I grew up in a culture that embraced it head on, through music and art and food, through design and fashion and flowers, perfume and poise and the gentle love of a mother for her child. My early memories are of flowery patterns billowing out of pleated frocks, offsetting my mother’s refusal to shave her hairy legs. That was vain, she thought. Something Matthew Fox once said, “beauty and imperfection go together wonderfully.” I don’t think they draw distinctions because they don’t see any. My father’s inexhaustible penchant for Berlioz, Bach and Beethoven at sunset. Even the railway station from which we caught the suburban train to the city was adorned in azaleas, a fastidiously pruned rose garden, flourishing camellias and carpets of pristine couch. A suburban railway station!! Ah yes, but this was from a time when people saw as children see. I doubt that railway station garden exists today. It would be futile if everyone is staring at their devices.
Such a culture was one that cared for the detail. To make the world beautiful is to offer hospitality at every turn. Surely this is what the writer of Genesis meant when God invited man to subdue the earth. Not to tame it, but to harness its wildness for glory.
Then I moved to a culture that prohibited beauty, shunned it as flagrant excess. Utilitarian values made all appeal to beauty appear to be indulgent. The church my wife and I were married in had that ghastly 1970s orange glass and tacky green walls, with hideous mustard carpet to complete the picture. An ocean of bitumen covered every square inch of the grounds. The afterlife was the place for beauty, I was told. It was selfish and greedy to waste time on it in the here and now. The only thing that really mattered was the ulterior purpose, to populate what was called “Heaven.” A meeting place for a faith community was simply a quarantine station, where your diseases were eliminated so you could inhabit the presence of God in the sweet by and by. Quarantine stations are rarely known for aesthetic qualities.
This thinking makes earth a very temporary abode. Any wonder the same thinking ignores the pillaging that we do to the planet in the name of growth. It’s a much milder version of the ignorance of the Taliban and IS, where music and dance and laughter and colour are forbidden. If we are miserable now, we have a better chance of being ‘let in” then.
Yann Martel, the author of The Life of Pi, observed that you can discern the things a society values by what it gives away for free. Like the garden around my railway station, libraries speak of a culture’s love of the beauty of literature. There is no cost to enter most of Australia’s art galleries, expressing my nation’s value for the creation of visual beauty. Krista Tippet said music is what language would be if it could.
Decades later, when I first visited my friends at a monastery in country Victoria, I was singularly struck by this one quality once again: Beauty sprung from every crevice, as if thought had gone into the design of the smallest things. It had! The homes were the distinctly lovely dwelling places. Not ostentatious but bespoke, crafted with care and thought, and every item in every nook has a story, a history. Like our indigenous people, these quiet peaceful yet refreshingly earthy folk had developed narratives for their environment. Everything belonged. Friends were constantly in sight, simply by noticing this and remembering them. Beauty is woven into the fabric of their identity, quite literally. “Love beauty” declares their Resolve.
I asked one of the brothers what it was like for the community when they first started out in the 1970s, to value beauty when the tradition from which they sprung did not. “Difficult” he admitted. They were misunderstood, judged as lovers of excess, interested in the superficial and not serious about the “things of God,” as if there is some cosmological demarcation line that separates what God cares about and what is superfluous.
In the community of men I now serve, we talk about paying attention to what most people ignore and ignoring what most people pay attention to. It’s not easy to do. We get used to seeing what we have always seen and then don’t see it at all, but see what we ‘know’ and miss its beauty.
I’ve just visited the home of one of a friend in New Zealand and I was struck again at the awareness of beauty, how he had crafted and co-created, taking the sweeping Pacific before him and the raw materials of the earth into his arms and mingling it with his own story. It was like the earth before me told the tale of the six plus decades of this walking humus. He had built a shimmering beacon of beauty. In every fold of his garden there was a story. I followed him around in the late afternoon as he absentmindedly pulled what he laughingly called “edible weeds – see I really am a hippy” – from his bounty for the dinner table and garnished me with stories of his life. He lives alone, and perhaps that is why his world is so filled with stories, of love, of loss, of celebration, of life. We walk past a glorious magnolia tree in full bloom and he chuckles “the blousey trollop of the garden” with a mischievous grin. One of my closest friends is a gardener and to sit with him in nature is to be caught up in his entrance. He constantly posts pictures of nature doing its erotic dance.
The rational processes of our mind cannot comprehend beauty – they see it, analyse is, categorise it and move on. But the place where wonder is entertained, there we are transfixed, mesmerised. Perhaps that is why we need beauty, to slow us down. To help us to notice.
I am sitting on a plane at 35,000 feet looking out at the endless reach of the Pacific as the sun sets, clouds bursting with gold they have been collecting this spring day, and now showering the earth with their bounty. Just now a perfectly convex cloud catches the last rays as a waterfall of mist rolls off its apex and vaporises into nothing.
Society adulates physical beauty. In posting this blog, I searched Google for an image of beauty. Hundreds of images came up of women’s faces plastered with cosmetic products. Nothing else. Have we confused glamour for beauty? Yes, there is the beauty of youth, and certainly the curves of a woman’s supple form, as well as the glory of a man’s strength, but these are meant to take us beyond, to something deeper. Like the beauty of the lines of love and loss on an elderly couple’s faces. And, paradoxically, there is such unspeakable beauty in the poor, who have the capacity to see what the rich miss. People like Jean Varnier who went looking for beauty in people that society discards. Here’s the irony: I am struck by how those who seek beauty and celebrate the wasteful grandiosity of a field of flowers are the ones most likely to care for the those at the margins, and for the planet. It seems that beauty has awakened their souls to go on treasure hunts for more of it. They notice. They see. The can’t help but see, and in seeing, they love. Not the kind of utilitarian love that I once experienced that seeks to make everyone like us, that uses love a weapon to get others to join our club and purchase our afterlife insurance. but frittered extravagant love that gives itself away without thought of results.
I’m wanting to reclaim beauty as a core value, because it is so wasteful. I like that it cannot be grasped, only enjoyed, as a reminder that there is always more, that life is sacred, that this planet and its inhabitants are magnificently diverse expressions of beauty. We are surely being seduced.