beauty and worship redux...

Let me continue today a riff I began yesterday re: "returning beauty and art to worship."   A poem by Rumi includes the verse, "Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground." I was captured by that idea and used it to conclude a song I wrote about our then newly adopted town of Pittsfield, MA.  It still rings true to me nearly a decade later (perhaps I can get an audio copy of this for posting soon?) Annie Lennox makes much the same point in her composition: "A Thousand Beautiful Things."


This quest, hunger,and thirst for beauty regular breaks through our news cycles - albeit in masked and mysterious ways - reminding us of Carl Jung's insight that whenever human beings forsake healthy rituals, ceremonies and encounters with life-giving symbols for mere work and self-absorbed pleasure, our souls recreate shadow rituals that are pathological.  Gertrud Mueller-Nelson points to this in To Dance with God

Rites and ceremonies will release, make conscious, affirm, and celebrate our most human feelings: anticipation, waiting, longing, hope, receiving, giving, wonder, surprise, joy, gratitude. The also take into account our most painful human experiences of loss, grief, pain, sickness, jealousy, guilt, and sinfulness. Slowly and in good time, ritual time, our painful feelings are transformed into the feelings of reparation, repentance, hope and salvation. Ritual acknowledges contradictions and allows the ambiguous. When we have touched or been touched with mystery, we will always find ourselves at the point of paradox because we have a seen a whole truth. We cry at weddings because we witness the end of an era. We rejoice at weddings because we witness the beginning of a new era. The core of celebration is at once bitter and sweet.

She goes on to note, however, that when common rituals and ceremonies are either 
abandoned - as has become common place throughout post-industrial  Western societies - or rendered sentimental - as has become the norm for American churches - paradox, ambiguity and any sense of a shared spiritual destiny are tossed into the dustbin of history.  Life is only about the bottom line - ourselves - or as Marcuse said, "a one-dimensional man (or woman.)" Balance and patience are no longer virtues to be nourished and beauty, truth and goodness no longer serve as guides for our ethics. When fasting is forsaken for a life of perpetual feasting, dieting becomes our new obsession - along with purging, bulimia and anorexia nervosa. When exhausted workers trade in worship for another hour or two of sleep on the Sabbath, some take solace in binge watching TV stories of adventure, drama and glory. Others slip into any of the popular addictions of our era - opiates, alcohol or sex - while the intelligentsia cue up for hours outside art museums aching for a hint of meaning and beauty. Mark Kingwell, writing in the February edition of Harper's Magazine, puts it like this in "Outside the White Box: Can art make anything happen?"

Despite the monstrous self-absorption of the art world and the philosophical dead air, people today crave and experience art in numbers unknown to previous eras. Block-buster exhibitions at MoMA and the Tate generate long lines of patient, eager patrons. We well might wonder what these people are looking for. The works they queue up to view, whether they are small Warhols or Martin Puryear installations that can exist only in gallery settings, are either beyond collecting or uncollectible. I think the best explanation is that people want to look at art so that they can feel the way Rilke felt when looking at the archaic torso of Apollo. They want to be told: You must change your life!

For the past two summers, we have encountered record numbers of people flocking to the Van Gogh exhibit in Ottawa and the Rodin show in Montreal. It was exhilarating to be up close and personal to some of my favorite Van Gogh paintings: they were vibrant and even transcendent in all their material glory. I felt much the same way as a wildly diverse audience experienced the music of Bad Plus Joshua Redman. As Canada's Oscar Peterson once noted:  when you are playing music with another - and doing it with joy and verve - you have to love your associates. That means that at least for a time all divisions and barriers are broken down. Clearly art in all of its forms has been embraced as a viable alternative to shared spiritual ceremonies and rituals. I get this.

What's missing from art - and clearly absent from additions and obviously pathological habits - is community, sacrifice and an experiential commitment to the common good. The late author, John O'Donohue, wrote: "In a sense, all the contemporary crises can be reduced to a crisis about the nature of beauty."

This perspective offers us new possibilities. In parched terrains new wells are to be discovered. When we address difficulty in terms of the call to beauty, new invitations come alive. Perhaps, for the first time, we gain a clear view of how much ugliness we endure and allow. The media generate relentless images of mediocrity and ugliness in talk-shows, tapestries of smothered language and frenetic gratification. The media are become the global mirror and these events tend to enshrine the ugly as the normal standard. Beauty is mostly forgotten and made to seem naive and romantic. (The Invisible Embrace: Beauty)

Plainly, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, there is a spiritual hunger in America (and in the West) that is palpable. It gives shape and form to our exaggerated politics that scream for a renewal of meaning and joy. It guides the wounded aesthetics of popular culture that confuses
 adrenaline infused pyrotechnics with transcendent art. And it highlights an ethical emptiness that has  become so desiccated by a degraded imagination that many have given up hope. The editor of IMAGE Journal, Gregor Wolfe, nails it when he observes:


STRANGE AS IT MAY SEEM, beauty 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.

In this, I contend that many of our religious institutions are as much to blame for our confusion about beauty - and its hibernation in our culture - as is the marketplace - perhaps more so, too. Certainly in what remains of the Reformed Protestant tradition in America, utilitarianism or blatant sentimentality drives the aesthetics of worship. In other forums, performance has replaced intimacy and style has crowded out content and emotional depth. Rarely is paradox a part of the journey in American religion in the 21st century. Thus it is no wonder the masses have revolted and traded in church/synagogue/mosque for the movies, the juiciest scandals on reality TV, running, sports or another chance to sleep late. I did much the same during sabbatical, too.

Which brings me back to the importance, power and vitality of music, art and a renewed commitment to a spirituality of aesthetics in worship. Time and again, people who have not been in worship for decades - or ever - tell me things like:  "OMG I've never heard that before in church" or "All I could do was weep - tears of joy mind you - and I don't know why?" After the jazz Eucharist at 11 pm on Christmas Eve, a young man said: "I am full to overflowing. I did not expect anything more than a lot of Protestant preaching and empty words. But your music gave me space and safety to listen to God's call in my soul." He, too was weeping. After our interpretation of Paul Winter's "Missa Gaia" another person told me: "This is what I've been aching for...and didn't even know it."

I am not trying to sing an ode to myself. Really! Rather, what I'm pointing towards is what happens when small congregations take the time to think, pray, plan, practice and implement worship that is saturated with beauty. It creates space for our souls to breathe. It embraces disparate people with a sense of safety. And it opens up our hearts to a love greater than ourselves. A love that many have never known and many more have lost touch with. The poet, Becca J.R. Lachman evokes this longing - and some of the ways we can be nourished by grace -in her new collection, "Other Acreage."  A lapsed Mennonite, Lachman still "craves a life in which she might 'cry at the beautiful / God looking out of a stranger, make my life / from something sung / out of joy, not out of training." (IMAGE Update, Jen Hinst-White)

A series of poems in which St. Francis is relocated to the modern day United States intimate that this life might not be so impossible as it seems; the transported Francis does things that any of us might do: read Rumi to a dying man; offer comfort at a car wreck; listen compassionately to strangers—in this case, customers at his burrito buggy. (Conversing with polar bears at the zoo might be out of our reach, but we can dream.) Lachman inches her way to joy with tiny rebellions—getting a tattoo, for example, but an ivy leaf so tiny that the tattooist scoffs, “you / don’t want a tattoo, you want a birth- / mark, lady.” Meanwhile, on the land where her family has dwelt for generations, the past falls away more dramatically. The farmhouse is sold, the mother church trucked to another location as “condos went up on Shawnee / burial mounds.” Old ways crumble. Snow melts. Hope sprouts in grief. We might pray, along with Lachman: “O / holy armor, please, please be orange: poppies’ / warm lanterns led out from the grave each May.” 

Our generation is starved for beauty. Our theology has sacrificed paradox for 
marketplace  metaphors that reduce life to the bottom line.  Our liturgical habits have become wooden or so casual as to be without nuance or depth. When the very core of life has been reduced to the vulgar and brittle, worship must offer an alternative. And this alternative must be prefigurative; that is, it must embody and embrace the very truth it is encouraging. "Coarseness," writes O'Donohue, "is always the same relentless chafing; it makes every texture it touches raw and rough."

There is an unseemly coarseness to our times which robs the grace from our textures of language, feeling and presence. Such coarseness falsifies and anesthetizes our desire. This is particularly evident in the spread of greed, which to paraphrase Shakespeare 'makes hungry where most she satisfies.' Greed is unable to envisage any form of relationship other than absorption and possession. However, when we awaken to beauty, we keep desire alive in its freshness, passion and creativity. Beauty is not a deadener, but a quickener!

And so, for the time that remains, I am an advocate for the radical, bold transforming integrity of beauty in worship. "Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance." (O'Donohue)

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