In Praise of Useless Beauty

Photo by Manny Becerra on Unsplash

”. . . Once you have been touched deeply by beauty, in a lily or a human face, it is difficult to resist engaging the kind of justice that clears the way for more beauty in the world.”1

There is a tension in our lives between two poles: Mission and Beauty, imperative and invitation. Sometimes we take to the streets, sometimes we gaze in wonder.

We carry the water of mission in buckets, one on either side, the beam balanced across our shoulders. We follow the track laid down in the Gospels, “Go ye into all the world.” Without a map, we walk. The water sloshes. We cannot afford to glance at our feet.

Fervent in spirit and trusting, we learn to read faces. In another’s voice we sense the longing for an end to dryness. In the cold hallways of someone else’s life, we hear the echoes of our own restlessness, “Calling, O sinner, come home.” We pray to be open to the Spirit. We are impatient.

There are commonplace miracles happening. We breathe in, we breathe out. The world brims with the Light; it ceaselessly streams into the world. We are blinded by the Light, swaddled, and warmed. Even so, there is darkness.

Mission gets us up and out. We leave home to sail away from comforts familiar into other lands and isles. We bump into new words, stumble through markets and bazaars, hear the music of surprise and delight, strain to see beyond the horizon.

It helps to be young, to not know what you cannot do. Innocence displays a wisdom that experience might discount. Effort and sacrifice, expended outward, builds resilience; there is satisfaction in obstacles encountered and transformed. Your muscles flex and burn as your shoulder lowers and your cheek presses against the rock.

(The definition of work: To transfer energy from one object to another in order to move the second object in a certain direction. Work equals force multiplied by the distance over which it is applied.)

In college, as a religion and journalism double-major, I was blessed to have close friends in both fields. One weekend, two friends and I found ourselves in a quiet chapel between scheduled events of a Bible conference. We spent an hour spontaneously preaching. One of us would open the Bible, drop a finger on a text without looking, and pass it along to another. That person had a minute to think about it and two minutes to preach a sermonette on that text.

We were amazing. Our imaginations were lit, our energy was boundless, our humor and wit were buoyant. Someone looking on might have been critical of our sermonic structure, but not our enthusiasm. We placed ourselves within the Acts of the Apostles, fiery with the Spirit and with joy. For those moments, Beauty and Mission were one.

Then we went off to the next meeting on soul-winning strategies and the flame flickered and went out.

There is a militancy in American Protestantism, rooted perhaps in 19th-century abolitionist and temperance movements, that continues today with triumphalist notes.

Growing up in the church, we youngsters were trained in “sword drills,” in which a Bible text was read and we were to shout out the chapter and verse. Now “prayer warriors” organize on Facebook to mobilize around family members facing surgery or a job interview.

There is a low hum of alertness you get around a lot of evangelists, as if they are constantly on guard against imminent attack from demons who walk among us. And while it’s true that we wrestle with “the cosmic powers of this present darkness,” as Paul says, the temptation is strong for them to find that darkness first within their own fellowship (Eph. 6:12).

They speak of churches as “beachheads” and television ministries as “the front line.” “Onward, Christian Soldiers” is the adult version of the children’s song, “I’m in the Lord’s Army.” The metaphors of combat pervade the language of evangelism. The uncomfortable truth, to paraphrase Clausewitz, is that for many in the church, mission is war by other means.

To be tested in mission is to realize what we can reach and how much we still fall short. We do not stop to ask where we are—not yet—but time and turns and detours on the road will gently bring us to a reckoning. There is more to come, much more ahead, but lately and at last we will pause to ask ”Why?”

***

Is Mission everything? Is everything a means to an end? Are there no things whose beauty alone grants them space to flourish? What about the days we long for a fragment of poetry, a familiar riff, the cast of light in a Vermeer, lights along the promenade after sunset? Seamus Heaney said poetry never stopped a tank. But he wrote it, nevertheless. Oh, how he wrote.

Even Paul must have turned aside while on his ceaseless journeys, to gaze in wonder at the sea or to pause in a mountain pass for the flowers. Some things bless us surely by their unselfconscious beauty. They do not fit in our box of tools. They do not demand our attention. In their reticence, they draw us to them. The natural world is too generous to need us, but even its extravagance can be overwhelmed by our appetites.

Such beauty cannot be comprehended (from Latin, comprehensus, to seize), but rather received (from Latin, recipere, to take back again). Beauty is that which we have lost, have wandered into again, and have thus awakened to. It is a distant echo of a time in which we were given everything without asking, everything we did not need to know. Without need, everything is gift. It was a life innocent of utility, of seizing ends through means.

That was Paradise.

Now we must till the gardens east of Eden, work them by the sweat of our brow to find and fill our needs. But useless beauty is still there to be received as gift, to remind us of what we have lost, and to fill us with a holy longing for belonging.

The beauty of the natural world cannot be produced, but it can be desecrated. When we turn aside to exult in it and to protect it, it humbles us by its majesty and aloofness.

The Genesis creation stories endow us with a reverence for the beauty of being, of living to bear the image of God. They ground us with the call to care for the Earth, more imperative now than ever before. This too is Mission.

But they also bear witness of the Fall, the abyss that dropped between ourselves and God, the rupture between you and I that renders our communication labored and broken. Now Beauty is at a remove from us; perceived, instead of enveloping us. Now we are objects to ourselves.

Unless . . . unless our missions are transfused with beauty received through the Light coming into the world. “Then shall your light break forth as the morning, and your health shall spring forth speedily: and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.”2

Mission, rightly done, awakens others to that joy. The seeing of Beauty is our re-cognition, our thinking-again, of our work in the world. Beauty recognized widens the field of our vision as we plunge ahead with Mission. It softens the hard lines of justice through mercy without fogging up our ambition.

“We can afford to dance,” writes Rowan Williams, “dance the useless dance of love for its own sake, beauty for its own sake: the dance of Mother Teresa . . . Of all who work with the hopeless, the incurable, the dying, the wretched . . . Our life now is not for usefulness but for beauty: we can have no other.”3

Here is another scene. I am sitting with a student, a person I am beginning to know. I sense that he and I could be good friends. We are talking about literature, art, and film. The more we talk, the deeper we go. Now we are plowing the ground of the parables and how they could be written about, illustrated, or filmed. Nothing seems impossible; we are electric.

I feel my eyes brim with tears. My companion notices immediately. “What’s wrong?” he asks anxiously. “Nothing,” I say, but I can barely speak. I feel myself to be overflowing. It must be gratitude. This is how true communication can be, I think to myself. This—unselfconsciously, unreservedly, mysteriously—is how Mission melts into Beauty.

  1. Taylor, Barbara Brown. Always a Guest: Speaking of Faith Far from Home. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020, p. 13.
  2. Isa. 58:8, KJV.
  3. Williams, Rowan. A Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1995, p. 63.

Consider the Lilies

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“Consider the lilies,” says Jesus.

Is it a demand, like “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice?’” Or is it an invitation like that extended to Matthew who, as a taxman, was sitting in his booth collecting the blood-money from his people to be handed over to the occupying Roman force?

Jesus is walking along, says the Scripture, and he sees Matthew in his little booth, like those photo booths you’d see in parking lots of grocery stores, not even as big as a restroom at a Phillips 66 service station, and he just says, “Follow me,” and “he got up and followed him,” says the Gospel according to Matthew (no relation).

This invitation comes to Matthew as something of a command, for how else to explain leaving a job in which the money is made so easily (the size of the booth notwithstanding), just a matter of slipping an extra 10 percent on the standard tax so the Empire gets its money, you get your slice (in addition to your paltry salary), and everyone is happy—well, everyone with the exception of your people who await with dread and resentment the next shakedown at your command. If you didn’t mind being a pariah and knowing that every face turned toward you was either coldly indifferent or seething, then the job had its advantages. A pariah you might be, but a rich pariah you were, and that almost made up for being alone.

The lilies, then.

“They toil not, neither do they spin.”

***

Our work, what we do for most of the life we have, how do we see it? Is it a command or an invitation? Were we sitting in the little booths of our adolescence, bored and avaricious, waiting for a summons that only we would know when we heard it? Did we think the summons would be dispersed in general to everyone like us around us or would it single us out—we alone—lifted up out of the ordinary on the strength of a talent long buried like a bone in the garden, a talent perhaps, that we had ourselves buried for shame for even imagining it was our talent?

Or did we back into the spot, the one available at the time, that would become our place for so long that the weeds would grow up around the tires and the seasons wear down the frame as it settled?

Our self-image, like a Polaroid snapshot, emerges gradually from black to gray to color as we phase through our work life.

We imagine ourselves to be vaulting over all obstacles, achieving that which others have despaired of reaching, or bending down kindly to raise up those behind us who are slipping on the rungs of achievement. Suddenly there is no one ahead of us, the field is clear, we have been called to lead! We turn with an encouraging shout, only to find that the others, leaders and followers, have calmly dropped back. They regard us from a distance with pitying looks. We are alone.

We do not recognize the person we are until we see ourselves at work in the vocation we believe ourselves to be called to. Then we wonder if the gap between perception and vision can be bridged. We give ourselves to the work, glancing to the side at colleagues and up ahead at those who beckon—they make it look so effortless. We feel like imposters. It is in those moments that a fundamental truth is revealed to us: we have entered a conversation that precedes us by thousands of years and will continue after we cease to speak. It is possible that by listening we may learn and by speaking we may remember what we have learned. In speaking our own minds we may find that we have also spoken what others have thought but could not say. With Emerson we may be like the one who is “happy enough if he can satisfy himself alone that this day he has seen something truly.”

***

Matthew followed Jesus, seemingly without hesitation. Was it a relief to shuck off the taxman’s cloak? He gave up routine, the comforting groove of repetition, for day-to-day dislocation and the tingle of the unknown. In a moment he jackknifed himself from solitude into a band of brothers, discarding ambition like a fraying belt and making no plans beyond the setting of the sun. What his former life had been was the mention of some nudges and terse comments at first, but then that arc of his life evaporated and was gone. Filled with a strange elation, he fell into the rhythm of the days, feeling his stride lengthen and his horizons widen. What was he now? The first time someone asked, “Where is your master?,” he almost laughed before he realized that he had become a disciple, a follower.

“It is precisely the most solitary people who have the greatest share of commonality,” said Rilke. “The one who could perceive the whole melody would be most solitary and most in the community at once.”

Strangely, what Jesus offered was a hallowedness that made every action seem both familiar and sacral. There was an inwardness about him that lingered even when he smiled. Matthew found it compelling, a sense that even as Jesus was among them, sharing meals and stories and the hard ground under the stars, he was yet just beyond their reach.

His intensity was infectious, if exhausting. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” he cried out. He acted like a man whose life was converging with a future that was accelerating toward him at the speed of light.

The next day they were moving through a springtime field awash with flowers, heading north following the line of hills to the west. “Consider the lilies,” he said, trailing a hand through the blossoms as they walked. “They neither toil nor spin.” They didn’t need to toil to justify their short time on this earth. They simply were: they were their own reason for existing. As brief as their lives were, he said, God took care of them. Wouldn’t He do the same and more for you? God knows what you need.

That night he said to them, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Don’t worry about tomorrow.” He looked round at them, quizzical faces turned up in the firelight. “Tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

And now Matthew is considering the lilies, even as he turns over all that Jesus has said. He thinks about those for whom life is one hard-scrabble decision after another, those who could never imagine that the story provides an excuse for blithe idleness. For them, subsistence is necessity and tomorrow is never guaranteed. For them, faith is all the guarantee they will get—and all they will need.

He decides it is an invitation: “Consider the lilies!”

Photo: Josephine Amalie Paysen, Unsplash.com