“There is but one sin,” wrote G.K. Chesterton: “to call a green leaf grey.” Which is to say, every kind of sin derives from a willful refusal to see and enjoy the beauty, the glimmers of transcendence that surround us. The serpent, remember, stood with Eve in the beauty and abundance of Eden and said, in effect, “Can’t you see that God is holding out on you?” To refuse to see beauty–to call a green leaf grey–is to say that God is not good.
Beauty is a kind of grace. It comes from outside and changes something on the inside, and it usually comes as a surprise when it does. When I experience beauty I am very aware that something is happening that I could have never ginned up within myself. I feel gratitude. I feel longing. I feel that there is more going on than I can account for. But I can’t feel pride as a result of experiencing beauty. Consider by contrast other aspects of religious experience–truth, say, or morality. When I understand truth (or think I do), I am in constant danger of considering myself better than those who don’t understand that truth. When I practice morality, I am in similar peril. I don’t wish to belittle either truth or morality; beauty wouldn’t be much good without them. I mean only to suggest that when it comes to understanding what grace is and how it works, beauty is a pretty good guide.

Beauty is sneaky like grace, fulfilling desires and healing hurts we didn’t even know we had. It slips past our defenses. Beauty isn’t quite irresistible (we all make ourselves blind to beauty from time to time), but even the hardest heart would have to be vigilant indeed never to be affected by a wide sky or a bright eye or a well-turned poem.

In the end, however, the real work of earthly beauty isn’t to fulfill our longings but to stir up longings it could never fulfill. Beauty sidles up and whispers, “What do I remind you of?” Then it slips away and leaves us wanting more.

  • Guest
    2:20 PM, 2 May 2011

    I love this so much.

  • Abraham Goolsby
    4:01 PM, 2 May 2011

    Jonathan, this is masterfully articulated. Thank you!

  • Dan Kulp
    5:48 PM, 2 May 2011

    I had not heard this quote before and I like it.
    Then, I was reading through some GKC stuff (reading his poetry, The Wild Knight & Other Poems) over lunch today and hit the full context:

    There is one sin: to call a green leaf grey,
    Whereat the sun in heaven shuddereth.
    There is one blasphemy: for death to pray,
    For God alone knoweth the praise of death.

    There is one creed: ‘neath no world-terror’s wing
    Apples forget to grow on apple-trees.
    There is one thing is needful—everything—
    The rest is vanity of vanities.

  • Patrick J. Moore
    6:45 PM, 2 May 2011

    Yet it seems sin may still be involved even when the beauty of the green leaf is acknowledged, the longings it invokes are stirred, but instead of seeking the source of beauty only more beauty is sought with attempts to capture and hold it hostage. Like grace, beauty is a gift and a gift to be shared, to be shared, to be shared. Not pressed into a book nor set upon a pedestal under a glass. Not treated as if it were the object of our deep unmet desire, if only we could hold onto it long enough. We must recognize the beauty for what it is: a fragment of the perfect beauty of our glorious Creator who wove His own beauty throughout the fabric of His creation.
    Regarding what you’ve said of truth and morality tempting pride in a way that beauty does not… I think artists at times do experience pride as a result of experiencing beauty- if they mistake themselves for the creator of it. And beautiful people may also find themselves in this mistaken pride, along with anyone who “owns” beauty as property. When beautiful Irises are bred, when beautiful prose are crafted, or a beautiful landscape is painted on a canvas… it is easy to get confused about the source of beauty. We do create. God made us in his own creative image. But beauty is only beauty inasmuch as it reflects the goodness of God. We may create more mirrors through our creative endeavors, and like a fun-house some mirrors reflect more accurately than others, but all the beauty in every piece of creation merely reflects from the source of all beauty.

    • Jonathan Rogers
      7:21 PM, 2 May 2011

      Patrick, I agree, of course, that a (sub)creator is subject to pride and self-absorption (I should know, having been guilty of it myself often enough), but when I speak of “experiencing” beauty, I’m really talking about the way the beauty comes to us from the outside. When I see beauty, I don’t think, “There, I deserved that!” Instead, I feel gratitude.
      You make a good point when you say that beauty cannot be a possession.

  • Sally Apokedak
    12:39 AM, 3 May 2011

    The heavens declare the glory of God. Day after day they pour forth speech.
    Or…beauty sidles and up and whispers. 🙂

  • Janna
    12:53 AM, 3 May 2011

    Beauty, like music, makes me ask “why?” And when the only answer I can come up with is pleasure, I know there is a beautiful God. Well put, jr.

  • Loren Warnemuende
    1:50 AM, 3 May 2011


  • Dan R.
    4:04 PM, 4 May 2011

    Very well-put JR. I always particularly enjoy, and am encouraged by reading what professional sub-Creators have to say about these kinds of things.

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