"Beauty lifts my gaze. It does. It did this morning. I'm puffing up the side of Mount Tam, my heart blowing and clanking like an old steam engine, and I'm thinking I can't have much more to go, in life I mean, if a small incline reduces me to a shadow of myself like this. But then what am I going to do if I . . . I look up, and there in the distance, the city of San Francisco hovers and floats on the bay under strands of gray mist, and the usual bright blue of the Californian sky is softened and modulated with trailing wisps of autumn vapor that stretch their lengthy banners over Berkeley, and three Canada geese wheel honking to the left and curve into space before dipping below the madrones and the redwoods that forest the canyon falling away to the east below me. I stop, I look, my concerns fall away, and I stand there, flushed with gratitude for the beauty of existence.

" 'Think of all the beauty around you and be happy," Anne Frank wrote. She should know the value of beauty, if anyone does. Anne Frank was sixteen when she died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Before she died, she must have known, she must have seen, to be able to say such a thing in those darkest of hours — to say that matter can be illuminated and clarified by a quality of grace beyond its merely material form, beyond even circumstances that would normally be considered so horrific as to be unredeemable. Matter transformed — either of itself or in the light of our imagination — opens our hearts and minds and joins us to the living miracle of the world.

"At the heart of beauty is the union of spirit and matter. Spirit: the ineffable, ungraspable quality that brings something alive. Beauty: a unity beyond rational apprehension, a whole greater than the sum of its parts, a lens or a window that offers a glimpse of a greater dimension of reality, one that brings us closer to the source of being. Beauty was the window that was open to me on my way up Mount Tam this morning. It is both objective and also partly in the eye of the beholder, made conscious through the eye of the individual imagination. We may see even the most humdrum thing, a plastic bag dipping and diving in the wind, for example, and, like the characters in the 1999 movie American Beauty, stop in awe at its inexpressible beauty dancing before us.

"Beauty is one of the saving graces of being alive. As Anne Frank reminds us, it is always there for the looking, even in the ugliest of circumstances. If we keep faith with beauty, then we can keep faith with life. Beauty is worth being alive for. Our hunger and longing for it are intrinsic to being human. At beauty's root is the sheer delight, the awe, and the gratitude of experiencing the transcendent here on earth. 'Transcendent,' meaning not a vision of some other world, but the things of this world raised to their highest station through the quality of our looking. It is what Saint Augustine must have been thinking when he said, 'I asked the earth, I asked the sea and the deeps, among the living animals, the things that creep. My question was the gaze I turned to others. Their answer was their beauty.' "