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The Wonder Report: March 25, 2022
Beauty Will Save Us
We signed the final papers on the sale of our old house on Wednesday, which means we’re now all in here in our new home. I wasn’t as emotional as I expected to be as I signed each paper the escrow officer put in front of us. Mostly, I was excited for the new family who lives there now.
“It’s such a great house,” I told them. “I hope you’ll be as happy there as we were.”
We decided to take one final drive by the old place after the transaction was closed. Steve’s idea. And as we passed by, my heart swelled.
“Look, the daffodils are blooming for them!” I said to Steve and Jacob, remembering all the bouquets I’d cut for our table over the years, and the ones I’d taken to Mom each spring when she was still with us. And then the emotions threatened to come.
But instead, I asked the guys if they were going to get ice cream when we went to dinner that evening. “I for sure am,” I said. Then Jacob said he’d like to go for a run that evening, and asked what time we’d be home. And by then, we’d passed our old house and were headed for our new one. And though there are no daffodils here—yet—there’s a beauty of belonging we’re already beginning to feel.
There’s a fascinating quote by Fyodor Dostoevsky that was quoted in this past Sunday’s sermon at church: “Beauty will save the world.” In fact, it was one of Dostoevsky’s characters, Prince Lev Nikolyaevich Myshkin, the protagonist of Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot, that said: “I believe the world will be saved by beauty.” This isn’t just any beauty, though. World-saving beauty can certainly make space for buttery daffodils swaying in the wind, but it also includes the grief over great love lost and the ache for home, like when a beloved house has been sold and a new house is … well, still new.
I agree with Dostoevsky: I, too, think beauty will save the world. How exactly? Well that’s what we’ll talk about this week.
1. A Heart Big Enough for God’s Love
Back in February, Steve and I were confirmed in the Anglican church. During our confirmation service, following the liturgy and public confession of our faith, Bishop Mark Engel of the Anglican Diocese of the Great Lakes, asked each of us, “What do you want God to do for you today?” He had prepared us for this question and gave us an example of what many people say, something like “I want God to give me a fresh filling of the Spirit so that I can live my life with faith and godliness.” But he also said we could freestyle, answering what was most true in our hearts.
I spent a good part of the service thinking about what I’d say. Of course the standard answer would definitely have applied. Not a day goes by that I couldn’t use a fresh filling of God’s spirit. But as I listened to the bishop preach and pray, as I responded to the questions asked by insisting
that I would renounce the devil and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God,
that I would renounce the empty promises and deadly deceits of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God,
that I would renounce the sinful desires of the flesh that draw me from the love of God, and
that I do turn to Jesus Christ and confess him as my Lord and Savior,
I couldn’t help but think: What is I really want God to do for me?
When my turn came, I walked over to the bishop and kneeled, and when he asked me the question he’d asked each confirmand before me, I whispered through tears, “I want a fresh filling of the Holy Spirit so that I can better love God and others.”
I hadn’t known what I was going to say until I opened my mouth to say it. And with the tearful confession, I could feel the bishop’s heart open toward me. He laid his hand on my head, prayed quietly, and then he looked at me with the love of a father and told me a parable about someone who wanted to gather the love of God to share with others. First, they brought a cup, but soon the cup was overflowing. And then they brought a bucket, but it soon overflowed too. And then they brought a barrel, and the same thing happened. No matter how big a container they brought, the love of God always filled it to overflowing. What, the bishop wondered aloud, was I bringing to God for him to fill with his love?
It’s a question I’ve been asking myself since.
I’m not sure where I first heard the saying, "There’s more room in a broken heart” — I don’t think it was from singer/song writer Carly Simon’s memoir, but that’s all that turned up in a quick Google search — but over the past few years, I’ve begun to believe it. When Mom died, I never knew a heart could be broken in so many pieces. But it crumbled the way it did because my heart had already begun to crack in the years I’d been caring for her following her stroke. Her life had become a series of losses, and with each one, my own heart shattered a little more.
But during those years, I also learned to love in ways I never had before. When I wasn’t sure I had enough love to care for Mom and my own family, when I thought my need to care for myself might be too great to carry us all, when I was running dry and felt I had no more love to give to anyone, the deep well of God’s love filled my heart a little fuller. Sometimes I asked for more of his love. Other times he gave it without my asking, knowing how very great the need was. It was God’s love, in fact, that not only healed my broken heart but also seeped into every crack, knitting it back together at a size just a little larger than it was before.
As I’ve been thinking about that question the bishop asked me….what it is I might bring to God that would be big enough to hold His love…the only answer I’ve thought of so far is this: I’ll bring him my broken heart. On the one hand, it feels scary to imagine the brokenness that will be required to enlarge my heart enough to hold the love of God. On the other, imagine having a heart filled with such love! Image the hope and healing such a heart can bring. Imagine a world full of these broken, God-filled hearts.
This is how beauty will save the world. Beauty in the form of compassion and sacrifice, beauty as courage and hope, beauty will save us by breaking us open—breaking us right in two—so that there is more room for love. This is not the work for shallow, self-interested beauty, like the kind we see in glossy magazines and carefully curated social media posts. This is the beauty of love that reaches through the complex suffering of modern life and leaves a glimmer of light shimmering in the darkness.
It’s the beauty of holding a hand that’s too weak to hold us back, of making art when bombs are dropping all around us, of writing the truth when the lies are easier to swallow. It’s the beauty of a sunset over a turbulent sea, of flowers draping a casket, of laughter while the tears of grief are still flowing. It’s the kind of beauty that breaks us open and leaves us raw. But all the while, our broken hearts are growing bigger, and bigger still, making more and more room for the love of God.
When Kate DiCamillo won her second Newbury medal in 2014 for Flora and Ulysses, she told an audience of librarians and publishers, authors and illustrators, “We have been given the sacred task of making hearts large through story. We are working to make hearts that are capable of containing much joy and much sorrow, hearts capacious enough to contain the complexities and mysteries and contradictions of ourselves and of each other.”
Story does that. Music does too. All great art creates a capaciousness of heart that makes room for love. But mostly, Jesus does that, through his Spirit, using all that is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise to enlarge our hearts. That’s why Paul told the Philippians to think on these things. The world is full of tragedy and heartache. And the anxiety that ensues threatens to minimize us, to make us smaller, to close our hearts to God and his love. But if we let our minds dwell on all that’s beautiful, if we let goodness break our hearts, then we’ll have peace—a peace that helps us bear the growing pains of hearts becoming bigger and more capable of holding God’s love.
The book we’ve been discussing for the past several weeks, Alan Noble’sYou Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World*, was written as a reflection on this question and answer from the Heidelberg Catechism:
Q: What is your only comfort in life and death?
A: That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.
If the question were simply, “what is your only comfort in death?” belonging to Christ seems like an obvious answer. For better or worse, it’s the circumstances that force us to ask the great existential questions of meaning and death that often lead us to seek God out.
But how does belonging to Christ bring us comfort in life?
“For myself, the greatest comfort in belonging to Christ is that the things most central to my experience of life find their home,” Noble writes. “Love, beauty, justice, joy, guilt, pleasure, longing, sorrow, delight—it is these things, not in the abstract but in particular moments and with particular people, that give life most of its grandeur. I know I can find alternate frameworks to explain the love I feel toward my wife or the pleasure I experience reading a great novel or the righteous indignation that fills me when I witness injustice. But none of those accounts can avoid impoverishing the very things I find most true about life. In Christ I take comfort that the truest things in life are real things.”
This, too, is how beauty will save us. Because beauty not only breaks us open and gives us a greater capacity to love, it points us again and again to the truth about Jesus. He is beauty incarnate. He is our comfort in life and death. He is the one who makes our “hearts capacious enough to contain the complexities and mysteries and contradictions of ourselves and of each other.” Through reading and asking questions, yes. Through suffering and caring for others, absolutely. But also through his own love poured into us, an ever growing vessel to bring His love to others.
I wonder … What do you want God to do for you today? And what are you bringing to God for him to fill with his love?
2. Beauty for Your Weekend
I read three things recently that feel like exhibits A, B, and C to support Dostoevsky’s, “Beauty will save the world” thesis. There’s so much I could say about each of them, but I mostly want you to read them and interact with them yourself. In fact, as you read, you could ask yourself these questions:
What does this essay have to say about real beauty?
What particular evil or ill will this beauty save us from?
How does this beauty point us to Jesus?
How will this beauty break our hearts and make them bigger vessels for God’s love?
So here are the essays. I’d love to hear what you think:
Go Tell It on the Mountain by Stephen Michael Newby at Plough
What Min Jin Lee Wants Us to See by Michael Luo at The New Yorker
Poems in a Time of Crisis by Ilya Kaminsky at The New York Times
3. Kate DiCamillo Summer Book Club
I mentioned this last week, and I want to keep mentioning it for those who might be interested: Join me this summer to read through all of Kate DiCamillo’s books!
Now, you might be thinking: Isn’t Kate DiCamillo a children’t book author? And you are right, of course. But there’s so much to be gleaned from letting great stories, whoever they happen to be written for, break open our hearts to make more room for love. And of course, Kate is a genius at that.
There’s more information here (go to item 3), and I’m still working out the details. But if you want to read along, consider purchasing some of Kate’s books to support her and then see if your local library has the rest. That’s my plan at least. I hope to have all the details together by May 1.
We’ve come to the end of another Wonder Report. Thanks for joining me here each week. It’s a privilege to share this space with you and to enter into these conversations together. It’s my favorite part of my writing life.
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