Journey into a Love Beyond Beauty

“Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.” — St Augustine of Hippo
From F. J. Sheed, trans., The Confessions of St. Augustine, Chapter XXVII

Pentimento is back after long hiatus with one of her typically haunting reflections on beauty and faith and art. This time she’s pondering Lenten fasting, beauty, and a passage from a letter by Sister Wendy Beckett: Into Those Bitter Waters. I’ll let you go read what she’s written and then I have my own rambling musings to add, not nearly as insightful as hers.

She quotes from one of Sister Wendy’s letters:

I do feel that the grain of wheat never dies until, or unless, it accepts to fail. More than just accepts, goes down contentedly into those bitter waters, putting all its hope, now, in Jesus . . . God is always coming to us, as totally as we can receive Him, but from every side . . . the natural tendency is to romanticize the way of His coming. . . And he says: No, – I can’t give myself, not fully, in any way that gives self a foothold. Nothing romantic or beautiful or in any way dramatic; nothing to get hold of, in one sense, because it must be He that does the getting hold. A terrible death in every way, destroying all we innocently set our spiritual hearts on: all but Him. So utter joy, in a sense that ‘romance’ can never envisage. There are depths of self-desire . . . that He must empty so as to fill them.

and in response writes:

Should all beauty, and all pretense of beauty, be stripped away so that we can encounter God without any semblance of beauty? Perhaps; but Isaiah reminds us that when we did encounter him thus, we turned our faces away.

I’ve been pondering the role of beauty in conversion and in the spiritual life. And I think Pentimento is on to something here, I want to tease out some thoughts.

In most of the conversations I’ve read about Beauty in Catholic circles it’s in the context of evangelization through Beauty. Beauty as a means of drawing those who do not know Christ into relationship with him and into full membership and communion with his Body, the Church.

I saw a graphic this week that was an attempt to give an iconic shorthand for the process of conversion: In iconic, line drawing style, from left to right: a door, a hanging light, a couch, a bookcase, a table. It almost felt like a comic strip background. One could imagine a cartoon character opening the door, and proceeding across the room to the table. The diagram was meant to depict the stages of conversion that Sherry Weddell outlines in her book Forming Intentional Disciples: trust, curiosity, openness, searching, intentional discipleship. The artist says: ”
Open door signifies trust and the light in the foyer represents curiosity. You don’t sit with someone on a couch unless you’re open to what they have to say and if you’re intrigued you may ask to see their bookshelf. And yes, the kitchen table is eucharistic.”

It’s a good reminder that conversion isn’t merely a blinding encounter on the road to Damascus, there is always a before and after, a journey from and towards.

And I think that one of the things Sister Wendy excelled at was using art as a way to build bridges of trust and to invite people to come deeper, to be curious about God, to set out on the journey. It’s about evangelization, bringing the good news about God to those who do not yet know him, to those who are not in an intimate relationship with him.

But as the letter Pentimento quotes suggests, in the life of faith of discipleship there is also a journey even for the disciple who has fully committed her entire life to Christ as a professed nun has. There is a deepening encounter, a more and more intimate relationship. And with the image of the grain of wheat Sister Wendy, whose public ministry was devoted to bringing beauty to others, ponders the way in which God calls the soul of the disciple to an encounter beyond beauty.

We make many beautiful crosses to adorn our churches and our homes. But ultimately the crucifixion is not beautiful. Christ sets aside his beauty and becomes sin, becomes ugly, endures horror of the crucifixion for our sake.

If Beauty draws us to relationship with Christ and is an open door through which we walk, and if it continues to be one way God shows us that he loves us, it can still eventually become an obstacle to intimacy with the Crucified one, with the God who is beyond beauty. Being limited beings we cannot grasp the totality of who God is and it is one of the things that must be stripped away for the soul to be capable of total union. This is the mystery of St John of the Cross’s Nada, Nada Nada.

Or as T.S. Eliot paraphrases it:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

T. S. Eliot, East Coker

It’s fascinating that even as Eliot acknowledges that the soul must put aside faith and hope and love and wait… still he almost immediately turns to images of beauty: light, dancing, whisper of running streams, winter lightning… etc. And yet he seems to imply that these glimpses of divine beauty must point the soul to the agony of death and birth. Unless the grain of wheat should fall.

We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

Through desolation to union, through the waters of death into the waters of rebirth. End and beginning. the mystery that saints and poets can barely grasp.

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