“Beauty is not largely an irrelevant addendum to the life of the soul. It is through beauty that we come to understand the appeal of heaven. The atheist can’t get excited about sitting around forever with the big man on the throne. The sexual sinner can’t imagine an eternity without sex. Almost everyone, at least on some level, thinks that this world is more appealing than the world to come. It is because we do not spend enough time contemplating beauty, because we do not take into our hearts the realization that all of the wonders and marvels, all of the joys and triumphs, of this world are only a tiny spark thrown from the fire of Beauty that burns in the mind of God.”
From The Story of the Other Wise Man, by Henry Van Dyke:
“‘And remember, my son,’ said he, fixing his deep-set eyes upon the face of Artaban, ‘the King whom you are seeking is not to be found in a palace, nor among the rich and powerful. If the light of the world and the glory of Israel had been appointed to come with the greatness of earthly splendor, it must have appeared long ago. For no son of Abraham will ever again rival the power which Joseph had in the palaces of Egypt, or the magnificence of Solomon throned between the lions in Jerusalem. But the light for which the world is waiting is a new light, the glory that shall rise out of patient and triumphant suffering. And the kingdom which is to be established forever is a new kingdom, the royalty of perfect and unconquerable love.
“‘I do not know how this shall come to pass, nor how the turbulent kings and peoples of earth shall be brought to acknowledge the Messiah and pay homage to Him. But this I know. Those who seek Him will do well to look among the poor and the lowly, the sorrowful and the oppressed.'”
Jesus of the Scars
by Edward Shillito (1872 – 1948)
If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow,
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.
The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy grace.
If, when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know to-day what wounds are, have no fear,
Show us Thy Scars, we know the countersign.
The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
“The lovely part of being a witness is that you can’t compel belief. All you can do is say: here is what happened. In saying this the witness is only doing his job; how people respond is their own burden, their own responsibility. Whom would you say has more credibility: the man who pounds on the table insisting his story is true, or the one who, having the reputation of honesty, frees his listeners to decide for themselves?”
“There are other moments, too, which are simply moments of life. Simply! I think of the poet Paul Eluard: “There is another world, but it is in this one.” I have 3-year-old twin daughters. It would be disingenuous in the extreme for me to pretend that they don’t at times drive all thought of God out of my head and make me want to write a series of sonnets in praise of celibacy, but it would be equally insane for me not to acknowledge that they are the source of my greatest happiness. Father Zossima, in The Brothers Karamazov, defines hell as “the inability to love.” I have known that hell, and I should probably spend my remaining days thanking God that I am free of it.”
When my wife was pregnant for the first time, a friend who had just the year before had his first child, was trying to tell me how great it was to have kids. He said, “It’s amazing. You are filled with so much love.”
I’ve since thought many times of the simple, surprising truth in this: that one of the greatest graces in life (what makes parenthood so “amazing”) is not anything your children give you or do for you. Rather, it is the gift of being filled full of love for someone else. (And of course, you need not have children to know this kind of other-focused love.)
To learn this is to somehow draw near to the beating heart of all reality. To never learn this – to never know this – is an unspeakable loss.
I’ve heard that Saint Augustine told a story of a new bride on the morning after her wedding. With the groom lying beside her, she awakes in love, enthralled. But not with the groom. Instead, the morning after her wedding, she falls helplessly in love not with the man but with his most expensive gift. She is enthralled with the wedding ring. Eyes only for the ring, she begins a life in love with the beautiful stone. The spouse who lies beside her has already lost her interest. She leaves him to live for the ring he gave her.
Augustine told the story to illustrate the human tendency to love the gifts more than the Giver of those gifts – a condition of the heart as foolish and as tragic as the condition of the bride in his brief story. Surrounded by a world full of wonderful gifts, given one and all from the Father of heavenly lights, man becomes enthralled with the gifts themselves and ignores or rejects the Father who gave them.
This is the danger of valuing good things too highly; we must not just rejoice in the ring, but in our Beloved who gave it. This is idolatry, a deep and deadly sin and one of the primal sins of all of humanity according to the apostle Paul (among others). It is remedied in part by gratitude. But gratitude alone is not enough. To give thanks rightly requires gratitude not only for the good things we have, but also gratitude directed to the Giver of the things themselves.
Yet understanding good things as gifts from a Giver changes the way we see the gifts in another way as well. It makes them even more precious than they are on their own. For in light of the reality of a Giver, good things are not only good in themselves, but take on an even greater value because of the reason why they are given.
Consider a diamond: a precious stone, costly and beautiful, with it’s own spectacular, unique properties. A diamond ring is good. But a diamond wedding ring is more precious still, for a diamond wedding ring has a value that lies beyond the costliness of the stone, in the reason and the relationship out of which it was given. The wedding ring is priceless to the bride because it is a token of love, given by a lover, to signify his commitment and passion and love.
When we consider any gifts we have been given – from family and friends, to sunshine, and coffee and emerald green grass alongside the vast and brilliant sea – we see things that are good and precious in and of themselves. How priceless is laughter with friends! How rich and warm the taste of coffee, the sight of a sunrise! How good is life, all around us! Good, precious gifts, good and precious in and of themselves.
And yet, more valuable still. Because each comes to us as a token of love. Because behind each stands a great Giver, committed, passionate, extravagant, and good.
There is a danger, like the bride in Augustine’s story, of valuing the good things of this world too highly. We must not. Their ultimate value lies in the One who gave them.
But we also must not value good things too little. Their goodness is real, and they have come to us as a token of love. The reality of a Giver, makes good things more precious still.
“Jan and I were visiting a Benedictine monastery, Christ in the Desert, in New Mexico. One of the brothers was leading us on a path from prayers in the chapel to the refectory where we would have lunch. The path led through the cemetery. We passed an open grave.
Jan said, ‘Oh, did one of the brothers just die?’
‘No, that is for the next one.’
Three times a day, on their way from praying together to eating together, the monks are reminded that one of them will be ‘the next one.'”