January 3, 2021 Sunday Service Message: Beauty, Contemplation and Radical Compassion

Beauty Lives with Kindness1

As we welcome the new year on this first Sunday in January, Rev. Joanne begins a six-week series inspired by Beguiled by Beauty: Cultivating a Life of Contemplation and Compassion1, by Wendy Farley.  She begins by telling us that contemplative practices are about integrating our spirituality into every moment of our lives, not just time set aside for prayer, meditation, and other spiritual work.

As with much of the spiritual work we do, simplicity works best.  Rev. Joanne asks us to contemplate the glory of simply being able to turn on a faucet and have clean water delivered to us.  When we consider the natural processes of water – rain, absorption, evaporation, streams, rivers, lakes, oceans – it is actually awe inspiring.  We also know that humans, and virtually all lifeforms, are mostly water.  Humans are one with all of nature via the planetary water cycles, and connecting to the Divine in our contemplative practice is as easy, and as natural, as being part of the water cycle.

When we are asked “what is beauty,” often we may bring to mind images of an attractive person or natural landscape, such as a verdant forest or crimson sunset.  Perhaps great art or music is considered beautiful.  But in her book this is not the definition Farley uses.  She says, “Beauty is more that what just looks pretty.  It’s not an outer appearance.  This includes images of nature.  Rather, every single moment contains some essence of beauty because the Divine is here.”

Unity teaches that beauty is within all of creation.  This does include that which is physically attractive, for to deny that is to exclude a significant portion of God’s creation.  The idea being considered here is that to experience beauty in our lives to the fullest extent, we must look beyond appearances.  Unity is certainly not unique is holding this idea.  In fact, it is an ancient idea.  Rev. Joanne shares with us a passage from the Book of Ezekiel.

Consider Assyria, once a cedar in Lebanon, with beautiful branches overshadowing the forest; it towered on high, its top above the thick foliage.  The waters nourished it, deep springs made it grow tall; their streams flowed all around its base and sent their channels to all the trees of the field.  So it towered higher than all the trees of the field; its boughs increased and its branches grew long, spreading because of abundant waters.  Ezekiel 31:3-5

Ezekiel was speaking to the Pharaoh of Egypt, telling him that even the splendor of a great king does not compare with that which God has created.  Through this story, Ezekiel is providing his people proper perspective.  Metaphor and allegory are staples of spiritual teaching.  Ezekiel asks his people, “Where are you putting your deep roots, in matters of humanity or in God?”

Rev. Joanne tells us that for us to have a more complete experience of “beauty,” we must be open and receptive to it in the way it shows up, and not how we think it should manifest itself.  With these contemplative practices we are invited to remember that there is beauty here waiting to be discovered, because God Is Here.

The title of Farley’s book Beguiled by Beauty, was inspired by a sixth-century monk, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, who said “God is beguiled by beauty.”  Rev. Joanne tells us that Pseudo-Dionysius said that God was so in love with creation that he continued to make more, including a beautiful spirit we can all come to know and be beguiled by, but we must release our ideas of what we think the beautiful is going to look like.

A contemporary example of finding beauty in unexpected places is the story of Vik Munoz (b. 1961), a Brazilian artist who in the documentary film Wasteland2 showed the “beauty” of the lives and souls of the poorest garbage pickers in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.  Photographing five of these workers in inspiring poses, he then enlarges these images by projecting them onto the ground.  He then uses these images as outlines to fill-in with the refuse that is all around them.  The message is that even within the most appalling conditions of life, there is beauty.  After seeing themselves presented as subjects of beauty rather than of scorn, these workers began to have a more positive view of themselves.  Like a flower growing in cracked concrete or desiccated earth, we can find beauty everywhere if we are willing to look.

Farley speaks to the idea of beauty being found not just in the outer world, but within our hearts, minds and souls, accessed through our contemplative practices:

We might come away with a stereotype of someone who remains preoccupied only with their own benefit.  We might see contemplative practices as fundamentally selfish or a distraction from the more active engagement in the world.  Or, we might seek it for precisely that reason – it provides relief from the painfulness of life.  As worthy as self-improvement, relaxation and spiritual benefits are, those are not the purposes of a contemplative way of life.  When we love divine goodness more deeply, we love the world more passionately.  When we love and care for the world, we fall more deeply into divine reality.  God is not just a magical being in whom we are instructed to believe, but an unnamable infinite goodness that we know as love.  And when we love one another more beautifully, we enter into the divine realm.

Previewing the rest of this series, Rev. Joanne tells us that as we move through these next six weeks, what we will be doing is looking for beauty, the essence of God, in all of creation.  And the contemplative practices do not require hours of our day, but simply ten-second segments of our time, like choosing to drink our water mindfully, aware of the beauty, intelligence and the process of everything that went into our having water to drink.

To find beauty in all of creation, if we merely have open eyes willing to see, is not the same as ignoring the difficulties of life.  Although the Brazilian garbage pickers had a positive experience fostered by Munoz’ compassionate view and creative expression, I am quite certain that given the choice, most of them would prefer to be contributing to society in some less perilous way.  The lesson to be learned here is not that beauty masks or denies that which is unpleasant, rather that beauty exists even in the midst of such conditions.

Unity teaches that God is good and everywhere present.  When find that difficult to accept it is helpful to remember, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”  Proverbs 17:22

Now Go and Be the Light.

Scripture

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes.  Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.  1 Peter 3:3-4

Spiritual Practice:

This series invites us to integrate contemplative practices into our daily lives as a way of opening to the Divine in deeper ways.  This week, we will use water in our contemplative practice.  Set a reminder throughout your day to pour yourself and drink a glass of water.  As you do so, allow your mind to slow, your heart to open, your eyes to drink in your surroundings.

Imagine that the water you just drank is now you . . . there is no place where the water ends and you begin.  Know that water is life.  Know that you can water your life with all that you need to grow.  Know that you can water others’ lives with compassion an love.

What steps can you take to water your own life?  What steps can you take each day to water another’s life?

Greg Skuderin

1Shakespeare, William, The Two Gentlemen Of Verona (1592-3) act 4, sc. 2, l. 40.

2Farley, Wendy, Beguiled by Beauty: Cultivating a Life of Contemplation and Compassion, Westminster John Knox Press (December 15, 2020).

3Wasteland, O2 Filmes, Brazil, 2010.