Even though I’m a man, I’ll admit that when I’m in a bookstore I sometimes skim over the covers of magazines that target young women. They’re fine examples of popular cultural propaganda endorsing an ideology harmful to the young, impressionable women of America. (Men’s magazines seem to now contain similar material.)
The American culture’s secular concept of human beauty is warped. The cultural theory regarding beauty seems to be something like this: If you look beautiful, you will feel beautiful. When you look and feel beautiful, you will improve your ability to be both successful and desirable in public and private. The pursuit of beauty according to the culture’s unspiritual understanding and immodest standards has become an overriding focus among many young American women. We have a whole nation of people trying to look different than they actually are. Teens are trying to look like young adults, older adults are trying to halt or reverse the inevitable, and everyone else in between tries desperately to conform to the cultural ideal, often provocatively so, in an attempt to convince the self and others, "I 'm worth something. I 'm desirable."
The beauty of creation that we can see with our physical eyes is worthy of appreciation. If we see the visible creation around us, though, without peering through it to see the Creator, we miss the Ultimately Beauty. Likewise, admiring the outward appearance of someone's body without encountering the beauty of the person’s soul is a shallow experience, like admiring the shiny wrapping paper covering a box without opening the box itself to see the gold-and-diamond gift inside. Within the person, unseen by physical eyes, but visible to the heart, is the image of God that gives every human person intrinsic worth. What makes a person beautiful is not what others see when the light shines down upon his or her physical form, but the heavenly light that shines through the person, illuminating the soul with the pure spiritual beauty of God. The truly beautiful person reflects the light of divine beauty from within, evident in the self-giving love, harmonious peace, passionless patience, centered simplicity, and content humility emanating from the heart, evident in attitude, present in speech, and manifested in action. As St. Peter taught, "Let not yours be the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of fine clothing, but let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious" (1 Peter 3.3-4, RSV).
The way of the culture may make people look picture-perfect, but it will cause their inner beauty to fade, their souls to degenerate, becoming ugly and cold, and their lives to be marred by pain and chaos. Americans spend a lot of time and money improving their physical appearance, while neglecting their spiritual health. Within the Orthodox Christian Church we live the Orthodox Christian way of life together. All of us need healing from the inner wounds that have disfigured our souls and corrupted our ways of thinking, feeling, and interacting with others. The Church is a hospital where our most unsightly blemishes are healed by the loving grace of God. Instead of magazine articles about temporary fixes and current diet trends, our enduring Orthodox Christian Faith contains ancient beauty secrets that are time-tested, deep-seated, and long-lasting. Rather than programs and regimens meant to help us look attractive for a while, the spiritual disciplines of the Orthodox way of life, like prayer and fasting (placing the physical body under the control of the spirit), open our hearts to receive divine beauty and also train the eyes of our hearts to see the beauty within others. The way of the culture may help us improve our looks, but the Orthodox way leads us into the very heart of God, the source of Beauty, who illumines the whole universe.
Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (The icon of St. Barbara is from the IconoGraphics ColorWorks Library, Theologic.com. Used by permission.)