Sunday, February 28, 2016

After the Ashes: Beauty

Last Saturday I had the good fortune to see Max McLean’s one-man show, The Most Reluctant Convert, the story of C. S. Lewis’ conversion to Christianity. In it, McLean recounts a brief moment from Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, a first, fleeing glimpse of beauty:
my brother brought into the nursery the lid of a biscuit tin which he had covered with moss and garnished with twigs and flowers so as to make it a toy garden or a toy forest. That was the first beauty I ever knew. 
It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton's 'enormous bliss' of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to 'enormous') comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?...Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse... withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased.... 
That glimpse of beauty, fragile, fleeting, quickly withdrawn, called to Lewis across decades and became part of an inward quest.

The mention of the childhood garden set me wondering about my own childhood glimpses of beauty and brought me to James Baldwin’s very different, yet somehow similar memory:
When I was very young, and was dealing with my buddies in those wine- and urine-stained hallways, something in me wondered, What will happen to all that beauty? For black people, though I am aware that some of us, black and white, do not know it yet, are very beautiful. And when I sat at Elijah's table and watched the baby, the women, and the men, and we talked about God's – or Allah's – vengeance, I wondered, when that vengeance was achieved, What will happen to all that beauty then?  
Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins struggled with this throughout his short life (he was thirty-four when he died). What will happen to all that beauty?  A pair of challenging poems, The Leaden Echo and The Golden Echo, address the question head on:
HOW to kéep—is there ány any, is there none such,
nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace,
láce, latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty
My Lenten discipline this year is to focus my heart on things that will last, treasures that will remain after whatever “vengeance,” as Baldwin called it, is achieved, after the fire of human fury, or folly, or environmental destruction.

This week’s word and work is beauty.

Not an easy word to track.

Turning to Hebrew and Greek lexicons, I find over 20 very different words translated sometimes as “beauty” or “beautiful," but carrying literal meanings like pleasant, dignified, adorned, sweet, delightful, precious, boastful, arrogant, glorious, vigorous; “scraped of all impurity”.

I wrote of one word translated “beautiful” several years ago: Towb. It’s used in Genesis One, when God looks at creation and said it’s “good.” That word “good” is an astonishing flattening of a word that could be interpreted beautiful, sweet, pleasing, happy, prosperous, bountiful, agreeable, harmonious.

What is beauty?

Where does beauty come from?

Who decides what, or who, is beautiful?

Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 3:11, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.”

Lewis believed that beauty as we experience it is a glimpse of something beyond this world we live in, a way of seeing we can only hold for a moment: 
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” (The Weight of Glory)
 Two quick stories of my own, of seeing beauty just for a moment in a way that calls me on toward something more:

A young woman at the camp where I worked as a kid grated on my nerves. I lived all year for camp: a beautiful, peaceful place in the Catskill Mountains. That summer I found myself stuck, again and again, across the table from a person I considered ugly, whiny, endlessly irritating.

Sitting across from her at staff devotions one evening, I prayed, “God, help me see her as you do.” And saw beauty. Saw past the downturned mouth to a glorious smile. Saw past the constant unhappiness to a longing to be welcomed. Glimpsed a dearly loved daughter of God in as much need of embrace as I was myself.  It changed my response to her, changed her response to me. 

Another quick story: walking once in a scrubby municipal park in a sandy suburb near Miami, I was joined by a flock of wood stork, scratching along the edges of the parking lot. Wood stork! Walking along beside me as if I was a bird myself. 

As we walked along we encountered a deer, just standing on the edge of scrubby little woods, and then, in a tree just above us, a cloud of little kinglets went flitting from branch to branch, sometimes just inches from my head, tiny tinkling birds, some with bright golden crowns, some with red, dozens merrily snapping up invisible bugs as if I wasn’t there at all.

Two different experiences of beauty where beauty wasn’t expected.

Both hints of a country I’ve never yet visited, a place where every person is radiantly loved, a landscape where lion lies down with lamb and humans walk with wood stork, kinglets and deer.

Isaiah prophecied: 
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
Beauty instead of ashes. Beauty from ashes?

Some plants, like sequoias and lodgepole pine, only grow when the resinous coating of their seeds has been melted by searing forest fires.

Some eucalyptus trees can withstand incredible heat to spring back  from their roots a scouring blaze.

Some Australian grass trees only bloom after intense heat.

South African fire lilies can lie dormant for years until flames sweep away the debris covering them; after a fire, they can blossom almost overnight.

What if the real beauty, the lasting beauty, is yet to be revealed?

Hopkin’s poem The Leaden Echo, concluded with the thought that there’s nothing we can do to stop time, to hold beauty:  

So be beginning, be beginning to despair.
O there ’s none; no no no there ’s none:
Be beginning to despair, to despair,
Despair, despair, despair, despair.
Yet that poem was immediately followed by another, The Golden Echo:
I do know such a place,  Where whatever’s prized and passes of us, everything that ’s fresh and fast flying of us, seems to us sweet of us and swiftly away with, done away with, undone,
Undone, done with, soon done with, and yet dearly and dangerously sweet
Of us, the wimpled-water-dimpled, not-by-morning-matchèd face,
The flower of beauty, fleece of beauty, too too apt to, ah! to fleet,
Never fleets móre, fastened with the tenderest truth
To its own best being and its loveliness of youth
The language is difficult, but the idea is clear: there is a place where the best of beauty remains:
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God,
beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.
See; not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost;
every hair
Is, hair of the head, numbered.
Lewis, like Hopkins, believed our longing to see and experience beauty could lead us to longing for and knowledge of God:
We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words-to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.   
At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Someday, God willing, we shall get in. (The Weight of Glory: 42-3). 
If glimpses of beauty now are just foretaste and promise of beauty after ashes, what does that require of me now, today?

Lewis believed, in part, that we are called to treat others in the light of future glory:
in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no 'ordinary' people.
I find myself challenged to see the beauty Baldwin feared would be overlooked: the beauty of people who don’t fit the dominant paradigm, the beauty of the old, the weak, the beauty hidden behind sadness, indifference, anger.

And I find myself challenged to look for and work toward the beauty God saw in this world when he made it: beauty tragically damaged, diminished, dimmed, but never fully destroyed.

And maybe the largest challenge of all: I choose to trust that God, more merciful than I can imagine, will restore and renew beauty, will bring beauty from ashes, will reveal that weight of glory we see only in part in each other and this weary world around us. 

Will use our longing for beauty to bring us to the full beauty held so faithfully in store.

O then, weary then why 
When the thing we freely fórfeit is kept with fonder a care,
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept
Far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) finer, fonder
A care kept. — Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where. —
Yonder. — What high as that! We follow, now we
follow. — Yonder, yes yonder, yonder,

This is the third in a Lenten series.

Other Lenten posts:




From 2013: