This fascinating piece comes to us from Benjamin Self. This is the first in a two-part reflection.

My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
my heart is sick…
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?

— Jeremiah 8: 18, 21-22

Ira-Diamond-Gerald-Cassidy-xx-The-Answered-Prayer-xx-Private-collection

Painting by Gerald Cassidy

I.

The Sunday evening after this summer’s June 12th shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, several members of my church and I joined a few thousand other people from Louisville and Jeffersonville on the Big Four Bridge over the Ohio River for a candlelight vigil. There was not much for us to do really—one reason I like vigils—but simply to be present with each other. At the start, a few local activists gave their speeches; one kept goading the crowd to repeat the slogan: “Don’t mourn, organize! Don’t mourn, organize!” We reluctantly obliged. Again and again through his speech, he shouted this call to action, which we murmured back. To me, it felt out of place. I had come to the bridge trying to feel something, something other than numb resignation or dull aching pain. I had come to grieve in some small way for these 49 people I had never known, by joining my tiny portion of grief to that of my friends and neighbors. After the speeches, we all marched together in silence to the middle of the bridge where we met our neighbors from the other side, all trying our best along the way to protect our fading candles from the winds off the Ohio. It was a beautiful night.

There is no shortage of grief in this world. Just within the past month of writing this, for example: 45 people were killed at an airport in Istanbul, 24 were killed at a café in Dhaka, 325 were killed in a busy market in Baghdad, 81 were killed in rural communities in Benue, Nigeria, 84 were killed amid a crowd celebrating French National Day in Nice, another 80 were killed at a rally in Kabul. Brutal wars rage on in parts of the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe, while desperate refugees continue to fan out from such conflicts in every direction with ever-dwindling hope of finding refuge from the rest of us. Though it does not excuse it: with such carnage so commonplace, how can we fail but go a bit numb to the suffering of our more distant neighbors? In the U.S., despite a decades-long decline nationwide, rates of violent crime have been spiking in a host of major cities over the past two years. Our nation’s suicide rate has climbed to a 30-year high. Mass shootings and issues surrounding police violence continue to grab the headlines. My own city of Louisville had its worst homicide count in 36 years last year—two teenagers at the public school where I teach were among the victims. Accordingly, a spirit of dread seems to have taken hold of our public discourse: the specter of loss hovering more closely than usual, or perhaps we are simply more aware of it. But even in our personal lives, no matter how insulated we are, it goes without saying: the longer we each live, the more friends and loved ones we are bound to see pass away. If this world doesn’t break your heart, then you’re not paying attention. Truly, we live in the valley of the shadow of death.

A couple of months ago, I happened to get lucky enough to go on a date with a beautiful young government worker in my city and part of our conversation centered around her work promoting various environmental causes. Since high school, those causes have been a kind of casual obsession of mine and so her work interested me a great deal. At the same time, to follow such issues closely, at least at a global level, is also in general to subject oneself to a relentless onslaught of grim news. At one point in our conversation, I tried to explain just how much I have often taken these environmental issues to heart, and in so doing, feeling like a kind of helpless onlooker to—as Tracy Chapman aptly put it—the “Rape of the World”, just how depressed it has often left me. The scale and scope of the issues is breathtaking: the changing climate, the droughts and storms, the crop failures, the melting icecaps and rising sea levels, the deforestation and desertification, the pollution of our lakes and rivers and streams, the mass species extinction and loss of biodiversity, the water shortages, the overfishing, the oceanic dead zones, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and so on. As witnesses to all of this, even grudging accomplices, how can we not feel rich in despair? If we love at all what is being lost, how can we not grieve? And yet, even if we were somehow able overnight to dramatically transform for the better—on a global scale—how we relate to each other and to the natural world, wouldn’t loss still be the only constant, and thus the price of loving anything in this world still grief?

II.

David W.M. Cassidy

Of course, we tend to grieve most acutely over the loss of things close at hand, not distant. And it’s worth mentioning that these things need not be noble of us to grieve over. In my own life, this past year was the hardest I’ve ever experienced, and not because of what is going on in the world or because I lost any loved ones, but instead because I’ve been losing my beloved image of myself—the cherished idols that composed my own identity. This past year, facing up to some of my own limitations—my own need for more active, sociable, structured work—I finally gave up failing plans of building a career in government or nonprofit settings and I became a teacher. I had my first teaching job in a high-poverty public school here in Louisville, and I spent most of the year working full-time and going to school full-time. As positive a shift as I think this will be for me in the long term, the stress of what was truly a disastrous first year of teaching for me combined with the stress of my schoolwork and my ever-nagging sense that I more-or-less manage to suck at everything I try to do, made my year at times almost unbearable. I was a terrible teacher—I shouted so much trying to maintain control of my classroom that some weeks I would lose my voice. Other weeks, amid the stress and humiliation, I’d break out in rashes. I was always way behind on grading, planning, meeting the curriculum requirements. Almost without fail, my students hated my guts, and probably with good reason. At the same time, I often lived like a slob, ate like a child, and turned impulsively to tried-and-true self-destructive coping mechanisms as a way to manage my pain. It was the last year of my 20s, and I felt like I had not made progress in a decade. My flaws seemed to be outlasting my strengths.

Physically, I also felt myself declining. I was in the worst shape of my life, but lacked the energy to do much about it. I couldn’t seem to buy a date. I even spent several sad, obsessive months on multiple nauseating online dating sites, to no avail. At 30, I still have never had a relationship last longer than a month (and at some point, one has no choice but to accept the preponderance of evidence that that is not someone else’s fault…). But perhaps worst of all—in my petty, vain way of viewing the world—this was also the year that I finally went bald. And yes, I have grieved that loss. It felt like such insult added to injury. As if my 20s had not already done enough to reduce me in my own estimation of myself, to assault my pride with so much evidence of my own limitations and shortcomings, now I was to become the archetypal bald, bespectacled, bore of an English teacher who is the butt of so many Middle School jokes! And what’s more, all the while, my basic motivation as a teacher—my idealism about education, my sense that education is chiefly the means through which society might uplift poor and troubled kids—was being deeply shaken by the reality I encountered daily on the ground. I slowly came to realize that the problems many of my students face are not going away any time soon, in many communities are in fact getting worse, and that there’s ultimately not all that much I will ever be able to do about it.

Michael O'Brien

Michael O’Brien

And in the midst of all of this, for the first time in my life, with the cherished idols of my false self slowly falling to pieces around me, the pain became so intense that I actually began to have regular casual thoughts of dying. Not of suicide, really. Mainly just dying, as a kind of faint, momentary longing for complete escape, a longing to just quit my life, like a “clean break” from a job or marriage or community. These thoughts absolutely terrified me, then as now, but they were real enough, and offered me some indication of the level of despair that had slowly accrued in my subconscious through the loss and frustration and alienation of my 20s. I knew that I had entered an emotional space I’d never quite been to before, and that I needed to take note of it and do my best to get out of it, even get some help. And yet somehow, I was and am still glad to have been there, to have felt in some small proportion the despair that afflicts so many others, perhaps all of us at times.

It was a tough year. This year will be better. My point in recounting all of that—my petty, personal heartaches—is simply this: we all swim in a sea of loss, and therefore of grief, whether it is of the noble sort or not. To borrow an inspirational Pinterest board quote: “Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.” Again, in this world that is passing away, the price of loving anything is grief, and the more you love, the more you stand to lose, and so grieve over. Which is why it makes sense to me that Jesus—the “King of love”, as one of my favorite old hymns puts it—was also the ultimate “Man of sorrows… acquainted with grief.” Of course, I do not mean to imply that his grief was ever as petty as mine or that he was so sorrowful all the time as to be a joyless or humorless person. Not at all. I simply mean to suggest that he was burdened by immense grief for loving the world so richly. As Jesus readied himself in the Garden of Gethsemane to face the cross, he told to his friends: “I am deeply grieved, even unto death…” Grief is, in many ways, the most natural and appropriate response to the daily loss we face in the world we live in. It may ebb and flow in us, but it does not pass away; we carry it everywhere, usually like a dull aching pain. At its best, it brings us closer together—as at the vigil on the bridge—and helps move us to greater empathy and compassion, and at its worst, it can metastasize into a despair that may eat away at our very faith.

So now, taking all of this grief as a given in our lives, as a kind of prologue to every spiritual journey, we come to the basic question I’ve been lumbering towards—as Jeremiah puts it: “Is there no balm in Gilead?” In other words, faced with grief of the sort that will not relent, the sort that threatens to pull us down into pits of despair: what can ease our dull aching pain? What comfort may be found to allay our grieving hearts? How shall we make a way through the grief of our lives, and most of all when it ebbs—when there appears to be no way?

Michael O'Brien

Michael O’Brien

III.

I can’t pretend to be able to adequately answer this question. In fact, I’ve still felt relatively little in my own life of the sharpest kinds of grief this life ultimately guarantees us. And for what it’s worth, I should emphasize: we often need to grieve; in fact, we probably need to learn to do a better job of grieving, of helping others grieving, of grieving together in community. Nevertheless, in attempting to offer some meager sketch of a theory of an answer to the question of what might allay the dull aching pain of our grief in this world, let me first turn again to the example of Jesus in Gethsemane. As we read in Matthew—upon arriving in the garden “deeply grieved”, Jesus first instructs his friends thus: “Remain here, and stay awake with me.” This surely implies that he took some comfort from their company, though they soon fall asleep. But then we read: “Going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed…” Jesus’s ardent prayer thus continues much of the rest of the night. For religious folk, as this suggests, the most obvious source of succor in times of grief is in God, and thus in our faith—both the content and experience of it—as well as, presumably, in our faith communities. What is “faith” if not the substance of things hoped for, and so in some sense the opposite and antidote of despair? As the Psalmist puts it: “God is our refuge and strength…” Amidst our grief, we might take heart in, say, the promise of resurrection, or the knowledge of God’s loving sovereignty, or God’s redeeming presence in history through Christ, who has “[s]urely… borne our griefs and carried our sorrows”. Or, perhaps even more likely, we may simply take heart, as Jesus did, in prayer, or in some other practiced means of connection to God. (More on this matter later.) These are all related elements of the same Good News—the hope of a hopeless world, each of which could of course be expounded upon at length as sources of succor and strength in our grief. However, it’s worth just making two further personal points here.

First, although the most transformative facets of our faith are experiential rather than conceptual, I have found amidst my own grief over so many outward signs of a world groaning under the weight of sin and death—and by the same token, so many inward signs that I am not, and will never be, what the world needs me to be—this simple point made by early 20th-century Canadian activist Nellie McClung to be useful: “We have missed a great deal of the joy of life by taking ourselves too seriously… Let us do our little bit with cheerfulness and not take the responsibility that belongs to God. None of us can turn the earth around; all we can ever hope to do is to hit it a few whacks on the right side.” Putting aside the seeming absurdity of her call to “cheerfulness” amid the (then) carnage of World War I, it’s an important if obvious point: there is much comfort in shifting the onus onto God for the saving of the world, something we can’t achieve, and yet which we trust is happening and in some sense has already happened. I may, for example, by grace, someday be able to offer more help as a teacher to my most troubled students, but I cannot save them—nor could I even if they were my own children. To take the burden upon ourselves alone for the saving of anything is clearly self-delusion and a fast track to despair. As Jesus instead tells his followers: “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” In abstract terms, there’s not much greater comfort than that.

Gerald Cassidy

Gerald Cassidy

But of course, in our grief, faith also provides us something even more urgent, more intimately felt: that is, the balm of absolution—in some sense the method by which Christ is overcoming the world. We all bear the weight of imperfection, and so the deep need and longing to be absolved, and perhaps most when we are in the position of being faced daily, again, with both the immensity of the world’s needs and limitations of our own capacity to meet them. Last year, Mockingbird favorite Nadia Bolz-Weber gave a riveting interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, and one of the comments she made—in response to a question about the place of social justice in the church—stuck out to me:

[W]e’re not really a social justice church. It just happens that most of the people who come are involved in social justice. Like, I think my congregation staffs half the non-profits in Denver. So they’re holding the world’s most broken realities together with Scotch Tape during the week, you know? Women who experience abuse and homeless teenagers and pregnant teenagers and people who have experienced sexual assault, you know, they’re involved in that part of reality. And when they come to church, they don’t need a preacher saying, we need to fix the world, and you need to do more social justice. When they come to church, they need a place where they can experience… confession and absolution—where they can confess the ways in which they can’t manage to fix everything and they can’t live up to their own values and the ways they’ve failed and hear that sort of ringing word of forgiveness and absolution. They need to hear the Gospel and receive the Eucharist so they can go out there and do it again the next day.

As someone who’s encountered some of those “broken realities” as part of my job, I really get that. Sometimes, the role of the church—and I’m thinking now of that young activist’s admonition on the Big Four Bridge: “Don’t mourn, organize!”—is not so much to be a kind of religious organizing base, but a place where we can come to mourn together, as in a vigil, and in our mourning, as we bring our grief before God in the communal practices of our faith, a place to find some relief in this world, in this ‘vale of tears’. Most often, when I gather with my neighbors on Sunday mornings, I come not so much lacking in moral conviction but with a broken heart and flickering hope. I come needing my church, as Wendell Berry put it, to “[h]elp me, please, to carry / this candle against the wind.” And in that context, what I need most is to experience confession and absolution—and to do so in community, so that I am not left to bear my grief and shame alone, and so that when my flickering flame of hope is snuffed out, I can perhaps borrow on someone else’s for a while. It is such a relief to confess before God and the world and to taste forgiveness for not being what the world needs, to be renewed in the faith that Christ is what the world needs and that we live through him—and then, to be sent out anew for the work of his Kingdom. In this way, the regular practices of our faith can be of vital aid in helping us make a way through the grief of our lives—even if it is the Holy Spirit itself that is only ever the true “balm in Gilead”.

Justin Mortimer

Justin Mortimer

And yet… And yet, let’s be honest: Sometimes our beautiful religious principles and practices just don’t quite cut it. Some days faith falters. The light dims and darkness ebbs. Some days all that churchy stuff just isn’t enough. Some days God who is ever-present feels hopelessly absent, or deaf, or weak. Some days the words and rituals of the faith seem hollow, and the comfort of friends and neighbors little solace. Some days prayer feels impossible, even offensive. Some days—perhaps months, perhaps years—the grief that can engulf us may just be too strong for any faith to withstand. The world can be a damned grim place. And what then—when despair is our cup to drink? How shall we just bounce back, with cheerfulness? How shall we ever return from such a distant land?

IV.

To that, finally, my sketch of a theory of an answer can be summarized as this: “beauty will save the world.” As trite as that phrase sounds—an oft-quoted, ill-understood phrase from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, which I slogged through last year chiefly to try and figure out what was meant by the phrase, if anything—I have come to believe over several years that it may just be the vital point in this world of so much carnage and suffering. Why? Because it is in large part the mysterious experiences of beauty strung together in so many unexpected and often unacknowledged ways over the course of our lives that have the power to give us and touch us with meaning and draw us towards God and into the Kingdom—and to do so even and most importantly when we do not wish to be drawn and/or are otherwise at a loss for hope or any sense of connection in this world that is passing away. Beauty can act as the Holy Spirit in disguise. I don’t think it was an accident that Emily Dickinson likened hope to “a thing with feathers – / That perches in the soul.” I don’t think it is entirely insignificant either that on the night he was betrayed, Jesus went to a garden to grieve and pray. In my aforementioned dinner-date conversation with the young government worker, there was a moment after I remarked how often I felt depressed over the environmental issues we face in the world—that I then also attempted, poorly, to explain something like this: “In spite of all of it, in spite of how much has been lost and is being lost and will be surely lost, in spite of how horrific and tragic it all is, in the present moment what remains is still beautiful, unspeakably beautiful, beyond measure, a precious gift and a joy to be savored. And somehow it comforts me and helps save me from despair simply to relish with a kind of reckless adoration in the beauty of that which remains even as we endeavor preserve it.” I’m not sure if what I said to her made much sense; perhaps it’s notable that I didn’t get a second date. But it’s this idea that beauty somehow has the power to save us—to shine like a beam of mercy on our poor benighted souls—that I want to get at here.

Justin Mortimer

Justin Mortimer

Of course, on the face of it, it still sounds like an adolescent’s romantic nonsense. How exactly does beauty save the world? And which kind of beauty? After all, it doesn’t take a genius to point out that beauty, in some of the countless ways and forms that we experience it, can be dangerous and deceptive as much as anything else. There is much to unpack, and I’m not going to try to define or categorize different types of beauty—I’ll let someone else do that. But let me begin as a kind of mini-overture with this little excerpt from one of Wendell Berry’s 1987 Sabbath poems, from which I also lifted the quoted phrase in the title of this long-winded reflection:

Coming to the woods’ edge
on my Sunday morning walk,
I stand resting a moment beside
a ragged half-dead wild plum
in bloom, its perfume
a moment enclosing me,
and standing side by side
with the old broken blooming tree
I almost understand,
I almost recognize as a friend
the great impertinence of beauty
that comes even to the dying,
even to the fallen, without reason
sweetening the air.

To me, this simple piece of poetry encapsulates what life is: one long opportunity or series of opportunities to encounter grace, to experience all of creation as a gift, a source of so much wonder and joy, to be loved and savored even amid the constancy of loss. Beauty is a “great impertinence” like a “friend” because it does not leave us alone to wallow or brood or even grieve; it comes bidden or unbidden, like the shepherd after lost sheep, “even to the dying”, even in our fallen-ness, in our despair, in our faithlessness, and “without reason / sweetening the air.” And that’s why it’s so vital in the world—it is its very “impertinence” that makes it so precious a balm for the soul.

Uwe Wittwer

Uwe Wittwer

As any regular Berry reader knows, it is through such regular connection with natural beauty, often on his Sabbath walks, that he tends to find his own mysterious, sustaining sources of hope in this world of so much loss. This theme is further developed in what is probably his most famous poem, “The Peace of Wild Things”:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Here Wendell names the “despair” that grips him and drives him out in the night to seek “the peace of wild things”, and explains that in this context, the beauty or grace of the natural world serves as a kind of unction or balm, soothing the sin-sick, world-weary soul. I assume we can all relate to that—to the healing power of being immersed in natural beauty, as cliché as it sounds. In fact, I am currently writing this reflection while in retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural central Kentucky, famous as the long-time home of Thomas Merton. It is a place where, as quoted in the introductory video they show in the gift shop, one is reminded of the line from Psalm 125: “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people both now and forevermore.” This is truly a place, with its hills and forests and lakes, that seems enveloped by the presence of the divine. It is a breathtakingly beautiful place, which is much of what makes it a healing place, a place for retreat, a refuge from the world.

Sharon Cummings

Sharon Cummings

Perhaps it is in nature that humans have always found the most ready, obvious source of beauty as a balm. But of course, beauty breaks in on our lives in countless other ways. Another example is in music, the power of which I hardly think Mockingbird fans need me to elaborate upon. Still, another poem, as an example, is useful here. It’s called “Song”, by Eamon Grennan, and is written from the point of view of a father about his daughter:

At her Junior High School graduation,
she sings alone
in front of the lot of us—

her voice soprano, surprising,
almost a woman’s. It is
the Our Father in French,

the new language
making her strange, out there,
fully fledged and

ready for anything. Sitting
together – her separated
mother and father – we can

hear the racket of traffic
shaking the main streets
of Jersey City as she sings

Deliver us from evil,
and I wonder can she see me
in the dark here, years

from belief, on the edge
of tears. It doesn’t matter. She
doesn’t miss a beat, keeps

in time, in tune, while into
our common silence I whisper,
Sing, love, sing your heart out!

The power in this poem comes in its contradictions: the speaker is sitting there next to his ex-wife, “the racket of traffic / shaking the main streets” outside, he’s “years / from belief”, and yet still experiences such deep joy from hearing his daughter’s beautiful rendition of the “Our Father in French” that it brings him to “the edge / of tears.” Even in his unbelief, it’s as though the father is being touched or anointed by the hope that is captured in the words of the prayer, with his daughter as the conduit—hope for deliverance, for forgiveness, for union, perhaps. The key point here is that these kinds of experiences of beauty are available to all of us, perhaps even imposed on us. They break through our psychological or philosophical barriers. They are, as one author describes them, “those moments of natural mysticism which can sometimes awaken in both believer and unbeliever a sense of the transcendent.”

Sharon Cummings

Sharon Cummings

In this sense, the beauty in the world is a kind of special distillation of God’s grace down to its most accessible, unencumbered form, and thus offers an experience of mysterious hope when a person may see no just cause or place for it. Beauty is an experience that pushes us to the edge of our thinking. It is grace unencumbered by doctrine or definition. And that’s important, because it breaks through our defenses. As G.K. Chesterton puts it in The Defendant: “There is a road from the eye to the heart that does not go through the intellect. Men do not quarrel about the meaning of sunsets; they never dispute that the hawthorn says the best and wittiest thing about the spring.” I always love it when I hear my non-religious friends describe their experiences at rock concerts as “almost a religious experience, man.” The connection is an apt one. T.S. Eliot, in his poem, “The Dry Salvages”, the third of his Four Quartets, describes these moments of pedestrian transcendence as moments “in and out of time”:

Men’s curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardor and selflessness and self-surrender.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.

Beauty is an experience of the richness and fullness of the present moment, though perhaps fleeting. But in that sense, it’s an experience of meaning, of value, even if short-lived. Beauty haunts us. It haunts our despair, our self-absorption, through “hints and guesses”. And that is true for every person on earth, regardless of culture or creed. Which is not to say that every person takes the hints, or guesses correctly as to their meaning. We often don’t. The SS guards, for example, may have liked to listen to classical music when they were on break from exterminating Jews. (More than that issue later.) But at the same time do any of us doubt that if the same classical music had been played over the loudspeakers to the whole camp (à la The Shawshank Redemption) for all to hear, that it would have given a moment of beauty more precious even than bread to those poor starved inmates trudging grimly towards their deaths? I am reminded of an example from Primo Levi’s holocaust account, Survival in Auschwitz, when Primo, an agnostic Jewish scientist, remembers desperately trying to reconstruct from memory for a friend Ulysses’ great speech from Dante’s Commedia, and writes: “I would give up today’s soup to know how to connect [this verse] to the last lines…” My point is this: in our faith-starved world, it is beauty in its purest and richest forms than can at least send some kind of signal into our consciousness when little else can break through.

Erin Hanson

Erin Hanson

One more example of these sorts of encounters with beauty will suffice before I peal back another layer of the onion. In her book Caravan of No Despair: A Memoir of Loss and Transformation, Mirabai Starr describes how, as she was dealing with the sudden death of her daughter, she “craved beauty” in literature more than anything:

“There is a secret medicine given only to those who hurt so hard they cannot hope,” Rumi promises. “The hopers would feel slighted if they knew.”

When Jenny died, all my spiritual practices failed me. I could not meditate, and the very thought of silent sitting infuriated me, as if someone were offering a Band-Aid to slap over a gunshot wound. Rituals were for regular people – people who were busy navigating the mundane obstacles of everyday life – not for those who have been stripped, shattered, and blessed by tragedy. Reading had always been my refuge. Now the only thing I could bear to read was literary fiction; I craved beauty, not philosophy. Sacred scriptures were written in a code I could not decipher, and I lacked the energy to try. Self-help books sounded ridiculous, presumptuous, and whenever I picked one up I would have the urge to throw it across the room. None of the tricks I had developed over decades on the spiritual path were adequate for mending my brokenness.

Starr goes on to explain how it was actually in the stories and accounts of the old Christian mystics that she was busy translating—of St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis of Assisi, etc.—that she was able to slowly emerge from her pit of overwhelming grief and regain a spiritual life. The key here is that even for people of some faith there are times when no theology or ritual is going to cut it. When we are suffering, concepts of God or theories about God aren’t really much solace. We are sensual beings: we need to feel something. There are times when we are down on our knees just begging to taste something of the beauty of life again, to have it touch and transform us like the tongues of fire at Pentecost. So whether we are rich in despair, overcome by grief, angry at ourselves or the church or the world—God has a way of meeting us where we are at through beauty.

And sometimes beauty is not just the obvious aesthetic things we may experience in nature or the arts—sometimes, perhaps most often, it’s the beauty of relationships. I recently attended the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, NC, and one of the sessions I sat through was led by ex-Evangelical firebrand Frank Schaeffer. He said this: “The reason [my wife] Jeannie is so beautiful to me—other than the fact that she’s just damn gorgeous—is that I have been there when I have been the worst thing in her life, and I’ve seen how she’s dealt with that.” As another example, I have a friend who, after separating from her husband and leaving the church became deeply depressed and came to a point where she was certain she’d never go back to church or feel any sense of connection to God again. But, as she later realized, during that dark time, her dog Murphy—through the beauty of his unfailing kindness and companionship—became a way for God to be near to her and to comfort her even when she didn’t want to receive that, and eventually even to draw her back towards faith. Murphy became a way for God to be present with her when she had no desire to be present with God. Beauty, perhaps most of all the beauty of love, is often God’s “impertinent” way of sneaking in the back door when all the other entrances are closed off—when we’ve closed them off, and that’s why, again, it’s so important in this world of so much loss.

 

Click here to read part two.