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Beguiled by Beauty: Cultivating a Life of Contemplation and Compassion
Week One: Beauty, Contemplation and Radical Compassion
June 7, 2020 Ezekiel 31: 3-7 Rev. Nancy Talbot at Mount Seymour United Church
Today we begin a six weeks series entitled Beguiled by Beauty: Cultivating a Life of Contemplation and Compassion. The series is based upon a yet to be published book by the same title authored by Dr. Wendy Farley who teaches at the San Francisco Theological Seminary.
When we first started discussing this series as a leadership team the first question we had was “what exactly does beguiled mean anyway?” We quickly looked up the meaning and discovered that to be beguiled is to be enchanted or charmed. Dr. Farley’s premise for her book is that God, the Creator is beguiled by beauty. In other words, God so loves beauty that all beings are expressions of this divine goodness or divine beauty. Contemplating the beauty of human beings opens our eyes to the truth of who we are.
In the middle of a pandemic and full-fledged anti-racism revolution busting out on the streets of America and beyond, taking time to contemplate the beauty of human beings may sound a whole lot like navel gazing at best and escapism at worst.
But what if, contemplating our own beauty and the beauty of all beings is the very thing we need in order to overcome white supremacy and systematic racism once and for all? I’m not suggesting that it’s the only thing we need. We certainly need education and affirmative action and legal and political renewal along with the kind of peaceful protesting that keeps our need for change in front of us. But beneath all of these things, surely what is needed is a reclamation of our birth right as human beings, each one of us beautiful, valued and welcomed, in the words of our friend Marcus Mosely, simply because we breath.
When Dr. Farley teaches her graduate courses on the theology of a God who is beguiled by beauty, she says that when she asks her students to bring images of beauty into the classroom, they often begin by bringing in photographs of the natural world including pictures of flowers, sunsets and northern lights. But because she wants them to move beyond what is aesthetically pleasing in their understanding of beauty and to come to know that everything and everyone is inherently beautiful she shows them the film Wasteland.
Wasteland is a documentary made by the artist Vik Muniz about garbage pickers in the world’s largest landfill situated in Brazil. By photographing dump dwellers and then inviting them to create art out of refuse depicting their own images he helps them to see that even they, who are so often considered society’s disposable ones, are full of beauty.
In her book Altar in the World*, Barbara Brown Taylor has a chapter called The Practice of Wearing Skin. She describes what I think is one of the most challenging spiritual practices I have ever heard of. In the privacy of our own homes, she suggests that we pray naked in front of a full-length mirror and to do that especially when we are full of loathing for our bodies. Her intention is to invite us to honour the marvelous baggage as she describes it in which our souls are tucked away.
Now unless you are a body builder or a botoxed belle, like me, you might cringe at the idea of this spiritual practice. But to be able to see and love our physical selves, wrinkles, weight, wounds and all, according to Barbara Brown Taylor, is to begin to be able to love ourselves as we have first been loved by the one who was beguiled enough to bring us into being. When we can love ourselves, void of all the trappings of culturally defined beauty, she says we are more able to love others simply for who they are.
But there is an even deeper way of seeing and experiencing beauty that Dr. Farley is really trying to get and that is the way of seeing beauty with the Spirit, with the eyes of the soul.
Ysaye Barnwell describes this way of seeing in her poem “No Mirrors in my Nana’s House.”
There were no mirrors in my Nana’s house, no mirrors in my Nana’s house. So the beauty that I saw in everything, the beauty in everything was in her eyes like the rising of the sun. There were no mirrors in my Nana’s house, no mirrors in my Nana’s house so I never knew that my skin was too black. I never knew that my nose was too flat. I never knew that my clothes didn’t fit. I never knew there were things that I missed. ‘Cause the beauty in everything was in her eyes like the rising of the sun. There were no mirrors in my Nana’s house, no mirrors in my Nana’s house. I was intrigued by the cracks in the walls. I tasted with joy the dust that would fall. The noise in the hallway was music to me. The trash and the rubbish just cushioned my feet. And the beauty of everything was in her eyes like the rising of the sun was in her eyes. There were no mirrors in my Nana’s house, no mirrors in my Nana’s house. The world outside was a magical place. I only knew love and I never knew hate. And the beauty in everything was in her eyes like the rising of the sun. Chi’ look deep into my eyes. Chi’ look deep into my eyes. Chi’ look deep into my eyes.**
I believe that each one of us was born with the capacity to see ourselves and to see one another the way that Nana sees. But over time our capacity to see one another through the eyes of the Spirit becomes distorted and maimed by any manner of experiences, not the least of which is systemic racism. One of the primary ways to train, or perhaps to retrain ourselves to see through the eyes of the Spirit is through the nurturing of a contemplative way of life. By regularly stilling our minds and our egos, we can literally reorient the way we live our lives, the way we see ourselves and therefore the way we see one another. The more we can sit with our own thoughts without judgement of them, the more we can suspend our judgement of one another.
So throughout these next six weeks we are going to explore some very simple ways of becoming increasingly aware of the beauty that is around us and deep within us, not so we can escape the world around us. rather so that we can be more fully present to the world around us and to the change that we actually know we need to make, and to do that even when that world does not seem particularly beautiful to us, at least not on the surface.
I’m reading a book by Glennon Doyle right now in which she talks about her first foray into the world of contemplative prayer. She says that when she first tried to still her mind and shut off her ego each ten-minute session felt ten hours long. She was tempted to quit every second but then she was stern with herself “Ten minutes a day is not too long to spend finding yourself, Glennon” she said to herself “For God’s sake, you spend eighty minutes a day finding your keys.”***
Dr. Wendy Farley says we only need a few moments each day to practice honouring the beauty even in very small things in order to create a disposition of allowing everything and every person around us to be a prayer, a window into the Divine goodness that exists in each and every created being and in so doing to be moved to compassion.
So let’s return to today’s reading to listen with the ears of the Spirit for a word or a phrase the resonates with us today, that reminds us of the beauty all around us and deep within us.
Look to Assyria, once a Lebanon cedar
[beautiful branches, dense shade, towering height;] (a)
it is top among the clouds.
Springs nourished it,
and deep waters made it grow tall;
their streams flowed around its base,
sending their channels to all the trees in the countryside.
So it towered high above every other tree of the field.
Its boughs grew larger and its branches extended out,
nourished by an abundance of water.
All the birds of the air nested in its boughs;
under its branches wild animals gave birth to their young.
All the great nations thrived in its shade.
It was majestic in its beauty with its spreading boughs,
its roots reaching deeply into an abundance of water.
Nourished, Nested, Nestled.
In these turbulent days, in which the winds of change are blowing fast and hard and it can be extremely difficult to get our bearings and to steady our souls. I wonder what it is that is nourishing your roots with springs of abundant water. I wonder where you are finding nest, welcome, home. I wonder for whom and for what you are providing welcome and nourishment. I wonder who or what is nestling close to you, as new life labours to be born in our world.
*An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor, HarperCollins, 2009
**No Mirrors in My Nana’s House, Ysaye M. Barnwell, HarcourtBooks,1998
***Untamed, Glennon Doyle, The Dial Press, 2020.