Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Principled Beauty

The following entry appeared originally on Live Questions.  Never heard of it?  It's a project started by some friends of mine that looks at questions of vocation, community, solidarity, and beauty. It is an outstanding project that I couldn't be happier to be able to contribute to from time to time.

“Kansas is an attitude” our instructor remarked with a wry smile on her face.  These were the first words out of her mouth… and they were true.

Kansas is an attitude. There’s no way around it. Kansas in the middle of January, however, is an extreme expression of that attitude. I and four other novices had come to Kansas to explore our congregational roots. Our instructor was a sister in her seventies; a woman born of the prairie, stubbornly independent, stunningly simple, and simply brilliant. Suffice it to say we met that attitude head on.

The lessons we had come to learn were on vocation, but surprisingly lessons on beauty came hand-in-hand with those about our call as religious sisters today, tomorrow, and yesterday. 

Kansas in January is desolate. The fields of wheat, milo, and corn that tantalize the American imagination with shades of gold are cut down to the ground. In their place are vast expanses of barrenness, the common vision of heartland mowed down.  It is a land recuperating, silently fostering the signs of life for spring. 

I and four other sisters were there to explore 100 maxims from seventeenth century France.  Written by the Jesuit who helped found our religious congregation, these maxims are guides for life; whether you are a religious or not, they are principles to live by.

Some make common sense: “Strive to be kind always to everyone and unkind to no one.” (Maxim 64) “Never think about tomorrow unless it has some necessary link with today, but entrust it to Providence.” (Maxim 69) or “Live out your life with one desire only: to be always what God wants you to be, in nature, grace, and glory.” (Maxim 73)

Others challenge our modern sensibilities and defy human nature: “Give all the happiness you can to those who give you a great deal of unhappiness, and give it willingly.” (Maxim 51) “Interpret all things from the best possible point of view” (Maxim 52) or “Advance all good works until they are almost finished; and then, whenever possible, let them be completed by someone else who will receive the honor.” (Maxim 85)

But the maxim we started with, Maxim 1, is the maxim that the ninety-nine proceeding maxims seek to elaborate on:

“Keep always in mind the aim of your vocation which is sublime; and never do anything which contradicts the commitment to a life full of modesty, gentleness, and holiness.” 
-Maxim 1-

 You can take this to mean anything you want, but for me, the aim of my vocation is union with God and neighbor without distinction.

This is the vocation I feel called to and it is the aim of the Christian life in general. Yet, as we moved our way deeper into this maxim, something struck me about the manner of achieving that aim.  It was hidden in the translation.

Modestie and douceur are most commonly translated from French literally as modesty and gentleness. But really, in practical terms, our call as Christians isn’t to a hackneyed expression of modesty and gentleness- you know, covering up and remaining docile. In all actuality, though, those words are much deeper. Respectively they mean a call to an awareness that is prudent, i.e. constantly discerning, (modestie) and a manner of being in touch with and seeking beauty (douceur). In older translations, the word douceur was taken to mean gentleness, but its true meaning (literally “sweetness”) is more akin to beauty.

And so, with this in mind, the second half of this key maxim essentially says:

Always keep in mind the aim of you life and…do nothing that contradicts the commitment you make to living a life that is constantly discerning, seeking beauty, and bound by holiness.

There, wedged in between the call to be constantly discerning and ever in pursuit of wholeness/holiness, was Beauty- douceur.

This beauty though isn’t just happiness and loveliness. No, it is something much more principled.

Such beauty, the Beauty in pursuit of union with God and with neighbor without distinction, has four characteristics:  order, symmetry, harmony, and right relationship.

Looking up at the same sister who’d told us that Kansas was an attitude, I stared quizzically, my aesthetic mind reeling.  These were principles of beauty I had not encountered before. As I played various “beautiful” scenarios through my head, my mind and heart whirled. I had never considered beauty this way.  In essence, as I seriously considered this definition, the drive of my vocation hung in the balance.

Could the beauty I cherish in the world, in fact, be a function of my vocation? I wondered.

Is what we find beautiful defined by the presence of these characteristics at the very core of its being?

Harmony, order, symmetry, and right relationship flooded my mind. Not only do these lie at the heart of the Gospel, they also speak to the sometimes indescribable and yet principled beauty of our world. 

Surely even grace operates within this basic framework; liberated not tamed by these broad categories. The harmony, symmetry, and order of life (and beauty) are God’s not ours. The right relationships we are called to flow out of our right relationship with our Creator.

And as I considered all of this- my life, my call, this world- I also drew into mind the principled beauty I encountered on the wind-swept plains of northern Kansas. There, even in desolation, poverty, and expansiveness, there was Beauty. It was a beauty bound up in harmony, symmetry, order, and right relationship.

It is what I considered as I tried to capture the principled beauty of the area on film and it is what I delved into as I plunged the depths of my being in a place stripped of all else. And what did I find?

I found a beauty given and graced. It is an attitude. And it is something that goes far beyond the Plains into the depths of our very being- the aims of our vocations- the principles of our lives.

And in that, there is something beautiful just waiting to be discovered. 

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