Sunday, June 7, 2009

The beauty of the world

Acropolis & the evening sky

The pride of the higher realms is the clear vault of the sky,

as glorious to behold as the sight of the heavens.

The sun, when it appears, proclaims as it rises

what a marvellous instrument it is, the work of the Most High.

At noon it parches the land,

and who can withstand its burning heat?

A man tending a furnace works in burning heat,

but three times as hot is the sun scorching the mountains;

it breathes out fiery vapours,

and its bright rays blind the eyes.

Great is the Lord who made it;

at his orders it hurries on its course.

It is the moon that marks the changing seasons,

governing the times, their everlasting sign.

From the moon comes the sign for festal days,

a light that wanes when it completes its course.

The new moon, as its name suggests, renews itself;

how marvellous it is in this change,

a beacon to the hosts on high,

shining in the vault of the heavens!

The glory of the stars is the beauty of heaven,

a glittering array in the heights of the Lord.

On the orders of the Holy One they stand in their appointed places;

they never relax in their watches.

Look at the rainbow, and praise him who made it;

it is exceedingly beautiful in its brightness.

It encircles the sky with its glorious arc;

the hands of the Most High have stretched it out.

We could say more but could never say enough;

let the final word be: ‘He is the all.’

Where can we find the strength to praise him?

For he is greater than all his works.

Awesome is the Lord and very great,

and marvellous is his power.

Glorify the Lord and exalt him as much as you can,

for he surpasses even that.

When you exalt him, summon all your strength,

and do not grow weary, for you cannot praise him enough.

Who has seen him and can describe him?

Or who can extol him as he is?

Many things greater than these lie hidden,

for I have seen but few of his works.

For the Lord has made all things,

and to the godly he has given wisdom.

- Ecclesiasticus 43:1-12, 27-33

Today's readings include this passage from Ecclesiasticus and the text of John 1:1-18. I think it is a good pairing to understand the beauty of the world (and imminant in that beauty and wonder, the Lord as author of creation) and the statements in the passages from John's gospel, because here we are dealing with Christ as Logos - the governing principle behind creation, through which was made manifest all things, including the beauty and the wonder of our world.

This lovely poetry in Ecclesiastes reminds me of the beauty and wonder at our world we are still to have today. I don't see incompatibility with all the advances of science and experimentation available to us today with this simple and beautiful poetry of praise from the Old Testament. How often have I myself sat and wondered at the beauty of the sky, the stars in their places, the transformations of the moon? All of this beauty of creation fits us today as human beings - whether we put the reason down as evolution or as a gift to us, the world is beauty, creation is beauty, and we human beings for whom the world has been created or has evolved live with a human response to its beauty. And I think this is fundamental to the full understanding of what it is to be a human being. We are capable of appreciating, savoring, loving and cherishing beauty.

This poetry of the world and its wonders (its author stating that there is so much more that he hasn't seen) has not lost its touch over time. I was fortunate to meet a theoretical physicist recently at a dinner connected with my husband's profession. His deep wonder, curiosity and passion about what he did was as striking as that of the poet: this man truly dealt in minute particles the poet couldn't have dreamt of, and yet this poetry acknowledges the wonders of the creation the poet knows he doesn't know about. Life is beauty. It is also sadness and pain; there is also evil in the world. But the gift to us is of beauty and our capacity to love it, cherish it, appreciate it. I for one believe this is an essential component to worship and that it has always been so for us human beings. Anthropologists digging up graves of our earliest ancestors find evidence of flowers strewn in those graves: the poetry of rebirth in the imagery of the beauty of the earth, the flowers that will grow again.

Oftentimes, worship and religion can take on aspects of all forms of dogma; it can degenerate into the purely abstract. The great Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov, in a now-classic text titled Ages of the Spiritual Life, warns of those of us religious who become "abstract beings." (I am recalling from memory and hope I have recalled correctly!) If we are lost in our rules or theories or dogma, we run the danger of forgetting that worship is about relationship, about all that is essentially human in us - everything must contain love and mercy and not just rules, theory, dogma. It is the saving grace that should separate true spiritual participation from another political slogan that could be used to do more harm than good.

To be human, I believe, is essentially to engage the capacity for the love and appreciation of beauty. We must cherish that with which we are gifted as beautiful. The world is not our possession to simply exploit but a gift to cherish, a source of wonder and love and inspiration. Once we lose the capacity to love beauty we have lost our own beauty as human beings, our ability to lift ourselves up out of despair and loss and pain.. It's not that those things are to be ignored or unaddressed - far from it. It's just that there is this added component of poetry to life, that adds to our "life in abundance" and which we must always take the time to appreciate.

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