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After a week of cold, grey skies, never-ending drizzle, and a bout of rather surprising hail, this past weekend the sun came out, the temperatures climbed, and woodscapes turned into flaming cathedrals of stained-glass trees, soft, golden carpets of leaves below our feet. On my days off I walked through the woods behind my apartment, along the creek which burbled and babbled more steadily than in the last months of a dry summer, and sat on fallen logs, soaking in the sunshine, watching the squirrels dive through piles of crunchy leaves.
“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers” said Anne of Green Gables.
My friend and I were discussing Anne a couple weeks ago, driving home from Toronto on a Friday night. We had just attended “The Queens Ball: A Bridgerton Experience.” (For those who don’t know, Bridgerton is a currently running period romance series based on the novels by Julia Quinn, and turned into a TV show by Shonda Rhimes). A film studio in downtown Toronto had been turned into a lavish ball room, and attendees (all dressed in our finest regency era gowns and gloves) swirled around the dance floor, watched a stunning performance of professional dancers, curtsied before the queen, and waited with baited breath as she designated one lucky attendee to be the season’s diamond.
It was, in a word, magical.
As we stood in that ballroom, staring up at the chandelier, watching the dancers waltz past, silly grins plastered to our faces, my friend leaned over to me and said, “The world needs more of this.”
We talked about magic on the way home. Not magic ala Harry Potter or Halloween. But the magic that is more a…something-more-ness. A sacredness. That feeling that the world shimmers with something more than what is in front of our eyes, more than we can put our fingers on.
A stirring of the heart – a lump in the throat, as Frederick Buechner would put it – that pulls us out of ourselves and tells us there is something more.
I think another name for such magic is beauty.
And beauty, says Dostoyevsky’s Idiot, will save the world.
In his Letter to Artists (1999), Pope John Paul II wrote, “In perceiving all that he had created was good, God saw that it was beautiful as well…In a certain sense, beauty is the visible form of the good, just as the good is the metaphysical condition of beauty.” In other words, beauty makes visible to us that which is true and good. And, says Cecelia González-Andrieu, “beauty, truth, and goodness are markers, pointers, and reflections of the shimmering glow left in our world by the presence of God.” (Bridge to Wonder: Art as a Gospel of Beauty, p. 23).
Dostoyevsky was no theologian, but I think it fascinating that he says it is beauty – not simply truth or goodness on their own – that will save the world. It is these things – truth and goodness – but wrapped up in something our frail human minds cannot fully grasp or comprehend, something that quivers within us – that causes the lump in our throat – which we find hard to articulate.
And perhaps this is why beauty will save the world – it saves us from ourselves. It saves us from our arrogant belief that we can know all there is to know, that truth is a thing to be argued and debated and controlled, instead of a thing to be grasped, a thing that shimmers in the glint of chandeliers and the flame of October trees and the ache of Barber’s “Adagio” and the smile of the child just adopted.
“Enamored of our own powers of analysis,” writes González-Andrieu, “we lost sight of mystery, and with its loss we stopped feeling the presence of God” (p. 24).
When I went through seminary, our first week of orientation was an introduction to the principles of a Reformed hermeneutic. I don’t think that’s a bad impulse. We were going to spend the next three to four years studying Scripture, and it makes sense to learn how to do that well right off the bat.
But I wonder if seminarians – and thus future pastors – might be better served and shaped if the first thing we did in our theological education was to sit in beauty for a few days. To go on retreat, go for long walks in the woods, listen to music, read poetry, visit an art gallery, and hear Scripture read over us. How would that change how we engaged in the rest of our studies? How might that shape our souls?
We value truth a lot in Reformed circles. Again, not a bad impulse. I’m certainly not arguing for a touchy-feely relativism.
But truth is not simply that which we can articulate using scriptural, contextual, and literary analysis. Truth is that which shimmers in the world, which we cannot put into words, which points us to the presence of God. Truth is that which is conveyed through beauty.
So maybe we need a hermeneutic of beauty. A hermeneutic that takes us out of ourselves and brings us into the presence of inarticulable truth, so our approach to God’s word and his creation is always one of humility, awe, and wonder. Would that we were less often ready for argument and analysis due to the presence of a lump in the back of our throats.
p.s.: Speaking of Bridgerton and beauty…CBC Music introduced me to Max Richter’s re-composed version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons a few days ago, and “Spring No. 1,” which was included on the Bridgerton soundtrack, is currently filling my soul. May it bring a bit of beauty into your day.