Today’s Word: Beauty

Unknown (to me!) plant, North Carolina. SJG photo.

Last evening’s walk around Mallard Lake in Creve Coeur Park in suburban St. Louis was a walk through beauty. No less than a dozen deer crossed my path as I walked along, a few so close we could look each other in the eye. The slant of light from the setting sun caught the water on the lake, the tips of trees and the wings of a soaring red-tail hawk at just an angle so as to take my breath away. I had to stop for a second on my trek and whisper a silent “thank you,” knowing that was enough of a prayer for the moment. I can only imagine that beauty magnified a thousand times in a few months when full-on autumn hits us with the gentle ferocity of Jackson Pollock-like splatters of color and light. There’s so much to be seen on such a walk, so much beauty to take in if we place ourselves in the position to see it. I walk for exercise, but I walk in such settings for the beauty. I need them both to be healthy.

Path on Beech Mountain, NC. SJG photo.

And even as I write this, I realize that this word — beauty — is so overused in our world and culture that we barely pay any attention to it at all. Or if we do, we may be speaking of some artificial kind of beauty. Indeed, if you google “beauty” the very first entry will be a link to products and merchandise that will MAKE you beautiful, a social ploy created God knows how long ago to make people, especially women, think they are just not good enough as they are. Shame on us for buying into that at the expense of the inner and outer beauty that already exists in us.

Beauty may indeed be in the eye of the beholder, but aren’t some things innately beautiful? Thoughtful people have been asking that question for millennia, of course. I’m no expert on aesthetics, but I do know that my concepts of beauty are formed (or should be) by my faith and belief in the creator of all that is beautiful — in something that transcends both me and the created world.

Yo-Yo Ma from "On Being" website.

This past week I listened to a podcast (something else I sometimes do on my walks) of an interview by Krista Tippett with renowned cellist and composer Yo-Yo Ma on her public radio show “On Being.” Near the end of the interview, Tippett asks Ma for his definition of beauty and, after a bit of creative and interesting rambling, he settles on this: “I can’t say the word beautiful without also equating it with the word transcendence…a moment of reception and cognition of the thing that is, in some ways, startling. There’s that moment where there is, essentially, a transfer of life…human cognition of that vastness, awe and wonder.” (To hear the whole glorious interview, click here: http://bit.ly/WAkzFB.)

For me, this comes close to the mark. This “transfer of life” that takes place in the presence of real beauty is perhaps why we gasp, as if we’re being re-born and sucking in air for the first time. It’s why so many of us find God in nature, in wind-blown places where the spirit wanders as it pleases and finally comes to rest on our lips and helps us pray, helps us whisper that “thank you.”  For whether we find God in the natural beauty of a lush forest or a stark desert, whether in a museum or a concert hall, it’s the same God showing us beauty in the bounty and diversity of the earth and in the people who walk it.

Ask yourself in silence: Where do I most easily see beauty? What is my response to it? Do I often enough put myself in a place where I can experience it?

Today’s Word: Vestige

Hay field off Ballard Branch, near Weaverville, NC. SJG photo.

St. Bonaventure wrote that all of creation is the fingerprint and the footprint of the Divine One (vestigia Dei). By definition, this “vestige” is a small reminder, a trace of something that is no longer present. So if “all creation” is a vestige of the Creator, how big, indeed, must that Divine One be? Huge. Beyond comprehension and without bounds or the ability to be possessed.

So is it any wonder we are left speechless and in awe when confronted with the grandeur of the natural world? For somewhere deep inside we know this world is merely God’s calling card, God’s way of reminding us that — although seemingly out of sight —  the Divine is nevertheless as present as the rain on our nose, the sound of the stream in our ears, the smell of the rose and the taste of the fruit of the vine. And while our churches give us sacraments — visible signs of the divine in the forms of water, wine, bread, oil, hands — the world around us is an ever-living, ever-moving, ever-changing sacrament of our never-changing, ever-present God.

I spent last week in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, and I can’t shake the vision of stone and tree, stream and fog, mountain and valley. I still groan in wonder when I think of the view from the top of Grandfather Mountain or the early morning veiled hay field that snatched my breath away. It was the view, yes, but it was really the glimpse that got me.

Ask yourself in silence: What in nature beckons me to see God? Where is the sacred in my life?

Today’s Word: Bee-loud

My favorite poem by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, begins with these four lines:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

Craggy Gardens Bald, NC. SJG photo.

I always loved the sense of silence, stillness and peace that Yeats paints for us in this poem, but it wasn’t until yesterday that I was really aware of what it might be like to live in a bee-loud glade. Yesterday we hiked Craggy Gardens Trail, a path right off the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, which promised a trail to “craggy flats through a high mountain Rhododendron bald.” I had never been surrounded by the bone-like Rhododendron before, and I became mesmerized by the bare branches clawing their way skyward, seemingly dead and yet holding life in the glossy leaves at the end of their limbs. Perhaps another word for another day…

Rhododendron in Blue Ridge Mountains, NC. SJG photo.

When we arrived at the top and walked out onto the bald of the hill, I found myself virtually encircled by bees busy doing what bees do, not caring a buzz that I was tramping through their livelihood. But the sound! It took me a few seconds to realize that the roar in my ears was the chorus of the workers. Going about their life and livelihood, I wondered if they knew the sound they made. Yeats’ words immediately surfaced and I smiled. Bee-loud glad indeed. He knew. He knew because he paid attention, as I was doing now.

So often we don’t act because we don’t think we make a difference, as if one voice doesn’t matter, as if the buzz that comes off of our lives is insignificant. But that mindset negates the power of community — of people who put their heads down and work and get the job done, of singers who lift one voice and form a chorus, of worshippers who gather around a common table and form one body in Christ. That’s the buzz of our lives, the bee-loud glade of our existence. We are not made to be alone.

Ask yourself in silence: When do I feel insignificant? When do I feel alive and part of something larger than myself?

Today’s Word: Landscape

Linville Falls, NC. SJG photo.

“Geography is simply a visible form of theology.”
- Jon D. Levenson

I’m traveling this week through the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. At the same time, I’m reading my new friend Belden Lane’s book (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality [Oxford Press]) on the power of landscape in our spiritual lives. Belden’s book takes an especially close look at the rough and barren landscapes of the American southwest and Israel. He is drawn to these mountains and deserts (the word toou in the Coptic language stands for both mountains and deserts, I learned) just as the early church desert fathers drew inspiration from the via negativa, the negative or opposite way of thinking that uses no analogies for God since they are all “ultimately inadequate.”

In the negative space of the deserts and mountains, we come to find God and ourselves for what God and we are not. Belden writes: “Only at the periphery of our lives, where we and our understanding of God alike are undone, can we understand bewilderment as occasioning another way of knowing.”

It’s a beautiful, insightful, ancient way of thinking about God, and I have felt that sense of nothingness and yet everything important standing among the red rocks and dry earth of Sedona, Arizona. And yet, here I stand in the opposite of all that, in the resplendent and verdant ridges and valleys of the Appalachians. So where is God in all this green and fecundity, in these rivers and streams and orchards and fields? God is here, too, of course.

Belden’s book and his other writings have opened my eyes to the role that landscape plays in our spiritual lives, in the ways that we see and sense the sacred all around us. Again, he writes: “[Landscape] plays a central role in constructing human subjectivity, including the way one envisions the holy. The place where we live tells us who we are — how we relate to other people, to the larger world around us, even to God.”

Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina. SJG photo.

I don’t live here — I’m just visiting for a week — and yet this larger world around me is so big that I cannot take it all in, cannot begin to fathom the Creator and the extent of the creation. And yet I know it to be true, feel it to be truth at the center of my being. I need this landscape like I need the air that I breathe, like I need sacred scripture and the community of others and the bread and wine offered on the table of thanksgiving.

There’s nothing magical about these mountains, just as there is nothing magical in the toou of Belden’s book. We find God when we open ourselves to God, in that place where we allow ourselves to be empty enough to allow God to enter and be present. God, as Belden writes, “cannot be had.” And as the unknown author of the Cloud of Unknowing once wrote: “God is a desert to be entered and loved, never an object to be grasped or understood.”

Wherever we are, whatever our landscape, at our core we must not be possessors of God and faith but rather empty vessels, ready to receive the flowing love of an incomprehensible God.

Ask yourself in silence: What landscape speaks to me of God? Why?

Today’s Word: Reveal

Taipei skyline with Taipei 101, the second tallest building in the world. SJG photo.

“Truly, Yahweh was always in this place all the time, and I never knew it.” Genesis 28:16

Two things — among others — that most greatly affect our vision are perspective and optics. Where we stand and what we look through as we view the world around us create very different versions of the same thing. Last year as I stood on the street outside of my hotel in Taipei, Taiwan, all I saw at first glance was a wall of towering concrete and steel buildings. Interesting, to be sure, but not what I would immediately think of as beauty. Only later, from my perch on some impossibly high floor and looking through a telephoto lens, was I able to see the beauty of the city, spot a number of tiny, exquisitely planned rooftop gardens or see the mountains in the distance. Perspective and optics.

We cannot see what we don’t put ourselves in the position to view. Nor can we envision the finer details of beauty and grace with eyesight that needs correction. We can’t see the molecule without the microscope or the faraway galaxy without a telescope. And we can’t see the speck in our neighbor’s eye without removing the plank from our own.

Taipei rooftop garden, SJG photo.

We sometimes cannot see and understand the pain and the needs of others — especially those somehow “different” for any myriad of reasons — unless we have the courage to change and challenge our own comfortable position and perspective and perhaps correct or enhance our vision. The adage that we cannot trust our own eyes just might be true. Sometimes our most deeply ingrained prejudices are simply those things we’re not willing to look at more closely, seeking a new perspective and clarity of vision that allows us to see others for what they are: children of God.

And the same goes for our ongoing search for God. God never leaves and does not change, yet we often fail to see the Divine as it intertwines and insinuates itself in our lives. Faith is not about God “coming” to us, for God is always present. Faith is about turning toward some whisper, some gentle nudge and acknowledging, “Ah, there you are. Why didn’t I see you sooner?”

Ask yourself in silence: What can I do to better see God and others in need? What perspectives do I need to change? How does my vision need correcting or enhancing?

Today’s Word: Listen

Ibby's Butterfly Garden, Washington University in St. Louis. SJG Photo.

“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” Psalm 95:7-8

If any of us were to hear the voice of God — really and truly hear it and know for sure what was being said and who was saying it — who among us could harden our hearts against it? Even an atheist would have a hard time resisting the pull and call of such a certain God.

But hearing the voice of God is, unfortunately, not so simple. Hearing the voice of God demands listening for the voice of God, an act of active contemplation that demands silence, attention and a willingness and openness to receive the divine. That in itself is an act of faith. We will never hear the voice of God until we get it in our heads and hearts what God might sound like — and not sound like. God is never the voice of anger, telling us to hate or kill in his name. God is not the voice telling us to judge others, to segregate and separate, to give privilege and abundance to some and allow disadvantage and poverty to others. The voice of God is much more challenging than that.

The voice of God is the voice that tells us to love beyond all else. It is the voice that calls us to union with itself and communion with all those around us. The voice of God tells us we have meaning and purpose, that we can be forgiven regardless of the sin and that we should forgive others over and over again, even if we cannot forget or accept what they have done. God’s voice calls out into the wilderness of our lives (and, yes, we all live in the wilderness…just watch the news): “There is a better way. There is more than all this. Come to me. Follow me.”

When you hear this today — and you will hear it in a dozen different ways if you will only listen — open your heart to it. Take it in like a breath of fresh air on a crisp fall morning and let it fill your life with a new message of love, hope, grace and peace.

Ask yourself in silence: What’s keeping me from hearing the voice of God?

Today’s Word: Afraid

My son Jon, around 1988, at my parents' grave. SJG photo.

One of the most often-repeated statements in the Bible is some version of “Be not afraid,” and it is usually said to humans when they are about to encounter the divine. “Don’t be afraid,” the angel says, “it’s just something you’ve never seen before, something you can’t fathom, something that will both scare you and change your life. That’s all.”

What God says with “be not afraid” is not, “don’t worry, everything will always be okay. Your children will always be safe, your parents will never die, and you will always be healthy.” That’s not the fear and hurt from which God delivers us. That would be an empty promise, indeed, for we all know that those heart-rending moments are a part of life. The fear that God delivers us from is the fear of being alone and helpless when these things happen. That life is fragile and always ends in physical death and separation from those we love is one of the harshest realities we learn.

But “be not afraid” offers hope and a glimpse behind the temporal confines of life and death. “Be not afraid” says there is more, and that “more” is grace-filled love, mercy and a new kind of life that doesn’t end and bring grief. “Be not afraid” asks us to look beyond what we can see and believe beyond what we cannot see. “Be not afraid” suggests that we grasp the hand of God when it is offered, which is always and everywhere, even and especially at the depths of our worry and fear.

None of this is easy, but we never have to go it alone, and through Christ we can possess a hope and a faith that leads us to a different kind of beyond.

Ask yourself in silence: What am I afraid of? (Really, make a list.) Which of these things are beyond the touch and love of God?

Today’s Word: Quiet

Standing quiet sentinel. SJG Photo.

We live in a world where we really have to purposefully “unplug” and plan our days accordingly if we want to find even a moment or two of silence. Unless we live far away from the human-driven noise pollution of the cities and suburbs, these moments of quiet can be hard to come by. And because we don’t experience them often, we sometimes forget what to do with silence when we finally find ourselves in the midst of it. Quiet can drive us crazy if we don’t see it coming. Some folks can’t stand to NOT have the TV or radio on because they need something to tell them that they are alive and not alone.

But if we can learn to nurture quiet in our lives and seek it out on a regular basis, we can allow ourselves to be embraced by it and all that it holds. And what does it hold? It holds a better realization of our most authentic selves. It holds the opportunity to listen to our own hearts beating and feel the breathing in and breathing out of our very beings. It holds awareness of God, of the One who was and is and always will be, the One who sees and knows us just as we are and welcomes and loves us anyway. It holds a message of meaning and purpose and call. It holds everything that matters, but only if we can quiet ourselves enough to listen.

Ask yourself in silence: What’s the role of quiet in my life? Do I run from it or embrace it?

Today’s Word: Enough

"Enough" in a Sedona sunset. SJG photo.

We seem to live in a world of “never enough.” That’s certainly what television, movies and advertising tell us. No matter how much we have, a little (or a lot) more would be better. We are told over and over (whether we think we’re listening or not): “You will never be truly fulfilled and happy until you get that one job, that one car, that one house. Then you’ll be happy and have all you need.”

Except it’s all a lie created to make us want even more. There’s no way out of that cycle of greed and “not enough” if we stay inside it. Those who create it make sure of that. If we’re not careful, if we don’t learn to find our “enough” in something that lasts, there will always be something knocking on the door of our hearts saying, “more, more, better, better.”

But we do, in fact, have access to enough. Henri Nouwen wrote that he often prayed a prayer of St. Teresa of Avila: “Solo Dios bastia.” (“God alone is enough.”) Praying these words slowly and out loud helped him enter into God’s presence, he wrote, “where there is peace and certainty that God is always with me and loves me.” (Nouwen, Discernment, p. 27). The whole text of Teresa’s prayer is:

Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing frighten you.
Those who cling to God
will lack nothing.
Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing frighten you.
God alone is enough.

Or, if you like your poetry a little more modern, how about these words from contemporary worship songwriter Chris Tomlin?

All of you is more than enough for all of me.
For every thirst and every need.
You satisfy me with your love.
And all I have in you is more than enough.

This is the call and challenge of the Christian life, to find in God — Father, Son and Spirit — all that we need, our daily bread and cup of sustenance. For our thirst and hunger for the “more” of this world can only truly be filled by the One who transcends all time, the One who brought all into being and continues to move and work among us.

Ask yourself in silence: What “enough” do I need to let go of so I can cling more firmly to the “enough” that God offers freely and completely?

Today’s Word: Fallow

Wilson's Creek National Battlefield, Springfield, Mo. SJG photo.

Yesterday I shared with my spiritual direction peer supervision group that the last month or so I have experienced a lack of energy to do the things I really want to do. Following a period of intense prayer and productivity (I just finished a nine-month Ignatian 19th annotation retreat and a graduate program in spiritual direction) I was experiencing difficulty and dryness in both prayer and writing.

At that point, one of my wise colleagues pointed out the need to “remain fallow” once in a while, to step back from even the best of things in order to replenish ourselves. When I looked up the definition of fallow, I was amazed at how well it matched my own situation:

Fallow: Plowed and harrowed but left unsown for a period in order to restore its fertility as part of a crop rotation or to avoid surplus production.

The truth is, I all too often equate my spiritual health with what I am “doing.” How many blog posts? How many pages in my journal? How’s that book project coming along? The planning for next fall’s retreat? These are all important things that need to get done, but they need to flow from my “down time” with God. They are the result of silence and prayer, not the source.

What I’ve come to realize is that it’s okay to not be productive for a while (and that’s a tough one for me). It’s okay to simply sit “fallow” with God in prayer, without agenda or even words, knowing that God is plowing and harrowing me, leaving me unsown in order to restore my fruitfulness at the time only God controls. God’s work, God’s time.

Ask yourself in silence: Do I need to make some time to just “be” with God?