(a commentary on “Love of the Order of the World” from “Waiting for God” by Simone Weil – from sermons I gave at West Hollywood United Church of Christ and at Mt Hollywood UCC in Los Angeles recently)
Beauty is a trap. A trap set all around me, as I walk to and from the Metro Red Line Subway station at Hollywood and Vine on my daily commute. Huge electronic billboards depicting idealized, unrealistically beautiful people demand the attention of the little, actual humans scurrying around on the sidewalks below.
Beauty is a trap that can oppress those who feel compelled to imitate the visual definitions of it that dominate the relentless media that barrage us through screens great and small, day and night. It’s a trap that sucks dollars out of our credit cards for beauty products, clothes, shoes, and accessories. It’s a trap that makes us feel incomplete and inadequate.
But there is another kind of beauty trap that is well-worth falling into. It’s the one that is set by God.
“The soul’s natural inclination to love beauty is the trap God most frequently uses in order to win it and open it to the breath from on high,” wrote Simone Weil, a French philosopher and theologian, in the 1940’s. “The beauty of the world is Christ’s tender smile for us coming through matter. He is really present in the universal beauty. The love of this beauty proceeds from God dwelling in our souls and goes out to God present in the universe. It also is like a sacrament.”
Our experience of beauty often points us into the unknown. What is beautiful often is mysterious, alluring us with the possibility of discovering the unseen behind what we see. Beauty isn’t “what you see is what you get”. It suggests that there is a story behind what we see; some kind of struggle, perhaps. Which is why some of the loveliest things are humble, dented, used, “distressed”. And people are often most beautiful when they expose hints of their vulnerabilities, letting those marks show by being emotionally honest and naturally revealing hints of life’s trials and tribulations through mannerisms and expressions.
The relationship of beauty and desire is one that torments many people. Beauty is something that we want, but what would it mean to have it, since it is always and only in the eye of the beholder? This reality makes futile the effort to grasp and control and own it. The way out of this monkey-trap is to relax, give up this grasping, and realize that you are the beauty that you see, not the beauty that others see, nor the beauty you want them to see. If you see beauty all around you, every day, in everyday things – if you look for that beauty and bask in it and enjoy it, you will become a reflection of it. When you see and gratefully appreciate beauty, in its many and surprising forms, this is ultimately what makes you a beautiful person…. far more than any attempt you make to change the way you look.
“A beautiful thing involves no good except itself, in its totality, as it appears to us. We are drawn toward it without knowing what to ask of it. It offers us its own existence. We do not desire anything else, we possess it, and yet we still desire something. We do not in the least know what it is… The great trouble in human life is that looking and eating are two different operations. Only beyond the sky, in the country inhabited by God, are they one and the same operation. Children feel this trouble already, when they look at a cake for a long time almost regretting that it should have to be eaten and yet are unable to help eating it. It may be that vice, depravity, and crime are nearly always, or even perhaps always, in their essence, attempts to eat beauty, to eat what we should only look at. Eve began it. If she caused humanity to be lost by eating the fruit, the opposite attitude, looking at the fruit without eating it, should be what is required to save it,” wrote Simone Weil.
Try this meditation on beauty: take a strip of paper and a stick of glue. Twist the strip once and glue the ends together into a moebius strip… and on it write these words: “you are the beauty that you see”. Write it so that it is one continuous stream of words: “you are the beauty that you see you are the beauty that you see you are the beauty that you see….” And so on. What was once a two-sided strip of paper is now one-sided. What was once a trap that separated you from beauty has released, and now, as you fall into God’s beauty trap, you and the beauty that you see are one.
“Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” (Luke 12:27) Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, didn’t tell people to pick the flowers. He didn’t tell them to take pictures of the flowers. He told them to look at them. Period! Salvation comes by this kind of looking, liberated from the desire that comes from, and results in, a sense of separation.
But for this meditation, cut a flower anyway! And scotch-tape it to a mirror. Look in the mirror. What do you see? The flower? Your face? Both?
Or do you see yourself looking at the flower from the other side of the mirror?
“We want to get behind beauty, but it is only a surface. It is like a mirror that sends us back our own desire for goodness,” wrote Simone Weil. “Only beauty is not the means to anything else. It alone is good in itself, but without our finding any particular good or advantage in it. It seems itself to be a promise and not a good. But it only gives itself; it never gives anything else.”
The Rev. Jim Burklo serves as senior associate dean of religious life at the University of Southern California. This post is republished from his blog, Musings, on the Progressive Christianity website. Follow him on Twitter @jtburklo and his website MindfulChristianity.org.