ANTHONY BLOOM, who died in 2003, was one of the most revered spiritual teachers of his generation. Beauty and Meaning is the T. S. Eliot lectures that he delivered in 1982. Given in his characteristically informal style with self-deprecating humour, they are worth printing 40 years later for the last chapter alone on “The significance and place of ugliness”. This is because what Bloom wrote came out of his experience of exile and war, and especially as a doctor treating survivors who had been released from concentration camps. There is a deep wisdom here wrought from that hard experience.
Bloom stands firmly within the classical tradition, in both East and West, in which the aesthetic cannot in the end be separated from the moral and spiritual, and which is not shy of stating that God is sheer beauty. All works of art, in his view, seek to express meaning, but a meaning that, in the end, always lies beyond them, and which intuitively they reach after.
He sees art as a dynamic process, and quotes with approval Nietzsche: “You must carry a chaos within yourself in order to give birth to a star.” This is because art is more than a momentary snapshot, more than the imposition of order. It is a process in which something is emerging. Above all, God, the great artist, is bringing life, and our lives, in particular, into maturity out of this chaos. All is a work in progress.
When we look with our physical eyes, we make judgements about things being ugly or beautiful, but we are called to look deeper and try to see as God sees. Bloom quotes another Orthodox bishop: “When God looks at a person or at mankind, he does not see the virtues or the achievements, which are not there, he sees the beauty which nothing can erase.” This essential beauty of the person is in a process of growth towards communion with ultimate beauty.
However, Bloom is clear, as a result of his wartime experience, that we have to face evil and ugliness as they are, and not look for consolation in them. “To be confronted in an undiluted way with ugliness and horror is something we must accept.” Works of art, like some of the modernist art after the First World War, can appear ugly. But it might be right that there is no harmony that can be seen in them. The point is that something ugly can and must prompt us to respond in a positive way. It presents us with a challenge. He gives a powerful example of how, talking to survivors of concentration camps, he learned of remarkable examples of generosity and bravery even in the midst of such barbarity.
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London. His autobiography, The Shaping of a Soul: A life taken by surprise, is published on 31 March.
Beauty and Meaning: The T. S. Eliot Lectures of the Most Reverend Anthony Bloom
Metropolitan Anthony Bloom
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