This article comes from the May issue of The Mennonite, which focuses on “The presence of beauty.” Read more reflections here or subscribe here to receive more original features in your inbox each month.
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, your God reigns.—Isaiah 52:7
How beautiful are the messengers who announce peace. So it was, more than 500 years before Christ, for a people disoriented, displaced, desperately hoping for good news. And so it is for those of us today who’ve been knocked off balance in this political and pandemic season, who grieve the divisions within our nation, in the Mennonite church and in our families, who dread the threat of climate change on flora, fauna and human life and who lament the abuse, violence, deportation and loss of a safety net for countless vulnerable people.
In this season, I’ve been drawn to books on beauty. I’m not talking about beauty as superficial glamour or gloss. I grew up, after all, on a steady diet of “beauty is as beauty does.” Beauty is breathtaking, yes, but it is most evident in the midst of suffering, alienation, exile. Beauty, Fyodor Dostoyevsky said, will save the world.
An experience of the beautiful is sacred, says Elaine Scarry in On Beauty and Being Just. It is life-saving. “At the moment one comes into the presence of something beautiful,” she writes, “it greets you.” Rather like a messenger, perhaps, bringing good news, announcing peace.
When we encounter beauty, we give up our position as the center of things, and find that we are standing in a “different relation to the world than we were a moment before,” she writes, and standing on a “fragment of sturdy ground.” When beauty greets us, there is a quickening, an adrenalizing and a longing to be in league with what is true and beautiful. That longing is the source of conviction, Scarry says. It is the longing to protect and defend the beautiful that compels us to repair injury and attend to problems of injustice.
As a young adult, Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, joined the Socialist party. She was drawn to the bohemian life of Greenwich Village in the early 1920s and saw religion as a crutch for the weak and an excuse to stay quiet and uninvolved.
After a love relationship that resulted in a pregnancy that she aborted and a marriage that failed, Day lived with a biologist who was an anarchist and an atheist. Three years later, their daughter was born, and soon thereafter, Day became an ardent lover of God—and a Catholic.
Daniel Berrigan asks: “Why did this agnostic and anarchist, veteran of jails, marches, fasts for justice, soul mate of a man who was, as she confessed, the very half of her being,…this woman whose natural air and habitat was the underworld of the victims, the excluded, the urban poor, this woman so sensual and worldly wise—why did she renounce, against all sound reason, her only love, cut her past, anger and bewilder her friends?”
Here’s why, in Day’s words: “If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure, I could not have felt more the exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms. To think that this thing of beauty, sighing gently in my arms, reaching her little mouth for my breast, clutching at me with her tiny beautiful hands, had come from my flesh, was my child? Such a great feeling of happiness and joy filled me that I was hungry for Someone to thank, to love, even to worship, for so great a good that had been bestowed upon me. That tiny child was not enough to contain my love, nor could the father, though my heart was warm with love for both.”
With this, Day made her way back to faith. She founded the Catholic Worker, a paper that for 53 years was the voice of a movement that concentrated on the basics of the gospel. She helped found more than 40 houses of hospitality and about a dozen farms that became places the poor could call home.
An encounter with beauty, says Scarry, seems to compel us to enter its protection, repair injury and attend to problems of injustice. During these unsettling times, where do we encounter beauty? What encounters provide “a fragment of sturdy ground to stand on”? What encounters deepen the conviction to protect what is good and true and beautiful?
There are three places all of us may encounter beauty: (1) nature, one of the “books” revealing God’s beauty; (2) the Scriptures, another book of beauty, especially the story of Jesus; (3) kingdom of God communities that embody hospitality and justice for all.
The beauty of the natural world is captured by many poets. Mary Oliver’s poetic acclamation in “Good morning” is one example:
The multiplicity of forms! The hummingbird,
the fox, the raven, the sparrow hawk, the
otter, the dragonfly, the water lily! And
on and on. It must be a great disappointment
to God if we are not dazzled at least ten
times a day.
How might being dazzled by natural beauty in its innumerable expressions, move us toward conviction, intensifying our desire to repair and restore? We are in the midst of the largest social movement in human history, writes Diana Butler Bass, a scholar of American religion and culture, with tens of millions of people involved in grassroots communities trying to address issues of climate change. It is an organic movement to “restore grace, justice and beauty to the world.”
We encounter beauty in the Scriptures, above all in the story of Jesus. Unfortunately, the gospel of Jesus Christ, in European and North American Christianity, has often been domesticated, made conventional, predictable and dull—and frequently manipulated for political gain. Pastor and author Brian Zahnd says that “to a generation suspicious of truth claims and unconvinced by moral assertions, beauty has a surprising allure.” Christian faith that is enchanted by Jesus Christ’s beauty and formed by beauty can open up qualities of the gospel that have rarely been seen by a jaded world. And everything about Jesus is beautiful, he says.
Zahnd calls the Sermon on the Mount a beautiful expression of God’s reign. Anyone who lives as kingdom of God people will excel in these eight things: “welcoming the poor in spirit, comforting those who mourn, esteeming the meek, hungering for justice, extending mercy, having a pure heart, being peacemakers, enduring persecution.”
Kingdom of God communities
Immediately after the last presidential election, when I felt mute with despair, Janna Hunter-Bowman, professor of peace studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana, sent me an email. She has been a frontline peacemaker in the midst of Colombia’s violent struggle for many years, and there have been many heartbreaking reversals. She has cause to be cynical, but instead she wrote: “We are still here, living and cultivating the community that loves amid fear, that stands with the marginalized amid hate, that does not rely on the government to be the new world on its way.”
As followers of Jesus, we are called to form communities that offer prayerful engagement and love of neighbor, healthy communities that resist not by frontal assaults but by countering the viruses of narcissism, greed, self-righteousness and nationalism with the beautiful gospel of peace.
“Listen up! O sentinels lift up your voices. Together, sing for joy. For the Lord has comforted his people” (Isaiah 52:8-9 adapted).
The nation is divided. The church is divided. But the beautiful gospel of Jesus Christ is not divided. As messengers of peace, we stand on the sturdy ground of this beautiful good news:
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, Our God reigns.”
Sara Wenger Shenk is president emerita of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana.
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