Beauty

A couple of summers ago, I visited Iceland for the first time. The landscape is rugged and rocky, but there are lots of trees too, which surprised me. Out of the city, you can drive for miles and only occasionally see a house, but you’ll see lots of sheep and ponies. It is exquisitely clean and the air smells fresh and scented with pine. We went on several evening excursions into the countryside with the hopes of seeing the aurora borealis, the “northern lights.” Truth is we could have stayed in town because this year was an exceptional one for viewing the lights even through the blur of city light pollution. The lights appear when charged particles from the solar winds interact with the earth’s atmosphere. That’s the science of it. But nothing prepared me for the awe of it.  

It would begin with a flicker of neon green near the horizon. Our little group stood watching, cameras ready. Then a huge curtain of yellow flowing light seemed to spill downwards to the horizon. The trees around a nearby lake were silhouetted with the background of glowing sky. It was breathtaking. Swirling colors of orange and yellow-green with a burst of red or even bright blue kept us turning and pointing to one another. It lasted for hours. Over the next few nights, as our guides took us to several viewing spots, our little group got to know one another. We were from Italy, Australia, Germany, and the United States. On Sunday, two of us went to Mass at the Cathedral in Reykjavik, while the rest shared brunch. That evening, out in the country, we were quietly watching the light show. It was our last night. One of our group was sharing some of the technical aspects of the aurora. He obviously knew quite a bit about it. For me, though the science of it was interesting, it was the sheer overwhelming beauty that transfixed me. This huge celestial light show was like a peek into heaven.  

That’s the thing about beauty—it calls to mind the Creator. There’s a wonderful C.S. Lewis quote about it: “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing…to find the place where all the beauty comes from…” To me, that’s what happens when I experience beauty. It engenders in me a desire to know and to experience the source of that beauty. It’s like seeing a beautiful painting and wanting to meet the painter. Only I know that the creator of the aurora is also my Creator. I can’t imagine experiencing the splendor of these northern lights, or an ocean sunset, or a snow-covered woodland and not being in awe of the One Who created it. And with that awe comes reverence, the deepest respect and honor imaginable for our Lord, Who in His goodness made everything for us, out of love.  

We don’t hear much about “reverence” anymore. Maybe that’s because no one models reverence for us. For so many, worship is little more than a rock concert led by a motivational speaker in blue jeans. There’s little sense of awe in that. And we’ve become poorer for it, in my opinion. We’ve become dulled to the transcendent and we reduce miracles to biology or coincidence. We value noise over silence, and appearance over substance. Tomorrow, we’ll chase the next big thing. What we can’t see, what many refuse to see, is the beauty of a universe created for us, begging us to be still, to look around us, and to be embraced by our Creator. We spend our short time on earth gazing down at a screen when all of heaven is falling down in sheets of light around us. Lord, have mercy.  

“Beauty will save the world.”

                    —-Fyodor Dostoevsky 

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A Far, Green Country

My mother suffered a series of strokes before her death several years ago. Already enduring a second bout with cancer, she was spending much of her days watching television news, which had become a favorite activity during her long illness. But after that initial stroke, she didn’t so much watch the television as watch a spot on the wall about 2 feet above the screen. This would go on for hours. She would smile and nod as if she agreed with whatever it was she saw there, but since she couldn’t speak, we were never able to find out what that was. We all long to know what we’ll experience once we die. The veil which separates our earthly life from the one to come seems thin at times. We love those stories about near-death experiences. The Church teaches us that after we die we experience a personal judgement before God. But what will that be like? Who will we see? Will we recognize our loved ones there?

Steve Jobs was raised by his adoptive parents in a home without much religion. He studied Buddhism for a bit, but he also described himself as an atheist, or an agnostic. Yet, when he died in 2011, his wife provided him with a Christian funeral. We might not know what he believed, but we know that his family revealed his last words to be: “Oh, wow. Oh, wow. Oh, wow!” What was he seeing? Who was he seeing? He seemed impressed, and a bit awed.  

We’ve all heard the story of the country doctor making a house call to one of his patients. The doctor always took his dog with him on these visits, and his pet would sit patiently outside the door. That day, the dying man asked his doctor if he knew what death was like. In answer, the doctor opened the door and his dog gleefully bounded into the room. “You see this dog?” asked the doctor. “He didn’t have any idea what was on the other side of this door. All he knew was that his master was in here waiting for him. And that was enough.” For a more poetic insight, J.R.R. Tolkien has the wizard Gandalf describe death like this: “The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns silver glass…and then you see it. White shores. And beyond…a far green country under a swift sunrise.” To me, those are both beautiful images.  

The Church also teaches us that it’s prudent to meditate on death. We look at our life in relation to its ending and we take things like sin and repentance more seriously. Sin has eternal consequences, and life is so precious and brief. One of my favorite authors, Pat Conroy died a couple of years ago and he reflected on how short our sojourn is on this earth. “Why do they not teach you that time is a finger snap and an eye blink and that you should not allow a moment to pass you by without taking joyous, ecstatic note of it, not wasting a single moment of its swift, breakneck circuit?” Indeed. We’re too often distracted by distractions, and we look up and another year has passed us by.  

I found this reflection which I think beautifully illustrates both the mystery and the joy of passing into eternity. I hope you’ll enjoy it here in the beginning of another new year:

And this is the consolation—that the world doesn’t end, that the world one day opens up into something better, and that we one day open up into something far better. Maybe like this: one morning you finally wake to a light you recognize as the light you’ve wanted every morning that has come before. And the air itself has some light thing in it that you’ve always hoped the light might have. And One is there to welcome you whose face you’ve looked for during all the best and all the worst times of your life. He takes you to Himself and holds you close until you fully wake. And it seems you’ve only just awakened, but you turn and there we are, the rest of us, arriving just behind you.We’ll go the rest of the way together.” 

         —-Scott Cairns 

A Time of Hope

The beginning of every year is a time of hope. Hope looks forward, to the future and to our true home in heaven, living in the presence of Christ, Who never changes and Who never fails us. These days we seem divided and adrift as a country. But we needn’t be if we live in hope. And, if we chose to see it, hope springs up all around us. The empty tomb is lived out in the simple choices that each one of us makes every day. Seeing these choices for what they reveal about our hearts is one of the joys of the Christian life.

We see hope when a teacher takes the time to comfort a crying child whose home life is hunger, loneliness, and harsh words. We see hope when a young man in prison receives a letter filled with kind words and encouragement, tucked inside a new Bible. We see hope when a young mother, despite pressure from her boyfriend, decides to keep her unborn child. We see hope when a man who has been away from the Church for decades is welcomed and consoled in the confessional by a kind and patient priest. Oh yes. Hope is surely here, if we see it.

“Hope is the life of the soul,” writes Dr. Peter Kreeft. Hope isn’t wishful thinking, or a merely optimistic outlook on life. Real hope, Christian hope, is the solid conviction that God has a plan for my life. Hope is knowing that He is in charge of everything and that He will see me through every trial—even the trial of my death. Hope is the risen Christ, the empty tomb, and life everlasting. Hope gives us strength to trust in God and not in ourselves. “Our God is thus a God of promises. And He keeps every one to the letter,” says Dr. Kreeft. We see that hope when an elderly couple, homebound and frail, share a meal and hospitality with the family that lives next door. We see hope when a businessman spends his Saturdays working with homeless men, helping them to fill out job applications and develop interview skills. We see hope when a parish welcomes two refugee families and provides them with housing and settlement support. We see hope when a husband and wife choose to adopt a child.

Hope connects us with one another and helps us to realize that we are all on this earthly journey together. “Hope builds bridges between faith and love, between conservatives and liberals, between present and future, between earth and heaven,” writes Dr. Kreeft. Hope asks of us to care for the needy among us, to reach out beyond our prejudices and to see the face of Christ in our neighbor. Hope gives us the courage to leave our fears in God’s hands. Hope calls us forth to love. We see hope when a teenaged girl is rescued from sex-trafficking by a group of dedicated nuns. We see hope when a small boy witnesses his mother love and care for his dying father in their home, day after day, for months on end. We see hope when a brother and a sister reconcile with one another after years of resentment over a now-forgotten slight. We see hope in the life of a woman battling breast cancer, who faces each day with courage and joy, inspiring those around her to do the same.  

We show hope to others when we live a life of gratitude, no matter our circumstances. Because we know that our God is always in charge, caring for us and drawing us to Himself. We know that today and tomorrow and all eternity are in His loving grasp. Hope is not an abstraction or a concept. Hope isn’t an intellectual exercise or a naive belief in some make-believe Candyland of our own design. Hope is as real as the nails in His sacred hands, as solid as the rock rolled away from His grave, as everlasting as God Himself. Hope isn’t some “thing”—as Pope Francis recently told the people of Mexico: “You have asked me for a word of hope–what I have to offer you has a name–Jesus Christ.”

“I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find til after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to the other country and to help others do the same.”

              —-C.S. Lewis 

Me. Me. ME.

There are so many great stories in the Old Testament. The story of creation. Moses parting the Red Sea. My namesake Judith chopping off the head of Holofernes. God uses all of them to reveal His great love for us and His unfolding plan for our salvation. One of my favorite stories is about Naaman and how God cured him of leprosy. I’m drawn to his story, not because it makes me feel good to read it, but because it makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s a good bet that when a story from Scripture makes me uncomfortable it’s because God is trying to get something through my thick skull. And with Naaman, I think I know what it is.

You’ll find the story of Naaman told in II Kings, chapter 5. Here’s the gist of it. Naaman is an army general in ancient Syria. He’s got everything going for him—he’s rich and strong and powerful. His career is going great. The only downside to anything about Naaman is the fact that he has leprosy, which in those days was devastating both physically and socially. Even so, he was a big deal in Syria. Living in his household was a little Jewish girl who had been captured in an army raid and who served as a maid to Naaman’s wife. She wanted her master to see the prophet Elisha whom she knew could cure his leprosy. So Naaman wrote to the king of Israel and was invited to come and see the prophet. After the long journey, Naaman arrived in court and Elisha sent word to him telling him to wash 7 times in the Jordan River and he’d be cured.

This really made Naaman mad. To begin with, he was a great general and this prophet couldn’t even be bothered to come outside and greet him personally? Naaman thought he’d get his cure when Elisha would pray for him and lay his hands on him. But no. Elisha had the audacity to tell him to bathe in this muddy, filthy little backwater creek they called the Jordan. Weren’t the mighty rivers of Damascus more beautiful, more powerful and more suited for a general like himself?

So in his anger Naaman got ready to leave. But his servants stopped him from going. They said if Elisha had asked Naaman to do something really difficult or extravagant that he’d have done it. Naaman agreed. Really sir, they told him, all you’ve got to do is go wash in the river. Naaman thought it over and did as he was told. And sure enough, his leprosy disappeared. He got the cure that he’d desperately longed for, but the way he went about it is what reminds me of my own sins and shortcomings. Sometimes when God blesses me I still find a reason to be unhappy with it. With Him. I think, “God, this isn’t the way I thought it would be.” When I had imagined Him answering my prayer, I had imagined Him doing it MY way. And when I do that, I limit God. Even though God alone can know what is best for me, I want him to bless me on MY terms. I want the prophet to come meet me personally, like Naaman did. I want God to bless me in the way that I expect to be blessed, in a way that will honor and exalt me. I don’t want to bathe in a muddy creek even though that’s exactly what I might need to do in order to be blessed. Me and Naaman? We understand each other.

Naaman and I are proud. We want to be treated like we’re important. We want a showy cure, something we think is “worthy” of us. What we have to learn is humility. For me, this is a daily lesson. Sometimes the greatest healings and most profound blessings come to us in the simple, straightforward “stuff” of our daily lives: our jobs, our families, our friends, and all the small ordinary challenges of every day. Too often we expect the Lord’s blessings to be big and dramatic: we win the lottery, we find a cure for cancer, we are awarded the Nobel Prize. But God uses the most mundane things and ordinary processes to perform His great miracles. He creates the universe with His word. He uses spittle and mud to cure a blind man. His breath imparts the Holy Spirit. Water cleanses us of sin in Baptism. Bread and wine become His precious Body and Blood.

Naaman reminds me not to try and put God in a box. My prayers (and my life) should reflect humility and gratitude. When God blesses me every moment my heart and my hands must be open to accept His gifts. Naaman’s little housemaid knew that. She knew that if her master asked, he’d be cured. May my heart be like her heart.

“Cast all your anxiety on Him because he cares for you,”
— I Peter 5:7