On Tuscany and Why Beauty Matters

by | Jul 15, 2018 | Beauty

The world is not a pageant: beauty is as unquantifiable as love. Geography is not something that can be ranked. Anthony Doerr, Four Seasons in Rome

For weeks, maybe months, when I close my eyes to pray about unknowns, a scene replays in my mind like a filmstrip. I should tell you that seeing pictures when I pray is like hearing my voice when I talk. But I can count on both hands, the number of times I’ve seen an image repeatedly.

From a comfy chair in my house, I walk through a hushed forest of tall pines, following Jesus up a mountain. The hem of His robe skims a carpet of vagrant leaves fallen from the previous season, breaking open the cozy stillness. Beyond a crowd of trunks, the sun drenches a spacious place. But I have no idea what lies past the forest from our vantage point.

Will there be people waiting for us? A home to visit? A vista of epic proportions to blow my socks off? Where are we going? – I think each time I revisit the scene. What I’m seeing translates as preparation for something on the horizon. Like a child trusting in her father’s judgment, I anticipate the surprise will be good and worth the effort.


Beauty Awakens

On the first day of my arrival at Villa La Foce, perched on the hill overlooking Val d’Orcia, Tuscany, I must’ve looked like a dumbstruck child wandering through a vast array of opulent bedrooms. Decorated with upholstered headboards and painted furniture, gilded armchairs and brocade couches, the home translates as an Italian Downton Abbey.

As if fifteen Christian creatives gathering for the Tuscany Writers Retreat had suddenly entered the back of a wardrobe and turned up in a story most often experienced in the pages of books.

How did I end up here?

The tour finished with several congregating on the breakfast porch. Canopied by climbing roses and wisteria vines, I pointed past the dripping fountain swimming with gold fish, toward the overlook.

“I think I’ve seen enough for now. I’ll save that view for later,” I said, awestruck.

My friend Christie nodded and smiled with that knowing enneagram four look.


Beauty Elevates Belief

Once clothes are unpacked into drawers and flowery dresses dangle on hangers, I join an arc of fellow writers standing under an evergreen oak. The sun slowly descends, coloring everything golden.

As we listen to the smooth, calming voice of Sibylla, our garden tour guide, her cadence is distractingly reminiscent of Meryl Streep playing Karen in Out of Africa. Even the characters surrounding the Renaissance house seem story-like.

Armed with camera strapped over my lacy dress, I follow the slanted shadows of friends down a stone path, past geometrical rooms created with box hedges. Though my eyes are open and heart expectant, what I am seeing and experiencing isn’t visible to anyone.

Internally, I am following Jesus through the woods again as that image flashes unannounced between each step toward the overlook.  While Sibylla is telling us about the legacy of the garden created by Antonio and Iris Origo, I hear a faint a whisper. We are almost there. This is what I wanted to show you.

You heard the sounds of  words but saw no form; there was only a voice. ~Deut. 4:12b

Prepared to frame towering cypress and capture awe on faces, the ripples in my soul overwhelm all sense of sensibility. Gazing over the formal garden to the Amiata mountain, instead of pulling the camera up to my face, I quickly turn around. Stuffing waves of emotion threatening to flood out, the ugly cry just doesn’t seem appropriate.

At the intersection of the past and present, the mingling of history with God’s perspective, lies unexplainable peace, incomprehensible awe, overwhelming love, and unadulterated beauty. Obviously, I had to sit down and get a grip.

Beauty provides a reorientation toward the hopeful vision God has for us. And “God often gives us a hopeful vision of things to come before any of it makes sense,” writes Emily Freeman after she visits LaFoce two years ago.

Beauty Breaks Through Barriers

Later in the week, as we sit in a circle on the porch holding cups of cappucino and balancing journals on laps, Jamin Goggin makes sense of my encounter with beauty that first evening at La Foce.

He tells us that primary beauty is God Himself, and beauty exists only because God exists. Therefore, the harmony, symmetry and order in creation reflects the nature and character of God. The beauty we experience in creation is secondary to the beauty of God. It is only beautiful because God made it.

Faith recalibrates our eyes to beauty and opens the aperture of our understanding more fully.

As Christians, when we look at the cross and think, “that’s beautiful,” our soul is seeing what the world cannot visualize.

To be found dumbstruck by beauty and awestruck by creation is to be struck by the love of God and rendered speechless.

When was the last time you were thunderstruck by the presence of God, overwhelmed by His power rumbling quietly in your midst?

Only be careful and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. ~Deut. 4:9a

Beauty Asks More From Us

Only now, weeks after returning to London, am I beginning to discern the depths of what happened in my heart while in Tuscany.

For me, crafting sentences that translate as meaningful requires a long runway of processing to reach clarity.  That’s why I’ve been silent here for quite some time. To sit, stare out the window and listen is a long obedience for a writer, not a guilty pleasure.

What I know for sure is this. The first time I saw myself following Jesus up a mountain while praying, a reorientation took place in my heart and expectancy grew within me. And the first time I witnessed the beauty of Tuscany, that expectancy gave birth to love and belonging.

Initially, I felt unworthy of what I was seeing. But we encounter beauty, not because we are worthy but because the Beautiful One is worthy of being glorified.

Encounter the love of God and all your questions and doubts seem trivial in comparison.

Perhaps you’ve experienced a reorientation of vision by God but are remiss on how to practically walk it out. Or maybe you can identify with Moses — what God sees in you feels bigger than your faith.

How might your uncertainty be God’s opportunity for reorientation? How might your obedience in a hopeful vision lead to something beautiful, for you and future generations?

Let’s be people captivated by beauty first because we have the advantage of knowing the Creator intimately.

For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. ~Deut. 4:24


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  1. Lynn D. Morrissey

    Shelly, I’m glad you sat and stared and waited long on God to reveal the depths of His beauty to you, so that you could best convey the beauty of what He was showing you, and the beauty of Him, Himself. This is a BEAUTIFUL post, and it exudes the beauty of God in every photo of His breathtaking glory in Creation (ah, Tuscany! I’ve always wanted to go there), in the depth of your understanding of who He is and how His own beauty is intrinsic with His creation (how could it help but be beautiful, because He, Himself, is beautiful–we can forget that), and in the beauty of your own words (so obviously a gift and reflection from God). I’ve been thinking a lot about beauty in the past year, knowing how much I need it simply to survive–beautiful sights, beautiful sounds, beautiful words. I love the beauty of God in nature. I saw that especially manifest in Iona, Scotland just over a year ago (and yes, I get how you must linger long over such life-changing experiences before you have adequate words to express the experience, and even then, how they fall short. Sometimes the deep workings of the heart cannot ultimately be conveyed; we do, as you have here, and yet, I suspect that there are things so deep that happened between you and God in Tuscany that you still are speechless to express them, and others meant for just you and Him, alone, that you will never share in a blog or a book. I digress . . . ) But what I especially love about your post is the evidence that we serve a mighty God, a God who loves us intimately, who plants a beautiful vision in our hearts–His gracious gift to us–and who will fulfill it in His own time, in His own magnificent (and often surprising) way. For you, it was Tuscany, and for me, it was Iona. And I know it is just the beginning. Something shifted in you, as it did in me, and I love how you are reminding us here not to waste the shift. We need to keep seeking God in the beauty of holiness, asking Him to reveal more of Himself and His vision for us, and to submit to it in obedience. And this really struck my heart: “How might your obedience in a hopeful vision lead to something beautiful, for you and future generations?” I can become myopic in my soulful vision (as much as I am literally physically in my myopia), and forget that the hopeful vision God gives me, is hardly just about me, but about others, even to many future generations. Shelly, thank you for this post. I need to seek God in this reorientation which He gave me on the beautiful Isle of Iona, and ask Him just what vision He is casting for me and be willing to do my part in bringing it to fruition. It may not land me in Tuscany (though that too has been a dream of mine), but there is no doubt it will land me smack-dab in the center of His beautiful will for my life. I know this was a deep post for you. It took much of your time to ponder, to select just the right words and images to convey God’s beauty. No small task. So I just want you to know that this reader (and friend) is immeasurably grateful. Thank you!

    • shelly

      Thank you Lynn. As always, I’m honored by your thoughtful comment. And of course, you would get this! You had a similar encounter not that long ago. What grace!

  2. Vicki Kessler

    As always your words take me to a place that I find fulfilling in my mind with the wonder of those descriptive words! You always transport me to awakening myself to what you are offering. Thank you! As always beautiful photography to share.

    • shelly

      Humbled and thankful for your kind comment Vicki. And I miss you! Also, Kristin. I’m hoping I can make Austin in October a thing again — 3 years in a row.

  3. Sharon O

    Amazing and beautiful…your pictures and words.

    • shelly

      Thanks for being here Sharon! Grateful, grateful.

  4. Pam@Writing...Apples of Gold

    Absolutely gorgeous in Truth, Word-painting and photography, Shelly! I often contemplate how God speaks to us in beauty, too… and your words are refreshing as a spring to me. I think of someone I know and love who believes God is calling her to “give up” beauty as a sacrifice (so wrong in my estimation of His Artistry), and your words sing to me again of how Hie is longing to take us by the hand and reveal so much in the beautiful that reflects His majesty! How blessed you are to have been in that glorious place and how blessed that we can share in it here with you…. xo Pam

    • shelly

      “His longing to take us by the hand . . .” puts words to another picture I saw while in Tuscany. Only God. Thanks for being here Pam, your voice matters.

  5. Shelly Wildman

    Just this morning I read Exodus 27 and 28 where God is giving Moses instructions for the building of the Tabernacle. When he gets to the description of Aaron’s garments, it says, “And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother for glory and for beauty” (Ex. 28:2). This verse is repeated in verse 40, as God talks about the garments that were to be made for Aaron’s sons: “You shall make them for glory and beauty.” I was thinking, just today, about how God created beauty and how he delights in giving us beauty. Even beautiful clothes that are made to glorify Him and His beauty. It’s truly amazing to me.

    Last week I had the privilege of taking a week-long class on CS Lewis with a renowned CS Lewis scholar. It was a week filled with beauty and wonder, not just at the writing of Lewis, but at God who gave him to us. We talked a lot about Lewis’s view of beauty, and it gave me a lot to think about. Lewis noted the moment that beauty was awakened to him in Surprised by Joy. It might seem insignificant to some, but to him, the moment was cataclysmic. It changed his world! And that’s what I see in your description of your moment in Tuscany. An awareness of beauty changes us, moves us, and we’re never the same after that.

    Thanks for writing this, Shelly.

    • shelly

      I ordered a book after a recommendation in response to my post on IG and you would love it! Divine Beauty by John O’Donohue, do you have it? I couldn’t agree more with your perspective Shelly. I’ve read your comment several times as I’ve been sitting with Moses in the Exodus for months. Thank you so much for inspiring us here.

      • Lynn D. Morrissey

        One of my favorite books, Shelly! Love O’Donahue. I love his blessings book too. I wrote down some of his poems from that book into my Vade Mecum, when I went to Iona.

  6. Nancy Ruegg

    Tuscany is a dream destination of mine as well. Thankfully, stunning examples of God’s handiwork can be found elsewhere in the world too! Mount Rainier in Washington State has rendered me dumbstruck by beauty, awestruck by creation, and rendered speechless–every time I’m privileged to visit the Seattle area. You are so right, Shelly: “the harmony, symmetry and order in creation reflects the nature and character of God.” And discovering who he is through what he has made is a supreme delight. Thank you for expressing our awe, gratitude, and love for Creator God with such wonderfully sublime words!

    • shelly

      I’ve never been to Mount Rainier Nancy but I would love to visit that part of the world some day. You are so right, we are so very blessed with an endless canvas of beauty throughout the world. There is so much to explore and discover!

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