The biggest interior struggle that has been consistently plaguing me throughout my months here in Africa and for most of my life is this concept of feeling beautiful. In my mind, beauty has always been a feeling that was amplified or diminished based on how close I was to my ideal weight and how often I was complimented on my appearance by someone outside myself. Last year before mission, completing my first half-marathon, finally having parted with four years of cafeteria food, and having a handsome boyfriend to remind me constantly, left me feeling beautiful for the first time in a long while.
I never anticipated that coming to Africa would so drastically challenge that. With a monotonous and fixed daily diet of almost exclusively carbs and vegetables fried in oil, my weight was affected in a way I would never have predicted before coming one of Africa’s poorest countries. Additionally, it came as a little bit of a shock to enter into a culture where it is not offensive to call someone fat. My sense of self-worth was on a steady decline.
Something needed to change within me. I decided to dedicate the entire month of July to serious fasting and reflection on who I am in the sight of God. I challenged Him to unveil my beauty, though, deep down, I doubted he’d truly be able to counter this lifelong struggle. My sinful, human nature felt too wounded. Of course, I was wrong. God’s grace is more powerful than any human insufficiency, and He cares about our every need. God had a profound message of healing and hope for my little heart.
As I began, my immediate question was this: I know that the object of beauty has intrinsic, unmerited value. For example, the beauty of a tall oak tree, a vibrant flower, or a sweetly composed melody remains constant. Why then does my human beauty seem to fluctuate on a day-to-day basis? Why does it feel like a seesaw inside me, contrasting from highs to lows based on material, physical things like clothing and hairstyle? It immediately surfaced that I had confused the concept of attractiveness as synonymous with beauty. Being told I was beautiful or feeling that way was directly linked with looking attractive to someone of the opposite sex. I knew this couldn’t be true beauty. Attraction is based in emotion, which is subject to change with ones mood. Though attraction is also a good, it doesn’t go beyond the surface. Beauty must be more. Why? Because God is the ultimate source and foundation of all beauty. Because God is perfect beauty. Because within anything of beauty, God is present. From the heavens to the earth to every human being that walks this planet, beauty dwells where God is found, and God is found in what is beautiful. If you look at a mountain range, a rainbow, or an African baby, what do you see? Beauty. Why do we see beauty? Because God is marvelously hidden within.
This reflection reminded me of an experience I had while studying abroad in college, during a few days spent with a group of friends in Interlaken, Switzerland. The snowcapped Alps were breathtaking. As we stood in awe, gazing up at the wonder before us, one of my friends shared with me this beautiful reflection: When God created the world, woman was the last and most precious gift given to Adam in the Garden. She was the crown of all God’s creation. All other created things were for the necessity or pleasure of the human race. To God, the human person, created in His own image, is exceedingly more ravishing than any object He had made. Before God, as a human being and specifically as a woman, I am incomparably more beautiful than even the Swiss Alps, and, in fact, He only created this grandeur in order to give humanity a small, pleasing glimpse of their own magnitude before Him. I recall this moment often when I gaze upon the beauty of the world, as I can more clearly see God’s love for me within it.
Beauty is the image of God within—the goodness, the virtue, the wonder with which God has graced each human heart. It lies in the soul and radiates outward, presenting itself purely on the face, in the words, deeds, and in the very nature of a person. It can be measured by the profundity that one is moved towards God in the presence of another. Beauty is what draws two people together and keeps them together for a lifetime. This beauty surpasses all limits of age, shape, or any material accessory. Beauty draws ones whole self, the person is drawn to the person, and the sensual desires are thus satisfied by this goodness that radiates outward from the depths of the soul. As a radiant, multicolored sunset naturally draws ones spirit heavenward, so should the good within the beloved be a gateway of the goodness of God.
I can only picture Our Lady in this moment. As she strode towards her cousin, Elizabeth, on that Visitation day, not only living completely in the Will of the Father and united in intimate friendship with Him, but physically carrying His Son within her body, nothing more beautiful could ever have been or ever will be on this earth. In that moment, Mary could have been saggy-skinned, baggy-eyed, 400 pounds and sun burnt, and Elizabeth wouldn’t have been anything but captivated by her beauty. Captivated by God Himself.
As I process all this, I come to a marvelous realization. What I was searching for all these years was actually quite skewed and, in fact, in many ways an impossibility. While focused on attractiveness, I was working for a goal that could never be satisfied, no matter how thin, stylish, or glamorous I might become. I suddenly see myself with a new clarity. What I want is to be beautiful, and suddenly, beauty is attainable.
I am beautiful because I love.
-Our Lady of Medjugorje