the call of beauty...

"When we experience beauty," writes John O'Donohue, "we feel called." Indeed, the word for beautiful in Greek, to kalon, is "related to the word kalein which includes the notion of 'call' - and that makes sense for that which is beautiful evokes a response from us. O'Donohue continues with insight:

(Beauty stirs) our passion and urgency... and calls us forth from aloneness into the warmth and wonder of an eternal embrace. It unites us again with the neglected and forgotten grandeur of life. The call of beauty is not a cold call into the dark or the unknown; in some instinctive way we know that beauty is no stranger. We respond with joy to this call... because in an instant it can awaken under the layers of the heart a forgotten brightness.

Early in my work for social justice, I would never have connected the call of beauty with an inspiration for action. To be sure, I loved being touched by beauty - art, music, lovers and nature all fed my soul - but I understood my work (my calling) to be about results. For decades, in fact, it never dawned on me that acts of compassion and organizing for social justice were actually expressions of beauty given shape and form in the realm of social relationships. Marx didn't write this way (well, the mature Marx); Alinsky didn't make this connection either. But Joni Mitchell did. - and so did Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane,The Beatles, Leonard Cohen and Dylan, too. I got a few more clues from feminist intellectuals like Robin Morgan and Germaine Greer in the early 70s. But most of the social analysis - as well as the liberation theology of the day - rarely if ever connected beauty with justice and grace: it was either bread or roses until Robert Bly's mythopoetic writing in the 90s showed me how these two worlds could embrace and dance together. As O'Donohue notes: "Beauty is quietly woven through our ordinary days in ways that we hardly notice. Everywhere there is tenderness, care and kindness, there is beauty... And yet beauty does not linger, it only visits."

Perhaps that is why in the second half of life I have been so eager to integrate the realm of action with contemplation. One without the other feels to me imbalanced and impoverished. A spiritual director I worked with in Tucson for years added this insight when I quoted the “Godfather” to him:  sometimes in order to get things done, I said, I need to affirm that this is business not personal. He sat quietly for a moment before saying, “Man, that is so wrong. Everything is personal and the quicker you grasp this the better you and everyone you touch will be.” 

He was right - and that's where beauty integrates action with feelings, results with intentions, and expectations with process. Today, as part of our Sabbath reflection, we spent a few hours caring for our yard. Not only does such quiet work get my hands back into the dirt, but it gives me unstructured time to think and feel, sweat and move, see results and give thanks to God. As I was adding some finishing touches to a flower bed in our front yard, my aching back confirmed that I am clearly in the closing years of ministry. Increasingly I find myself drawn towards -- and energized by - not the big projects (although there are a few that need serious attention.) But rather the small and tender ones like one-on-one spiritual direction. Writing. I suspect that music making and celebrating Eucharist have a place in these days, too.

It is not clear to me how long God and I want me to keep on doing what I am doing. Not clear at all - some days I think I understand and then others tell me "you're done!" To be honest, it is probably both, yes? There is more the Lord asks of me, but in another direction, something with ever more beauty. Maybe that's why I keep playing "Purple Rain" over and over in my study at home and returning to Wendell Berry's poem, ''The Mad Farmer Liberation Front." It is beautiful to me in every way and reminds me that life is so out of balance, that wildly bold and beautiful acts are essential...

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more of everything ready-made. Be afraid to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head. 
Not even your future will be a
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer. 

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion -- put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection. 


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