Beauty for Life

Our youngest son Seth has gone deep into the world of The Hobbit. Seth reads stories from the shire with feverish energy. He sketches scenes from Middle Earth and regales us with talk of his beloved Dwarves. At every opportunity, Seth ventures into our neighborhood woods (woods he refers to as Rivendell) with his sack of Hobbit wares. He feasts on the score from the movie soundtracks, ticks off every character’s name, reviews minute details from the narrative and explains intricate plot twists and Tolkien lore. Seth’s our Hobbit savant.

All this is more than a boy’s fascination with adventurous play, however. Seth has found a language for his soul. Or maybe this language has found him. A few days ago, Seth was in our backyard, earbuds delivering haunted Hobbit melodies. He paced across the yard, swinging his sword as the music and the crisp air carried him to his distant country. When Seth returned to the house, he told Miska, “You might think this is silly since I’m only a kid. But the music was so beautiful it almost made me cry.”

We all need an encounter with something so beautiful that it carries us to the verge of tears. A landscape or a story, a friendship or a blessing, a dream or a joy. We need beauty, however slight, if we are to truly live. The human spirit can survive without luxury. We can endure ravaging hardship. But wonder, beauty, ineffable joy – these are our necessities.

This Beloved World

snow hut

When I was young, a Christian who was supposed to understand such things insisted that putting much attention to this scorched and bedraggled world was like polishing the deck of the Titanic. The sentiment didn’t sit right with me, but I couldn’t say exactly why. In the same way, I could not explain why every time I sighted the jagged grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, I felt consumed with reverent joy. I could not explain why each time I walked into the Grand Canyon it was as though a thundering beauty swallowed me whole.

Why did I crave to know the stories of the street where I lived, the histories of the families who were our neighbors and kin? Why did I take such pleasure in Lolita’s tamales and Miss Alma’s banana pudding (the cold version, with Nilla wafers and whipped cream, of course)? Why did Appalachian melodies sink into my body, a kind of holy haunting? Why did those marvelous books with words like flint strike wonder in my soul? If this whole shebang was only a temporary shell lurching toward a final apocalyptic fireball, why did all of it feel like grace?

But then I remembered the first Scripture I was ever taught, the truth my mother and father gave to me before I could walk or speak: For God so loved the world. I heard these words again. I heard these enchanted words anew. God loves this world, and I was simply caught up in the affair.

We have a simple task, and a happy one. Some say that we should concentrate upon this world as though God did not exist. We say rather that we should concentrate upon this world lovingly because it is full of God… {Alexander Schmemann}

Creation is nothing less than the manifestation of God’s hidden being. {Philip Sherrard}

Dolly Sods

All beauty in the world is either a memory of Paradise or a prophecy of the transfigured world.

{Nicholas Berdyaev}

Dolly Sods, Joseph Rossbach

Last weekend, several friends and I took a backpacking trip into Dolly Sods Wilderness, a rugged section of West Virginia’s Monongohela National Forest. The mercury peaked at 104° as we motored West. I’d be lying if I denied having second thoughts about the whole affair. I do love the mountains and the streams, the wood-quiet which is so very different from the city-quiet. I love discovering new territory. I do not, however, love to sizzle. On principle, I stand opposed to camping in the South, in the scorched God-forsaken month of July. However, this was the only date that (after great machination) worked, and our friend guiding the trip promised the mountains would grant us a cool gift. I doubted, but I swallowed my principle and my wariness and followed.

I wanted to fill my lungs and stretch my legs, tromping into the oaks and finding that odd joy that comes from carrying all the goods you’ll live by on your now-weary shoulders. There is a leisure that I know only in the wild. When I enter these hallowed spaces, I remember what I’ve missed. I welcome an old friend, and I wonder again what has kept me away so long.

On Saturday, I spent a stretch of four hours alone, under the canopy of green trees, in a hammock rocked by a cool (God, thank you) breeze. For these gentle, shaded hours, I read Vigen Guroian’s Fragrance of God, this Orthodox-theologian-gardener’s meditations on finding God amid both the human and the humus. There are those moments when text and space collide. This was such a moment.

It’s as good as it is rare for the soul whenever we move completely off the grid. Not so long ago, it was normal to disconnect from the every-way that the rest of the world can, with merely a click, track me down. Traditionally, I am a late adopter. I was a holdout until the last possible moment on cell phones. I remember the way it used to be when Miska or I travelled – we needed a calling card if we wanted to check in with anybody back home. I miss those days. It has been far too long since I was truly inaccessible.

But there I was, reading Guroian amid a world of stillness.