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Beguiled by Beauty: Awakening to Beauty, Falling in Love with the World
June 21, 2020 Psalm 147: 1-11 Rev. Nancy Talbot at Mount Seymour United Church
Many beautiful things seem to be accessible only to those with the financial means to have them: a trip to the opera, a vacation in a seaside villa, original art hanging on a living room wall, a bouquet of exotic flowers purchased at a local flower shop. Even a garden in which to grow any kind of flower can be inaccessible to many. Possessing beautiful things can be a sign of wealth.
Years ago, friends of mine became fathers for the first time when they adopted an 8 year boy. Up until he came to live with them, he had spent his entire life being shuffled from one foster home to the other. I always remember how on the first day I met him, he toured me around his new home pausing to point out the two beautifully painted Moorcroft vases sitting on the dining room sideboard. “Those things prove that we are rich” he told me knowingly. I was pretty sure that what his fathers had actually told him about those vases was that they were expensive so he needed to be careful to admire them with his eyes to avoid an accidental break. But there was truth in what he had said. To actually have those beautiful things in their home actually did cost money.
Dr. Wendy Farley reminds us however that beauty is not actually a luxury only to be afforded by the well-to-do. Beauty can be found all around us, she says, and is as important to the sustenance of our spirits, as food is to the sustenance of our bodies. That is why, she says, we are all made to be spontaneously attracted to beauty.
Think of the first time you heard a piece of music that moved you to tears or saw a vista that took your breath away. My brother loves to tell the story of the time he had my niece outside one evening late enough to see for the very first time a great big ball of light shining in the night sky. “It’s the moon” he told her as she starred up into the heavens with eyes as wide as saucers “pretty cool isn’t it?
Yet for as much as we are attracted to beauty, we also have the capacity as human beings to assault and destroy it. And I’m not just talking about our penchant for destroying the planet. We also have the capacity to inflict soul destroying wounds on one another. Over the last several weeks we have been witnessing the truth of that as racialized people and indigenous people have been speaking out about the wounds that have been inflicted on them across the centuries, as we have seen what seems like a daily occurrence of people being killed due to the systematic results of our capacity to destroy the beauty we have come to think is only inherent in some and not others.
But, Dr. Farley says, this capacity to destroy beauty is not our deepest truth. Our deepest truth is that the human spirit is beautifully resilient. In the face of death, destruction and tragedy, our spirits have the capacity to call forth from us the power to never be totally defeated. In these days we are seeing that deep truth in the resilience of people marching in the streets and through petitions being put forth to change policies and redirect funding in ways that hopefully will make right the wrongs of the past and present once and for all.
Spiritual resiliency is vital to our survival. Our bodies can be alive while our spirits are dead but to truly be alive our spirits need to thrive and perhaps more than anything else, our spirits thrive on beauty. But here’s the catch. What makes our spirits really resilient is not just the capacity to see beauty in the “prettiness” of life. It is the capacity to find and feed on beauty even in the ugliest of places. Often its the natural world that creates that capacity within us. Resilience, when found in the natural world, can help us to find the same resilience within ourselves.
Our psalm today comes from one of the most challenging times in the history of Israel. In the 5th century before the Common Era, the city of Jerusalem, the heart of political, commercial and religious life was destroyed by the Babylonians. It’s leaders and their families were taken into exile. They struggled to create a new life for themselves on the margins of an emerging empire. Those left behind struggled to maintain what was left of their once magnificent surroundings. Life as they had known it had been completely dismantled. It’s into this context that the psalmist speaks a word of hope.
He begins with a call to give thanks, to sing God’s praise even in the midst of ruin. He evokes the spiritual practice of gratitude. He then speaks in the present tense with assurance and trust that God is rebuilding the once destroyed city and gathering Israel’s exiles, that God is healing the broken hearted and binding up their wounds, that God is lifting up the oppressed and casting the corrupt to the ground. Then again comes another imperative to give thanks, this time not just for what God is doing for humanity, but for the ways God provision is revealed through the created order: through rain for the earth, and grass on the mountains, through the creation of herbs that heal (medicine) and food for the crying ravens and the hungry cattle. The psalmist was reminding the people that God’s hope for humanity was being revealed to them through the natural world.
In 1991, while retreating from the advances of the US-led coalition forces in the Persian Gulf War, Iraqi Military forces set fire to over 600 oil wells. The resulting damage was documented in a 1992 film called Fires of Kuwait. I remember seeing that film in an IMAX theatre, the huge screens full of flames and the sound of raging fires roaring around me in surround sound. I also remember the way the movie ended with quiet scenes of bright green grass pushing its way up through the scorched black earth, the promise of life restored.
It is not difficult for us to imagine in these days what it must be like to be exiled from our cities or from our religious and political and commercial institutions. We’re not living the same kind of exile our ancestors experienced in Babylon, but we are living a kind of exile from our once prosperous and fairly stable lives. It’s certainly not difficult for us to imagine who the broken hearted are or those who are oppressed among us. They are in front of us on our nightly news. They are our neighbours, friends and colleagues. We ourselves are counted among them.
But can we also see the way we are being embraced, our wounds bound up, our broken hearts healed, our cities beginning to take what has been displaced and destroyed in order to rebuild what has been temporarily lost?
So much of what we have been experiencing over the last several months is not yet over. We are not finished with Covid-19 and its’ many implications for our lives, we are not finished with racism or poverty, we are not finished with reversing the damage we have done to our planet. Many of us are still grieving or recovering from illness or right in the middle of one of the most challenging times of our lives. But when we are able to see and experience beauty even in the midst of the pain, destruction and loss our spirits can not only survive these times, they can thrive.
In the spring of 1995 my partner Brenda travelled to India for a four month internship as part of her training for ordination in the church. She spent the summer in Calcutta and a one point I flew over to visit her. During my stay we were taken to one of the many slums that exist in and around the city. It was essentially an exposure tour led by one of Brenda’s teachers from the local seminary. On our arrival we were greeted by a group of children who were keen to put on a dance performance for us and then to show us around their makeshift village. It was hard not to despair at the cardboard shacks, filthy faces, ragged clothes and the stench of garbage and open sewage wafting through the air. Just as we were about to leave, a little boy came up and with great urgency motioned to us to come with him. He clearly had something he wanted us to see. We rounded a corner and with a huge grin on his dirt smudged face he stood still and pointed us towards his garden. Out of a small square of mud a few sad and saggy plants were fighting to survive. But in the middle of it all, straight and tall one loan tree branch had taken root. On the end of the branch was one loan, spectacularly beautiful, yellow lemon.
The children, we were told, often come home with pieces of plants and cuts from trees they steal while out and about in the city. They plant them in their garden and hope that something will grow.
We were taken to the slum to help us understand why Calcutta is known as the City of Joy. That singular, beautiful lemon, helped us to know why.
Spiritual resiliency is vital to our survival. Our bodies can be alive while our spirits are dead but to truly be alive our spirits need to thrive. Perhaps more than anything else, our spirits thrive on beauty. That is why even in the most desperate places and in the most desperate of times, we are drawn to it. Beauty heals our wounds and binds up our broken hearts, it reminds us to listen to freedom’s call, to be reshaped and to be renewed.