The Greek vase in the display case stood a little over half my height. On it, a handsome young man with rippling muscles and washboard abs gestures toward a slender woman with beautiful eyes and a serene face. They set a standard of beauty that hasn't changed much in 3,000 years.
As the note next to the pot explained, such a large and impressive urn held only the most precious items in the home - an especially fine oil or perhaps the ashes of an ancestor. It wasn't made to store last week's table scraps. The outside indicated the worth of the contents on the inside.
That was something to think about as I wandered on to the other galleries in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Had I seen that vase 20 years earlier, I might have ruminated on the extraordinary beauty of the painted people and how unattainable this standard was for me.
As a teen, I received compliments for being a nice kid, a good student, even a strong athlete. But no one ever said I was beautiful. If anything, the cruelest comments said just the reverse. In a face-and-body obsessed culture, I developed the self-image of someone both unlovely and unlovable. If I had been a vase, I would have been a plain, unadorned jug that held a terrible mix of depression and self-loathing.
But as I left the Greek period behind me in the MFA and walked past later centuries of art, I was struck how the influence of Christianity had transformed painting and sculpture with a radically different standard for a beautiful life. Portraits captured people with an inner light that beautified them.
Jesus invited the discouraged, the impaired, and the outcast to rethink the values of contemporary culture: "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these" (Matt. 6:28, 29).
Beauty is not something to be achieved with wealth or special creams or even surgery. Beauty is innate, a spiritual quality within us, radiating outward.
I discovered that another way to think about God was as infinite Soul - the unlimited source of wholeness, health, music and art, nature, and all beauty. I took comfort in Bible verses that assured me that I was made in the image and likeness of God, in other words, in the image and likeness of this infinitely beautiful Soul (see Gen. 1:26, 27).
An image or likeness can also be thought of as a reflection, something to be seen in a mirror or on the surface of a quiet pond. Mary Baker Eddy connected this idea of reflection to our true identity as God's children in "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures": "God is revealed only in that which reflects Life, Truth, Love, - yea, which manifests God's attributes and power, even as the human likeness thrown upon the mirror repeats the color, form, and action of the person in front of the mirror" (pages 300-301).
I reasoned that when God looks at His creation, it acts like a mirror reflecting back all that God is - strength, wisdom, and beauty. Since I am a reflection of God, I can't help reflecting beauty, too. It is an inherent and inescapable part of my identity. Because God is beautiful, I am beautiful.
As I accepted that fact, I felt a dramatic change in my attitude toward myself and found a greater confidence and joy around others. I began to feel how natural this spiritual beauty is. I just couldn't keep it to myself.
Now I'm not saying that the next morning I woke up and found a super-model staring back at me in my bathroom mirror. But I looked at a face that could no longer hold back the gorgeous nature of my God-given identity. I felt lovely and lovable on the deepest levels. And the recurrent bouts of depression that had marred so many weeks and months of my life up to that point simply evaporated. The ugliness I saw in myself had been replaced by a spiritual and imperishable beauty straight from God.
Today if I receive a compliment, I'm no longer surprised if it includes the word '"beautiful." Someone is only seeing in me a divine quality that belongs to each one of us without measure.