On Beauty

Brenda Rockell
Sunday, 13 April 2008

"It seems so much easier in these days to live morally than to live beautifully. Lots of us manage to exist for years without ever sinning against society, but we sin against loveliness every hour of the day." - Evelyn Underhill



Last year I did an interview slot at Carey Baptist college, for the lunchtime community gathering they have every Tuesday. The chap who was interviewing me asked something along the lines of what inspired me about Christianity...what energised me about the Christian faith?


The answer that popped into my head then was 'because it's beautiful'. For me, following Christ has to do with making contact with the Beauty in the depths of things.


I fumble for language to articulate what I think Beauty is, and why I think it's so central to the Christian faith, and to my own desires and values. But I want to find ways of beginning to articulate it because I think that the church, and the world generally, is descending into ugliness. I have come to feel that the way the church often speaks and acts and worships is glib, tedious, shallow and arrogant - dimensions of Ugly. And that the soul of religion has to be about that which is creative, reverent, sacred and often hidden - dimensions of Beauty.


Helpfully, I've been reading this book by John O'Donohue - Divine Beauty - and I am grateful to him for most of the ideas that I want to mention this morning.


O'Donohue makes the claim that our society faces a crisis. We have become narrow, functional, and tired, even as our affluence is making our surfaces glitter and shine. We're at a low place in a cultural cycle. One way O'Donohue describes it is the dominance of the 'mechanical mind', that kills off grace or gentleness. It's a kind of blindness where 'nature is rifled, politics eschews vision and becomes the obsessive servant of economics, and religion opts for the mathematics of system and forgets its mystical flame.' To put it in other words, we're stripping and defiling our home in the earth, the people who serve the common good are more interested in power and popularity, people can only be appealed to through their wallets, and religion has become about getting the arguments right, even though nobody's listening.


To cap it off, we seem culturally to be obsessed with celebrity and sensation, as evidenced when the mainstream news media leads with Paris Hilton, or a sports star's drunken escapade. That is, rather than seeking after depth or nobility of purpose, we are titillated by glamour.


This comes about, according to O'Donohue, because we have neglected the Beautiful. And can only be remedied by a renewed call to Beauty.


It's important to say at this point that Beauty as I'm talking about it today, means much more than visual attractiveness. That we have reduced our definition of Beauty to desirable human faces and bodies, or a nice sunset, is part of the problem.


So what is Beauty? Vast philosophical tomes have been written about that question. Here are three small quotes that grasp at it.

Hans-Georg Gadamer says that Beauty 'is the invocation of a potentially whole and holy order of things.' Frederick Turner says that 'Beauty...enables us to go with, rather than against, the deepest tendency...of the universe.' O'Donohue says that Beauty is 'the soul of the real... experience that has come alive to its eternal depth and destiny.'


Putting these three together, we can say that Beauty is not about niceness or prettiness. It's not a flimsy accessory, an adjunct or an afterthought tacked onto reality like the honey coating the medicine. Beauty is the inner life of things. It's things the way they were created and intended to be. It's life in touch with the ground of Being, or the Author of Being. It's coherence rather than chaos, the mysterious spark that holds all things together, it's flow, it's attunement, it connects us to all that is, with a soul-expanding yes. It's grace and goodness, exhilaration and vigour. Beauty sits at the threshold between the things we can see and know, and the unknown and unseen - but intuited - life beyond our senses.


In short, Beauty takes us into God. Beauty is prayer. Therefore to me, to put people in touch with Beauty is the proper goal of religion.



Perhaps a way of thinking about Beauty is to contrast it with what I see as two of the major forces of our time. I'm going to take a moment to notice how Beauty is the opposite of fundamentalism, and the opposite of consumerism.


Fundamentalism, as I understand it, is not just to do with religious groups blowing each other up or insisting on literal readings of sacred scriptures. It's more to do with a mindset that assumes you can make rules for everything. Fundamentalism says that I can control myself and my world, make things come out the way I want, if I obey this regime of thought and behaviour. Fundamentalism forces mess and mystery into a didactic system of in and out, good and bad. It tends towards rigidity, and righteousness. Fundamentalism doesn't just say 'this is how I choose to live' it says 'everyone else must live this way too, and if they don't they're an enemy.' Fundamentalism is sourced in fear - fear of the universe's unpredictability, and therefore desire to control outcomes. And it produces fear and anger - as responses toward those who dare to go against the system, suggesting that I might just be wrong.


Self-improvement that's sourced in fundamentalism leads to straining, falseness, and zeal. It is gritted teeth and stiff jaws. And it's not just about ultimate things, such as religious ideas. It's possible to be a fundamentalist about food, about cleaning products, about politics, about parenting, about medicine, about education...and so on.


Too often, the church is the voice of fundamentalism.


By contrast, Beauty says there is, at the heart of things, a rightness and a coherence, but these are not to be found by straining, and they cannot be manufactured, or imposed. Beauty moves between self and other - building connection, rather than enmity. Living in this universe is indeed a fearful thing, but experience of Beauty helps us to cope with that fear by leading us to trust and relax, rather than seeking to control. Beauty cannot be accessed by pushing the right buttons in the right order. It is glimpsed. It is encountered in mystery, and it has a light touch compared with the heavy hand of regulation.


Beauty involves surrender and surprise, not force of will and control. Beauty involves directness, immediacy, and experience - not using a system of thought to deny, or separate ourselves from the reality of things, whether pleasurable or painful. Beauty is, according to O'Donohue, a coherence that is 'native' to us...it puts us in 'rhythm with the concealed order of creation.'


On the other end of the scale from fundamentalism, consumerism tells us we can have what we want - so long as we can pay for it - and in fact, that life is about filling our days and our senses with things and activities that bring us pleasure, regardless of long term value, or the impact on anyone else. And, if our own lives don't interest us enough, we can live mediated, vicarious lives through the TV or internet. The impact of commercialism is the impact of glamour - an instant hit that has no enduring life. Press it hard enough and it is as flimsy as fashion - it glitters, but it is not gold. Consumerism draws relentlessly on human greed. It's about falsified and constructed desire, as opposed to real, holy desire. Relationship in a commercialised world - whether with other people, or nature, or the realm of objects - is I-It...based on absorption or possession or use. Children are becoming sexualised little adults, with purchasing power (witness the Miss Bimbo website) - we are nurturing their consumer habits rather than their spirit, imagination and personality.


Language, in our consumer world, has become conventional. Just listen to the lyrics of mainstream pop songs, or the verbal exchanges on...well, almost any television programme really- full of thin clichés, predictability, constructed conflict...our language is as dictated by fashion as our clothes and kitchens. There is little of poetry, grace, and mystery in our speech.


Increasingly, the church is consumerist in thought, word and action.


Beauty finds it hard to flourish in such conditions. Beauty thrives where there is freedom from commercial constraint. Beauty is glimpsed where there is care and craft. Beauty cannot be bought or sold. Beauty is about transformation, not make-over. We unfold and emerge, rather than achieving our desired states by means of consumption. Instead of instant gratification, Beauty often keeps us waiting, and requires us to journey long in search of the true experience.

But when Beauty arrives, the effect is enduring, rather than transitory or illusory. Beauty is refreshing at the level of the soul, not just gratifying at the level of having and doing.


So, if Beauty cannot be accessed by living according to systems of rules, or purchased in the marketplace, how do we encounter it?


Well, firstly perhaps by acknowledging that an experience of Beauty cannot be commanded or made to happen by any means fair or foul. Beauty is autonomous, and has a quality of surprise. So what we're talking about when we want to encounter Beauty is about preparedness - a readiness of heart and eye.


Here are four ways to develop that preparedness:

1. reverence of approach to people, places, and events.

2. cultivation of imagination, art and play.

3. calmness - cultivation of inner stillness

4. paying attention to how we see


A few reflections on each of these:

Firstly, reverence of approach. This is about finding a mode of engagement with things that's deeper and more respectful than the usual way we go about daily activity. It's about recognising that when we talk with a person, or enter a room, or participate in an event, we can do so with impatience and distraction, or with an agenda in place, and in so doing, miss the sacredness of that moment. Or, we can acknowledge, moment by moment, the thresholds of encounter and step over those thresholds carefully, reminding ourselves to be receptive, and to give room for wonder.


When we walk into a space, we can pay attention to how we enter, and how that entry is preparing us for what will happen in that space. This was part of the thinking behind the water font and the dry leaves at the entrance to this year's Desert Files exhibition - helping people to make the transition into reverence. When we go to a meeting, a dinner, a movie, a day at the beach - we can prepare ourselves to notice and receive the 'more' hidden in them. When we engage with another person, we can do so with wonder of their full humanness, not reducing them to functions in our story.

Secondly, imagination, art and play. Part of why we lack much experience of Beauty in our lives today is that we seem to be increasingly using only the functional or mechanical parts of our brains. We plan and strategise, we order and count, we have schedules and systems and multi-task endlessly. If we're lucky, we may get to the theatre, or the cinema from time to time, or read a couple of books a year, and we might have paintings we enjoy on our walls at home. But our lifestyles give us little time for the cultivation of the part of our minds where the imagination waits to be stirred, where our own creativity can come alive. If we wish to live lives that are open to Beauty, then there needs to be respect for, and room for, the arts, and for imaginative roaming, for its own sake. Not as consumers, or experts, but as lovers, and creators and participants. And alongside this is time to savour God's art - the way light moves in a landscape, the patterns of the clouds, the particular green of a spring tree.


Thirdly, calmness, or stillness. I'm not suggesting that Beauty can't be present in times of great energy, or in robust engagement with the world. It can and does. In fact, Beauty can be encountered in the midst of great darkness and opposition. It's not about niceness. However, when we're rushing, or when our inner world is a whirl of anxiety, or analysing, we will miss a great deal of the Beauty that is there in the ordinary events of our lives. Just as birds and animals rush and hide, and stop singing, when there's a lot of noise and movement, but will emerge when we sit still for long enough, so Beauty comes to dwell beside the still waters of calm hearts. Prayer and attention to breathing, and deliberate stepping back from anxious haste are ways to cultivate this inner stillness.


And fourthly, paying attention to how we see. As O'Donohue says 'seeing is not merely a physical act: the heart of vision is shaped by the state of the soul.' If we imagine our mind as a room with large windows, and seeing as the act of looking out of those windows, it's clear that the state of the windows will have an impact on what and how we see. If they're covered in the filth of prejudice or judgement, we won't see clearly. If they've been narrowed by blinds of habit, then no matter how many different things we encounter, we will keep seeing the same thing. If they're covered in the rain of our worries and distractions, we will only see ourselves looking back rather than what lies beyond.

If, however, the windows are cleaned by openness to God and to change, if they let in fresh light, if they allow us to look with love at the world, then we will see Beauty.


And so to return to where I began...what inspires me about a life of faith? Why do I pursue the Christian path? Because I think that religion in general, and for me, Christianity in particular, is able to mediate the Beautiful, understood in this broadest sense. Partly through the simplicity and profundity of the story of Jesus - God with us. Partly through the coherence, and the imagery, of the Bible, that communicates God to me in concrete forms. Partly through the long tradition of sacred art and music and sacred words. Partly through the rituals of the church - the symbols that speak of the mystery beyond human imagining. Partly through the hope that there is a glistening thread that runs through human history, a thread of life and renewal in the midst of darkness.


Which is why I get so frustrated when the church interacts with the world by shouting, manipulation, strategies, prejudice, and a narrowness of proclamation and interest. When it 'uses' the arts as a mechanism to proclaim a message. When the message is reduced to a set of truth claims and moral rules. When hospitality and friendship, instead of being sacred, are programmes designed to increase the numbers in the pews.


Instead, I believe that our job, in the church, is to be servants of Beauty, which in effect means being servants of God. In our culture, and in the current social climate, it can be our role to remember the sacred, to teach reverence, to create spaces for stillness and worship, to rediscover the overgrown path to mystery and wisdom.


In the past week, my life has consisted of two doctor's appointments, attempts to force antibiotics into a crying child, a screaming baby in the middle of the night, a car that needed to go to the mechanics - which still isn't fixed, failing hot water due to the cylinder leaking under the house...thinking about the power bill that has generated, and trying not very successfully to juggle work and child care. In the midst of it all I've been thinking about, and writing a sermon about Beauty. Where, in my week, was Beauty?


There were the shadow patterns of the trees in the patches of light on Emerson's wall. There was her delighted smile that reminded me that there is ecstasy to be had in bouncing. There was a sentence in a book that broke through my vague haze and opened up a cavern of spacious yesness in me. There was a gentle piece of music in a waiting room that filtered through my weary tears and restored me to calm. There was the gold of the dawn, and the warm threshold light of sunset in the garden. There was the text message from the plumber hours after his work, checking up on the state of the hot water...going beyond the call of duty to make sure all was well with us. There was the impulse to take 5 minutes for centering prayer, a rare impulse indeed for me. And, when Em's refusal to have an afternoon sleep meant I had to go off for a long walk in the small window of time I set aside for writing this sermon, instead of being stressed about that, I chose to look at the patterns of the bark on the trees on Epsom Road, to breathe, to look into the face of my sleeping child, to refresh my mind and body.


None of these are articulations of Christian faith in terms of the life and death of Jesus Christ. But to me they were moments of God's presence and care, moments of Beauty, moments of soul - - moments that helped me not to be overwhelmed by my circumstances. In the long term, hopefully these moments can help me to avoid my temptations to narrowness, anger, obsessive list making, achievement drivenness, functionality and ultimately despair.


I'm not saying that this is all there is to Christianity. But if someone wanted to know what it meant for me this week to be a Christian, I think I would say, there was Beauty, and I was allowed to touch it.