Nicholas Wolterstorff, in quoting Clive Bell in his article writes, “Both art and religion ‘ have the power of transporting men to superhuman ecstasies; both are means to unearthly states of mind. Art and religion belong to the same world…The kingdom of neither is of this world.” I could not agree with this statement more. As I long as I can remember I have sought after ‘unearthly states of mind.’ I came across it first in beauty, art and nature and latter in religious experience and continue to desperately crave it for my daily fix of transcendence. Growing up in a reality I disliked provoked me to find the reality behind all forms. Dubay wrote, “ Form is the deep root of a beings actuality, which gives it its basic whatness.” In searching out these forms I was searching for my form, for myself. As Plotinus wrote, “… the soul, since it is by nature what it is and is related to the higher kind of reality in the realm of being, when it sees something akin to it or a trace of its kindred reality, is delighted and thrilled and returns to itself and remembers itself and its own possessions.” That has been the essence and substance of my quest for the beautiful and for meaning in both the religious and aesthetic, which I find to be inseparable, experiences I have had.
Of the many religious experiences with aesthetic value that flood my mind, one stands out in my early and formative years. I was in second grade at Rock Church Academy on a rainy afternoon. The teacher said everyone could go to the gym to play games but if anyone wanted to stay behind and pray there where some special needs to pray about. I felt an impulse to stay and so I joined the prayer circle. Sometime in the first few minutes I raised my hands and did not put them down for half an hour. As I stood there I felt the warmth and beauty of the Lord covered me in a blanket of love. It was like nothing I had ever experienced and changed my perception of everything around me. This is the same transcendence, which occurs when I am touched by “objects seen as pure forms.” I was transported, “… from the world of man’s activity to a world of aesthetic exaltation.” That afternoon opened my eyes to see beauty in the light of a new world and cleared a path to my heart which the Lord and I have trod together many times since.
When I lost my grandfather last December I felt a terrible emptiness in my soul and could not reconcile the loss of this great Oak whose branches offered me shade and comfort my entire life. I had a few days off and asked the Lord to lead me to his shade so that I could come to terms with the loss. One morning I rented the Tree of Life. Already a huge Terrence Malick fan I knew I would be inspired by his visual poetry. This movie arrested me from the first scene. It silenced my clamorous thoughts, stilled my anxious heart and hushed my worried breath. A peace settled over me as I watched the dance of this beautiful young family as they grew together and briefly apart only to come together again. The final scene on the beach, where everyone is reunited and there is music with no words, melodies like thoughts drifting from one heart to the next and the parents with their children holding hands in the breaking light of dawn reassured me in a way no scripture or preacher could in that moment. That movie displayed “God’s grandeur, it flamed out, like shining from shook foil.”
Several days before the foil shaking experience I came across a tattered copy of The Old Man and the Sea at the thrift store. I love vintage books for the inexplicable reason that only people who love old books would know. So I, with great joy, snatched it up. The cover seemed strangely familiar and comforting and to my surprise when I opened it there was a stamp, which read English Dept Kempsville High School, my old High School. It is not out of the realm of possibility to think that I even read this specific copy. Anyway my grandfather (Poppy) loved and I mean loved the sea. He fished his entire life and won countless fishing tournaments with his buddies the Va. Beach Anglers. I cannot think of him without thinking of water. All my memories of him are saturated with sea spray.
As I read of the ‘old man’ in the book fighting the great fish, combining all his wit and strength and perseverance to pull in this massive fish, I thought of Poppy. I thought of all his battles, like being deaf in one ear and having inner ear problems. I thought of his hands, like the hands of the ‘old man’ rough and calloused from years of strenuous work on Vepco lines. I thought of how the ‘old man’ loved the moon and spoke to the stars and of all Poppy’s photos of sunsets and sunrises and his endless observations on the Osprey nesting just off shore. I saw Poppy in the ‘old man’ and it settled my soul. In the book the ‘old man’ catches the fish and secures it to the side of his small boat because the fish is too big to put in the boat and before he makes it back to shore, sharks devour the great fish. But the ‘old man’ in the wisdom gained by years and stars and nights alone at sea, is content. Perhaps he had learned the Apostle Paul’s secret of being content in every circumstance. My hope was that Poppy found the same contentment as he pulled his boat to shore after a long, hard, and beautiful life.
The beauty behind the form in The Tree of Life and The Old Man and The Sea touched my heart and lifted my soul to ‘unearthly states of mind.’ God knows how to talk to me. He has created a language out of my life and he speaks to me through memories, books, films, sights, sounds, smells, he puts pictures in my mind and hurls color into the darkest of my imaginings, all because he can. The Great Artist is “beauty beyond beauty’ and all the lesser artist in his service know the electricity which flows unbound when you are lost/found and returned to your right mind all in the instant of touching the divine with your brush or your pen or the strum of your guitar. He is not far- he surrounds, engulfs and floods all of creation with his radiant form and in the loss of one I dearly loved he loved me through the language of my heart.
All of theses experiences transcended my natural state of being and transported me to the reality behind the pure forms. In the lifting of my hands in prayer and in the comfort of my heart through the movie, I was able to touch the heart of the ‘beauty beyond beauty’ and receive from him the much needed strength, comfort and perspective I required to soldier on down my path. Life is difficult, as we all know, and without beauty to ransom us from the kingdom of darkness there is really nothing to live for and nothing to fight for. Beauty inspires courage when death devours dreams; beauty stands defiant in a world of magazines. She carries us to heaven with “ah! bright wings” and settles us in perfect peace as we look upon our king.