On Beauty

On Beauty

Here is an old story, held and fed in the blossoms of cherry trees: One crisp day, Beauty and Ugliness went to the river. One by one, Beauty carefully undressed. She folded her clothes and placed them on a rock. Ugliness did the same. They walked into the river and let the water run over their bodies. For a long time, the two of them floated and swam and splashed about and dove and waved to the clouds – those in the sky and the ones reflected in the worlds of the living water. Ugliness got tired. “I’m going,” she said. She walked out of the river, and seeing her own rags neatly folded next to Beauty’s fine garments, she stopped for a moment. She then calmly took Beauty’s clothes, dressed herself, and went her way. Sometime later, Beauty also got tired. She dragged her wet and wrinkled body out of the river and saw that the only clothes left were the rags Ugliness had left behind. She shrugged, dressed herself, and went her way.

And so it goes. And so it is now, to this day.

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I am in Zimbabwe – a beautiful land in the Southern part of the African continent. The wisdom traditions here run deep; however, they have also been powerfully crooked by colonizers, missionaries, and the violent trauma of Cultures meeting each other (what can you expect? Cultures never went through a ‘meeting other Cultures’ training course). There is no cash to be found, and the borders itch with political isolation from the international community. Christian pastors, preachers, and so-called prophets loom tall and grand against this backdrop of crumpled political ideologies. They sharpen their voices against the stone mill of their throats and a badly translated book, and shoot volleys of promises that always sound like threats, and damnations that carry the weight of prison sentences. They are everywhere – competing neck-in-neck with vendors in the streets and aggressively sprouting like invasive plants by the sides of roads; comfortably sparkly in oddly cushy and television-ready mega churches and freshly ironed and clean in dusty rural congregations; windswept beneath thin tent cloths, and out in the open, where their flaring tongues whip against the sun’s powerful rays. They even go to the mountains at night, where they scream at God, encircled by the majestic rings of Zimbabwe’s great stones. And they can be found in the wilderness at the glow of dawn, yelling, screaming, crying, wailing, and calling out to the Lord, as the bemused sun turns the page of a new day with her golden fingertips.

These preachers, pastors, prophets, and worshipers are Zimbabwe’s true Politicians. Moreover, I think they are Africa’s true politicians. The divisions on the continent today are not political – they are primarily spiritual. I use the word spiritual and not religious deliberately. By calling divisions today religious (anywhere in the world), commentators, researchers, thinkers, and all manner of knowers (deep or not), are weaving a frail spider-web of illusion, that everything is political. And because everything is political, these knowers knowingly know, we can solve everything through politics. Meaning, in the new parlance: religious is political, political is social, social is meaningful and the only way to talk about the way we live. Let’s get back to Congress, everyone! The people who use that reviled word, ‘spiritual’ are seen to be those who, (no doubt because of a weak spine, an even weaker mind, and a fantastically overactive heart) attempt to burst open the institutional prisons that we are all born into, and that are described by another favorite word of mine - reality. These people who are in denial of this reality and the politics that are involved are often airy-fairy types: crazies (not unlike myself), hippies, and privileged people who irresponsibly choose to not-see, as opposed to dutifully glaring-down the horrible state of affairs that humanity is destined for. At worst they are like the Millerites who climbed to the tops of trees waiting for Jesus on that fateful day, October 22, 1844, that came down in Adventist history as the Great Disappointment.

And so that word – spiritual – has come to mean nothing (and because it means nothing, it can be everything.) We can hide in its vagueness if we like, like children under a table draped with a large tablecloth, playing at caves or magic. We can use it to protect precious things, also – secrets, vulnerabilities, our humanity even, in a word that seems excessively coarse – anything we see to be at risk (the endangered species of our lives): after all, why would anyone constantly open their soul like a clam to be butchered, again and again, by the fork of sarcasm, irony, and cut-throat competition?

(Digressing is the way rivers behave also. I like it.)

The Prophets are Africa’s politicians, and they have taken on the worst of what Politics has given us: their approach is simply unaesthetic. As Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert wrote of the Communist system: “Fundamentally it was a matter of taste …who knows if we had been better and more attractively tempted… one should not neglect the study of beauty.”[1] What he meant was that Communism did not fall because it was wrong – people resisted it because it was not beautiful. 

Here is a question: how did we let ourselves be wooed by people whose rhetoric is not just meaningless but also grossly unappealing? Who sing no songs, whose voices grate rather than lilt? The Prophets go the way of the Politicians: their prayers are laced with despair, but soften their core with no vulnerability. There is no truthful whisper of the gentle wind that came to Elijah in their mad repetition of nonsense words (they call it speaking in tongues – I like that phrase. Tongues and Languages, after all, are so very primitive.) They sound like Congress. They sound like the President (any President.) They sound like men who are told that the louder they speak, (with ever more gargle), the more people will hear them. (More lies.)

I repeat: the divisions in our world today are not political – they are spiritual. They are not about agreements and disagreements. When Beauty comes, there is no way of disagreeing with it (or agreeing for that matter.) There’s simply being with it, and with each other.

What does Beauty have to do with spiritual-ness? It is Beauty that feeds the Spirits. Not the laws, or the debates, or agreements and disagreements, or proof this way or that. The Spirits have always responded to Truth and Beauty (and Truth is always Beautiful.) This isn’t about the art of rhetoric: this is about the art of listening, first and foremost, and transforming, secondly, the hurts and worries and woes and traumas and tragedies of our lives into what they are meant for – Beauty and Wisdom to feed ourselves and the other world. And then we become better. And when we become better, we do better. We are more kind to each other. And then our systems become more human. And then we love each other better. And then we take care of each other regardless of whether or not somebody wrote it down on a shriveled old piece of paper who knows how long ago.

I don’t care which religion you choose, which path you walk, which road tickles your feet. Every true prayer is a beautiful prayer. Every beautiful expression of your soul feeds the Spirit, Spirits, God, whatever word you choose to tongue in our impoverished language. But it is Beauty that is of essence, Beauty that is at the core. Beauty that will be the result of true rebirth.

Of course, if it were all that easy, then why don’t we do it already?

Ah, but we are uncomfortable with Beauty, are we not? True Beauty melts us, and we don’t like to be melted (not enough edges). It’s unclear what we are supposed to do with it. It has no utilitarian value, Beauty doesn’t. It feeds nobody, makes no plans, is not active in pursuing its goals; it draws up no strategies, doesn’t feed false hope (and sometimes what else can you do?); it has enormous expectations of everything and everybody, and nothing to show for them. It is like those idealists who use the word spiritual. It has no place with us rational, normal, working, thinking folk. How bizarre, how absurd, isn’t it? We have been doing everything in the world to intervene (another great word) in the lives of the destitute, in cycles of illness and poverty, in political clashes and struggles – except for Beauty. Even though Beauty, when it comes, is always an Intervention.

I myself remember so many times when I was struck by something, someone so beautiful, so overwhelmed by the feeding and the feeling of the Beauty grasping with its hand into my heart and digging out something True, that I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t do anything. The world changed. And that was that. I was an experiencer of a new reality. I cried on the steps of the theatre for an hour, after seeing Moon for the Misbegotten in Houston, Texas. I sat down in awe when I saw the lunar rainbow above Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe many years ago. A play by Decroux Mime performers Steve and Corinne Wasson about an ordinary poet’s life changed my life. The songs of one man on a CD played over and over again called me Home.

Those are one kind of Beauty. But there are other kinds, less polished, less classy. Humble sorts of Beauty. Garish even. Funny-looking. The Beauty of a dying woman joking that she has the flu as her brother dances towards her, pretending she can stand up out of her wheelchair when they both know she can’t. The Beauty of profound dignity and patience in the midst of insane bureaucracy and the business of death, when you are burying your son. The Beauty of deep reconciliation over two bottles of wine and a lot of throwing up. The Beauty of a toothbrush that carries a story worth a million – a story of love and family and death and the things we do for each other. The Beauty of a generous wonder bread and spam sandwich, made with so much love it could feed the whole world.

But what to do with the feeling? What to do when we are so overwhelmed? And what is it for, exactly, this feeling, this experience? It is for our souls, true, but it is not only us who are fed. We are also feeding the other world when we stop to let ourselves feel these moments, when we acknowledge them – breathe them, if you will. (Stop? You mean, STOP what we are DOING?) When we radiate the inner light that grows through Beauty, and through the transformation of our true experiences into the Beauty of expressing them, we become. We become ourselves. We come closer to our true nature. How to explain? We resonate in harmony – and even our dissonances become harmonious.

This is my problem with a lot of Art these days – it feels too loud and undigested. It screams at God to inform, (I must admit I am a hypocrite in this regard – many of my prayers look like this, for sure), to raise awareness, to promote, to sell, to exclaim over and over again at the tragedy or trauma or horror of this or that. It’s not that these things are unnecessary. It’s just that they are the first step, and there are many more that need to be taken.

Beauty, my friends, has no creed, no rule, no form, no one way. It is sometimes ephemeral (see a dry leaf crumpled up by a shoe, a dance clomp in the rain) and sometimes eternal (see Death.) It speaks all languages and has no language.

It’s simple, don’t you see?

It’s Love.

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So what would I tell the Prophets on the mountain? Less screaming. More singing. Much more listening. God talks back, after all. Isn’t that what faith is all about?


[1] Translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter. http://pgrnair.blogspot.com/2012/07/power-of-taste.html