Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Beauty Will Save the World

   The Russian novelist Dostoevsky wrote, "Only Beauty will save the world." With so much ugliness in the world, I wonder if Jewel’s song lyric might bring us some hope: “Maybe if we are surrounded in beauty, someday we will become what we see.”

   God has strewn beauty all over the place, but we neglect it: we hurry right by and don’t notice, or we have forgotten to name it when we see it. A dandelion, a carefully arranged place setting, an old photograph, the tree in your yard, a wrinkled face, clouds, a tune, a historical moment, commitments, the face in the mirror: beauty is all around, waiting to be noticed, cherished, pointed to, shared. And all of it reveals God’s heart to us. Want to see God? “Every experience of beauty points to infinity” (Hans Urs von Balthasar).

   How good of God to stir so much beauty into the mix when God created everything! It could have been all dirt, rock, efficiency, productivity. God, like the artist, created what was unnecessary, inefficient. Why did God not only leave space for beauty, but elevate it to its status as the one thing that thrills the heart and leaves us feeling noble, giving immense dignity to the smallest creature?

   St. Thomas Aquinas’s answer? “God created the universe to make it beautiful for himself by reflecting his own beauty.” God is a great many things – but at the center of it all, God is beauty. Ours is to notice, to be awed, to be delighted.

   We’ve all heard that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but it’s a lie. It’s not a matter of taste, or private preference. When we shrink things down to a private, opinionated list of what I like or don’t like, we’re the losers. As we explore Beauty, we’ll learn to see better, to see what God sees: every person, every thing, pretty or glitzy or not, partakes in the goodness and beauty of God. We’re surrounded in it.

   Sure, beauty also gets twisted and perverted, and there’s so much desecration. Isn’t most ugliness really beauty that’s gotten scared or fallen on hard times? And aren’t we adept at pinpointing what’s ugly when there’s actually beauty there? For instance, there is a beauty in suffering. You may know this from experience… Or the stunning array of colorful leaves in Autumn: what you’re looking at is death.

   Faith isn’t merely a belief God exists, or access to help when you’re in trouble, or your calling card to get into heaven. Faith is seeing as God sees. It’s a readiness to be astonished. It’s inefficient and unproductive, this pondering of beauty – and so it’s like prayer, a wasting of time, and yet what we crave deep in our souls. Nothing else really will satisfy.

   Paul, from a dark, dank stone prison, wrote, “Whatever is noble, whatever is beautiful, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). God has strewn beauty all over the place. The least we can do is notice. Maybe we will become what we see.

  I'm beginning a months-long project on Beauty. Through Facebook (with a special page if you’re in Charlotte) and Instagram I'll be posting stories, photos, quotes and more. I'd love for you to Email me pictures or stories. Not thinking "pretty" or even "attractive" but "beautiful," which may be surprising, subtle, humble, even dark. We have some great programs lined up, with former Mayor Harvey Gantt (Jan. 7), Jeremy Begbie of Cambridge and Duke, Ray Barfield, doctor and theologian, and Chas Fagan, sculptor and painter.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Absolutely Beautiful Face

   The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky suggested that "Beauty will save the world." If not beauty, then what would save the world? Might? Money? Fun? Politicians? Arms? Gritting our teeth and trying harder?

   Christians say "Jesus will save the world" - which is true. Dostoevsky, again, said "There is only one face in the whole world which is absolutely beautiful: the face of Christ." Was Jesus handsome? Maybe, maybe not. Jesus must have exhibited something compelling in his persona. He must have been "attractive," in that people were attracted to him. His words intrigued. His compassionate embrace of any and everybody was alluring. People asked him questions endlessly; he usually responded with a question, which says to the other person You too are beautiful and wise, although you might not have been told this before. Busy people dropped everything and traipsed off after him, without knowing where they were going or how things would turn out.

   I love St. Augustine's pensive praise of Jesus: "He is beautiful in heaven, beautiful on earth, beautiful in the womb, beautiful in his parents' arms..." He rambled further on this, but I want us to pause and ponder how Jesus was "beautiful in the womb" and then "beautiful in his parents' arms." It's 20 days until Christmas. Don't think shopping days, but imagine Jesus in his mother's womb, with 20 days to go. The Savior of the world, there but not quite having arrived just yet. Dependent, like us. It's dark, like our world. Cramped, with painful squeezes now and then. Before long he'll undergo considerable trauma, exit the dark waters of the womb and land in his parents' arms, out in the air, on the starlit earth, in the manger.

   This wee one would save the world. There's something evangelistic about Beauty. If you see something beautiful, you're compelled to share. Snap a photo, or point; try to describe it. If only others could see this! Isn't that the way the Christian message, the glory that is God gets shared?

   Beauty is so... democratic. It's for everyone. Every person is immensely qualified to notice and appreciate it. Yet so many miss it. You have to slow down. A knack for beauty requires some cultivation. After all, an educated farmer might have a far better chance than a Ph.D. in chemistry when it comes to noticing beauty. Just as each one of us was, at some point, just like Jesus, in our mother's womb, just days from being born, so each one of us is surrounded by beauty. And each instance of beauty is one more kaleidoscopic refraction of the beauty that is the face of Jesus.

   Advent is a season of repentance. Repentance isn't groveling in guilt. It's turning toward God. It's a changed mind. Elaine Scarry says that "beautiful things have been placed here and there in the world to serve as wake-up calls." This Advent, keep an eye out for beauty. Be awakened to it. Turn toward God, who is Beauty. Share with somebody.

Monday, November 25, 2019

The Beauty of Trees

   Many of us have just erected a tree indoors. "O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree." Aren't all of them works of art? Charlie Brown's pathetic little tree "just needed a little love."

   Thomas Merton said "A tree gives glory to God by being a tree." Indeed. God made the tree. Like so many of God's most beautiful gifts, the strength is unseen, the roots reaching deep into the ground providing nourishment and stability, the rings within telling a story of years of growth, weathering storms, seasons passing. Beauty takes much time, and much is hidden.

   My book club just read The Overstory (which won Richard Powers the Pulitzer Prize!), the saga of nine quirky people who gradually find one another and protest the destruction of forests. My mind was blown, and awestruck by the wonder that trees and forests are, as Powers unpacks immense information about them while spinning his drama. Trees communicate, grieve and network. It's tree-hugger heaven: "Patricia sees it in one great glimpse: trees and humans, at war over the land and water and atmosphere. And she can hear, louder than the quaking leaves, which side will lose by winning." Frankly, as Christians, we have great cause to hug, admire, and protect trees, for our own good, and as an act of praise of the one who created them. Beauty isn't something we wantonly chop down for short-term profits; we revere and preserve beauty.

   J.R.R. Tolkien loved trees, and created (in The Lord of the Rings) treelike creatures who speak "Old Entish": "It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time saying anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to." The beauty of words, the beauty of listening.

   Jesus was an apprentice in his father's woodworking shop, and spotted diminutive Zaccheus up in a sycamore tree. He prayed under a gnarled olive tree, "Not my will but yours be done." Then he was nailed to a tree. A medieval poem, "The Dream of the Rood," imagined the wood of Jesus' cross narrating its own life. "I was a sapling by the edge of the woods. One day men cut me down, staked me up, and brought the young hero, nailing him to my branches. I trembled under his weight; his sweat and blood soaked into me. Later, they threw me into a pit. But then others found me, and adorned me with gold and jewels. Now people look up to me seeking healing and hope."

   Recently a friend reminded me of a song by Nicole Nordeman, which reflects on the season "when the trees have just surrendered, forfeiting their leaves, bracing for colder winds," and how everything in creation "finally falls asleep," that "even now, in death, you open doors for life to enter." What greater gift do we have than trees to enable us to dream of life after death, and the beauty of God's unfailing provision and care?

Sunday, November 24, 2019

The Most Beautiful Woman

  Mary, great with child, the most beautiful woman in history. The sentence you just read reframes something complicated, and weirdly demeaning to all of us: putting the words "woman" and "beautiful" in the same sentence. Some external measures get stuck on women's bodies; sophomoric frat guys, and some older men too, "rate" women on their "looks." It's belittling to all women, and frankly to all men, this kooky swirl of viewpoints about women and their value (or lack thereof).

   If we say Mary is the most beautiful woman ever, we've used the word "beauty" wisely and more profoundly. Mary didn't just win the Nazareth Beauty Pageant when the angel visited her. Artists paint her as very pretty (but not sexy!), with flawless skin, way too white for a middle-Eastern woman, dressed like a nun. Fine - but truly, her beauty was in her humility, her holiness, her humanity. Her beauty was that she was chosen by the angel, singled out by God.

   Last week, we contested the familiar idea that "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," as if it's subjective, a matter of personal opinion. The Irish poet John O'Donohue reverses things: "If our style of looking becomes beautiful, then beauty will become visible and shine forth for us. We will be surprised to discover beauty in unexpected places where the ungraceful eye would never linger. The graced eye can glimpse beauty anywhere." The angel's graceful eye spotted Beauty in a remote village, in a young woman who was like most young women. In fact, the Gospel would be that God doesn't choose some few super-people. God sees the beauty, the potential to carry God, to be the one used by God, in all women, and hence they are all... the most beautiful woman ever.

   We talk a lot, and glibly, and yet hopefully, about love. What is love? It's having this graceful eye. Jean Vanier wrote that " To love someone is not to do things for them, but to reveal to them their beauty and value, to say 'You are beautiful. You are important. I trust you. You can trust yourself.' We all know well that we can do things for others and in the process crush them, making them feel that they are incapable of doing things by themselves. To love someone is to reveal to them the light that is shining in them."

   The angel said to Mary "You are beautiful... You can trust yourself." Mary surely said that repeatedly to her young son, Jesus. And his whole life was delivering that message, with his words and actions, to everyone he encountered, and to us.

   I will spend some time during these days just pondering the beauty of Mary, while I try to cultivate my own graced eye that can spot beauty any and everywhere.