It’s been a good year for transcendence.
In my church group this week, we discussed beauty. We talked about art and literature, music and food, nature and poetry, and then our leader made what should have been a simple request: Name a time in your life when you have been deeply touched by beauty. It should have been simple.
I’m actually prone to being deeply touched by beauty. My life has been blessedly disorganized and uncommitted in such a way that I have often been at leisure to stop and watch the sunset, or to read a book on my favorite bench overlooking Muir Beach, or to enjoy an impromptu drum circle in Central Park. The request to share an experience of being overwhelmed by beauty wasn’t difficult because I had nothing to share; it was difficult because being deeply touched by beauty is a bi-weekly (or is it semi-weekly?) experience for me. I’m easily wrapped up in the shape of a winter tree or a well-crafted sentence. I tap my feet and do a little boogie unashamedly when my ipod offers me a favorite song. I never fear to raise my hands in worship and I “amen” the preacher under my breath with regularity. Enjoying the beautiful has never been a problem.
The interesting thing about beauty is that it isn’t exactly what you think it is. Those of you who aren’t followers of Christ may have an easier time than some Christians admitting that the opening guitar rift of Here Comes the Sun constitutes a thing of beauty or that there is, indeed, something beautiful about the movie American Beauty. You may find it easier to praise the grace of Michael Phelps’ butterfly or the brilliant triumph of Harry Potter. The church has, however, on the whole, distanced itself from these kinds of common beauty, or “lower case b” beauty and have limited ourselves, unnecessarily so, to appreciation and creation of art that explicitly represents “capital B” Beauty.
Ironically, the Beauty/beauty distinction is not really a distinction at all. Beauty with a capital B is the expression of God’s character–the overflow of His nature and source of all that we call beautiful. beauty with a lower case b is the manifestation of Beauty in the created world–in art and music and nature, in dance and a well-cooked meal and in poetry.
Before the Enlightenment, the church was actually the primary source and patron of art and music, dance, architecture, sculpture, and drama. None of it was lame, much of it was not tame, and some of it was downright irreverent. But it was beautiful because it bred in the people of the day the kind of transcendence that brings us closer to God. It showed His character in stories of treachery and betrayal just as clearly as it revealed His nature through the masterful representation of the human body in stone. It is unfortunate that, post-Enlightenment, we have denied ourselves the joy of being touched by “non-Christian” art because it isn’t an explicit statement about God’s person. We have distanced ourselves from it to protect against unsavory influences, but we take our self-preservation to the extreme and deny ourselves the joy of seeing Beauty in the image of God and creative nature of the people around us–and we do so to our detriment.
This year has been especially transcendent for me. I’ve been overwhelmed by beauty more than my fair share. Overwhelmed so much so, that I still can’t even talk about some of it. I was overwhelmed by Hamlet at The Courtyard theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon just last month. I was overwhelmed by the sunrise over Edinburgh and the sheer contentment of sitting high above that perfect city from my perch on Arthur’s Seat. I was overwhelmed by the soggy greens and deep browns of the rural hills of West Lothian. I was brought to tears at the grave of CS Lewis.
And then, last night, I saw Chris Thile live again. Those of you who have read my previous post mentioning Chris Thile know that seeing him live is, for me, like sitting on Arthur’s Seat overlooking Edinburgh, at sunrise with CS Lewis and then going home to my cottage in West Lothian and watching the Royal Shakespeare Company perform Hamlet in my back yard. It’s beyond good. The times I’ve seen him before have been in pretty intimate venues–you know, me and a thousand other people. Last night was like seeing him perform in my closet. It was tiny in there. There was no need for amplification, there was no need for a zoom lens, and there was certainly no desire whatsoever to be anywhere else–ever.
In the last couple of years, Chris has written a symphony of sorts for bluegrass instruments–mandolin, banjo, guitar, fiddle, and bass. It spans four movements over forty minutes and is one of the most compelling, gut-wrenching, stirring, sublime, and complex pieces of music I have ever heard. I float like a bird on that piece of music, diving and climbing, drifting and floating. I mourn lost love with Chris and I stand with him as he begs for mercy and I close my eyes and let the music carry me away. And last night, somewhere in the middle of those breathless forty minutes, I lost myself in worship.
(My Christian friends are praying for my idolatrous soul right now, so let me explain.)
I have a very soft spot for Chris Thile. He’s been with me in all kinds of weather in all kinds of circumstances. Chris sang me through grad school. I enjoyed the beaches of Northern California and the hills of San Francisco with his mandolin singing in the background. He sang me off to Turkey, and stayed with me on countless boat trips between Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus. He road tripped with me to New York and has walked me home more than once through the black streets of Brooklyn in the snow at midnight. Chris has reminded me of God’s faithfulness and of my own unfaithfulness. And I, in turn, have been with him. I have mourned with him as he pled fruitlessly for his ex-wife’s forgiveness. I have agonized with him as he worked out his agony by working it into song. He has made me laugh and cry. And he has made me worship.
It’s not Chris Thile that I worship. He may be tall and devlishly handsome; he may be brilliant and a virtuoso. But he is just a man. Most of the time, his music has nothing to do with God…and yet, I, a devoted follower of Christ found myself enrapt last night by the music flowing out of Chris Thile. I lost myself; I gave myself entirely over to the music, and in those blessed moments, I found my God.
But how is this possible? How can something like bluegrass music about the pain of divorce played by a man who isn’t even sure if he believes in Christ or not cause me to see Christ anyway? It is because Beauty inspires beauty, and every once in a while, in moments like these, Heaven bends down and kisses earth. We all feel it, followers of Christ or not, but only those of us who know the irresistible aroma of Heaven’s breath can know the true Beauty in that communion between Heaven and Earth. I can lose myself in worship at a Chris Thile show because I know that beautiful music is a reflection of God’s joy in Himself, and I know that the love of Christ can soothe the agony of a broken heart, and I know that the immense talent flowing from the mind and the voice and the fingers of this unparalleled musician came from a creator who loves excellence and who has chosen to bless Chris and his audiences with the kind of music that proves it. There is Beauty in the beauty of Chris’ music, but it is up to Chris and his audiences whether or not they see it. It is up to each of us, in those blessed, unexpected moments when Heaven bends its face toward Earth, whether or not we will turn our faces upward to receive the kiss.