Beauty: Intro, Exercises and Questions
What Does It Mean To Be A People of Beauty?
Where do you look for beauty?
There is universal agreement that we all must make time to visit museums and sit before stunning sunsets. But seeking beauty there is not enough. Every religion agrees: The secret to encountering spiritual beauty is to visit and observe the unlikely places. Indeed, one could argue that this is the job of religion. It exists to teach us and to help us observe beauty in the less noticed places. Just think of all the seemingly odd advice that religion sends our way:
“Notice your feet!”
There’s a beloved poem by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda about a pair of his socks. In this and other poems, he brings the ordinary things around us to life, helping us see how they so clearly carry the memories and meanings of our lives. Religion does the same. It tells us that these ordinary objects are not just background but beautiful partners. They don’t just enhance our relationship with the world and each other; they are among the most important relationships we have. They are fellow journeyers in and of themselves.
“Notice what’s at the front of the protest march!”
UU minister Sean Parker Dennison writes, “The ability to see beauty is the beginning of our moral sensibility. What we believe is beautiful we will not wantonly destroy.” With this we are reminded that beauty does more than soothe and heal. It demands. It calls. It creates commitment. It doesn’t just say “Love and appreciate me.” It says “Protect me! Fight for me!” It’s steps out in front of us and points to a precious world that needs our help. It paints a picture of new ways of living and declares, “Follow me there!” It’s not just the thing that nurtures our activist efforts. It is the reason we take to the streets.
Again beautiful things are not just objects to be appreciated and adored. They are not pretty things we purchase and possess. They possess us. They are containers for pieces and parts of ourselves. We don’t just observe them; we pour ourselves into them. They don’t just sit there; they open themselves up and invite us to spill our longings, memories, hopes and hurts into their care. When we observe them, we observe and re-member ourselves.
“Notice what’s behind it all!”
Our own Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “The world is not painted or adorned, but is from the beginning beautiful; and God has not made some beautiful things, but Beauty is the creator of the universe.” The Quaker theologian Rufus Jones writes, “Beauty has no function, no utility… It greases no wheels, it bakes no puddings. It is a gift of sheer grace, a gratuitous largesse. It must imply behind things a Spirit that enjoys beauty for its own sake and that floods the world everywhere with it… Our joy in it shows that we are in some sense kindred to the giver and revealer of it.”
Here we are reminded that beauty is not just an elegantly painted portrait. It is also the artistic force of the universe that is constantly painting us. Pulling out the elegance in each of us and the world around us to create the portrait that is life.
So, yes, friends, by
all means, get yourselves to the museum this month. Make time to gaze at the
color-laced sky on your evening walks in the woods. But let’s not forget to also
visit the unlikely places and the beauty that awaits us there.
Our Spiritual Exercises
The Beautiful Thing You Carry
The philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote, “In difficult times, carry something beautiful in your heart.”
These are indeed difficult times. They require courage, commitment, hope and self-love. And all of them are sustained by beauty. We find the courage to fight after falling in love with a beautiful vision to fight for. We maintain our commitment only by finding the beauty that nourishes us. We hold on to hope because experiences of beauty remind us that something in the universe is on our side. We withstand dehumanization when rooted deeply in the beauty of our own dignity.
It’s one of the most important secrets to successful social change and social survival: When we carry beauty, it carries us.
So this month you are invited to get clear about the beautiful thing you need to carry. Or are carrying. Whether that be in your heart, head or literal pocket. Take some time to think about the source of beauty that sustains you. And then pick one action that will help you carry it with you in a more consistent way.
The Beautiful Thing You Protect
Rev. Sean Parker Dennison writes, “The ability to see beauty is the beginning of our moral sensibility. What we believe is beautiful we will not wantonly destroy.”
Rev. Mary Katherine Morn writes, “Beauty does more than awaken us. It also admonishes us. It demands something… We are here so that together we might heed the admonitions of beauty. Answer its call to create, protect, and preserve.”
Reverends Morn and Parker Dennison remind us that beauty is more a salve. It does more than restore and sooth. It creates commitment. It lures us into loving it and becomes something we can’t live without. We end up willing to give our lives for it. We protect it at all costs.
So, what is that beautiful thing you protect at all costs? That core beautiful thing you defend like a mama bear because you know you’d be lost without it? For some of us, it’s a form of nature. For others, it’s a type of justice. For still others, it’s a way of treating each other, like kindness. Or treating ourselves, like self-love. Whatever it is, we all build our lives around it. Look closely and you’ll notice how deeply it defines us. By protecting it, we protect ourselves.
Spend some time this month getting clear about
that piece of beauty that turns you into a mama bear. After all, isn’t getting
clear about it is what life is all about?
Enter the World of Ordinary Beauty
We’ve all had those moments. The ordinary suddenly appears extraordinary. One minute the objects around us blend into the background, sit there as “things.” The next they come to life, so clearly carrying meaning and memory. What once seemed possessions, now somehow possess us. They are a part of us. And us them. All it takes is a different kind of attention for their appearance to change. When it happens, it’s beautiful.
This month make some time to lean into this sacred form of attention and re-enter this world of ordinary beauty. Start by exploring the poets and poems listed below. Consider them guides. Helping you navigate your way into this beautiful and precious space of noticing in a deeper way.
Respond to the pieces in any way that feels natural. Maybe you’ll write an ode of your own. Maybe you’ll spend a little more time touching, smelling or sitting with the lovely things that surround you. Maybe you’ll pull one of those lovely things out of the pile it’s been lost in and put it in a place you pass by each day.
Whatever it is, come to your group ready to share which of the poems below affected you the most and how it led you to respond.
Ode to Things – Pablo Neruda: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tz82ikSllKo
Ode to My Socks – Pablo Neruda: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1GOkypeafdM
Ode to the Watermelon – Pablo Neruda: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRTXVYGqT_k
Burial & To the Fig Tree on 9th & Christian – Ross Gay: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=300&v=YRjEgOoFI68
To the Mulberry Tree – Ross Gay: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=14&v=jzLx2aRNTRU
Ode to the Women on Long Island – Olivia Gatwood: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kqpip0H1QTE
Ode to Thrift Stores – Ariana Brown: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PFZJoU44uOo
A Personal Reflection on Neruda and “our things”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRiCUqi-4Y4
Remind Yourself that You are Pretty ______!
“Will I be pretty?” It’s more than a song whose tune is stuck in our heads. For so many of us, it’s a burden stuck in our skin. A big part of being a people of beauty is wrestling with the way culture’s conceptions of beauty have distorted and disrupted our relationship with our bodies and souls.
Poet Katie Makkai takes this head on in her poem Pretty. In it, she unfolds the challenge of reclaiming and transforming the call to be “pretty.”
You are invited this month to turn her call into a spiritual exercise by completing one (or maybe all) of these sentences:
“I am most proud of the fact that I am pretty ____________.”
“I hope my child knows they are pretty ____________.”
“I love my partner because they are pretty _____________.”
“I never knew I was pretty _____________ until ____________ helped me realize it.”
“The moment I realized I could be pretty ____________ was when I ____________.”
“I still want to become pretty ______________.”
Your work will become clear after you watch the video:
Find Beauty in Our Recommended Resources
Our recommended resources are full of wisdom about what it means to be a people of and a person of beauty. Engaging these resources and finding the one that especially speaks to you is a spiritual practice in and of itself.
So, if none of the above exercises call to you, engage the recommended resources section of this packet as your spiritual exercise for the month.
Set aside some regular time throughout a week
to go through them and meditate on them until you find the one that most
expands or deepens your understanding of sanctuary. After you’ve found it,
consider printing it out and carrying it with you or pinning it up so you can
continue to reflect on it throughout the weeks leading up to your group
meeting. Come to your group ready to share where the journey led you.
As always, don’t treat these questions like “homework” or try to answer every single one. Instead, make time to meditate and reflect on the list and then pick the one question that speaks to you most. The goal is to figure out which question is “yours.” Which question captures the call of your inner voice? Which one contains “your work”? What is it trying to get you to notice?
(Sometimes it helps to read the list to a friend or loved one and ask them which one they think is the question you need to wrestle with!)
- When were you first healed by beauty?
- When were you first protected by beauty?
- When did beauty first teach you something?
- When was beauty a doorway to the divine?
- What makes a beautiful soul? What do you do to beautify your own soul?
- What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?
- What did your family of origin teach you about what it means “to be beautiful”?
- What parts of life have grown more beautiful as you’ve aged?
- What’s something you know now about beauty that you didn’t know when you were 16 years old?
- Is beauty a private thing for you? Or do you need to share it with someone for the experience to be complete?
- What if beauty isn’t something we encounter but something we become?
- Who in your life needs told they are a beautiful soul?
- Have you ever experienced a “beautiful goodbye”?
- What’s your question? Your question may not be listed above. As always, if the above questions don’t include what life is asking from you, spend the month listening to your days to hear it. Or maybe the question or call you need to hear is waiting in one of the quotes listed below. Consider looking there!