“Wow, look at that! That’s what I call a beautiful flag bearer! We are having so many of them tonight.”
“Wow, you’re right, she is gorgeous!”
For all the effusive Britishness of the London Olympics’ Opening Ceremony – complete with James Bond, Her Majesty the Queen and of course Mr. Bean – and for the international celebration of countries coming together in Olympic togetherness, the televised transmission here in Italy had a distinct national flavour: the praise of beautiful women. The commentators sounded more intent on pinpointing the pretty ladies than actually narrating the progress of the ceremony to us viewers. You could almost hear a sight of disappointment when a country emerged into the runway displaying a perfectly healthy and built-up athlete … of the male type.
“C’mon, guys, give us a break,” I thought. “It’s not like they’re overhearing you and will come to give you a kiss.”
It was a curious annoyance. I agree that the athletes were pretty indeed – and I imagine that many of the flag bearers were chosen precisely for this reason – but the commentators’ praise was so enthusiastic and so regular that it became a little awkward. People were there to play professional sports, after all, not to compete for the Miss (or Mister) Universe crown.
Now let me take profit of this moment of awkwardness to make an awkward transition of my own and sidestep the possible landmines of this delicate subject – who’s pretty and who’s not, interior vs. exterior beauty, male sexism, the objectification of women and the commercialization of beauty – and move to a related theme, safe in the ethereal realm of metaphysical inquiry: the praise-inviting nature of beauty. What I mean is this: beauty invites praise; it actually demands it. Praise is the natural reaction to beauty, just as fear is the natural reaction to danger. I remember when Sarah and I drove across the Canadian Rockies for the first time, and our jaws dropped in awe every few minutes and our mouths uttered all the forms of exclamation we knew to praise the beauty of those massive mountains. Beauty is what makes a group of guys turn their necks and inspect closely a bright-red Ferrari that drives by; it is what makes grandmas bow down to tell a little girl on the street just how pretty she is.
“Beauty is not only a terrible thing, it is also a mysterious thing,” wrote Dostoevsky. “There God and the Devil strive for mastery, and the battleground is the heart of men” The experience of wonder and beauty, says Dostoevsky, is a crucial clue to what this gorgeous universe is. For beauty woos, beauty sings, it lifts us up and opens our hearts. It offers us little snippets of glory, textures that attract and compels us. It hands a few of the appetizers God placed in the human heart to draw us out of ourselves to something bigger, more majestic, to himself. Often the experience of beauty is a calling: it is there as a visible sign of things invisible, as a window revealing part of the architecture of reality.
And, if we’ve had already one awkward transition, let me take the freedom of turning that into two, for this praise-inviting nature of beauty makes me think of a curious activity Christians do every week: they gather to worship. They come to temples large and small, across the world, to sing songs and express to God what he is. “You are worthy. You are the holy one. We bow before you.” It is a curious and random activity when you first think of it, to tell God things he already knows, to gather week after week and use grand and spiritual words we don’t usually use during the week.
But that is the nature of beauty. We feel compelled to tell mountains and Ferraris and little girls and Olympic flag bearers how pretty they are; we have to actually refrain not to almost automatically praise the beauty we encounter. And this is all the more true for the one who is the author of all beauty, who sang the universe into being and who fashioned each atom into detail, the one whose character is great and pure and holy, and who undergone the ugliness of the cross to infuse his graceful beauty into our pretty bodies but disfigured souls, and to make us into eternal splendours. Adoration is a funny activity until we remember who is it we are adoring, and then we fall down to our knees, and no words are enough to express the praise of our majestic God.
 Fyodor Dostoevsky, as quoted in The Gospel in Dostoevsky: Selected from his Works (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2004), 3.