God’s Beautiful World, and What You Need to See It All
Sometimes you see it, sometimes you don't
I’ve been walking by the church almost every day since I started my walking discipline back in 1996. For the first time in the 32 years I’ve been in town, I visited the interior of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. Every time I passed it, I’d created my own mental image of what it looked like inside.
I was totally wrong.
More Beautiful than the Colors
I’d even gotten the orientation of the sanctuary wrong, though in hindsight I don’t know how. The church faces the south, with a circular stained glass rose window up toward the peak of the roof on the south wall. As beautiful as this window is from the outside, it is even more beautiful from the inside, at least on a bright, sunny day.
When the sun is shining, not only does the backlighting bring out the colors, but the window shapes the sun’s rays, bringing them down to an oval (an elliptical region, to be precise) on the floor. As the sun goes from east to west across the sky, the oval goes from west to east.
Since the church faces south and the altar is on the north side of the sanctuary, the aisle that goes between the pews follows a north-south line. Because of this, at one point of time during the day, the oval is centered exactly on that north-south line. That moment of time is what astronomers refer to as Solar noon.
It’s called “Solar noon” rather than simply “noon” because it doesn’t always occur at 12 o’clock. Indeed, it hardly ever does. But it is our original noon. People were noticing when the sun was high in the sky long before anyone ever thought about inventing a clock.
Solar noon is nature’s noon. It is the noon that we learned the idea of noon from, the Mother of all Noons. Then we mechanized time; calibrated it; redefined it; and have tried to give the impression it belongs to us altogether.
But the sun shining through the rose window, pouring its light in front of the altar bears witness to the fact it was there first. Let the clock on the wall say what it will, the sun will continue along its ancient highway in heaven.
I find that fact more beautiful than the colors from the stained glass.
We are surrounded by things like this. Just as I’ve been walking past this beautiful church with its wonderful rose window for three decades, what else have I been walking past?
There is beauty, like the stained glass inside the church, that only requires us to step through the door to see, but there is another kind of beauty as well. There is a beauty you have to prepare yourself to see.
Preparing for Beauty
A couple of decades ago, I attended a mathematical conference. Another mathematician gave a talk that was of such astounding beauty that it touched me. She presented a beautiful result in my area of specialization in a very clear way.
To a random person from the street it would have sounded like nonsense. They would have understood the words as being English words. They would have understood that the sentences were grammatically correct. But the meaning would have escaped them completely.
They certainly wouldn’t have seen the beauty of it. I was left simply in awe.
I’d had to work for years and years to be able to appreciate the presentation. I’d walked through door after door, studying year after year, reading article upon article. When the talk was finished, I thought, “If only for this, it was all worth it.”
We are surrounded by beauty. Some of it is available to us just by walking through the right door. Some of it requires an amazing amount of work to see.
It’s all grace.
Bobby Neal Winters is associate dean of the college of arts and sciences and a university professor at Pittsburg State University. A native of Harden City, Oklahoma, he blogs at Red Neck Math and Okie in Exile. His last article for The Stream was I Am … Iron Man, a reflection on what we do when we declare ourselves to be something, like when we say, “I’m a Christian.”