“Just remember, however hard things get, however much you feel like you’re struggling, the world is full of beauty. And it’s up to you to capture it...to look. And to share it with as many people as you can. You are a prism through which that beam of life refracts.”
— Emily Richardson-Wain, played by Claire Foy, in the movie "The Electrical Life of Louis Wain"
I understand that the concept of beauty is very often tied to “prettiness” in our culture. Attractiveness, even. Let’s widen that lens and remember that beauty is far more than what charms or beguiles us. Beauty, according to Immanuel Kant, delights us in an important way. It is a reminder of, and pushes us towards, our better selves. Unlike so much else in our lives, beauty is “disinterested”; it takes us out of our narrow, selfish concerns without being rigid, “judgy” or demanding. Beauty is never trying to manipulate us, never trying to get us to be a swing voter or a pushover or whatever. It just is. The beauty of nature is a quiet and insistent invitation into shared human experience, shared being. The graceful flight of a swallow is as lovely to the tired laborer as it is to the CEO, the thunderous break of the ocean on the shore at sundown is just as compelling to a child as to the most accomplished professor.
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When I was a child growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I walked to St. Barnabas School every day. On my way was a giant lilac bush. On my way home, I would often pause at this bush and wiggle into the middle of it and sort of breathe it in, even awkwardly hug it. This bush — the soft purple, the almost overwhelming sweetness, the comforting shelter — was deeply beautiful in a way that reset my nervous system and moved me to feel less worried, more grateful, more able to be myself and to pay attention to the rest of my walk home in a different way. Even if I was a weird and dreamy child, my point is that I remember this from a bumpy time when I needed the restorative grace of beauty to keep me anchored and whole, which also allowed me to be kind. This experience has stayed with me as a measuring stick of goodness and personal alignment ever since.
Beauty — discovering it, creating it, preserving it — generates a rightness of thought and action because it is a moral circumference that all people are welcome to stand within, to reconnect with their more generous and patient selves. We need beauty. It keeps our lesser impulses in check. The world is really full of “lesser” impulses, y’all. It is also really, really full of beauty.
As we move into a darker time in the calendar and even in the world — COVID! Political Division! Climate Crisis! Widening Wealth Gap! Add your own Pulsing, Communal Fear Here _______! — I am reminded that Jesus did not give us any advice on this. He did us one better — he told us who we are:
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16).
I don’t know you, but I am pretty sure you know what beauty is. And because of this, you are encouraged to look for beauty and hold it high, shining the light of your best self on this beauty to refract it into beams for all to use, to see in darker times. Go find it. Now. Use it to rise above whatever pulls you into fear, however hard it gets, and let it make you brave. Beauty is a beam of life ... and you, my friend, are the light that amplifies it for yourself and others.
Sarah Neidhoefer, MDiv, is a lay minister who works at Grace Episcopal Church and is stepping in to write this column for Rev. Amy Denney Zuniga while she is away on leave. Additionally, Sarah often supports the congregation at the First Presbyterian Church as a preacher and presider. She has worked with youth and young adults for most of her professional life as a lay minister, and may be contacted at email@example.com
During this time of pandemic, Grace Church is offering worship online at 10 a.m. Sundays via livestream to the website, www.grace-episcopal.org, and the Facebook page. To keep up to date on other spiritual opportunities both in-person and online, and to be apprised of future Grace Space offerings, visit the website and sign up for weekly e-news. The labyrinth and grounds are open for meditation and reflection.