Beauty Deeper than Sorrow

Last time, we used the story of Rapunzel to illustrate how loneliness transformed into solitude can find expression in beauty, such as in the song of Rapunzel. The beauty of the song echoes the beauty of her soul, heart, or spirit. It is this beauty that can also touch the heart of another, and evoke a response from that place in us that has never been wounded, as Eckhart has written. John Keats concludes his poem, Ode to a Grecian Urn, with the words, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

What seems to be conveyed here is the beauty of music, as well as that of all the arts, and of nature. These in turn are a reflection of the beauty of the human heart. More than that, they are an avenue to the heart of a person. If we are open, it can reach beyond all our defences and wounds to the beauty of the person hidden or hiding behind them. It is a way of saying that our identity is in our sacred beauty, not in our wounds.

Yet in the story of Rapunzel, it is only after he passes through pain, loss, and struggle, that the young man is able to come to see truly and to be healed. In the story of Sleeping Beauty, the young man must also pass through a hedge of thorns at the right time and with the right motives, not in a grasping or aggressive way. His response is evoked by someone who is sleeping. It is called forth, it seems, by who someone is, not by what they have or do. The beauty that is in each of us, and by which call forth the beauty in one another, is deeper than, yet may be hidden behind the thorns of hurt, fear, or hostility.

In another poem, Ode to a Nightingale, Keats appears to contrast the beauty of the bird’s song with the awareness of the brevity of life. His poem raises a perennial question: Does the reality of death take a way the meaning of life?

Susan Cain offers a response in a thoughtful book, Bitter-Sweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole. “Bittersweet is about the recognition of the both/and of life–that light and dark, birth and death, bitter and sweet, are forever paired. We need both to accept that reality and also in some way transcend it. This is our inmost longing which can be seen as a longing for home. …We need to transform the sorrows of life into something that nourishes the soul, otherwise we will inflict them on others. She concludes: “This idea–of transforming pain into creativity, transcendence, and love–is the heart of this book.”

She refers to the music of Leonard Cohen as an example. Two lines of his songs come to mind: “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” He also sings of a “cold and lonely hallelujah.” A black spiritual echoes the same words: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Glory, Hallelujah.” The thought here is that light can emerge from darkness, joy can flow from sorrow. As Viktor Frankl maintained, our life can be meaningful, no matter what the circumstances.

Cain concludes: “We’re drawn to the sublime domains, like music, art, and medicine, not only because they’re beautiful and healing, but also because they’re a manifestation of love, or divinity, or whatever you want to call it. … These are just manifestations of the perfect and beautiful world, of the people we long to be with, the place we want to be. … We’ve come into this world with a sense of exile from our true home, that we feel the pain of separation from the state in which we loved and were loved beyond measure, and that the sweet pain of longing helps us return there, We crave beauty because it reminds us of that home, it calls us to that journey.”

I recall a conversation with an elderly volunteer guide at Canterbury cathedral in England. He commented on the defacement and destruction of statues in this cathedral in an earlier century. No religion that destroys and fails to honour beauty can be authentic was his conviction. That conviction, I believe, applies also to the beauty of persons.

Perhaps, as John Keats understood, the fundamental and deepest truth about life is beauty. It is the beauty of the universe that shine through in the beauty of a sunset. It is the beauty of a song or a painting. It is the beauty of the light that shines through in the crack in everything. It is the beauty of a person that ever remains, however obscured by hurt or fear or hostility. It is the beauty of the place in each of us that has never been wounded. It is the beauty of home when we unveil it within ourselves or with another.

May you have today and every day an experience of beauty that calls you home to the beauty of your own soul, to the beauty of others, and to the beauty of earth and the universe. And may that experience reinforce your underlying sense of hope and increase your compassion for yourself and others.