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Sunday, June 01, 2008


I’ve been coming to appreciate beauty as a spiritual path, as something that brings people joy and an appreciation of God. However you define feeling “spiritual”—I think of it as the realization of being connected to something greater than ourselves—people find that feeling in different places. I don’t just mean that some people find it in church, while others find it in the meetinghouse or the mosque, though that is also true. I mean that even within traditions people are touched most deeply by different things: scripture, service, solitude, community, silence, music… I’m belatedly realizing that for some people beauty is an important path to transcendence, no matter what their faith background.

Part of what sparked this line of thinking was listening to a friend, an art history major in college, who has a great eye for the visual, like her mother who died recently. My friend talked about how much it meant to her that her mother’s hospice was lovely with beautiful light, because she knew that meant much to her mother, despite her Alzheimer’s. There have been other recent incidents, too, that make me realize that a beautiful room means more to some people than it does to me, so I’m just trying to notice that and be more appreciative.

It’s not that I’ve been against beauty in the past, although I guess I have been against extravagance. I remember nearly twenty years ago, sitting in a Spanish church that seemed to be bursting with gold and expensive decorations and feeling angry that there was so much wealth on display in the this little church while there were so many people hungry in the world. I was on my way home from the Peace Corps in Africa, and Spain was my European stop on the way back to the US. I was newly converted to the cause of social justice and probably a bit too self-righteous. Today I hope I could appreciate the beauty of that little church and the way it has fed many souls, without necessarily forgetting the people who need to be fed literally. Seeing beauty need not blind us to other realities, though it can be a problem if we spend all our money on gold candle sticks.

Speaking of money and beauty, last week we went to the Barnes Foundation to see a collection of art that I’ve been told is valued around six billion dollars. The Barnes collection is in danger of being moved (mostly because of politics and money), so I made an extra effort to soak up the eclectic combinations of color and form that Mr. Barnes put together himself. I especially enjoyed the Cezanne landscapes, though the Renoirs were lovely, too. Still, looking at art is not my most natural act. I have to make a little effort, unlike my friend the art history major who just soaks it up. I realized this when we went outside and walked around the beautiful rose garden and down a small path to an old tea house nestled among the trees and next to a large fish pond. There my heart soared. Even more than the arranged garden, I loved the rocks around the water and the fern amid the trees. Nature is my route to spirituality, I know, though I sometimes forget to spend enough time in such places. I can appreciate the beauty of Renoir’s perfect roses, but in my book, they’ve got nothin’ on the real, imperfect thing.


Anonymous cath said...

I know a photographer who can usually "see the picture" in what looks like random surroundings to me. Slowly, I am learning to discern what he seems to understand instinctively. It's wonderful.


8:33 AM  
Blogger one raised eyebrow said...

Hi Eileen:

Interesting post. I am one of those folks that finds beauty to be spiritual, but the kind of beauty that that may not always be defined as aesthetically the beauty of people doing the right thing, just because it is the right thing, selfless acts of kindness, the beauty of little kids being little kids, puppies making people smile. Of course, the aesthetically pleasing beauty has its place as you stated, but I'll take beauty that comes from within every time.

thanks for such a thought provoking post...


3:21 PM  
Blogger Lone Star Ma said...

Nature does it for me, too - especially water.

1:34 AM  

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