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.

 

A Definition of Faith

One of the things I love about John O’Donohue’s Anam Ċara is its deeply rooted optimism. It does not deny the darkness in life, yet conveys unwavering trust in life’s goodness. His assurance of life’s faithfulness is itself a wonderful definition of faith:

“Creative expectation brings you healing and renewal. If you could trust your soul, you would receive every blessing you require. Life itself is the great sacrament through which we are wounded and healed. If we live everything, life will be faithful to us.”

This is a powerful statement, one that I’m drawn to and also challenged by. I’m not sure that I want to live everything. There are plenty of difficult, painful, and trying things that I’d like very much to avoid. Yet when those things arrive in spite of every effort to turn them away, there is no choice but to live them. And when that happens, I’d like to believe that walking through a dark valley eventually leads toward healing and wholeness.

How do we learn to trust life, knowing its power to wound? How do we overcome the fear that we won’t be safe, loved, or cared for if we aren’t good enough? How do we cultivate creative expectation when we’re weary and disappointed?

O’Donohue points toward the inherent strength of the soul. He knows there is a place within us that is eternal, where we can go “to be nourished, strengthened, and renewed.” He offers the assurance that “The deepest things that you need are not elsewhere. They are here and now in that circle of your own soul.” The presence of God is within us always.

That presence is manifest in a chorus that echoes throughout scripture: “Do not be afraid.” It is spoken to ancient ancestors and through the words of the prophets. It is the message of angels to Mary and Joseph, to the shepherds who visited the Christ-child, and to the father of John the Baptist. Jesus says to his followers, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid.” Holy reassurance seems a universal stepping stone toward a life of genuine faith, one that trusts in the work of God.

Faith understands that the power of God permeates all of life, making growth, healing, and renewal part of the experience of being alive. Faith trusts that God is faithful. Faith frees us from being trapped in our circumstances. Faith rests in the assurance that God is always at work in the world and in us, and invites us to live into a greater vision of all that life can be.

Beyond Personal Growth: Trusting the Mystery of Transformation

It took a long time to make much progress through John O’Donohue’s Anam Ċara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom. I mean that in the best of ways. The Gaelic term, anam ċara is literally “soul friend,” and if books can be friends, this is such a one. Most pages hold something rich enough to send me off thinking about it for a while. I’ve kept returning through about two-thirds of it now, and today this is the passage on my mind:

Spirituality is the art of transfiguration. We should not force ourselves to change by hammering our lives into any pre-determined shape. We do not need to operate according to the idea of a predetermined program or plan for our lives. Rather, we need to practice a new art of attention to the inner rhythm of our days and lives. This attention brings a new awareness of our own human and divine presence.

A willingness to grow is a good thing, but the programs and plans available to encourage our development are overwhelming. Bookstore shelves teem with personal growth books, religious and secular, as if we can’t stop flagellating ourselves with agendas for self-improvement. And yes, I’m familiar with these store displays because I’m irresistibly drawn to them. It’s hard to pass up some bit of wisdom that will make me more capable, more fulfilled, more deserving. When an article promises to share Five Steps to Happiness, I can’t help but read it.

I want to grow, but I’d prefer to do it without all the messy uncertainty and annoying unpredictability of not knowing the way. I would love to learn what to do and just do it. But O’Donohue spells out what’s lacking in such a prescribed approach:

It is far more creative to work with the idea of mindfulness rather than the idea of will. Too often people try to change their lives using the will as a kind of hammer to beat their life into proper shape. The intellect identifies the goal of the program, and the will accordingly forces the life into that shape. This way of approaching the sacredness of one’s own presence is externalist and violent. It brings you falsely outside yourself, and you can spend years lost in the wilderness of your own mechanical, spiritual programs. You can perish in a famine of your own making.

Creating, growing, transforming—these are all mysterious processes. They happen underground, in the depths, in the dark. Paying attention while a process unfolds that we can neither control nor rush is a counter-cultural way of life. It can be hard to learn and harder to trust.

But if we lose faith and limit ourselves to the kind of processes we can control, we banish ourselves to the wilderness O’Donohue describes. Will power is hard work, and doesn’t make for a very joyful life. Maybe it’s trust power I need to work on.

What kind of power keeps you moving forward?