Connecting with the Beauty of the World

This week’s homework assignment for a class I’m teaching on creativity and spirituality is about connecting with the beauty of this world. It can be a stretch to manage that when news of the world’s violence is an assault on the psyche. The New York Times is talking about the need to limit our exposure to media; even the FBI is advocating taking deep breaths.

Daisies in Blue Glass

It may seem counter-intuitive to look for beauty in a time of such turmoil. But we need this life-affirming discipline now more than ever.

Beauty speaks to us of hope, of abundance, of a life force that endures. Beauty assures us, through an affirmation deeper than words, that being alive matters and that what we do has meaning. Acts of kindness, the grace of the natural world, and the perseverance of love and growth are places where I see the beautiful.

The Irish priest and poet, John O’Donohue, spoke of beauty as that in the presence of which we feel more alive. I’ve written more about this kind of beauty as a guiding value here, and you can hear a conversation between Krista Tippett and John O’Donohue here.

The world is worth paying attention to. The part of it right in front of us is as important as any other. Considering that it is the realm in which we have some influence, our immediate environment is most important of all.

There is every reason to focus on the work that is in front of us, and to take refreshment in the beauty that presents itself every day. To move through the day open to perceiving beauty is to live with an open heart. Our world needs more of that.

 

Compassion, Hospitality, and Beauty

At the Spiritual Directors International conference in Louisville this year, Krista Tippett spoke of beauty as a core moral value. She noted the connection of beauty and vitality, and described God as being present in beauty. She mentioned mathematicians who say that if an equation is not elegant and beautiful, it is likely not to be true.

 

UCC Washington, DC - Fountain

 

Influenced by the late John O’Donohue, she spoke of his distinction between beauty and glamour. O’Donohue taught that Beauty is that in the presence of which we feel more alive.

As a seminary student I came to love Vermeer’s “Woman Weighing Gold” aka “Woman Holding a Balance” because the print hung outside the office door of one of my professors. During my years in school, as I stood in the hallway waiting to talk with him I was given that rich image to contemplate.

Waiting brings particular attention to our surroundings. The places where we are required to wait speak clearly about the respite beauty can offer, or the grimness of its absence. The intentional creation of welcoming space is a sign of true hospitality. A thoughtfully chosen object or image can infuse a time of waiting with beauty and grace.

Individuals and organizations who understand hospitality find ways to offer nourishment for the soul in the arrangement of their physical space. In this quiet way, they make the world better. In his book, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, John O’Donohue says:

[beauty] calls us to feel, think, and act beautifully in the world:

to create and live a life that awakens the Beautiful.

The places where we wait are often filled with stress. We wait to be seen by the doctor, the government official, the interviewer. As we take in the space around us, we feel the presence of compassion. Or its absence. Unfortunately our culture has come to accept television screens as a way of offering hospitality in waiting areas. What a different environment we could create if those funds were spent on works by local artists. Yet far more spaces are arranged without any thought beyond offering a chair.

Where people have a choice about entering, spaces are generally more welcoming. Where people are required to show up, the setting is more likely to be utterly utilitarian, holding neither warmth nor tranquility. If, as John O’Donohue describes, we feel more alive in the presence of Beauty, then the palatable sense of beauty’s absence creates a space in which we die a little.

Buildings, and the spaces within them, are expensive. They require work and attention just to maintain. Given the investment already made in the physical facilities, why not use them well? Particularly when people are required to wait in a particular space, why not cultivate a peaceful environment that might carry through the entire workplace? Why not offer something beautiful to experience, granting a moment of tranquility in the midst of the day?

The UCC (United Church of Christ) in Washington, D.C. is an example of an intentionally hospitable space, not only for those who enter but for everyone who walks by. In the midst of a busy city, the walls of the church are made of glass so that passersby can see a small fountain inside. Simply to observe the flow of water across the stone disk and into the pool below is to feel a space opening in one’s psyche. What a gift, as well as an indication that this may be a rare place for the soul to thrive.

 

Meeting Beauty Halfway

It doesn’t seem hard to find beauty in springtime. The world is woozy with blossom-scented air; flowering branches shower the earth with petals. The breeze carries birdsong and life is abundant again.

But I keep thinking about your thoughtful responses to my previous post. The insights there remind me that it’s a gift to be able to appreciate these things, and that there have been times when the capacity to enjoy them has been beyond me.

I know what it’s like to miss out on spring, worried about something going on, or not going on, in my life, or even how I’ll look in summer clothes. Being blinded by those concerns, large or small, is a kind of imprisonment. Life can be hard, and even harder when the restorative experience of beauty is beyond our reach. The view is oppressive when we can’t see past ourselves.

It’s good to do what we can to be open to beauty, to try to meet it halfway. But when our own efforts aren’t enough to haul us out of a dark place, the possibility remains of being seized by something beautiful. It can break through walls we didn’t realize were there, and reveal something wonderful about this world. Beauty seeks us out, calls to something within us, urging us to open our eyes and see.

When I watch the light recede from the landscape and gather in the sky before dark, nothing seems more important than the changing color on the horizon. I don’t know what allows me to be caught by the scene. Maybe I’ve learned something about getting beyond myself, or maybe the patient presence of beauty through all these years has finally permeated my distracted mind.

At least I understand enough now to be grateful for the light, and also for the ability to notice it. I try to pay attention, but I don’t know whether appreciating a glorious sky is a reward for my efforts or simply the creation shaking me awake. In either case it’s an unearned gift. In either case I’m grateful.

Have you experienced something beautiful lately?