by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM, March 6, 2016
What is the place of beauty in our everyday living? How do we invite beauty into our homes, our places of work, our neighborhoods? What effect does beauty or its absence have on the life of our spirit and our experience of the Divine?
Recently, I was leading a retreat weekend which included times of stillness and personal reflection. During those periods of solitude, participants would often walk the hallways inside the building and linger before statues, paintings, framed poetry, gazing at all the elements that someone had arranged with obvious care and forethought. Others strolled the lovingly tended grounds, appreciating the trees coming to bud and the early spring flowers poking their heads up through the still cold earth. A few hardy souls sat in winter’s morning light and communed with birds, squirrels, rabbits, and deer, all welcomed and at home on the land. Clearly, we were surrounded by beauty of many kinds, created by human hands and hearts and the hand of the Divine. We were taking it in, and we were all in some way touched by the beautiful.
In traveling to many retreat houses, meeting spaces, and conference centers, I experience very quickly the impact of beautiful settings and artistic arrangements. What’s become clear to me is just how much even the smallest touches of art and poetry and music contribute to the sense of welcome and hospitality in public places as well as in personal space. What’s also evident is how the lack of the beautiful can signal an entirely different, although perhaps unintended, message.
In Longing for the Endless Immensity, Reflection and Prayer for Living a Life That Matters, I recall a story told by Robert Sardello, author of Facing the World with Soul. Sardello remembers a time when he was invited to speak to a group of city managers about architecture. Their intent was to look at the ways in which architecture might enhance and improve the quality of city life.
But Sardello was distracted by looking at the actual space in which they were meeting that day. He remembers that, “The room itself was sick… It had no windows, and the drab acoustic ceiling pressed in from above, sandwiching the room with oppression. The door was without a handle…Painted institutional gray, its floor covered with rough carpet, the space was filled with ugly brown folding chairs.”
It was as if the room were crying out in pain, and the city managers were so focused on their task for the future that none of them seemed to notice their present surroundings. Sardello questioned whether a work so important as the reshaping of a city should be entrusted to people who couldn’t recognize the absence of the beautiful in the very space where they were gathered to take on such a critical question.
In a verse credited to Moslih Eddin Saadi, a medieval Persian poet, the writer makes a case for holding on to bits and moments of beauty even when, and perhaps especially when, we are scraping the bottom of our bank of our resources:
“If you of fortune be bereft
and in your store
there be but left
And with the dole,
buy hyacinths to feed your soul.”
In some of the most abandoned and forgotten neighborhoods, we can see glimpses of the poet’s command: a simple roadside shrine; sunflowers reigning over a garbage dump; a meager supply of seeds set out to attract and share with native birds; a colorful chalk mural gracing the walls of a crumbling building; a tattered magazine photograph taped to a mirror. Hyacinths, one and all.
And what of us? Could this be an invitation to take a look at the space of our own lives and do an inventory of the beautiful?
Return to today’s opening questions:
What is the place of beauty in your everyday living?
How do you/how might you invite beauty into your home, your place of work, your neighborhood?
How does the presence of beauty affect your prayer and your experience of the Divine?
NOTE: Thank you for your prayerful support of 2 recent retreats: “Naming the Deep Breath,” a weekend at the Franciscan Spiritual Center in Aston, PA, February 26-28; and “Widening the Reach of Our Mercy,” a day for Holy Cross-St. Patrick’s parish in Callicoon, NY, March 5.