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.
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