The dust has just settled from two major remodels in our home this summer: the kitchen was dramatically renewed and the main bathroom was gutted down to the studs and redone. Now we have two rooms which feel at times impossibly lovely, as if we found ourselves in a different house. I haven’t had much time lately for thinking about a post, so this may ramble a bit…
I’ve been pondering the ache of the beautiful. Why does Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” give me chills, every time I hear it? What is so arresting about the branches of a pine tree against a crisp blue sky? Someone else may be moved to tears by Gabby Douglas’ gold medal performance in the Olympics. Certainly, I’ve wept more than my fair share of tears over ice skating pairs, ballet dancers, and theatrical productions, either for their sheer beauty, or their breathtaking achievement, or (usually) both.
Just observing my granddaughter on any given day, whether she’s looking coy, or adorable, or delighted, or mischievous…can give me such intense pleasure it almost hurts. The closest I’ve come to being able to explain this phenomenon is to say that the ache of beauty is a symbol of what we yearn for, and what we know is ephemeral in this world.
Even the greatest (human) works of art are impermanent: Da Vinci experimented with a different technique in painting The Last Supper, and it began to deteriorate within a few years of its completion. A lunatic smashed parts of Michelangelo’s Pieta. Fire, war and natural disasters have destroyed more treasures than we’ll ever know.
Last week I wrote about this world as my home, and yet not my true home. This post ties in to that, I guess. All of us have our own notion of the ideal, whether in art or music or relationship or government (or kitchen!). For many, it’s an intuitive sense of “the ways things ought to be”. Perhaps that’s why utopian fictions are a recurring theme in literature and film…and why repeated attempts to create utopian communities always fail.
I don’t think we ever get to experience lasting perfection in this life–happiness, peace, health, beauty are all temporary. If it were possible to live on earth in some idyllic state of tranquility, surrounded by aesthetic perfection and living in complete harmony with one’s fellows…then why would we need a notion of heaven? But our senses allow us to experience, among other things, a glimpse of divine beauty which we will one day be able to really enjoy.
Always the gifts should point us back to the Giver. I think there is always a danger, when we focus too insistently on what we desire to achieve in this world, that we will begin to worship it. Do we worship the idea of individual freedom in America? Does the musician or actor or dancer worship a perfect performance? Does the engineer in quest of a manufacturing breakthrough worship the results of his invention? Parents may fall into the trap of worshiping their children, making their successes and strengths the most important goal of their lives.
I’d like to write more about this, as it relates to the believer as a citizen. Suffice it to say that, no matter how truly great a society is, it will not last. God does not intend it to. One of my favorite Irish folk songs, “Eileen Aroon”, sums it up surprisingly well:
Youth will in time decay…/ Beauty will fade away…/ Castles are sacked in war, chieftains are scattered far. Truth is a fixed star…
Or as the writer of Proverbs put it: “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” (Proverbs 31:30)
It’s Sunday. Take a break from bad news to meditate on the Good News. Celebrate beauty wherever you find it. But don’t forget to thank the Artist.
When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have set in place, what is man that You are mindful of him? (Psalm 8:3-4)