Last week, I wrote about the war in Ukraine, highlighting the connections between two forces - religious nationalism and fossil fuel addiction - that are driving the conflict. It is hard not to follow what is happening without being overcome by the ugliness of it all. War is morally, spiritually, politically, and aesthetically ugly.
We are witnessing the ugliness of a world gone awry, turned in on itself and coming apart from the inside out. There is a strange gravity to it that pulls us in, even though we may be far away. We are pulled in by the flood of images coming to us in almost real time - pictures of the bodies, blood, rubble, guns, and smoke that stain the land and scar the soul. We are pulled in by the madness captured in abandoned strollers, twisted trees, burnt fields, and the expressions of pain on the faces of those who suffer.
We are pulled in because we recognize something familiar - war is not the only source of ugliness in our world. We see and feel it in such things as urban blight, suburban sprawl, rural deforestation, racial disparity, and political polarization. We also see and feel it in the particular places we live, the communities we call home, and in the lives we lead. Many of us know quite personally the kind of ugliness that leaves a scar and takes a long time to heal.
I was thinking about all this as I listened recently to an interview with the late Irish poet and philosopher, John O'Donohue, who believed that beauty is a powerful antidote to the destructive ugliness we see, receive, share, and bear. He often spoke of beauty as a human calling - something to look for, cultivate, celebrate, and nurture. He didn't mean the kind of superficial beauty we often call glamour, but the hard-to-describe reality at the heart of human experience that pulls us toward goodness, hope, and possibility:
When I think of the word “beauty,” some of the faces of those that I love come into my mind. When I think of beauty, I also think of beautiful landscapes that I know. Then I think of acts of such lovely kindness that have been done to me by people that cared for me in bleak, unsheltered times or when I needed to be loved and minded. I also think of those unknown people who are the real heroes for me, who you never hear about, who hold out on lines, on frontiers of awful want and awful situations and manage, somehow, to go beyond the given impoverishments and offer gifts of possibility and imagination and seeing.
These images and acts of beauty remind us that the world is still "very good," (Gen. 1:31), and that no amount of ugliness, no matter how deep or pervasive, can alter this fundamental goodness. O'Donohue says that beauty "ennobles the heart and reminds us of the infinity that is within us." I understand this to mean that beauty connects us to this fundamental goodness and reassures us that there are places within us that cannot be touched or marred by the ups and downs of life.
In this way, beauty is also an antidote to despair. The philosopher Blaise Pascal said, "In difficult times, carry something beautiful in your heart." Each of us has the capacity to tuck away moments and memories that can sustain us in dark times. I think of the cherry tree up the street that is always the first to blossom, and the full-bodied laughter of my son, and the recent phone call from a friend that came at just the right time. O'Donohue says, "if you can keep some kind of little contour that you can glimpse sideways at, now and again, you can endure great bleakness." What "little contour" have you tucked away?
Beauty also keeps our hearts from hardening and turning too far inward. It is normal to protect ourselves from the ugliness of life when it touches us, but this can lead to calcification of the soul that prevents us from engaging fully with life. In the beautiful novel, A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean's brother Paul falls deep into gambling debt and ends up beaten to death in an alley. Norm narrates the family's struggle to make sense of what has happened, and how to remember his brother:
As time passed, my father struggled for more to hold on to, asking me again and again: had I told him everything. And finally I said to him, "maybe all I really know about Paul is that he was a fine fisherman." "You know more than that," my father said; "he was beautiful."
To see that beauty endures, even if only as a memory, is a pathway to healing. It is also a pathway to hope, helping us see our existence beyond mere physicality, even as it roots us more deeply there. It speaks to things unseen, unknown, unrealized. It also keeps us open to the present, available to moments when God might break into our lives in new and fresh ways. In his book, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Eugene Peterson writes,
God reveals himself, that is, in creation and in Christ, in ways we can see and hear and touch and taste, in place and person. Beauty is the term we apply to these hints of transcendence, these perceptions that there is more going on here than we can account for.
This may be why the Apostle Paul ended his letter to the Philippians with an exhortation to meditate on beauty:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
If you are caught up in the ugliness of the world, spend some time today thinking about the faces and landscapes you love. Try to remember "acts of lovely kindness" you have received (and given). Give thanks for the people you know who have shown grace and beauty in the face of significant trouble and hardship. Think about what you know about yourself - the good, the bad, and the ugly - and remind yourself that though you are those things in part, you are so much more. You are beautiful.
With you on the Way,
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