Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Dire Need for Beauty

Like much of the world, I am shocked, silenced and saddened by the Paris terrorist attacks last night (Friday, Nov 13). My family and I are having conversations about it, praying for what little we know to pray for, and longing together for a better world when attacks like this no longer happen because the people inhabiting that world are healed in the depths of their souls by the love of God.

This kind of evil and suffering is mysteriously difficult to make sense of, and this “unknown factor” tends to unravel our souls a bit and make us a bit more skeptical toward the goodness of God. Whatever sense of “safety” we felt before we heard of the attacks has taken a significant hit, if we still allow ourselves to feel such things as safety and wonder.

As I was thinking about restoring a sense of safety and wonder, I found myself returning to some of Wendell Berry’s poetry that I had been meditating on earlier in the day. I realized once again, that Simone Weil was right when she wrote about the “Love of God and Affliction,” that the two things that pierce our souls are beauty and affliction. This piercing is also called penthos or “compunction.” Alan Jones writes,

“One of the ways in which the shock of Christ is kept alive is by means of what the desert tradition of the East called penthos. In the West it is called compunction, and has to do with a kind of ‘puncturing’ of the heart. Penthos (compunction) is the word for that which pierces us to the heart, cuts us to the quick, raises us from the ‘dead.’ Penthos administers the shock that is necessary for us to be who we really are. . . .  [it] frees the soul from the lying and the pretense that tend to dominate us when we are frightened, anxious or insecure. It is also known as the gift of tears.” (Soul Making, 84-5).

The assault on Paris had affected my soul significantly, causing me to wonder if I could ever feel safe in this world again. I realized that the best thing I could do would be to return to Berry’s poetry and let it play once again in my imagination. I need to expose myself to beauty in openness and wonder in order to find healing from the assault of affliction and confusing chaos. We cannot control being “pierced,” either through beauty or affliction, and though the piercing of suffering feels like assault forced on us, we can try and choose to place ourselves in contexts of beauty, goodness and truth. We can open our hearts again, ever so slowly, to the things that are worth living for – relationships, creational beauty, good books and music, etc. I offer Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Peace of Wild Things” for myself and my readers, to help us recover a vision of safety, goodness and rest in a world sometimes gone mad with violence and hatred. Please pause with it as you read it, making room for it in your souls.

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.

Source: Collected Poems 1957-1982 (Counterpoint Press, 1985)

It’s interesting to note that Berry later objected to his use of “wild things” here, thinking it misplaced. In a 2013 Interview, he commented,

“I would now object to that phrase ‘wild things.’ I’m getting really uneasy about that term ‘wild,’ because after so many years of watching the original creatures of my place what I see is that they’re not wild. They’re conducting domestic life. They’re much better at it than we are. They are carrying on their domestic life — getting food, making shelters, raising their young — just like we’re supposed to be doing in our domestic life. Moreover, they see us as wild. And they’re right. Because we’re the ones who have shaken off our limits, and are out of control, and have given up our manners and courtesies and our compassion. We’re the ‘wild things.’ They’re scared of us and they are right.”

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