"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

24 April 2009

Beauty Meditations: Day Five

My mother is the most beautiful woman I know. She is 87; her skin is like paper and her arms and legs bruise easily; her hair is thin and difficult to style; her face wrinkled from age and too much sun . . . but I see none of this except when she points it out. To me, she is more beautiful than the Mona Lisa or the loveliest model who ever lived. She is beautiful because she has spent her life in service of God and neighbor – I having had the great blessing to be one of her nearest neighbors. She speaks of all the kind people who surround her, and I know that many of them are kind to her because of her kindness to them.

God created beauty: “He made everything beautiful in its time,” Solomon tells us (Eccl. 3:11). We are neither to eschew nor flaunt the natural beauty God has given us, but rather to find a balance in its pursuit. This balance begins with a painful recognition: “Is there any [way] to keep / Back beauty, keep it [. . .] from vanishing away?” the young maidens in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “The Leaden Echo” ask. “No there’s none,” the speaker assures them, “Nor can you long be, what you now are, called fair.”

External beauty in this world is fleeting. Age, accident, disease: we shall all come under the inexorable sickle of time to find wrinkles and scars and wan cheeks and grey hairs, arthritis and the many aches and pains of old age. There is only one way to keep beauty: “Give beauty [. . .] back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.” God is beauty; God gives beauty; only God can keep our beauty safe with Him. To live we must die; to keep anything we must give it up.

Revelation describes the wedding feast to us, and how we – His Bride – shall be arrayed: “‘The marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure’ – for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints” (19:7-8). I see my mother already dressed in fine linen for the feast, for she has been practicing righteous deeds all her life.

“Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness,” the Psalmist exhorts us. By all means dress beautifully – but to honor the One who created us and redeemed us, not to draw attention to ourselves. Dress beautifully – but dress first in the fine linen of obedience and good deeds, done not to impress people or gain God’s favor, but in response to so great a Love who dared to die to make us beautiful with the beauty of His own righteousness. Be free to be beautiful for His sake, for His honor, for His glory, knowing that all beauty comes from Him and honors Him if we live our lives for His glory.

John Paul II, in a commentary on Psalm 44, said, “When beauty is joined with goodness and holiness of life, heavenly radiance shines out upon the world, and we catch a glimpse of the goodness, the wonder, and the justice of God.” Celebrate His beauty today – His beauty given to you – in all that you are and do. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and forever, world without end.

23 April 2009

Beauty Meditations: Day Four

When I go shopping, I find myself drawn to lovely dresses that would look perfect on some size 2 model. But by the time I reach my size on the rack, they either look like huge grocery bags or as though they will easily show off every cookie and French fry I’ve ever dared to eat. The petite 20-something walking toward the dressing room with bits of slinky cloth that will actually fit her raises the envy that only an average woman can feel for youth, beauty, and slender hips.

On the other hand, when I see someone heavier and less attractive than I consider myself, that envy sometimes plays an even nastier trick in my soul, turning into a kind of self-righteous pity or contempt. Look at me, Lord, I’m not like that poor overweight, lackadaisical woman who doesn’t care about herself . . . and I return to my house as unjustified as the Pharisee in the parable.

Envy and contempt: twin evils that tempt us most dangerously when we focus on outward appearance as a sign of value. What I look like matters: it does convey a message to those who see me, and this is a simple reality of human nature we ignore at our own risk. If I’m applying for a job, I’d better dress professionally; if I’m going to a picnic, I need to leave the heels at home; if I don’t want to be considered a slob, I really ought to iron the blouse. But the fact that others judge my appearance does not excuse my judging others that way in turn: the person I am tempted to envy or condemn is not equivalent to her clothing or her figure or her make-up, and I am called to know the person, to love her as myself, to seek the image of God in her and show the love of God to her.

In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis’s characters from Purgatory are allowed to visit Heaven and choose whether to repent and stay or to hold onto their sin and be taken to Hell. The narrator is amazed at an incredibly beautiful woman, attended by angels and saints, and asks if she is Mary. Oh, no, he’s told; that’s Sarah Smith of Golders Green – “you’ll not have heard of her.” Why is Sarah Smith held in such esteem in Heaven? Why, because every child she met became as her own, yet loved his own parents the better because of her love; because every man she met learned to love his own wife the better for knowing her; because her life was an offering of God’s love to all she met.

We have all known a Sarah Smith, a woman who seems of no account in the world’s eyes – “just” a housewife or a store clerk or an invalid, and probably just as average in appearance as in station . . . and yet – more beautiful than anyone else we have ever known because the love of God shines from her every word and act. This is what will make any woman truly beautiful: “beholding the glory of the Lord [and] being transformed with the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).

How are you cultivating the love of God in the way you live today? How do you see others living out His love? Thank God for His work in your life; and thank those around you for His gifts in them.

22 April 2009

Beauty Meditations: Day Three

And here is what should have been today's:

Back in the early years of our marriage, we furnished our home and ourselves largely through garage sales. One day my husband came home and handed me a red blouse he’d found. I was horrified. “I can’t wear red!” I wailed. “Why don’t you try it?” he replied; “I think it would look good on you.”

I’d never worn red in my life – ordinary blues and light pastels had always been my most-worn colors. When, with great trepidation, I put on the blouse, the effect startled me: it brought out the color in my cheeks, made my eyes more green than brown – I looked good in it. If I’d refused to try something that another person had thought would be attractive, I’d have missed out on the pleasure of wearing many of the “winter” colors that I love so much – purple, red, black, teal.

We want to name ourselves; this is our fallen human nature. “I like this; I want this; this is who I am: how dare anyone else try to tell me who I am or who I should be?” Our whole culture teaches us that autonomy is the greatest good, that to trust anyone else to tell us who we are is enslavement and loss. But if we give up the right to name ourselves, how much richer our lives become. Others can see us as we cannot see ourselves – pointing out our flaws so that we can overcome them, our virtues and beauties to help us strengthen and use them in service to our neighbor.

Ultimately, of course, God is the only One who has the right – first by creation and then by redemption – to name us. Richard John Neuhaus, in Death on a Friday Afternoon, writes that “the self is an objective truth to be discovered[, not] a subjective choice determined by the self.” We have an identity: “It is no longer I, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). The “quintessence of original sin,” Neuhaus also says, “is the desire to be like God on our own terms.” We will name ourselves, we will determine in what ways we will be like Christ, we will hold onto our supposed right to choose the ways we will and will not serve Him.

And yet . . . the One whose Name we carry – the very Son of the very God – did not even presume to name Himself. Christ Jesus, “though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name [. . .]” (Phil. 2: 5-9). And we are to have this same mind, the heart desire that abandons self to obedience, allowing God to name us now and for eternity.

How will you allow your Lord to name you, to make you the woman He created you to be?

Beauty Meditations: Day Two

I should have posted this yesterday:

This morning I put on make-up. I don’t always; my skin requires a very expensive brand, and it takes time I don’t always wish to spend. But today I woke feeling tired and out-of-sorts, and watching the dark circles and age spots disappear, along with some irritating blemishes and a scratch or two, made me feel a little perkier, a little more ready to face the day. I was careful, however, to put medication on those scratches and blemishes before I covered them up. Otherwise, by day’s end, they’d be much worse, perhaps even infected. The healing process would take that much longer, and require that I eschew make-up altogether for several days – whether I wanted to or not – while openly sporting the painful sores caused by my own negligence.

Just as there’s little worse for our skin than covering up blemishes without treating them, there’s little worse for our souls than putting on a beautiful fa├žade to cover festering sin. How often do we mask anger and irritation with a bright false smile, jealousy with a sham compliment, contempt with a condescendingly kind act – only to allow those ungodly attitudes to lie unchecked and unhealed beneath the surface?

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees!” Jesus cried. “For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27).

Of course, it isn’t particularly better to pretend that “just as I am” means it’s somehow all right to remain a physical and spiritual slob. Casual dress and no make-up are frequently appropriate, but consistently taking no care for our appearance suggests laziness of spirit as well as body. I’m not talking about the wild hair and sweaty results of hard work or hard play – I’m talking about the deliberate choice to appear to the world as though it is somehow beneath us to make a little effort to look nice. Just “being myself” without trying to improve is always unattractive, both physically and spiritually.

The woman who dresses and acts like a hypocrite, hiding sin under exterior beauty, eventually fools no one; that very beauty draws attention to her unlovely heart. The woman who refuses to care for her appearance also draws attention to herself, causing others to wonder if she cares as little about her heart as her appearance.

In either case, the need is clear: to learn how we can look and act so that we draw attention to the Lord who died for us. First of all we must care for heart and soul – developing the “imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (I Pet. 3:4). Smoothing the healing balm of the Holy Spirit’s power on the blemishes and scratches of our sin, we can be free to look and act what we are: the glorious Bride of Christ, holy and spotless before Him. Then His heart desire will be fulfilled in us as we bring glory to Him, serving our neighbors in the wonder and power of His love.

A smile when we feel angry, a kind word or act when we feel jealous or contemptuous: these aren’t hypocrisy – as long as the sin that threatens us in those feelings is being treated by the Great Physician and the smile or word or act shows our heart desire to be healed of it. Only we know for sure; look in the mirror to find His beauty.

20 April 2009

Beauty Meditations: Day One

I was honored to be asked by my college's Women's Ministry council to write some meditations on beauty for an activity they planned for the campus women for this week. I was impressed by their desire to present some challenges without being superficial or judgmental, and their thoughtfulness, their humility, their joyful loveliness. They've put the meditations together in a pamphlet, one for each day of the school week. I thought I would post them here each day as they might be of interest to others.

Meditations: Day One

Women long to know that we are beautiful. No matter how well or poorly our physical appearance may reflect contemporary social standards, we long to hear the words “You’re so beautiful” from someone who matters. Everywhere and in all ages, we have found ways to enhance and improve our natural features.

Sometimes we are told this desire is invariably a self-centered wrong: “you shouldn’t care about your appearance; be content and focus on serving” – as if beauty and service were mutually exclusive. But I cannot think that this is God’s view of it. Yes, indeed, in I Peter 3:3 we read, “Do not let your adorning be external – the braiding of hair, the wearing of gold, or the putting on of clothing [. . .] .” We would be foolish to ignore this exhortation from the pre-eminent apostle who walked and talked with our Lord – but what does the exhortation mean? Does it really mean “don’t ever dress up”?

It appears so at first: “Do not . . . .” But do not what? Wear gold jewelry, braid one’s hair . . . put on clothing? That third item means exactly what is generally translated: don’t put on clothing. There is no qualification: it doesn’t say “fancy” clothing, or “expensive” or “immodest”; it says, literally, “go naked.”

Obviously Peter is not telling us to be unclothed. And since that’s the case, perhaps he isn’t telling us, either, never to wear jewelry or braid our hair; perhaps we will find there is a place for these in our lives as godly women. Rather, he is drawing a contrast between two modes of behavior, two ways of gaining attention. He addresses wives in this passage, instructing them to win over husbands who are disobedient to God’s Word, not by nagging and not through attention-getting dress, but by “respectful and pure conduct” (v. 2) – by their righteous behavior.* They are to demonstrate godly lives which will draw others to the Lord they obey.

He addresses wives, but haven’t we all attempted to attract the attention of others, especially men, by our appearance? A new hairstyle, a sexy dress with heels, just the right make-up, some flashy jewelry – and surely they will notice me now. But this is not the way we should go about gaining attention, not in fact the purpose of attention. To dress in order to draw attention to the self is a self-centered wrong. Instead, it is “the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (v. 4) which will attract the right kind of attention – the thought-provoking attention that changes lives by drawing them to the Source of life.

Are your words, gestures, deeds those of a woman who loves the Lord? To whom are they drawing attention? Yourself – or your Lord who lives in you?

*No, wives are not to be silent doormats or take abuse – but that is a subject for another time and place.

18 April 2009

Love Makes Us Wise

Tony Esolen has another excellent post up at Mere Comments today, "I Want to be on that Man's Team." It's about baseball player Albert Pujols, who is apparently a truly great player (about which Inscapes readers will know that I can attest nothing): "I only want to be remembered as a man who loved the Lord," Pujols told a Sports Illustrated reporter.
We should all desire to be remembered this way, because, as Tony writes, "the love of Christ -- Christ's love for us, and our love for Him -- is the most remarkable thing in the history of the world."

The gospel is not first of all or mainly for the philosophers and theologians, Tony asserts, though of course we need doctrine, "if only to keep certain riffraff off the streets." The gospel is too complex for even such a brilliant intellect as a Thomas Aquinas and yet at the same time simple enough for any little child to understand. And it is love, he says, that makes us truly wise:

"And all these simple people who love Christ, who may not be able to persuade a single skeptic that God even exists, know what they know by their love, and are far the wiser for it. They are my brothers and sisters, my teammates, in the oldest and most glorious communion the world has seen; a communion that has brought the world the odd idea that only in love is there freedom; because Truth has said so."

I was reminded by this post of a constant tension I find in my own thinking -- the mysteries and intellectual complexities of Scripture and tradition make my mind reel at times and I feel almost despair: how can I ever know what is true amid all the confusion of these varying interpretations and depths and layers of meaning . . . and then I am brought up short by some simple thing -- a song, or a hug from a friend, or a moonrise -- and I think, it's all so very, very simple: "Jesus loves me, this I know / for the Bible tells me so."

I tend to think of myself as an intellectual, if a rather minor one, and it is good to be reminded that my intellectual grasp of anything is beside the point. Not unimportant or worthless, but merely beside the point. For without love, all my knowledge is at best a clanging cymbal.

Tony says it much better; read his whole post .

12 April 2009

Easter: "Home to the Waiting Father"

Christ is Risen!

He is risen indeed!

As Neuhaus puts it in the final paragraph of Death on a Friday Afternoon:

To prodigal children lost in a distant land, to disciples who forsook him and fled, to a thief who believed [. . .], to those who did not know that what they did they did to God, to the whole bedraggled company of humankind he had abandoned heaven to join, he says, "Come. Everything is ready now. In your fears and your laughter, in your friendships and farewells, in your loves and losses, in what you have been able to do and in what you know you will never get done, come, follow me. We are going home to the waiting Father."

05 April 2009

"It is Finished."

In Chapter Six of Death on a Friday Afternoon, Neuhaus writes on the next-to-last word of Christ on the Cross: "It is finished." I can do no better than give this extended quotation to remind us of what that means:

He created out of nothing -- ex nihilo -- but His love. The Word is both His love and His beloved. "Without Him was not anything made that was made." Through Him God loved us into being. When He formed Adam from the primordial muck, He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. He breathes love. Adam inhaled love. Here at the cross point, the new Adam exhales, "It is finished." The first Adam breathes in and the second Adam breathes out, and both breathe love. What began in Genesis is now finished. What began there is that love should give birth to love. So it was that through the Word the first Adam came to be and, because he did not love, the Word became the second Adam, who bore the fault of all the Adams and all the Eves of aborted love. Here at the cross point, that work is definitively finished. Here is the one Person who did and who was what through the centuries and millennia the rest of us had failed to do and be. Quite simply and wondrously, He loved the Father as He was loved by the Father.

It is finished, yet time goes on. It is not over. Through all time, the cross point is the point of entry into His life and love, for that life and that love fill all time. [. . .] What happened at the cross point is what the first Adam was supposed to have done in the beginning. This is the Omega point, the end and the destiny of the love that was to give birth to love. It took the One who is both Alpha and Omega to restore life to love aborted.

It is finished, yet it is not over. It is finished means it is settled, decided, certain, complete and incontestable. Consummatum est. Nothing can happen now to undo it. Now there is absolutely nothing to fear. The worst has already happened. [We do not know why time goes on until all things are brought into subjection to Him, but we do know this:] The human project cannot fail because God has invested Himself in it; the Second Person of the Trinity is truly one of us. God has taken our part by taking our place.