The Common Good

Beauty Exhaustion: Discipleship and Getting Outside

St. Bonaventure (d. 1274) once said, “Whoever is not enlightened by the splendor of created things is blind; whoever is not aroused by the sound of their voice is deaf; whoever does not praise God for all these creatures is mute; whoever after so much evidence does not recognize the Maker of all things, is an idiot.”[1]

If Bonaventure was right, then we’re all idiots.

The first time I travelled to Rome was an experience second to none. Never, in my young travels, had I ventured to a place so layered with history and significance around every corner that one literally couldn’t escape it. Even the Roman suburbs were historical. We were amped to see it all. Our approach was simple: we would incrementally make our way through the city over the course of 10 days with a plan that would make any explorer proud.

The sheer magnitude of historical and ecclesiastical sites to be seen in the city was overwhelming at best. Then it happened. I had a unique moment near the end of the trip. We’d been walking nonstop through museums, ruins, churches; we’d even heard the pope preach a sermon, when I started to lose my attention. Many travelers or art buffs will resonate with this — there came a point during our endless walk through Rome where I had seen so much beauty and splendor and history that I just started taking it all for granted. The last two days consisted of me walking around blindly and numbly, room-to-room, ruin-to-ruin, as though what I stood before was of little or no value.

I called it “beauty exhaustion.”

From birth to death and womb to tomb, we walk to and from throughout God’s magnificent created masterpiece called Earth. Yet, despite the majesty of our surroundings, every human will experience first hand a particular kind of “beauty exhaustion.” Even if we’re cognitively or emotionally unaware of it, we’re constantly walking around and glancing upon a world fashioned by the hand of very creative and imaginative God. Yet this seemingly overwhelming exposure to God’s beautiful creation is often responded to by most of us in the most lamentable way: we often refuse to stop, pause, and take in God’s handiwork as if it were the first time we saw a Rembrandt.

Ironically, we’re so used to God’s created beauty that we don’t see it anymore.

We walk blindly and numbly to something we have the blessing of seeing everyday. I’m almost certain that is precisely why we’ve seen story after story of astronauts having major conversions to Christianity because of their experiences in space. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, just before taking their first steps on the moon, broke out a Bible, read, and took communion . Powerful, isn’t it, that the first human act on the moon was a communion service? Another astronaut, Frank Bormann, was the first space commander to lead a team outside Earth’s orbit. His first radio transmission some 250,000 miles away from Earth was a reading of Genesis 1. Later Borman described feeling the presence of God as he looked down upon Earth. Then, in 1971, James Irwin walked on the moon. Soon after returning, Irwin became an evangelical minister. He described his walk on the moon:

“I felt the power of God as I’d never felt it before.”[2]

When one sees beauty from a side they’ve never seen it before, it awakens you to its reality of the beauty itself. I think we’d all get saved if we went to the moon. Sadly, our evangelism budgets can’t handle the expense.

Sadly, in a very American way, we only choose to see beauty in certain places or certain kinds of beauty. Look at the life of Jesus. Jesus was not “beautiful” as many Americans would think of beauty. Isaiah even prophesied about this — “There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance …” (Isa. 53:2). But true beauty is not about appearances. True beauty is seen in true reality, not in what make-up companies might tell us.

That’s precisely why Karl Barth once said that beauty must always be understood in the way that we understand Jesus as beautiful — Jesus wasn’t beautiful in appearance; Jesus was beautiful in his being. That is why we have a hard time with seeing God in the beauty of the world. For us, beautiful is something glossy, shiny, new, clean, and iridescent. True beauty is born in a manger. True beauty hangs on a cross. True beauty rises from the grave and still has scars.

True beauty is reality, not a form of reality that we think looks good.

God’s beauty, thus, is not seen only in the sunset or in a tiny baby (although those do bring a certain sense of beauty). True beauty is all of what God has created. This includes the painful aspects of creation like a lion chasing down a deer for dinner. Beauty is Jesus’ compassion and it is Jesus’ violent death. Beauty is a sunrise and it is the hunt. Beauty is not just a world with humans. Beauty is the world God made. I find it fascinating that God started calling things “good” before humanity was on the scene in the creation story.

And that, my friends, is precisely why I think getting outside is an integral aspect of Christian discipleship. Getting outside, seeing the world, coming face-to-face with the beautiful God of creation, is part and parcel of getting to know God that is beautiful in who God is. One of the leaders in my church is tackling this head on, taking young inner-city kids from Portland who never get into the wild on hikes through the Oregon Cascades on Saturday afternoons. He tells me that once these kids get out of the city of cement and can experience stuff that God has made, things start clicking in their minds. The world comes alive. God becomes real.

And so, I’m reminded of how Jesus taught his disciples. Jesus almost never taught his disciples in the synagogues, or in the classroom, or in the lecture-hall in the Gospel narratives. He did at times, but rarely. Ninety-five percent of the stories of Jesus teaching his disciples took place as they were walking around outside. Not to mention that 100 percent of the times that Jesus transfigured himself took place while they were on a hike. Jesus taught people outside. And I think there’s a reason.

A disciple gets outside. And they do so because the God they are following is outside. And taking a walk with God every once in a while does something for the soul.

I’ve always appreciated this quote from Anglican theologian Martha Kirkpatrick. She writes:

“Embodiment [is] a blessing that reminds us of creation’s bounty and beauty. God’s need to be materially related to all of creation reveals the sanctity of matter. Life itself is a sacrament.”[3]

I’m pretty close to calling a hike a sacrament.

Dr. A.J. Swoboda is a pastor, writer, and professor in Portland, Ore. He is @mrajswoboda on Twitter. His most recent book, Tongues and Trees, explores Pentecostalism and ecological theology.


[1] Quoted in Johnson, Elizabeth A. "The Banquet of Faith." LCWR & CMSM Assembly (2008), 2.

[2] I’m indebted to the late Chuck Colson for pointing these stories out to me in his Burden of Truth, 203-04.

[3] Kirkpatrick, Martha. "For God So Loved the World: An Incarnational Ecology." Anglican Theological Review 91, no. 2 (2007): 191-212, 211.

Image: Beautiful landscape, Galyna Andrushko / Shutterstock.com

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