The Revelation of Divine Beauty

Stages of Spiritual Development

It wasn’t an accident that I talked first about the Revelation of Divine Beauty, for it is the form of awakening that is least reliant on a tradition or a community. The Wound of Divine Love is most often felt by people who have a sense of who God is, given to them by the theology and traditions of a religious faith. Initiation requires a community to set aside a space for the initiates and imbue it with a spiritual focus. But any of us can walk in the woods, or along the lakeshore, or through the neighborhood, or become enraptured by a ray of winter sunlight falling through a window and catching at the dust motes in the air. In a secular culture, where it’s not a given that people will be in conversation with the generations of religious seekers and strivers who have gone before them, it’s most likely that when their souls awaken to God, they will do so in isolation, and without a context that can help them make sense of it.

Yet we can turn to poets and artists to help us get a feel for such awakenings, to create a mood in which their power can be understood. Take, for instance, this poem by the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer:

Face to Face
Tomas Transtromer

In February life stood still.
The birds refused to fly and the soul
grated against the landscape as a boat
chafes against the jetty where it’s moored.
The trees were turned away. The snow’s depth
measured by the stubble poking through.
The footprints grew old out on the ice-crust.
Under a tarpaulin, language was being broken down.
Suddenly, something approaches the window.
I stop working and look up.
The colours blaze. Everything turns around.
The earth and I spring at each other.

When I shared this with my friend Molly, she was most struck by the line “language was being broken down.” It’s an odd line. It treats language like old, decaying leaves that have been raked under a tarpaulin. But what Molly heard was an echo of one of her own awakenings, which happened when she was a child learning how to read. As she read successfully for the first time, she was both proud of her newfound ability, but also aware that these words would never be the same to her again. That the meaning they held in that moment and the very sounds her mouth made while saying them, were fleeting. Her lips would never shape the words in exactly the same way, and the words, which were so redolent with pride, would lose that sheen of a skill mastered, and become just words, or take on other overtones of emotion with time. It shouldn’t surprise you that Molly is a linguist, and has made language her life’s work.

But I am most taken by that word, “something,” in the ninth line of the poem. Transtromer is not going to define the ineffable “something” that approaches the window. It is beyond his understanding. It’s not the earth itself, or the colors, or even “everything,” whatever “everything” might be. It is a distinct “something,” a personage, a moment, a vaporous object — unarticulated, undefined. That one word takes me back to my emergence onto a hillside of red bushes in the John Muir Woods, and my disappearance into something that eludes my attempts to describe it.

Let’s look at another poem, “Priceless Gifts” by the 20th century Polish poet Anna Swir.

Priceless Gifts
Anna Swir

An empty day without events.
And that is why
it grew immense
as space. And suddenly
happiness of being
entered me.
I heard
in my heartbeat
the birth of time
and each instant of life
one after the other
came rushing in
like priceless gifts.

Swir isn’t just describing the day, or the “something” that enters her life in this moment. She’s describing her reaction to it. An emotional reaction, as “happiness of being” enters her. This is very different from ordinary happiness, which can be tied to accomplishments or companionship or activity. This is joy taken in the very fact that you are the person you are, in the world you inhabit. A sense of rightness both within oneself and within the universe. What a wonderful emotional reaction! But she also describes a physical reaction. “I heard in my heartbeat the birth of time.” Again, she is awakened to herself, now in her heartbeat, the working of her body. Yet she is also awakened to something infinitely greater, time itself. And she understands that she is connected with time, and time is connected with her — that time, in the largest, most theoretical sense, depends on the heartbeat of a tiny human body, just as that heartbeat depends on time. And finally, there is history in this poem, although she’s unwilling to say whether it’s personal history or all of history. “Each instant of life one after the other came rushing in like priceless gifts.” Does this mean her life, or the life of everything? Or, in these moments of awakening, is that even a distinction we can make?

Let’s turn from poetry for a moment and ask how the Revelation of Divine Beauty operates in the lives of two seekers and saints within the Christian tradition. In the seventeenth century, an ex-soldier and footman named Nicholas Herman became a Carmelite monk and took the name of Brother Lawrence. He worked humbly in the priory kitchen, but something about him led many people to seek his guidance, and he became the spiritual director to many, having long conversations and writing letters to them. A well known priest, Abbe Joseph de Beaufort, collected his letters and conversations into a book, Practicing the Presence of God, which has allowed Brother Lawrence’s wisdom to be heard by many generations since he died. The book begins with Abbe Joseph retelling Brother Lawrence’s story of his first awakening:

He told me that God had done him a singular favor in his conversion at the age of eighteen. During that winter, upon seeing a tree stripped of its leaves and considering that within a little time the leaves would be renewed and after that the flowers and fruit appear, Brother Lawrence received a high view of the Providence and Power of God which has never since been effaced from his soul. This view had perfectly set him loose from the world and kindled in him such a love for God that he could not tell whether it had increased in the forty years that he had lived since.

Of The Practice of the Presence of God : Conversations and Letters of Brother Lawrence. Natl Book Network; 2009.

Brother Lawrence’s revelation is simplicity itself. There’s nothing special about the barren tree he sees. Yet the sight of it inspires him to make meaning from it. He realizes that desolation and barrenness are not a permanent state of affairs. There is a rhythm and seasonality to all of life, and just as the desolation of winter doesn’t mean that we’re abandoned by the coming spring, we are never abandoned by God. For Brother Lawrence, this realization was deeply freeing. It set him loose from the assumption that he had ultimate, or even marginal, control over his life and the life of his society. It helped him to realize that he could rely on something far greater than himself as he went about his days and nights.

He made meaning out of this experience, just as the poets do, just as anyone does who comes into contact with profound beauty. Our capacity to make meaning is awakened at birth. It makes us human. Awakening doesn’t create this capacity, but it does heighten it. We awaken to experiences of something that we will never really understand, of a mystery and beauty that we can never wholly describe. Yet we try to describe it, try to make meaning of it, because that is what human beings do with everything we encounter. If we can’t truly explain, or even talk about, the deepest and most profound movement of mystery within our lives, we can at least talk about its after effects, the way it changes us, the way it shifts our understanding. Brother Lawrence chose the language of providence and power to talk about the reverberations of awakening within his life. Frederick Buechner chose the language of praise.

Buechner was an award winning novelist and teacher who became a Presbyterian minister. He wrote many wonderful books throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries — novels, collections of sermons, theology, and a spiritual autobiography, The Sacred Journey. You’ve probably heard his most famous quote without knowing that it was him who said it: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” That little piece of wisdom has been of great value to countless people as they consider the question of what they’d like to do with their lives.

When he was a young man, it was a question that Buechner often asked himself, and The Sacred Journey tells of how he tried, and sometimes failed, to answer that question. It is a lovely book that I recommend highly, but I am most interested in showing you this passage from it, in which Buechner describes his own awakening through a Revelation of Divine Love:

I sat in Army fatigues somewhere near Anniston, Alabama, eating my supper out of a mess kit. The infantry training battalion that I had been assigned to was on bivouac. There was a cold drizzle of rain, and everything was mud. The sun had gone down. I was still hungry when I finished and noticed that a man nearby had something left over that he was not going to eat. It was a turnip, and when I asked him if I could have it, he tossed it over to me. I missed the catch, the turnip fell to the ground, but I wanted it so badly that I picked it up and started eating it anyway, mud and all. And then, as I ate it, time deepened and slowed down again. With a lurch of the heart that is real to me still, I saw suddenly, almost as if from beyond time altogether, that not only was the turnip good, but the mud was good too, even the drizzle and cold were good, even the Army that I had dreaded for months. Sitting there in the Alabama winter with my mouth full of cold turnip and mud, I could see at least for a moment how if you ever took truly to heart the ultimate goodness and joy of things, even at their bleakest, the need to praise someone or something for it would be so great that you might even have to go out and speak of it to the birds of the air.

Buechner, F. (1991). The sacred journey. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco.

I love this passage because it’s easy to think that awakening can only happen in days without events, as in Anna Swir’s poem, or when life stands still, as Tomas Transtromer describes it. Here is Frederick Buechner, in the middle of bootcamp, immersed in the chaos and fear of a war, meeting new people every day, learning things he’s never learned or wanted to learn, and it is in this moment of sensory overload that he finds himself looking into the “heart of ultimate goodness.” He reassures us that awakening can happen anywhere, that it isn’t just for those of us who are privileged to find times of silence and stillness within our days.

His awakening was an experience that demanded something of him. He felt the need to praise. But praise what, praise whom? The Revelation of Divine Beauty tends to raise these questions within the soul. All great encounters with beauty require a response. This is why art exists. It’s also why religion exists, at least in part. We encounter something beyond ourselves — some grace, some beauty, some immersion in history and time, some enlargement of the soul — and then we must ask, now what?

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