Seeing with the Eyes of the Heart: The Tale of Beauty and the Beast

“The moment when all her resistance to ugliness vanished,

was the moment when ugliness became absolute Beauty.”

–John O’Donohue

Illustration by Anne Anderson

Illustration by Anne Anderson

I once taught a writing course at the University of New Mexico on the theme of “What Is Beauty?”  We read many interesting contemporary essays and philosophical treatises, as well as myths and stories, exploring this question from a variety of perspectives and angles. One of the texts we studied was the classic tale of “Beauty and the Beast.” This well-known tale offers much insight into the nature of true beauty, how we can reveal in our hearts, and ultimately how we become it.

While there have been many interpretations of this tale, a deep and mythic-psychological reading of it reveals many layers of meaning. The Beast represents that which is seemingly “ugly” and repulsive, that we instinctively judge and reject as threatening.  Beauty’s acceptance of what is apparently “ugly” or gruesome, liberates a great transfiguration.  The late Irish poet/ writer John O’Donohue, who was true priest of beauty,  used to share this tale with people, telling it in his lovely lilting brogue.  I’ll never forget what he said about it in a workshop. It is one of the most ravishing and profound statements of what beauty is: “The moment when all [Beauty’s] resistance to ugliness vanished, was the moment when ugliness became absolute Beauty.”

Whenever I share this quote of O’Donohue’s with people, the result is the same—There is a quiet in-take of breath, as the depths of what this means sinks in. It brings tears to my eyes… because in this statement, and indeed in this tale, if one looks deeply, is instruction in how to create a paradise of love–how to accept ourselves and love whatever is “beastly” in us, and in others.  The character of Beauty could not truly see the beautiful being of the beast, until she saw him through the eyes of her heart.

Illustration by Walter Crane

Illustration by Walter Crane

Why is the female character in the tale named Beauty? Because she has the ability to perceive the essence, the soul, beyond appearances. She knows what is of true eternal value. When her father, at the beginning of the tale, asks each of his daughters what he should bring each of them back from his travels, her cunning and superficial sisters ask for expensive fineries and jewels. She asks for only a rose. This tale illuminates the nature of beauty as that which is most soulful, loving, soft-hearted , and true to the soul  in us.  A loving and open heart both creates and reveals the beauty in what is seen. Because it exists in opposition to shallow judgment based on cultural values, it is a radical force. Beauty, who cares little for worldly things, risks everything, and says “yes” to the unknown out of love–and in the end receives everything.

Why is the character of Beauty a female? There is a subtle truth here. Something in the feminine heart has always been especially gifted in love, perceiving essence and feeling  compassion for that which is suffering and “rejected.” The latent compassion and unconditional  love of the feminine heart has been seen as a weakness and a liability in our culture, which rewards competitiveness, ambition and self-interest–but it is the greatest force we have on the planet to now change what has been fragmented, wounded and damaged—into  the “beauty”  that is latently there.

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