I listened this week to an interview with the late John O’Donohue, who was a poet, philosopher, and theologian, who spoke, among other things, of the importance and necessity of beauty, and of tuning in to the inner landscape of our being. He referred to the phrase of Blaise Pascal, a 17th century French writer, who said: “In difficult times carry something beautiful in your heart.” This expression calls to mind what we have often said: that the experience of beauty can be a healing force in our lives. It can at once heal us while at the same time unveil our need for healing.
It is fascinating that our experience of beauty, perhaps in music more than anything else, blends joy and sorrow together inseparably. What is truly beautiful can bring tears to our eyes, and it is striking that tears well up within us in times both of great joy and of great sorrow. Perhaps both tears and beauty reveal that there is a place of unity in us prior to and beyond the separation of joy and sorrow.
It is a place within us that is deeper than the surface realities that weigh upon us every day. It is an intimation of an inner depth and beauty, a sacred worth, that, because of the endless demands of every day life, we so easily fail to recognize or be in touch with.
Meister Eckhart, the German mystic, whom O’Donohue refers to often, has written: “There’s a place in the soul where you’ve never been wounded.” He also writes: “There is a place in the soul that neither time nor space nor any created thing can touch.” G. K. Chesterton, essayist and story-teller, has commented on how we suffer from amnesia, we have forgotten who we really are, and even “ at certain dead levels of our life, we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awe-filled instant we remember that we forget.”
These writers all call us to remember who we really are, a sacred being of immense worth, with a vast and rich inner world to which we have become unfortunately become a stranger. It is our real home, and often, in this sense, we have become homeless. The experience of beauty is a call to return home, whether that beauty takes the form of music or story or film or painting, or a human face that is loving.
O’Donohue comments along these lines that our biography is not our identity, that the outer trajectory of our life does not fully express our inner reality. “It often seems to me,” he says “that a person believes that if they tell you their story, that that’s who they are. … And you look at a beautiful, interesting face telling a story that you know doesn’t hold a candle to the life that’s secretly in there.”
He recalls as well that the Greek word for beauty is related to the word for call or calling. In a similar way, we have written before that beauty is the opposite of possessiveness. In possessiveness we take something into ourselves, we try to own something, even a person. But what is beautiful at once speaks to what is deepest within us, and at the same time call us out of ourselves in a blend of respect, admiration, wonder, and appreciation. If we experience another person as beautiful, we can never treat them as a possession that we can grasp from outside.
O’Donohue writes that in the presence of beauty, you are being called. “And I feel that one could write a wonderful psychology just based on the notion of being called — being called to be yourself and called to transfigure what has hardened or got wounded within you. And it’s also the heart of creativity” In a similar vein, I think that the word vocation, literally a calling, need not be regarded as a demand to fulfil something merely external. It can rather be seen as what we are called from within to live out from our deepest and truest self. It is not a command barked from outside, but a pressing invitation from within. It is not a telling us what to do, but an unveiling of who we are, which can flow into our life.
It is not at all egocentric, but rather a call to how we are to be present to one another, to discover, develop, and share our particular gifts with one another and our world.
A related point O’Donohue makes is on the necessity and value of friendship. He describes it as a bond in which we feel safe, and able to be who we truly are with another. I recall a young student once describing in class the experience of loneliness as the experience of having no one with whom you can be yourself with defence or pretence. A gratitude-evoking experience I once had was someone telling me that I was a safe place for them.
We all need a safe place, whether it is in the solitude of our own sanctuary or the caring heart of another, where who we are, our whole interior world, can be discovered and can unfold, not only for ourselves, but for others, and for the world in which we live. This is the world of nature on earth which is our home. It is also the world of wounds to be healed, where so many have yet to realize that they are more than their wounds, and where their suffering is transformed rather than transmitted.
May you more and more discover and live from the inner world of your sacred self and its beauty, and become a healing presence for yourself and for all who come within the circle of your light.
February 13, 2022