The first thing I did when I arrived home this week was to buy a bunch of flame-hued tulips.
They sit now, in a fat, creamy old pot on my dresser in their sinuous twine and reach toward the window. Have you ever noticed that if you place a bunch of new tulips anywhere near light, within a day or two the leaves and stems and buds will accomplish a slow, imperceptible pirouette that turns them toward the brightness? I think this is part of why tulips are one of my favorite flowers. They image my own soul in its own reach toward light. And their beauty lengthens my reach.
I’m, as an reader of this blog knows, a great believer in seeking out the beautiful, especially when the pace and noise of life ratchet to a pitch and speed almost maddening. For beauty creates a space that is holy, a place of quiet that becomes a refuge when we seek it amidst the battle and race of life. It’s travel season for me right now. I’m on a plane and in a new state just about every week, so I have to catch my quiet moments when I can. There’s beauty aplenty to be snatched on the road, but my room, when I am home, is my refuge; in this blue-walled space, with the ivory-toned chairs, with candles alight and pictures transporting me to realms beyond my own, I taste peace. I drink of quiet. I light my candles, set my Celtic music singing, and often times just sit in my chair, hands cradling a cup of tea or coffee, eyes fixed on my pictures, or the dusk light out the window, or the tulips in their wondrous reach for light. And somehow I am hushed. Then nourished by what I behold. Then aware, in a slow dawning of deep realization, that God is whispering to me in all the loveliness I see.
Beauty is a powerful presence in the life of any lover of God. A presence we often lose, or ignore, or shaft aside as peripheral to the daily work and need of our lives, or the exhausting demands of ministry and travel. We rush and work and hurry and go, but as we do, our souls become arid, our hearts barren as we spend ourselves dry for God and his presence grows ever fainter. Until… one instant of flaming sunset over the mountains stops us still. Or a strain of a song cuts through the shouting in our brains with a command to listen, to hush, to worship. Or a tulip lifts its hungering face as far as it can toward the light, and reminds us that we are pilgrims, spiritual reachers ourselves, and we have not yet fully grasped the Light we so desire and we need help us to hope in, to keep faith with the promises of God.
A couple of years ago, when I had a blog with the word “idealist” in the title, a commenter challenged me to explain what I meant by ideals and what good it was to love beautiful things. The question came, oddly enough, during another hectic season of winter travel, and it caused me to sit down for a whole afternoon to articulate my hitherto passionate, but inarticulated convictions on the spiritual significance of beauty. So, the rest of this post is simply copied from those long-ago thoughts, because, well, I leave again tomorrow morning and I haven’t packed yet. But my conclusions remain the same, and I wanted to post them here today, for I am so deeply convicted of our need to seek God in the beautiful, to know his goodness through the lovely gifts he has made. I bet you feel as hurried and harried by life as I do. I bet you crave the presence of God. If you’re anything like me, you need a dose of hope, or fresh made courage. I deeply believe that beauty is an unceasing source of spiritual nourishment, of hope. If only we will take the time to see…
(Originally posted on itinerantidealist.wordpress.com, on January 12, 2008.)
I noticed just the other day that someone left a comment on my “about” page challenging me in defining myself as an idealist. As it happens, my conference talk this year is all about beauty, ideals really, and how living them out pictures God’s reality in the midst of a fallen world. Thus, the whole theme of idealism has been on my mind and I want to answer the challenge that was made with a portion of what I wrote today.
To the person who left the post, I think I failed to adequately communicate what I mean by ideals. I wouldn’t want anyone to think, as the commenter said, that I believe ideals to be just about smelling roses. Roses are gorgeous creations, but a careless amusement with pretty things isn’t what I mean by being an idealist. In fact, I mean the opposite. I mean that most of life consists of dusty, normal days often punctuated by sickness (that no doctor can diagnose), thorny relationships (especially those involving family), general struggle (flat tires, money, irritation) and loneliness. I am keenly aware that my love of beauty is equaled by my total inability to force my life to be beautiful. The world and myself are profoundly broken. My natural impulse in the midst of this is to a quick discouragement that seeps into every vein of my being. It ends in a dark numbness of heart that leaves me incapable of either seeing beauty or allowing it to teach me to hope.
To seek beauty then, in the midst of the this broken world, is to have faith in a reality beyond what I can see. Despite the grief of life in the broken place, my heart still catches glimmers of what was meant to be, echoes from the shattered gladness of new creation. The remnants of Eden reach out to me in the very stuff of the every day, slivered shards of ideal beauty glittering in a story, through the sunlight slanted in on my table, the flight of song, a moment of utter quiet. In those moments, I am aware that beauty speaks. That loveliness tells me of something beyond the brokenness, that every experience of joy I find is the promise of a coming and complete redemption.
That what it means to be an idealist. It is to treasure my deepest desires for love, or beauty, or peace as evidence of God’s coming kingdom, even as I live in a world that destroys them. It means to fight tooth and nail, day by day, to hold fast to a belief in an ultimate goodness that is coming to redeem everything back to its original goodness. It means to live, to craft, to create my life in such a way that my hope becomes visible, my faith enfleshed in color and sound and form. To be an idealist is to love and create a beauty that illumines the ordinary, transforming the mundane or despairing into a colorful hope.
To be an idealist is to picture my ultimate hope right in the smack middle of messy, ordinary days. It means lighting candles and putting on music when I really just want to despair. It means laughing at housework instead of screaming (which I usually want to do). It means opening my eyes to God’s creativity and beauty in the earth when busyness could easily distract me and rob me of wonder. It means reaching out to needy people and unresponsive friends again and again. It means taking the musty clay of dusty, messy days, and molding them into hours of laughter, landmark feasts, music-making and memories.
When it comes right down to it, everything I believe in lies just beyond my touch, so why shouldn’t my ideals as well? My love of Christ drives me to live in a certain way, compels me to picture my hope in my words, my actions, the set of my face as I encounter the daily world. I may not grasp the kingdom of God on earth, but I picture its reality. So with my ideals of beauty. I know that God created his earth with its startling beauty to reflect the richness of existence he intended for us. Though the world is fallen, the picture of goodness is still there, and the promise of it being restored is the center point of my hope.
To be an idealist, to seek the beautiful isn’t in the least about smelling the roses or living a perfect life. Beauty is, instead, about hope in a perfect God. The beautiful pictures his unchanging goodness, and when I bring it into my own, small, dusty days, I affirm my faith in its reality. Idealism, at heart, is really about hope. And beauty is the means by which we live that out.