Saturday, June 30, 2018

On Un-Abandoned Beauty

Iris Storm. Photos taken Spring 2018.
     Perhaps, like me, you wake up certain moments enough to find yourself thirsting for more from your personal experience of religion. Sharpening the awareness that spiritual nurturance is missing and is needed usually depends on cutting off distractions: electronic devices, absorption in work, sports, politics, and any other substitute imposed by the ego/nafs. And if we don’t tend the soul, sometimes it shouts “Pay Attention!” through an “accident,” illness, or other life crises that offer a glimpse or a hard view of what really matters. Wouldn’t we rather remind ourselves in a gentle way?
     I’ve very thankful to have reached retirement as I feel it offers increased opportunity to read material that’s beginning to mark well-springs that attend to this longing. I want an authentic spiritual path that offers divine tasting, “joie de vivre,” most every day.  For example, a month ago, 
I quoted a passage that flowed with the water of life. John O’Donohue pointed to a source previously unknown to me: Hans Urs von Balthasar on “theological aesthetics.” Having located a reasonably-priced copy of Volume 1, “Seeing the Form,” in his series: “The Glory of the Lord,” I’ve loved reading about the essential reconnection of beauty with truth and goodness. Although Balthasar does not focus on the art forms I love (particularly horsemanship/dressage and photography), his articulation of biases against beauty increases my sense of the importance of engaging with the aesthetic and in appreciating the connection with the divine.
     Photography has long been an important link for me with beauty. 

It’s helped me to look more closely for a composition that has balance, 

sometimes taking me down on my knees

or whisper-close to a dew-wet inner bloom. 

Probably more than anything, I’ve increased appreciation for the quality of light.  

          And what other term is so frequently and so significantly used in trying to articulate the spiritual dimension? For example, Balthasar quotes Matthias Scheeben: “Theology is ‘the dawn of the light of contemplation’” (p. 107). Radiance and illumination signal the pathway to the divine, often more so than our fine analytical reasoning.

     In reading Balthasar, I’m able to affirm the spiritual value of spending time with photography, and I see how I’ve been disconnected from this appreciation. Balthasar explains in detail how religious groups recognized misuse of beauty (e.g., “the ‘exchange’ [Rom I.23,25] of God’s incorruptible splendour and glory for the blasphemous image of the idols,” p. 46). He points out the way religious authority overreacted by expelling all art from the church. 
     This  mistaken “cleansing” simply leaves the allure of beauty for the devil to use, with results all too obvious in today’s commercialization of skin-deep “beauty.” The fatal error involves failing to realize that Beauty at the divine level demands dedicated development in the same manner required by the higher reaches of Power and Knowledge. To our tragic loss, all of these names of God have been left much too abandoned in our education and religion.
     Incredible teaching is available. I can scarcely believe that I’m just finding Balthasar who guides us beyond the superficial misuse of beauty toward a divine understanding. For example, referencing Karl Barth, he points out that “God’s beauty embraces death as well as life, fear as well as joy, what we call ‘ugly’ as well as what we call ‘beautiful’” (p. 56). In our recent trip to the southwest, we saw something of this in the art of Georgia O’Keefe. 
     Balthasar’s teaching also includes terms familiar from phenomenology:
“The quality of ‘being-in-itself’ which belongs to the beautiful, the demand the beautiful itself makes to be allowed to be what it is, the demand, therefore, that we renounce our attempts to control and manipulate it, in order truly to be able to be happy by enjoying it: all of this is, in the natural realm, the foundation and foreshadowing of what in the realm of revelation and grace will be the attitude of faith” (p. 153).
     The urgency of reclaiming our divine gift of Beauty is shown in the continuation of the passage quoted by O’Donohue. Balthasar elaborates:
“We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she [Beauty] were the ornament of a bourgeois past—whether he admits it or not—can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love… The world, formerly penetrated by God’s light, now becomes but an appearance and a dream…But where the cloud disperses, naked matter remains as an indigestible symbol of fear and anguish. Since nothing else remains, and yet something must be embraced, twentieth-century man is urged to enter this impossible marriage with matter, a union which finally spoils all man’s taste for love. But man cannot bear to live with the object of his impotence, that which remains permanently unmastered. He must either deny it or conceal it in the silence of death.” (pp. 18-19).
     Instead of abandoning Beauty, I’m in favor of growing toward and surrendering into the embrace of divine Love that guides us in the way of a vision holding fast the union of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness (and Peace, Justice, Love, Power, Knowledge…).

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