Friday, March 30, 2012

The Importance of Beauty - Chasing Francis Series

I am part of a group called the Eagles. Most of its members are hair-challenged, which is why some people, evidently unafraid of losing their jobs, think it’s funny to call us the Bald Eagles. Their impiety will not go unpunished, if not in this world then surely in the next.

For years, we have been reading books about economics, marketing, theology, and politics. We share our opinions about faith, culture and the great ideas in a spirit of...well.. brotherly love. (If you have ever seen brotherly love in action, you will know what I mean.)

A few weeks ago, one of the Eagles played a song by Leonard Cohen, called Come Healing. It begins with a sweet female voice, overdubbed and layered into three-part harmony. The first stanza is nothing spectacular but certainly interesting enough to keep your attention.

Then comes a shock. The rugged voice of an eighty-year man sings a lyric that mystifies and grips your imagination. His voice is hardly melodious.  It is, however, beautiful. An even better adjective is “haunting.” Come Healing is spooky, as beauty always is. Beauty haunts and unnerves the imagination and the emotions. It reminds us that our minds are too small and restrained.

When Cohen croaks, “Come healing of the altar; come healing of the name” your ears hurt.  Your heart aches. Something uncanny happens. All this because an old man sings a song and makes you believe he has something terribly important to say.

Leonard Cohen is a Jew; a Levite in fact. The lyrics of his song are influenced by Kabala.  And yet, at least as this one Charismatic Evangelical Christian heard Cohen’s song, he was pierced by what felt like a word from beyond time and space.

“The splinters that you carry; the cross you left behind
Come healing of the body; come healing of the mind.”

Sometimes a book is beautiful in this way. It’s not always beautiful because it is destined to become a literary classic. It can be beautiful simply because it opens the soul. It contains what Cohen calls the “solitude of longing where love has been confined.”

That’s why I thought Chasing Francis was beautiful. It opened me up to wonder and grace. It moved me to become a better person.

There is one part in the book where the troubled pastor discovers that Francis of Assisi invented the nativity set. Francis wanted to make the story of the Lord’s birth fresh for the people who came to hear him preach. Soon, everyone had to have one. Today, you can buy plastic nativity sets. Or, you can buy expensive sets made of mahogany and ebony. You can even walk into nativity scenes filled with real people, a live camel and a dog that urinates on the straw.

In their own way, each of these nativity sets is beautiful.  The all exist because one saintly person was compelled to create a means of opening the soul. The reason he felt compelled to do that was because he wanted to share his joy with others.

Francis did many things, but inventing the nativity set would have been pretty impressive. How many of us will leave behind something so delightful?

Last year, a plastic donkey in our family crèche caught my granddaughter’s attention. She wanted to know if baby Jesus liked the donkey. Then she wanted to see a baby donkey on my iPad. For weeks after that, she would shout “DONKEY” whenever she saw one on TV or in a book.

In her mind, donkeys must be special because Jesus liked donkeys. Anyway, she was delighted with the donkey and I was delighted because she was delighted. God was delighted because grandfathers and grandchildren ought to delight one another.

Francis did something that helps us show love and wonder. That is no small thing. Ian Cron helps us remember Francis. That is no small thing either.

Art affects people differently. However, it always calls people out of the familiar and into an encounter with some part of reality we have not noticed before.

Mozart’s Ave Verum does that for me. So does Rachmaninov’s Vespers. And Shirley Caesar’s rendition of Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down. And stained glass. And Salvador Dali’s The Sacrament of The Last Supper.

All of these particular pieces of art speak to theology and the spiritual life, although some theologians might not think so.

For years we have been separating theology from beauty, turning theology into an intellectual quest for geeks.  But Shirley Caesar has something to offer theology that Karl Barth missed.  The fact that she makes her contribution with a simple melody and lyric does not disqualify it. Otherwise, the tabernacle and temple would have nothing to say about the theological quest.

We cannot separate beauty from theology. More people experienced God by going into the tabernacle, smelling the incense and eating the lamb than by reading the Book of Leviticus. I received more from Chasing Francis than I have from most sermons. Actually, it is a very effective sermon.

Beauty can safely express ideas not to our liking. The Ave Maria always moves me, so I can enjoy hearing it with a Roman Catholic. That doesn’t mean that we will agree about what the lyric signifies for each of us. It does mean we agree there is something about it that is beautiful, irresistible, compelling and spiritually meaningful.

I think that is why Plato wanted to banish music from his Republic: beauty is uncontrollable.

The problem with pragmatism and functionalism is that we have needs much more crucial than just sitting in a comfortable pew or listening to a balanced sound system. Beauty is one of those needs. We must have things in our lives that wound our soul and awaken it to eternity. If we don’t have them, our soul will grow numb. We may keep on making a living but may lose our reason to live.

That seems to be the problem Chasing Francis wants to address.

The book is important because Leonard Cohen is right. We desperately need “the healing of the altar.” The question is, how can the altar get healed if our minds remain preoccupied with small things? Beauty shatters the boxes in which we think and converse. It forces us to invent new words, new thoughts and new concepts.

As Ian Cron puts it in Chasing Francis,

“Beauty can break a heart and make it think about something more spiritual than the mindless routine we go through day after day to get by. Francis was a singer, a poet, an actor. He knew that the imagination was a stealth way into people's souls, a way to get all of us to think about God. For him, beauty was its own apologetic. That's why a church should care about the arts. They inspire all of us to think about the eternal.”

There was a day when Francis of Assisi leapt beyond pragmatism. He took off his clothes. He walked out of his father’s house. He started preaching in a cathedral not made with hands. The Sun became his chandelier. He formed his pews from knolls of grass. He praised the glory of roses. He sang about the divine origin of nature.

People still ask whether he was entirely sane.

I do not know if he was sane or not. I only know he was beautiful; beautiful like the croaking old voice of a octogenarian Levite, struggling to sing a lyric that can break our hearts. The voice is stained and weathered. It cracks and groans under the weight of glory that opens souls and saves the world.

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