speaking of the repression of beauty...

The wise neo-Jungian, James Hillman, observed that once  "the arts, whose task once was
considered to be that of manifesting the beautiful," has been so commodified, trivialized and rendered a tool of propaganda by our bottom-line culture that now:

... those in the arts will discuss the idea (of beauty) only to dismiss it, regarding beauty only as the pretty, the simple, the pleasing, the mindless and the easy. Because beauty is conceived so naively, it appears as merely naive, and can be tolerated only if complicated by discord, shock, violence, and harsh terrestrial realities. I therefore feel justified in speaking of the repression of beauty.

Beauty is exploited to sell products. Beauty is manipulated to evoke sensuality and shame. Beauty is used to "stage" a home or advance a cause. But rarely is beauty embraced as "the highest integrative level of understanding and the most comprehensive capacity for effective action."  As Frederick Turner writes, "Beauty enables us to go with, rather than against, the deepest tendency or theme of the universe." John O'Donohue pushes this truth further when he notes: "Because our present habit of mind is governed by the calculus of consumerism and busyness, we are less and less frequently available to the exuberance of beauty. Indeed, we have brought calculation to such a level that it now seems unsophisticated to admit surprise!"

This is, in my realm, part of what the Scottish psychiatrist, R.D. Laing, meant when he echoed the warning of the ancient poet of Israel, Amos, who prophesied:  "Behold, the days are coming," declares the Lord our God, "when I will send a famine upon the land - but not a famine of bread or water - but of hearing the word of the Lord." (Amos 8: 11) In one of many brilliant insights in his guide for pastors, Working the Angles, Eugene Peterson writes about Psalm 40:

A brilliantly conceived metaphor  in Psalm 40:6   provides a pivot on which to turn the corner; literally it reads: "ears thou hast dug for me" (azenayim karîtha lî). It is puzzling that  no translator renders the sentence into English just that way They all prefer to paraphrase at this point, presenting the meaning adequately but losing the metaphor: "thou hast given me an open ear" (RSV) . But to lose the metaphor in this instance is not to be countenanced; the Hebrew verb is "dug." 

Imagine a human head with no ears. Where ears are usually found there is only a smooth, impenetrable surface, granitic bone. God speaks. No response. The metaphor occurs in the context of a bustling religious activity deaf to the  voice of God: "sacrifice and offering thou dost not desire . . . burnt offering and sin offering" (40:6). How did   these people know about these offerings and how to make them? They had read the prescriptions in Exodus and Leviticus and followed instructions.  They had become religious. Their eyes read the words on the Torah page and rituals were formed. They had read the Scripture words accurately and gotten the ritual right. How did it happen that they had missed the message "not required"?  There must be something more involved than following directions for unblemished animals, a stone altar, and a sacrificial fire.  

There is God speaking and must be listened to.But what good is a speaking God without listening human ears? So God gets a pick and shovel and digs through the cranial granite, opening a passage that will give access to the  interior depths, into the mind and heart.  Or–maybe we are not to imagine a smooth expanse of skull but something like wells that have been stopped up with refuse: culture noise, throw-away gossip, garbage chatter. Our ears are so clogged that we cannot hear God speak.  God, like Isaac who dug again the wells that the Philistines had filled, redigs the ears trashed with audio junk.

Such clogged heads, satiated senses and malnourished imaginations suggest to me that one
of the essential callings of "doing church" in this generation requires a return to beauty, silence and guided meditation. Without reclaiming the tools of contemplation - without teaching a people long conditioned to ignore and dismiss the ways of the heart how to rest into the "unforced rhythms of grace" - our ethical downward spiral will continue to pick up speed. And our awareness of God's still, small voice embedded in beauty, truth and goodness will sink further into misunderstanding.

Our collective "famine" from hearing the voice of compassion and hope is part of what I sense is driving America's obsession with nativist, know-nothing populists like Donald Trump. His appeal, beyond fear of the other, resonates with the overworked women and men of the middle class. These are not amoral people, but they are exhausted  There is almost no room in their world for quiet reflection or gentle and nuanced aesthetics. Yes,to perpetual exercise - life is already a treadmill; certainly to all forms of competition for such is the air we breathe in this culture. But contemplation? Extended times for thought? Hurry up and do... nothing for a change? Don't be reactionary - or naive - or sentimental: we have to get on with winning in America. And if it takes a boorish, arrogant "manager in chief" to kick our collectives asses so that we break free from political gridlock and social disintegration, so be it! We'll turn a deaf ear to his racism and look the other way when he scapegoats "outsiders." Hell, we'll even ignore his violation of our deepest Christian values like hospitality for the stranger and compassion for the least of our sisters and brothers; because god damn it: he's a winner!

There was a time in my life - and I still feel it periodically - when I wanted to aggressively challenge such madness. Now i know, however, that such feelings are part of the soul's addiction to control in times such as these. I cannot fix our sickness. I can offer an alternative. But I can barely discern God's mercy in my own life. So all I can really do is offer tenderness to the lost alongside small acts of beauty in worship and vigorous prayer.. Really. That is all I can do. Everything else is self-inflated delusion. Please know that I see in the eyes of some who worship on Sundays that they would like me to do more: " help me make sense of this agony" is the silent chant just below the surface many days. But without extended times of personal silence and reflection, without an active commitment to contemplation and compassion, nothing changes. Henri Nouwen framed this humble fact of life for me like this when he wrote about what it means to face God's love at the close of our lives:

The Lord who becomes one of us in humility does not really judge us, but reveals to us what we have become to one another. The day of judgment, therefore, is in fact the day of recognition, the day on which we see for ourselves what we have done to our brothers and sisters, and how we have treated the divine body of which we are part. Thus the question 'What have you done for the least of mine?' is not only the question of injustice and the question of peace, it also is the question by which we judge ourselves. The answer to that question will determine the existence or nonexistence of our human family.

In a time of famine from stillness, beauty and community like our own, how can we hear anything but ourselves?  Small wonder so many Christians give Trump a pass: we're too worn out to notice anything except his bravado..And because most of our days are filled with the rhetoric and disease of winning, we don't notice that anything is out of balance. Good thing God's grace is relentless. The gospel readings from Luke 15 for this fourth Sunday in Lent are clear: God keeps coming to us even when we are lost, confused, too busy or even arrogantly trying to make our own path.  God's grace is not only unforced, it is relentless - and that truth is what pushes me back into the music and liturgy on the path towards beauty.


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