Presented May 19th, 2019
Many years ago, in Winnipeg, I met the most beautiful woman in the world. I was visiting a university friend who was part of the Sikh community. A wedding was being planned, with a bride coming from India. My friend’s family was hosting a women’s get together, one of many gatherings in the weeks before the ceremony.
So I was there in a basement of an old Winnipeg row house, with my friend and her sisters, as well her mother and many other women of all ages, waiting for the guest of honour.
A young woman came down the narrow stairs. She was draped in red – the bridal colour in India – a gorgeous red sari and shawl sparkling with delicate embroidery. Black hair carefully done, brown eyes, oval face, flawless skin, slender hands covered in intricate designs in henna.
I can’t describe her face but the Bollywood actresses I have seen since don’t compare to the Sikh woman I met in a Winnipeg basement.
For years after she was the image of beauty in my mind. And every time I thought of her – I felt a kind of awe and amazement, astonishment, even joy and delight.
It was one of those small moments in life that takes hold and lingers a long time – the wondrous encounter with beauty – being left with a lightness of heart.
Poet David Whyte calls beauty the harvest of presence – the reward when we are able to be deeply attentive to the world and forget ourselves. An encounter with beauty is the harvest when we are attentive to the world and can let go of the self.
Beauty reminds us there is so much more to life then just ourselves.
Now I was young myself when I met the bride in the basement and so my sense of beauty was the conventional one: the ideal, perfect, flawless, kind of beauty promoted by magazines and the cosmetics industry. And this is a kind of beauty for sure, although narrowed to a cultural ideal and so unavailable to most of us.
And much of the ideal beauty being sold to us is an aspect of the beauty of vitality and youth which is truly in the possession of every young person.
But not every young person feels beautiful. There’s a video on the theme site this month which shows the faces of young people filmed while they are told they are beautiful.
Their reactions are fascinating – from joy to disbelief – even anger. It is hard for most of us to identify as beautiful.
Growing up, most people weren’t affirmed as beautiful, and unless we match the current narrow standards for beauty – and see ourselves in those images – we don’t feel beautiful.
I’m grateful that we live at a time when beauty standards are shifting, opening up, making it easier for more people to see their own beauty.
It’s important to keep pushing this cultural expansion – affirming different skin colours and body shapes and faces and ages as beautiful.
Beauty is now a little less about perfect ideals – and more about embracing our whole selves – flaws and all – that beauty of presence when we are wholly ourselves.
It isn’t as easy as we age and the flaws seem to increase exponentially. The beauty of young life transitions into the beauty of a life lived.
This is a deeper beauty – not just of skin and good bone structure – but a beauty of spirit. It has to do with who we become as we live. Beauty of the spirit is what shines through us.
“That must be what the great artists see and paint. That must be why the tired, aged faces in Rembrandt’s portraits give us such delight: they show us beauty not skin-deep but life-deep.” (Ursula K. Le Guin)
Beauty is life deep.
And beauty that is life deep can be encountered anywhere – in the sight of apple blossoms on a spring morning – in listening to Bach’s music – in a line of poetry – or in the ruins of building.
Life-deep beauty isn’t about appearances, but encounters between beings, between the self and the other.
Encounters that leave the heart lighter.Beauty is the harvest of presence, if we are attentive and forget ourselves for a moment.
Life is beautiful, if only we stop long enough to notice it. We are each of us beautiful, if only we could feel it.
Italian writer Piero Ferrucci says “The world is full of beauty, both hidden and manifest. It is enough to be open, look around, be like a child again. And if we will only give it a little attention, we will find it, we will enjoy it, we will be saved by beauty.”
We will be saved by beauty.
We are going to take some time now to contemplate our own ideals of beauty.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Bring to mind something or someone beautiful. An encounter where you were struck by beauty.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Don’t try to describe the beauty you are encountering, or analyze it. Simply sit with the memories and the feelings.
Let the warmth, the joy, the love wash over you. Be saved by beauty.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
I hope you were all able to encounter beauty in some way. Until putting together this month’s theme resources on beauty, I don’t think I have ever really considered beauty as a UU minister.
Arising as we do from protestant Christianity, which tended to consider the beauty of the world as a dangerous distraction from the proper worship of God, Unitarian Universalism hasn’t really paid much attention to the concept of beauty.
Some of early American Unitarianism – influenced by Transcendentalism – is filled with praise for the beauty of the earth. It’s one of the ways we began to diverge from Protestantism – seeing the divine as present in the earth’s wonders.
The minister and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson said that beauty takes us to the foundations of life, through linking our intellect and imagination together, revealing the splendour of the universe.
We praise the beauty of the earth – as we will in our final song today – but since Emerson UUs have rarely considered the concept of beauty.
To appreciate beauty can come off as shallow, consumerist, and trivial when there is so much suffering in the world. It’s a luxury or distraction.
And with physical beauty so coopted by Instagram filters and modelling agencies it’s easy to assume beauty is elsewhere- not us – and so refuse to seek beauty – or to chase after false standards that just cause misery.
But beauty is necessary and needed experience of the world. Needed even more in difficult times. We need to reclaim the concept of beauty from social media and cosmetic companies. To refuse to reduce beauty to limited ideals of perfection.
I know I need beauty in my life. I am nourished by encounters with beauty.
Singer and poet Carrie Newcomer writes: Riding my bike down a narrow country road…/A graceful young doe/Was bounding in beautiful unhurried leaps…/Then with a burst of speed/She dashed in front of me/And disappeared into the woods/Leaving me breathless/With a feeling of visitation…
Since that moment,/The world has felt less weary…/Like anything/And everything/Is still completely/Possible.
The world feels less weary.
I know I need to feel this, to be reminded that the world does not turn only on suffering, but also on beauty. To feel that anything is still possible. That’s what keeps us going in tough times.
As Pascal says, “in difficult times, carry something beautiful in your pocket.”
Matthew Fox, a champion for a progressive creation oriented Christianity, says that beauty is a habit of the universe.
Just look at the night sky filled with stars. Or listen to Beyonce sing.
Fox argues that to be human is to work to bring out the beauty of life – in the world and in one another. “Beauty saves. Beauty heals. Beauty motivates. Beauty unites. Beauty returns us to our origins, and here lies the ultimate act of saving, of healing… Beauty allows us to forget the pain and dwell on the joy.”
As people of the chalice, we are trying to figure out how to be human. I think our principles point us towards bringing out the beauty of life.We don’t just encounter beauty, we are asked to create beauty.
We try to choose for inherent worth and dignity, justice and compassion in how we treat one another. We try to accept one another as we are, and to learn and grow. We choose talking together, we choose community. We choose to belong to the earth.
All of this – all of which needs to be chosen over and over – moves us towards healthy ways of being.
The seven principles guide us towards healing the world. To leave others better for having met us. To leave the earth better for us having been here.
In healing the world we increase the beauty in the world. Beauty arises from creating justice, from acts of connection.
Acts of beauty, creating beauty, are healing. They leave us lighter, less weary, more hopeful. Beauty sustains us, heals us.
As Unitarian Universalists then, to be concerned with beauty is a right and appropriate stance. May our pockets hold something beautiful each and every day.
In a study of beauty, a woman shared this: “When I was a child, my grandmother, (whom I loved very much), used to get warm, radiant sunlight in her room. I saw the dust particles floating in the air and illuminated by the sun. I was in ecstasy. It was as though I had seen a miracle. At that moment, I knew what beauty was.” Piero Ferrucco
Beauty is an affirmation of life. It says “look here and see how marvellous life is. See how wonderful it is to be alive right here, right now, in this body, in this place.”
Watching dust in sunlight can be an encounter with beauty. It’s being attentive and open, our hearts breaking open to the beauty of a moment.
But encountering beauty requires us to be willing to encounter beauty. To have hearts that can open, that can be vulnerable. To have eyes ready to see the world as beautiful. To let our own beautiful selves shine out.
This takes practice, we need to come back to beauty over and over again.
We can cultivate an openness to beauty in various ways. One is to actively and consciously to look for the beautiful. Just look and find the beauty in the broken sidewalk. To find beauty in the grocery clerk’s face.
The more we look for beauty the more we find it.
The other is to create beauty, to take the time to shape the things of your life into beauty – whether that is an elegant spreadsheet or a coffee ritual. Create moments that sustain your spirit.
Another is to work to heal the world – to face that which is harmful and hurtful – and seek to repair it.
The more we seek beauty, the more we will encounter beauty.
We need these encounters. We need to find beauty in this broken world, because it is broken and breaking on a planetary scale. To find beauty in the midst of the brokenness is an act of love.
Beauty lives everywhere – even in the midst of damage – which means it sometimes sits beside pain – because life includes that too.
To experience beauty doesn’t diminish the suffering. It simply says…. this is also true.It reminds that life is always both/and. Painful and beautiful. Broken and whole.
Openness to life ultimately allows for transformation. To find a way to create wholeness out of the brokenness. It is possible.
“To find beauty in a broken world is a work of daring contemplation.” (Terry Tempest Williams).
As people of the chalice, we are asked to dare – to dare to contemplate beauty, to dare to create beauty and so heal the world.
As we face an increasingly challenging future, let us commit to creating beauty wherever and whenever possible.
May we sustain ourselves through encounters with beauty. May we heal the world through acts of beauty.
So Say We All.