“No Beauty We Could Desire”: An Exercise in Poetic Theology

The Futile Hunt

C. S. Lewis begins his poem “No Beauty We Could Desire” by acknowledging the possibility of natural theology, a path to God that leads along the way of affirmation. This kataphatic approach understands every good quality in the creation as pointing to God, who is then understood as both the source and the preeminent exemplar of that quality. This is an approach to theology that is especially amenable to beauty. I see beauty in the world, and I conclude that God is the greatest Beauty from which all other beauty flows. I see goodness in the world, and I conclude that God is Goodness itself, the source of all that is good.

Lewis acknowledges that such a path can be followed in theory, but argues that it’s not so easy to find in practice.

Yes, you are always everywhere.  But I,
Hunting in 
such immeasurable forests,
Could never
bring the noble Hart to bay.

The scent was too perplexing for my hounds;
sometimes, then again everywhere.
scents, too, seemed to them almost the same.

These lines make me think of the confused, meandering journey of The Pilgrim’s Regress, in which John tries in vain to reach a beautiful island he has seen only in glimpses from afar. Of course God is present in the world. God is omnipresent; there is no spot in the cosmos where He is not fully present. But that doesn’t mean that we are equipped to capture Him. When we try to take on the role of the hunter and make God into the hunted, everything is backwards. Or, to use a metaphor that’s closer to home for most of us, when we try to take on the role of the scientist and make God into the specimen we are studying, everything is backwards.

The scent of God’s beauty cannot be captured, controlled, tamed, or pinned down. It can be enjoyed. It can produce delight and arouse longing. But it cannot be successfully hunted; the strategies of capture are the wrong strategies for aesthetic pursuit. Sometimes practitioners of the empirical sciences conclude that various aesthetic objects — beauty, design, purpose, formal and final cause — do not really exist, that they are merely opinions or social constructs, but the truth is simpler: the empirical sciences are not equipped to detect everything that is real in the world. That includes the presence of the fully Real One, who is Being itself, the ground of all that exists.

It is God’s very omnipresence that makes Him so difficult to pursue. As Dorothy Sayers explains in The Mind of the Maker, everything in the world reflects God’s Triune nature, so the mysterious quality of the Trinity is not a function of God’s distance from us.  Quite the reverse.  It is a function of His presence. “[T]he Trinitarian structure of activity is mysterious to us just because it is so universal – rather as the four-dimensional structure of space-time is mysterious because we cannot get outside to look at it” (chapter 3).

Lewis himself says much the same thing in Miracles:

“[T]he fact which is in one respect the most obvious and primary fact, and through which alone you have access to all the other facts, may be precisely the one that is most easily forgotten – forgotten not because it is so remote or abstruse but because it is so near and so obvious. . . . The Supernatural . . .  is a matter of daily and hourly experience, as intimate as breathing.  Denial of it depends on a certain absent-mindedness. But this absent-mindedness is in no way surprising” (ch. 6).

However, in “No Beauty We Could Desire” Lewis is saying more than that he is too absent-minded to find God. Even when he tries, even when he is focused and attentive and searching, the hunt is beyond his ability – whether because of finitude or because of sin, he does not say. His theory has been that he has only to change his point of view, and he will see God all around him. But in this poem he acknowledges that he is not capable of making that change. The poem will end optimistically, but to get there requires this confession as a starting point.

Not Pursuer, But Pursued

Some people would then argue that even if we can’t find God in the surrounding world, we should be able to find God in other people, and maybe even in ourselves, since after all human beings are made in God’s image.  The context for Sayers’ comments on God’s omnipresence is her argument that we can find things out about God when we examine our own creative process.  But – at least in this poem – Lewis is having none of it.  He dismisses this option as well:

Therefore I turn my back on the unapproachable
Stars and
 horizons and all musical sounds,
Poetry its
elf, and the winding stair of thought.

He turns away not only from the stars, but also from the quintessentially human qualities of music, poetry, and thought. At this point, we might be forgiven for being a bit skeptical. C. S. Lewis is turning his back on poetry and thought? Really? The great writer of imaginative fiction, poetry, and Christian apologetics is rejecting both poetic imagination and reason? It seems unlikely. And then too, he’s telling us about his turning away from poetry in a poem. So is this Lewis looking back on his career and, like Thomas Aquinas, seeing it all as just so much straw? I don’t think so. He’s not denying that music, poetry and reason are all valuable. However, even though these are all good things, they are not a net in which we can capture God.

Lewis is saying no to one thing in order to say yes to something else. No, we can’t catch God. Yes, God is hunting for us. Which is much better news than any reassurance about being able to see God in the world or in ourselves.

Leaving the forest where you are pursued in vain
– Often 
a mere white gleam – I turn instead
To the appointed
place where you pursue.

This is the real issue: we are not the pursuers; we are the pursued. We are not the hunters; we are the prey. As a Calvinist, I believe that God always captures what he hunts, but here as elsewhere Lewis stops short of endorsing the irresistible nature of grace. He must allow himself to be caught. He must “turn … to the appointed place,” where God is ready to pursue him if only he will show up.

Sacramental Particularity

Having turned away from the search for God in the natural world and in our own nature, and having acknowledged that God is the pursuer in this relationship, Lewis now keeps his “appointment” with God.

Not in Nature, not even in Man, but in one
Man, with a date, so tall, weighing
much, talking Aramaic, having learned a trade;

Not in all food, not in all bread and wine
I mean, as my littleness requires)
this wine, this bread . . . no beauty we could desire.

The place where God pursues is not in the books of the philosophers nor the romance of poetry nor the beauty of the stars. It is in the body of Jesus, who is the Way.  The gospel of John says that Jesus’ body is God’s temple (2:21), the location of an encounter between God and humanity that we can at least perceive, even if we cannot understand. In Miracles, Lewis says, “The world which would not know Him as present everywhere was saved by His becoming local.” Surely that sentence was in his mind when he wrote this poem, (or perhaps it was the other way around.  I can’t find any information about when this poem might have been written, and Don King classifies it has an undated poem.) That locality requires particularity. Jesus is not Everyman. Jesus is a particular man – whose voice has a specific timbre, whose eyes are a certain color, who occupies a particular place.  In other words, He is like us – in every way but sin.

But now the body of Jesus is ascended. Calvin says that Jesus is now locally present at the right hand of the Father – still incarnate, still particular. However, the only way I now have access to His local presence is through the sacrament. My own understanding of the sacrament is that it is our participation in the ascended humanity of Jesus, making us sharers in His full, glorified humanity. The Holy Spirit unites my humanity to His humanity, my body to His body, in order that it might no longer be I who live but Christ who lives in me. It appears that I consume Him, but in fact He consumes me. It appears that I hunt for Him, but in fact He captures me.

Lewis does not explore what happens next. Am I able to see God more clearly in nature, music, poetry, and reason after having encountered Him in the sacrament? Does the hypothetical “yes” of the first line now become an affirmative experience? Mother Teresa once said that she could recognize the face of Jesus in the poor because she saw Him every day in the eucharist. Would Lewis affirm something similar, or has he in fact moved to a more complete skepticism about the kataphatic way? His poem “He Whom I Bow To” (from The Pilgrim’s Regress) suggests a similar suspicion of our human capacity to understand God. But perhaps it is not our understanding or our reason that is suddenly able to see God more clearly. Perhaps our aesthetic sense is what is renewed by participation in the sacrament.