderful reflection. The video . . . the music . . . almost paralyzed me . . . I didn’t want to move, just to BE with it. Thank you!

I offer a mite of beauty that is music . . . the Requiem by Gabriel Fauré. I heard it two years ago sung by an amazing local chorus. I keep the program in my desk drawer to help me to immerse myself in it again. Only God could inspire and bring forth something so beautiful!

Thanks to all for sharing. Hold on to the beauty of our Earth!

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Carol March 21, 2019 at 10:30 am

What a beautiful song of testament to Gods artistry! I’m struggling now with how to deal with my adult daughter who does not believe in God. It wasn’t always so…something, someone happened to cause her to fall away from believing in God. I pray always for another something or someone to act as a catalyst to open her heart & mind. If anyone has advice, or other inspirational songs etc..I would welcome them. Thank you!

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MARY NAUSADIS March 23, 2019 at 3:56 pm

Carol,
I’m reminded of St. Monica, the mother of Augustine who, it is said, prayed for years and years for his conversion….perhaps you might ask for her aid in your prayer.
Another thought is this…..she may not believe in God any more, but God believes in her. Perhaps what she identifies as disbelief is really anger for not being the kind of God she thought he was supposed to be.

Transformation/conversion doesn’t happen overnight, as a rule…keep on praying..

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Carol March 25, 2019 at 10:32 am

Hi Mary!
Your words are ones I never thought of, thus the reason for you being inspired by the Holy Spirit to bring me hope.

I think she is a victim of anger at her perception that God wasn’t there for her when life hit her with a major blow. It called in to question her faith….”Where was her God when she needed Him or when she prayed to him to make things right or better?”

I understand this all too well when my sister was diagnosed with a terminal cancer at 59 & then a year later another cancer with additional physical & emotional challenges. I was very angry with a God & told him so. However, I never lost my belief, I just cooled our relationship until the Holy Spirit softened my heart in time.

Patience is a virtue….I just have to trust she will come back to Him.
Thank you so much for your response.

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Michelle March 21, 2019 at 12:48 pm

Awe…beauty in the eye/ear of the beholder:
hoar frost on trees with a bright blue sky background
dancing northern lights
dew on a spider’s web
fireflies lighting up the night
the sound of leaves gently rustling in the wind
the call of a chickadee and a meadowlark
the sound of children’s laughter in the distance
the smell of bread baking
the smell of gardenias, jasmine and roses
the touch of a warm, gentle handshake in greeting or peace

So much beauty for which to be grateful!

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Carolyn Juenemann March 22, 2019 at 2:11 pm

I truly enjoy all your reflections, but this one is a big WOW!

Thank you so much for sharing your spirit and wisdom with us!

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Paula Spaulding March 23, 2019 at 11:11 am

I grew up in a world filled with rhododendrons. This was the state of West Virginia. Beauty abounded on every side, up and down, glorious beauty. I would run outside as a little girl in my pajamas and throw my arms up and thank God for the day and the beauty of my world. A river ran behind my house and a huge oak tree shadowed my house. Flowers were everywhere. Birds sang in all their glory. Joy. My mother would drag me into the house to eat and brush my hair and dress in outside clothing. God was everywhere, in all. I understand what you have sent. Beauty is in all. That I learned as I grew older. Beauty is in the wrinkled old face and the soft newborn babe. Beauty is even in my mirror as my hair falls out for the third time with chemo treatments and I see wrinkles in my face and I remember my young face and beautiful skin and hair. Then I also remember my new beautiful gifts of empathy and pity and my ability to pray for others when I see their strife and anger and hopelessness. This is my 71 year-old beauty.

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