“Our fingers imbibe like roots,” begins a prayer by Francis of Assisi, “So I place them on what is beautiful in this world.”
Beauty may feel like a shaky reed these days, nothing much to hang our hat on. Most of us are more inclined to attend to what’s ugly: environmental degradation, wars, famines, loss of human civility. It feels like the responsible thing to do, this turning toward loss and grief and pain. Were we to ignore these sorrows, those suffering would suffer doubly: from the original insult and then from our indifference.
But the beauty of this world deserves our attention as much the grief of this world. Beauty and sorrow are not alternatives, but intertwined poles of care and compassion. Who will ever protect the water if they don’t perceive the exquisite interplay between mist, cedar and creek? Who will love the children if their hearts aren’t lifted by the toothless, drooling grin of a bright-eyed infant? Who will care to preserve mature deciduous forest if they have never heard a wood thrush call? Who will tend the connections of community unless they have a deep and abiding affection for humanity?
When we recognize “what is beautiful in this world,” we’re not ignoring what stinks. We are instead recognizing what will save us.
Beauty doesn’t save us because it’s beautiful. Beauty saves us because it reminds us that life has meaning. Not meaning that can be explained or logically understood, but meaning that is experienced. Call it wonder, joy, or mystery, beauty is what stops us in our tracks and lets us breathe. Beauty compels us to be present to life right now: that’s what it means to “place our hands on what is beautiful in this world.” Francis’ prayer invites us to pay exquisite attention to the details of daily life.
Driving home from Kaslo, tense from navigating the icy road, the heart-stopping blue of late afternoon winter sky restores me to myself. The sound of leaves falling on a Sunday morning in autumn; the veins and delicate skin of my sister’s aging hands that echo my mother’s hands; the joyful dash of a puppy released to explore outside; the silence of a snow-blanketed morning; the thrill of voices intertwined in harmony. There’s even intellectual beauty, like the joy of reading something that makes sense at a deep intuitive level, or makes me laugh like hell.
The Sufis define beauty as anything that opens our heart to Love; then they define Love as Ultimate Reality. I say that when we attend to beauty, the possibilities of the world are more possible. It is possible that eight candles burning in a menorah will light our hearts with a memory and commitment toward liberation of all. It is possible that a homeless baby born in a stable in an occupied country will stir us toward compassion and humility. It is possible that on the darkest day, the light will return. If we keep placing our hands on beauty, anything is possible.