“The Invisible Embrace” (Rev. Dr. Susanne Intriligator, copyright)
“In the house where I grew up,” writes the UU minister Rev. Joe Cleveland, “there is a big window – a sliding glass door, really – that looks out on the backyard. Out back of our house it was a kind of clearing with trees to both sides. We had a bird feeder out there in the clearing and my mom made sure that it was filled with bird seed. Next to that big window that looked out at the trees and the clearing and the bird feeder, my mom always kept bird books and a pair of binoculars.”
“I don’t know how much time I spent looking out that window at the birds. We’d spot a bird and then look it up and figure out what it was. And I would even just page through those guide books sometimes, looking at the birds and the amazing pictures of them in these books.”
“Sometimes, even when I hadn’t just noticed some bird flying by, I would just pick up the binoculars. I would practice using them, how to hold them and focus them.”
Cleveland writes: “Some beauty is easy to see. But I think there is a lot of beauty that I wouldn’t notice if I didn’t practice looking for it. The more I practice looking for beauty, the more I am ready for it, the more beauty I find in my world.” end quote
Do you have a window with binoculars nearby?
Is there a way you could make a daily practice of looking for beauty in your life?
“The human soul is hungry for beauty,” writes the poet philosopher priest John ODonohue. “When we experience the Beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming. Some of our most wonderful memories are beautiful places where we felt immediately at home. We feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful, for it meets the needs of our soul. . . . In the experience of beauty we awaken and surrender in the same act.”
He goes on: “Without any of the usual calculation, we can slip into the Beautiful with the same ease as we slip into the seamless embrace of water; something ancient within us already trusts that this embrace will hold us. end quote I love that language. We slip into beauty like we slip into water, trusting that it will hold us.” end quote.
That’s why he calls his book on beauty “The Invisible Embrace”. That’s what he’s talking about, slipping into beauty and letting it hold you up for a time. Feeling the upliftt, floating in it, relaxing into it.
It’s an important message for us, for right now. In a time when anxiety is running high everywhere, when our climate is in crisis and our political system seems to be failing us, when we are exhausted and disheartened and scared. We need beauty. When so many of us are having difficulty, facing surgery or a new diagnosis, or grieving the loss of a dear friend, we need this message. These are difficult times, to say the least, here and now, and I’m glad to have beauty to buoy me.
That’s what Joyce was talking about in her reading, too. The way the experience of beauty gives us rest and release from the rage that surrounds us.
It’s funny I think, how we have so many different answers to the prompt Beauty is . . . . as you all read it. We find beauty is so many different places and forms.
Music, art, literature. Nature. Our loved ones. Our children.
So many forms and yet it seems, near universal agreement on the experience of Beauty, what it does for us, how it feeds us, renews us, inspires us. Like we were made for one another.
Those of you who are in our private church Facebook group may have seen a video I shared there this week. It came across my feed, a coincidence, not at all related to my contemplating this month’s theme of Beauty. And yet it’s a perfect illustration of the theme.
It’s quite simple, really, a moment captured on someone’s phone, from perhaps a “Mommy and Me” type class in a gym or a library somewhere. Almost all you can see is a young woman in black with a violin. In silence she lifts it to her chin and then plays a solo instrumental version of the Elvis Presley hit, “When Fools Rush In.”
Now that’s the song we chose for our wedding, for our first dance, so it has a soft spot for me, as a fool who rushed in (after five years or so of living together, but who’s counting?) Anyway in the video, that one violin is just so gorgeous and rich and melodious, you hear squeals from the children and then, in one corner of the screen approaches a toddler. You can tell he’s just starting to walk, with that wobbly, bow-legged gait, and he has this expression of absolute wonder on his face. The first time ever he’s heard live music, you just KNOW it when you see it. He’s taken with woman and this violin and he just doesn’t know what to do with all that joy coursing through him. So he just keeps going. Until he runs into her leg and he just starts hugging her, chubby little arms around her thigh.
You can hear the mom call out, “Oh I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” but the violinist is a human, and a wide smile blooms on her face too.
A moment of pure joy.
Art, beauty, human connection, all in one moment.
Dostoyevsky once said “Beauty will save the world.”
Will it? Can it?
The Russian novelist and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn took issue with Dostoyevsky’s statement. “Just how could such a thing be possible?” Solzhenitsyn wrote. “When had it ever happened in the bloodthirsty course of history that beauty had saved anyone from anything? Beauty had provided embellishment certainly, given uplift – but whom had it ever saved?”
But Solzhenitsyn reconsiders, he goes on his essay, to answer his own question. Beauty he claims, especially in art, has a singular power to carry and convey truth and good.
“Perhaps that old trinity of Truth and Good and Beauty is not just the formal outworn formula it used to seem to us during our heady, materialistic youth,” says Solzhenitsyn. “If the crests of these three trees join together, . . . and if the too obvious, too straight branches of Truth and Good are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light – yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way perform the work of all three.” End quote.
Beauty carries with it, hidden within, truth and good. Do you agree?
For the mystic John O’Donohue, beauty contains truth and good because beauty itself is another name for God. We were created to desire beauty, to find our heart’s home in beauty, so that we would find our way home to God.
He quotes the medieval Spanish priest St. John of the Cross:
“I did not have to ask my heart what it wanted
because of all the desires I have ever known
just one did I cling to
for it was the essence of all desires
to know beauty.”
Sometimes, in Western cultures like ours, we can miss out on this journey of the heart, because our cultural norms about Beauty can seem purely of the head, just analytical. Since ancient Roman and Greek civilizations, westerners have prized symmetry and precision, mathematical patterns and perfection. Sometimes these patterns lead us to worship a technical perfection that leaves no room for the spiritual, the flawed, the human.
Recently I heard about a concept called “wabisabi“. Have you heard of wabisabi?
In traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabisabi is a world-view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection, derived from the Buddhist teachings about impermanence and suffering. So in wabisabi, which is central to Japanese culture, objects like pottery or ancient temples are prized for asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, and best of all – the special beauty that comes with age.
Richard Powell writes: “Wabisabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”
How liberating is that?
Can you imagine living in a world where, instead of perfection, we worshiped the beauty and authenticity that comes with age?
One person who is aging into her power and authenticity is Joanna Macy, the 90 year-old theologian and climate activist who is one of the major architects of the Great Turning initiative, which deals with our transformation from our current industrial growth society toward a more sustainable civilization.
Macy’s current focus is on what she calls The Work That Reconnects, in all caps The Work That Reconnects. By that she means a framework – both theological and methodological – that reconnects us to the natural world, our deep feelings for it, which we can use to power the great turning and save us from climate catastrophe.
To Macy, it’s a spiral. We start with looking at the natural world, reconnecting to its unbelievably complex, heart-wrenching beauty. From there naturally flows gratitude, which can allow us then to open ourselves to our grief and our fear, which Macy calls “honoring our pain for the world.” Instead of fearing that pain and hiding from it, she calls in strength to allow it, to feel it, and let it help us to the next stage in the spiral, called “seeing with new eyes,” which brings compassion and new solutions. Then we can go forth in the world, to bring change. She calls the whole spiral, which we live again and again, Active Hope.
That’s how you get to Active Hope, by allowing beauty to open you to gratitude. Which gives you courage to walk through fear and pain and get to a new place.
“Beauty will save the world.”
Will it? Can it?
Yes. If you hang those binoculars next to the window and make looking for beauty a daily practice.
Then you find beauty more and more often. In music, art, literature, in the faces of those you love and those you don’t. Yet.
Rest in beauty, slip into its embrace. And be renewed. Drink it in, drink it down, heal yourself from the outside in. Let your soul rest in its true home.
And then . . .
Let the beauty power you, in your authenticity, in your aging beauty and imperfect perfection. In your wholeness, come forth, into this brave and broken world ready to feel your grief and your rage and your power.
Together we can. We can turn the world. We can plant the seeds, we can give birth to beauty and reclaim the earth for itself.
Let us pray. Amen.