READING by John O’Donohue
The human soul is hungry for beauty… When we experience the Beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming. Some of our most wonderful memories are beautiful places where we felt immediately at home. We feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful for it meets the needs of our soul. For a while the strains of struggle and endurance are relieved, and our frailty is illuminated by a different light in which we come to glimpse behind the shudder of appearances and sure form of things. In the experience of beauty we awaken and surrender in the same act. Beauty brings a sense of completion and sureness. Without any of the usual calculation, we can slip into the Beautiful with the same ease as we slip into the seamless embrace of water; something ancient within us already trusts that this embrace will hold us.
Timothy entered prison in 1989. He says he did not think about beauty. He had spent his life up to that point experiencing only ugliness. Beauty held no meaning for him. He had been placed in Colorado State custody at the age of six and spent 12 years enduring abuse of all kinds from staff and others. Emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Then when her reached 18, the age of emancipation, he was kicked out with nowhere to go. By the age of 21, he had been to prison twice and was returning to prison. This time his sentence was for 30 years. The idea of beauty seemed irrelevant, impossible, nonexistent.
Midway through the current 30-year sentence, something changed. Timothy began what he describes as a spiritual journey. That journey included the discovery of beauty-- “a glimpse behind the shudder of appearance” (John O’Donohue). He discovered “that beauty comes in many forms.” He says,
I’ve walked to chow at night and was amazed by the beauty of the moon and stars. On the rec yard I’ve admired the beauty of a hawk flying overhead and the beauty of a mockingbird’s song.
Some people find beauty in written words or songs, while others admire the beauty of various forms of art. One guy I worked with would talk for hours about the beauty of math, how the perfection of a difficult equation was beauty in itself.
While it is difficult to do in prison, I now try to see the beauty that surrounds me. Whether it is the trees on the other side of the fence, a wildflower growing on the yard, a touching poem, or a heart-tugging song, I search for that beauty. (“Inner Beauty,” www.questformeaning.org/quest-article/inner-beauty/)
Timothy is imprisoned in Florida. He is Unitarian Universalist now, and a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship. The Church of the Larger Fellowship is a virtual Unitarian Universalist community with a global reach. There are 3,500 members, 900 of them incarcerated.
Isn’t it incredible to hear what Timothy who has seen the worst has to teach us about beauty?! His experience reminds us that beauty is part of the spiritual journey. He shows us how beauty emerges even where there is ugliness, even in prison, which may seem like an unlikely place for beauty. He reminds us to seek out experiences of beauty wherever we are. His experience reminds us that beauty comes in many forms and that we can find it in many places. He also goes a bit further. He says that the most rewarding beauty is inner beauty, “the beauty of a kind soul.” Kahlil Gibran said that “Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart.” And John O’Donohue describes a light that allows us to glimpse behind appearances.
In some ways, modern culture seems to celebrate the presence of the soul-beautiful. The phrase, “beauty is only skin-deep” is an oft repeated refrain that reminds us to look inward. At the same time, when it comes to human beauty, we seem to be more focused on superficial attractiveness than ever. There’s no shortage of advertising, billboards, magazines, social media, television and movies feeding us visuals of what is and isn’t desirable and attractive.
There still appears to be a “beauty bias” that favors attractive people at work and elsewhere. There still seems to be an excruciating amount of emphasis on appearances. The options available to us to enhance and beautify our physical selves to keep us looking young and attractive seem to suggest and reinforce physical attractiveness as a top priority when it comes to human beauty. There are more and more beauty products and more and more plastic surgery options. There are even programs on social media that accomplish results similar to those of airbrushing photos. I was surprised when I first read that there were apps to smooth the skin, highlight eyes, and even resize noses to achieve a cultural ideal of beauty.
So why are we so focused on outer beauty? It doesn’t make us smarter, more interesting, kinder, more truthful, or more fun to be around. I’m not even sure that it makes human beings any happier. And what is the cost of prioritizing the outside over the inside?
From a religious and spiritual perspective, the cost is the nurture and care of our souls and of our planet. Beauty throughout the ages has been a spiritual value. It is a value not only of aesthetics but also of moral virtue right up there alongside truth and justice. John O’Donohue describes the way beauty relates to something transcendent—to God, the universe, the soul. He says,
The human soul is hungry for beauty. . . . When we experience the Beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming. … we can slip into the Beautiful with the same ease as we slip into the seamless embrace of water; something ancient within us already trusts that this embrace will hold us.
Beauty connects us to something ancient, to our source. This is the force of the universe, of God, of all. It is even a name for God. Starhawk writes of this: “I who am the beauty of the green earth and the white moon among the stars and the mysteries of the waters; I call upon your soul to arise and come unto Me.” The sources of beauty that I encounter on a regular basis help me slip into that seamless embrace of water, call to me to arise and come. Poetry, literature, spring flowers, the grandeur of trees. My cat too. She is infinitely beautiful. I’m so amazed by who she is, by how she is, by how we have this cross-species soul connection. And my friends, family, and my partner are beautiful—because of all the ways they light up my life, support me, and help me be my best self. Being with these people is like a homecoming and an embrace that holds me. They may all be beautiful on the outside too, but what sets them apart is their inner light, the way they feed my soul-hunger.
Timothy says that for him,
The most rewarding beauty that I’ve found is the beauty of a kind soul. No matter how a person looks on the outside, it is what’s inside that has affected me the most. Prison is a place filled with egotistical, selfish, manipulating, cruel people. So it is particularly special when I come across that rare animal—a beautiful inner person.
The unselfish act of helping others in need, of sticking up for the weak, of giving freely with no ulterior motives: this is the beauty that changes lives, the beauty that makes us look at our own inner self. This is the beauty that allows us to have hope for the future no matter how bleak the present is.
It is this inner beauty that has the power to change the world we live in. If we all nurtured our inner beauty, tended it until it blossomed, then that beauty would spread its seeds to others. Let your inner beauty shine; allow others to see your inner beauty by your actions. No matter how ugly the world is, our inner beauty can thrive and spread. (www.questformeaning.org/quest-article/inner-beauty/)
Indeed, beauty can change the world. It offers us a moral compass. Not only is kindness beautiful, but beauty inspires us to be kind, to be just, to be our best selves. Unitarian Universalist 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.” If humans were to truly respect the worth and dignity of all people and to respect the web of all existence, if we believed that all these were beautiful, if this kind of beauty were honored as a moral value, humans would not diminish or destroy one another or our planet. How could they?!
There is ugliness in the world. There is pain and meanness. There is injustice. Focusing on inner beauty—the inner good—in ourselves, each other, and the whole of existence, can help to foster a more beautiful world. Cultivating our inner beauty and appreciating that in others cultivates more light, more light that can light up the world, that can touch hearts.
In our spiritual community here there are many examples of the beautiful, so many examples of kind souls. These include our teachers and mentors, our musicians and singers, our committee leaders and volunteers, our ushers, our board members, our coffee crews (coffee is one of the beautiful things!), our wise ones of all ages, our worship associates, our social justice teams and audio-visual techs, our building committee, our staff, greeters.
There is the person during coffee hour or before church who takes a moment to stop to introduce themselves. There is the person who listens to your story, the one who gives you a ride or loans you a book, or sends you a card when a loved one has died. There is the person who is generous financially. There is the person who shares their truths, who risks being who they are, who shows you who they are becoming and helps you become who you are becoming. These are the kind souls whose beauty teaches us the courage to live well, to live boldly, to be grateful. These are the people whose beauty is changing the world.
Beauty is a light in the heart. May the light in your heart light up the world. May we join with the Navajo Indians who said,
Beauty is before me, andBeauty is behind me.Above me and below mehovers the beautiful.I am surrounded by it,I am immersed in it.. . .In beauty it is begun.In beauty, it is ended.
May we help to make it so. Amen. Blessed be.