In a film I recently watched, A Walk in the Woods, there was a scene in which the two main characters got into a predicament and ended up sleeping under the stars. One of them commented on the beauty of the stars in the clear sky overhead, amazed at the millions of galaxies that he felt he could see that night. The two men were able to revel in the wonder of it all, quite possibly for the first time in their lives. The sight of countless visible stars seemed to give peace to both of them. They were in a situation in which they were not sure they would emerge unscathed, yet the beauty of creation somehow broke through and they were able to see and be amazed by it. There is a powerful lesson in this scene because what it is saying is that sometimes we have to learn to see what is right in front of us all along. It also reveals that even in the midst of sorrow or a desperate situation we are capable of learning to see beauty. Perhaps this is the key to finding peace where none seems to be found, and therefore is the way to find God where we are most in need of Him.
There is so much going on in our daily lives that it is easy to go from one chore, commitment, or activity to the next without taking the time to truly observe our surroundings. I love to take photos when I travel, yet increasingly I want to put the camera down and simply be where I am, taking in the sights and sounds of a place I may never set foot again so that I do not miss the gift given in that moment. This urge tells me that perhaps I should listen, spending more time ‘in the now’ drinking it all in, then clicking photos to remember it in the future. Truly, it makes absolutely no sense to take photos so that I can remember the moment in the future when all that will be remembered is that I took photos without having any sense of how I felt or what I really saw in the first place! This realization is also important insofar as we want to truly be present to the people who we are with so that we can delight in who they are, pay attention to what they are saying, and rejoice in the friendship we share. Even if we are with strangers or those who we feel are ‘challenging,’ increasing our ability to be truly present might help us understand just who they are or why we feel a challenge being with them; and perhaps we can learn to see the beauty that is hidden beneath their behaviors or opinions which differ from our own.
The great impressionist artist, Camille Pissarro once said, “Everything is beautiful; all that matters is to be able to interpret.” This is true in our efforts at learning how to see beauty, both in what surrounds us in nature and in the people with whom we might come into contact. If one were to look at the many paintings done by Pissarro one would see an abundance of landscapes and nature scenes. It seems that he was continually interpreting what he saw so that he was able to see beauty in literally watching the grass grow. There is ‘contemplativity’ in the scenes he painted. (I know that is not a real word, but bear with me.) I would dare say that all great artists have this capability, which is to look at the world around them and to interpret it into their medium, whether it be oils, stone, clay, music, or dance, to name but a few; or they have the ability to look deep within their inner world and take what is there and interpret it outward. But whichever it is, the common denominator is the ability to see beauty and attempt to interpret it for others, to help them learn how to see it for themselves.
Learning to see beauty is of immense importance because not only does the experience change us, but it also fosters a sense of gratitude. We rush around so quickly sometimes that we forget to put on the ‘contemplativity’ of the artist to see the gifts around us. What I mean by contemplativity is to have an attitude of contemplation, or to approach things as a contemplative might. This consists of simply slowing down for a moment and seeking God, asking Him to open our eyes just a bit more than they usually might be. When at Eucharist, for example, to put on contemplativity means we stop to really take in what is happening at the altar, so that we might be ‘bowled over’ at the depth of the mystery unfolding before our very eyes: ordinary bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. It means we stop and listen to the words of Scripture being proclaimed and really let them sink in, (regardless if we understand everything about them). In doing so we might realize we are in the presence of God since these are the words which He inspired the authors to write. If we allow prayer to open our hearts and minds to God we can become just a bit more contemplative, chewing on the things surrounding us in sight and sound, reflecting upon what is going on within our own hearts, not missing the gift contained in that moment. It does not take hours to see or feel something which is beautiful. But it does take a disposition which is open and receptive. This disposition leads to gratitude which in turn leads to joy.
Being hurried or distracted by our cares and concerns will keep us from fostering the ability to see beauty. If our eyes are clouded or our thoughts are on other things, we will miss so much that we will lose the ability to see what God hopes for us to see. We might even take beauty for granted, seeing, but not acknowledging. This could lead us to begin to lose sight of our own inner landscape, also a thing of beauty. And then that can spill outward to losing sight for seeing the beauty in other people, especially those who are different than we are. This is the point in which everything begins to break down in our communities and in society: when we fail to see beyond differences because we have simply lost the ability to see beauty and therefore do not revere that which we are seeing. Each one of us is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14) The Psalmist also declared: “You have made him [her] little less than a god; crowned him [her] with glory and honor.” (Psalm 8:6) This means that we need to learn to see the way God sees, which is to see beauty in the other even if we disagree with their politics or religion. It does not mean we have to reward bad behavior or be indifferent to that which is contrary to goodness and justice; nor does it mean that we have to become disingenuous, untruthfully saying that we agree, or somehow force ourselves into believing that we really do. But it does mean that we learn to see past actions or opinions and treat one another with respect because they, like us, are “crowned with glory and honor.”
Finally to learn to see beauty means that even in the midst of pain or sorrow, we trust that God remains. If we truly trust in Jesus, we know that when we cannot see Him because our eyes are clouded over in pain, that He is with us no less, and is actually closer to us than ever before. Just as we cannot see our shadow when the sun is directly overhead, so it is with God. He is with us when we see Him the least. His presence does not change; it is simply that our ability to perceive has been compromised by the immensity of our burdens. And even when ugliness rears its head, attempting to cloud that which was made for us to enjoy, beauty, which is a sign of God’s presence, is still there. We simply need to remember what it looks like and trust, therefore, that God is with us.
As Pissarro said, what matters is to be able to interpret. If we allow the grace of contemplativity to grow within us we can learn to interpret, to see beauty, even in the midst of great challenges. This is what the Christian life is about: learning to see as God sees, hear as God hears, and love as God loves. Learning these things means discovering how to see beauty everywhere. We are all capable of learning to see beauty in something as simple as a field of wheat, a cup of water, or an outstretched hand. And in this Year of Mercy we learn that being merciful means that we see beauty because we see Christ in the other and we accept the gift.
May we seek and find the beauty of Jesus surrounding us at every moment of every day! May we have hearts abounding in gratitude and thus be filled with joy! May we learn to ‘put on contemplativity,’ the attitude of savoring that which is in the present moment! May we learn to appreciate the presence of God in the midst of the extravagance of nature and in the beauty of others! And may we be able to interpret that which is beautiful in the gifts of Word, Sacrament, and all the ways God comes to us in love and mercy! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
1. NASA photo, the stars as seen in the Northern Hemisphere; it is part of the Milky Way.
2. My photo. I took this on Copper Mountain in Colorado.
3. Painting, Fields by the impressionist (and later pointillist) artist, Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). The original title was Les seigles Pontoise. You can learn more about Pissarro by clicking here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camille_Pissarro
4. Sculpture, Pieta by Michelangelo. It resides in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
5. Icon, Mary Most Holy Mother of All Nations by Fr. William Hart McNichols.This icon is my all time favorite. I see this icon daily since I have a print of it in my home. You can purchase this icon in one of many mediums at the following link, http://fineartamerica.com/featured/mary-most-holy-mother-of-all-nations-080-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
6. My photo, taken on Fire Island, a barrier island just off the coast of Long Island, NY. I ~ For this entry, I chose places and artwork in which I have learned to see beauty and thus, to see the hand of God. I recommend that you find your own place of beauty and then put on your own contemplativity.
Heart Speaks to Heart