disturbing beauty

I don’t think I suffer from this as much at 60 years old as I did when I was in my 20s and 30s. But back then, when I was working as a musician, every now and then when I would run into someone who was a better guitarist than I was, or hear someone who was a better singer or songwriter, I would walk away with a kind of bitter taste in my mouth, not quite knowing why, or what to name the feeling.

There can be something really disturbing about beauty. Things that are too beautiful, people who are too good or too talented––they can be really irritating to be around. We don’t like to admit it, but it’s true. Someone who is more talented than we are, someone who is smarter than we are, better at sports, better looking, can be really disturbing in an odd kind of way. Why is that? If we’re not really secure, it could make us feel “less than.” And even if we are secure it can challenge our complacency and our having settled for less, settled for mediocrity in our own lives. We actually sometimes don’t want things to be too good. That’s why after we build up celebrities we sort of love it when they fall, and almost feel a sense of relief: “I knew he was too good to be true!”

It’s what we do with that unsettling movement, that irritation, that disturbance, that counts. One reaction is to want to destroy the thing of beauty, to tear it down because it is a mockery of us, of our mediocrity or even, at the worst, sometimes the ugly parts of ourselves. That’s what we see going on in this reading that we heard today from the book of Wisdom, which we also hear toward the end of Lent almost as an immediate preparation for Jesus’ passion and death: Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions . . . He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord. He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange.[i] Jesus was simply too beautiful. Merely to see him was a hardship for some people. I love the line in the play Amadeus when the playwright has the composer Salieri, who is insanely jealous of Mozart, say to the priest who has come to hear his confession: “Your merciful God destroyed his own beloved Son rather than let mediocrity share in his glory.” Jesus was simply too beautiful, too much of a challenge to mediocrity.

Remember the story in the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus was in the country of the Gadarenes, and he cured the two demoniacs by sending the demons into a herd of swine. And when the people of the town heard about it they came out––and begged him to leave![ii] Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us. There’s a similar story in the Gospel of Mark when Jesus comes to his hometown and teaches in the synagogue on the Sabbath, and Mark tells us that many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!’ And then Mark says this surprising thing: They took offense at him![iii] It makes it even worse that this is his hometown, Nazareth of Galilee. They took offense at him in his native place. They were scandalized that such authority, such wisdom and power, such beauty could be embodied in this kid who had grown up like a sapling before them, like a root from the earth. Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us.

Just as there is something unsettling about real beauty, real talent, real goodness––so also there can be something unsettling, challenging, disturbing about innocence. Perhaps that is what’s really being portrayed in the story of Herod’s slaughter of all the infant boys in the Gospel of Matthew that we remember and celebrate right after Christmas. I always think that Herod is not just worried about the threat to his power; he’s bothered by the challenge to his own ugliness, his corruption. He’s so threatened by the beautiful, innocent Prince of Peace that he destroys all the little innocents––all the innocence––of the land. I wonder how often adults actually do something similar to children, slaughter their innocence, because the weakness and vulnerability of a child irritates them, and the adults want to give them that hard edge as soon as possible so that they can survive in this dog-eat-dog world, and make the children as cynical as they are. Ronald Rolheiser talks about how we load our children up with complex carbohydrates and sugar at the dinner table, and then when they start running around laughing and screaming after dinner we say, “Shut up! Calm down!” Their pure delight in life, their joy in just being alive bothers our comfortable low-grade depression.

In this day and age it’s almost chilling to hear this gospel story about Jesus pulling a child into the midst of his apostles.[iv] The real evil, the ugliest part of sexual assault, so much in the headlines these days in the church as well as in corporate America and our political realm, whether it’s committed on children or on women (and the majority of it does seem to be committed by men), is that sexual assault is not really about sex or desire or attraction at all––and it’s certainly not about love. It’s a kind of a hatred really, a hatred of beauty, an unconscious desire to destroy something beautiful and pure and innocent, to conquer it and bring it down to the perpetrator’s size, to level the playing field. And how horrible that that could happen at the hands of someone who is supposed to be the face of Christ, the face of Christ’s church, let alone a public servant. What a horrible abuse of authority, the ghastly hellish opposite of the servant leadership Jesus is exemplifying and proposing.

No, instead of jading the children, instead of defacing beauty, instead of destroying innocence (obviously!), we are supposed to learn from innocence, and we are supposed to be challenged by beauty. As doesn’t always happen, the second reading that we hear today, from the Letter of James,[v] goes along with the gospel theme and gives us a good description of the difference between the innocent and the cynical. On the one hand there is envy and the selfish ambition that lead to our wars and conflicts, James says. And of course in this gospel passage Jesus’ disciples are personifying exactly what James is criticizing, envy and the selfish ambition, discussing along the way who the greatest among them is. On the other hand, the child that Jesus pulls in their midst and embraces is the symbol of the just one who is, as James tells us, pure, peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy, without inconstancy or insincerity. It’s a very optimistic view of human nature, perhaps, but it’s as if Jesus, by pulling this child in their midst, is suggesting that this is what we are really like, naturally; this is who we really are that we need to get back to. It is sin and cynicism, envy and selfish ambition that are against our real nature. I love the line in the Preface for Religious that says through the saints God calls human nature “back to its original holiness.” Jesus is calling us back to our original holiness with this child.

Beauty, perfection, innocence can be disturbing. It’s what we do with that disturbance that counts. If one reaction is to want to bring it down to our size so that it doesn’t challenge us anymore, another reaction, I think a legitimate one, is to allow ourselves to be disturbed by it, and then to grieve and be sad about missed opportunities, sad perhaps about how difficult life may have been for us, and compunction for our own failings. But we can’t stay there forever either, not wallow in that until it turns into self-pity. We need to grieve and wail, yes, and then the next step is to celebrate God’s great generosity in having made something, someone else so beautiful, to be grateful and happy that someone else, maybe the next generation, can actually have it better than we did. In the Buddhist tradition this is one of the brahmaviharas, the immeasurable virtues––sympathetic joy. That’s magnanimous; that’s the attitude of a great soul, rejoicing in someone else’s joy, celebrating someone else’s triumph.

And yet another reaction is to be spurred on, inspired to achieve and assimilate the greatness we see, and the beauty that we are, and to let all things beautiful and noble and holy and innocent call us to our highest selves, call us back to our truest selves. We may not all be great basketball players, or concert pianists, or Nobel prize winning scientists, or models on the cover of Vogue and GQ, but we all of us have the capacity to be pure, peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy, constant and insincere––the real beauty of virtue. There’s a beautiful line in the first letter of Peter: let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight.[vi] It’s our true nature, and the beatitudes promise that this is what is going to bring us the deepest and truest happiness anyway. As Jesus was the image of the unseen God, so we are an image of the image, called from image to likeness.

I suppose we ask ourselves, “Why should I be the one who is pure, peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy, constant and sincere? No one else is! They’ll just take advantage of me if I am.” And yes, that’s right: we must be prepared for the cross, because not everyone will want us to shine. The world around us does not like to be challenged out of its mediocrity and complacency and ugliness any more than we ourselves do. That’s why prophets are always persecuted, especially among people who know them well, who know their fragile vessels well, who are scandalized that divine power and grace could actually flow through such a seemingly unworthy vessel and vehicle. That’s when we pray with the psalmist today, words we could hear in the heart and on the lips of Jesus, even on the cross: Now I know that God is with me. In God, in whose promise I glory, in God I trust, without fear; what can flesh do against me?[vii]

Saint Clare wrote to her sister Agnes once that Jesus was like a “mirror without cloud,” and advised her to “look into that mirror daily and study well your own reflection, that you may adorn yourself, mind and body, with an enveloping garment of every virtue.” Let’s gaze on the beauty of Jesus today, as if in a mirror, and let him call us back to our first innocence, our original holiness, and reflect back to us our own beauty.

cyprian, 23 sept 18

[i] Wis 2:12, 17-20.

[ii] Mt 8:28-34.

[iii] Mk 6:1-3.

[iv] Mk 9:30-37.

[v] Jas 3:16-4:3.

[vi] 1 Pt 3:4.

[vii] Ps. 54:12-13.

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