Wandering Through the Beauty of Ordinary Things

Took a trip into the wonderful city of Boston this week to explore – it was my hope that we would see some music and theatre in addition to a museum or two – and while some of that happened, it was also just a lovely two days of wandering and exploring. Used to be that I needed to PLAN my time away and work-out all the details so that I could clearly say: I am not wasting time! But ever since a sabbatical trip to New Mexico about 15 years ago with Dianne, I am learning the value of wasting time and simply wandering wherever the Spirit leads.

And the blessings of this way of travelling never cease to delight: first, as we were entering a rest stop just outside the city, who should I see buying coffee but one of my favorite painters, Makoto Fujimura (see Refractions for his website) from NYC. He was on his way to Gordon College to talk about his new book and the on-going dialogue between the creative process and God’s call to “transform and heal” our culture. (I will be with Mako and other artists at the end of this month at the IAM – International Arts Movement annual conference in TriBeca.) We had a brief and lovely conversation before we both moved on – made me think of one of my favorite hymns: “we are pilgrims on a journey, we are strangers on the road, we are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.” Then, as we schlepped through the North End towards Faneuil Hall, in front of a row of Irish Pubs there was a simple but moving sculpture commemorating the Holocaust. And I kept thinking “how many other wonders and signs have I missed in my hurry from one important place to the next?” We took time to walk slowly in the cold through this invitation to remember both the incomprehensible evil of the Nazis and how it keeps happening in new forms.

Later we took in Old South Church – and Trinity Cathedral and an organ recital featuring “Peter and the Wolf” (which brought back memories of watching Leonard Bernstein on TV sharing this work of Prokofiev with America’s children.) We ate some incredible sea food, stood perplexed and in awe of an opulent shopping mall for the elite and wandered through the Museum of Fine Art until I had sensory overload and needed a nap. We ended the mini-sabbatical with a trip to Durgin Park – a very New England eatery – where my parents and grandparents used to go for baked beans and brown bread in another era. As we headed back to Pittsfield – through an enchanted glaze of an evening ice storm that left the Turnpike coated in diamond-like reflections – I found myself returning thanks to God for all the beauty we had wandered into over these past two days.

Ash Wednesday will soon be here – and then our trip with Habitat to New Orleans for a Lenten build in post-Katrina carnage – and then into what is often the hard work of the Lenten journey but I am thinking that this year’s Lenten wandering will be even less about denial and more about discovering beauty in even the most unlikely places. Because, as Gregory Wolfe of IMAGE Journal recently noted:

Strange as it may seem, beauty still needs to be defended. In the history of the West, beauty has played the role of Cinderella to her sisters, goodness and truth. I don’t mean to say that beauty in art or nature hasn’t been appreciated throughout history—though there have been times when beauty has been the subject of frontal assaults—but simply that when we start getting official, when we get theological or philosophical, beauty becomes a hot potato. The ambivalence about beauty at the heart of western culture begins at the beginning. In Jerusalem, proscriptions against idols and graven images coexist with paeans to the craftsmanship of God and Bezalel, the artificer (described in Exodus) of the desert tabernacle. In Athens, Plato celebrates the divine madness that the poet experiences when the muse descends, but he also kicks the poets out of his ideal republic as unreliable, disruptive sorts.

In theory, goodness, truth, and beauty—traditionally known as the “transcendentals,” because they are the three qualities that God has in infinite abundance—are equal in dignity and worth. Indeed, in Christian thought there has always been a sense that the transcendentals exist in something of a trinitarian relationship to one another. But in practice it rarely seems to work out that way. The funny thing is that secular and religious attacks on beauty are nearly identical. Beauty is seen as an anesthetizing force that distracts us from the moral imperatives of justice and the quest for truth. There isn’t much difference between a stern proponent of Iconoclasm in the eighth century and a modern Marxist attacking beauty as nothing but an opiate to lull us into acquiescence to the powers that be. Both critics abhor what Wendy Steiner has called “the scandal of pleasure.” The time has come to bring beauty back, to give it the glass slipper and invite it to the prom…

When you remove beauty from the human equation, it is going to come back in some other form, even as anti-beauty. A good deal of modern art can be understood in this light. In modernity, beauty has been seen as an appearance—ornamentation, sugar coating. Secularists and believers alike have either rejected beauty altogether or argued that beauty should make the pills of truth and goodness go down easier. Beauty must serve some other end; it is not an end in itself. But the transcendentals were always understood as infinitely valuable, as ends in themselves. When it comes to beauty, however, we are afraid to assert that much. We feel the need to harness it, because beauty is unpredictable, wild. Here’s how I have tried to comprehend these deep matters. If you think about these three transcendentals in relationship to our human capacities, what are the faculties that correspond to these three transcendentals? Goodness, I would say, has to do with faith, the desire for holiness. Truth is pursued by reason. We are all familiar with that pairing: faith and reason. That’s standard-issue language in the western tradition. But what about the third element? What faculty does beauty correspond to? I would suggest that it is the imagination. The imagination is the faculty honed to apprehend beauty and unfold its meaning.

How often do we say the Judeo-Christian tradition is a tradition of faith, reason, and imagination? This is what I mean by saying that we treat beauty as the Cinderella. “Go make pretty pictures,” we say to beauty, “but don’t start acting like you are a pathway to knowing the universe.” Yet this is precisely what the definition of a transcendental means. That’s easy to see when it comes to truth. But the same applies to goodness: when we act justly, we come to know more about reality. And so it is with beauty. Beauty allows us to penetrate reality through the imagination, through the capacity of the imagination to perceive the world intuitively. The intuitive perception of meaning that art provides helps us to see that imagination is akin to reason: both seek truth through the apprehension of order and pattern.

Art employs beautiful forms to generate objects that penetrate reality. Beauty tends to elicit in us a type of shock. We draw a breath in. Why? If beauty tells us about the eternal verities, whence the surprise? Ezra Pound once said that the artist’s task is to “make it new.” The “it” is the truth of the world. A work of art doesn’t invent truth, but it does make it accessible to us in ways that are not normally available because words and images have been tarnished by overuse or neglect. Art fails when it merely tells us what we already know in the ways that we already know it.

That is why art is so deeply related to the prophetic dimension and the place where it connects to truth. That prophetic shock, that challenge to complacency, that revelatory reconfigura- tion of the way things are, gives us a truer picture of the way that the world is. Truth without beauty is fleshless abstraction, a set of propositions. Only beauty can incarnate truth in concrete, believable, human flesh. Beauty also has the capacity to help us to value the good, especially the goodness of the most ordinary things. The greatest epics, the most terrible tragedies, all have one goal: to bring us back to the ordinary and help us to love and to cherish it. Odysseus encounters Circe, Cyclops, the sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, but his real destination is home and the marital bed that makes it his place in the world.

The Boston folk singer, Bob Franke, puts it like this in a tune I have been singing with my loved ones for almost 25 years: "It's so easy to dream of the days gone by, it's a hard thing to think of the time to come. But the grace to accept every moment as a gift is a gift that is given to some. What can you do with your days but work and hope, let your dreams bind your work to play; what can you do with each moment of your life but love 'til you've loved it way: love 'til you've loved it way."

Lord, may it be so.


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