Perhaps we might add a few more words on the experience of beauty. I looked up an interview with the late John O’Donohue, an Irish poet and philosopher, on the On Being program.
He recalls the words of Blaise Pascal, a 17th century French thinker, that we should always keep something beautiful in our mind. Beauty can help us endure great bleakness because it is resilient and life-affirming, it helps create more life that is worthwhile. He also cites Meister Eckhardt, a medieval German mystic, who held that “there is a place in the soul that neither time nor space nor any created thing can touch.” O’Donohue comments that our identity is not equivalent to our biography and that there is a place in us where we have never been wounded, where there is still a sureness, a seamlessness, a confidence, and a tranquility. And beauty, as well as spirituality and love allow us now and again to visit that inner kind of sanctuary.
Beauty in words, music and the other arts, as well as the world of nature, can remind us of this immense interiority within us and awaken us to that inner sanctuary and the vast resources there. This is not a luxury but a necessity. He adds that we can know about another person but not know what it’s like inside that person. Yet we also have an immense capacity to reawaken in each other the profound ability to be with and to be close to each other.
When he thinks of the word “beauty,” what comes to mind as well are some of the faces of those he loves, beautiful landscapes he knows, or acts of kindness by caring people. He thinks too of music and poetry and comments that music is what language would love to be if it could.
Finally, he refers to the etymology of the word, “threshold,” which comes from “threshing, ”the separation of the grain from the husk. When we cross a new threshold worthily, we heal the patterns of repetition in which we had been stuck, and we cross into a new and fuller ground, a kind of homecoming to who we truly are and can be. And beauty has an essential role in our unfolding life.
The theme of the essential need for beauty is illustrated in many of the familiar folk tales. In Hansel and Gretel, for example, while wandering through the forest, lost and hungry and afraid, the children come upon a snow white bird, and stop to listen to its beautiful singing. Birds stand for the higher aspirations of a human being. Iin the story, by gathering up the bread crumbs that Hansel has left as a trail, the birds prevent the retreat to previous securities, and lead to the witch’s house where they overcome their fears and discover hidden jewels. In effect, I think that the story is saying that beyond our need for survival and security, beyond our fears, lies our longing and need for beauty, both in the world of nature and the arts (singing bird) and in our own inner self (hidden treasures).
In te story of Jack and the Beanstalk, the young man’s maturing process involves a journey of climbing to a new land where he gathers gold coins, a hen that lays golden eggs, and a singing harp. Once again, besides money and an ongoing source of income, there is the need for beauty, symbolized in the singing harp. All of these challenges involve some form of struggle.
Finally, the story of Sleeping Beauty reminds us that our own inner beauty may lie beyond a hedge of thorns, all the prickly parts of ourselves, so to speak. And that beauty needs to be awakened in us, perhaps initially by the caring of others.
On a more personal note, I recall a conversation a long time ago in which someone told me of certain events in their life that were truly horrific. At the same time, in the midst of hearing about these terrible experiences. I had an overwhelming sense of the inner beauty of this person. It calls to mind the conviction of John O’Donohue that there is an inner sanctuary within us that no wound can ever reach.
On another occasion, after attending a conference in a distant city, I met with a relative, and for whatever reason, there was a sense of incredible closeness that included a tangible experience of the inner beauty of this person. Though many years have passed since that time, the felt memory of that experience and a sense of connection still remains.
As we said last week, in the experience of beauty, whether in a piece of music, a story, a work of art, or a person, it seems that we sense that it is good that this beauty exists. It is like a gift that enriches our spirit if we are open to it. We are also drawn us out of ourselves towards that beauty without grasping, it allows us to glimpse another way of seeing all of life, and challenges us to expand our heart and become like what we see or hear.
The experience of beauty can reach behind our defenses and into and through our wounds and hurts, and have a healing effect upon us. Perhaps the experience of beauty can put us in touch with what is at the heart of life, a presence and power of beauty that enriches our soul and calls to our spirit, a power of the healing that reaches deeper than and unveils our wounds, in the very process of healing them.
Norman King, March 29, 2021