Thursday, June 08, 2017

Beauty and Participation

While reading, last week, I came across an off-hand reference to Giant's Causeway - the unique and incredibly beautiful geologic formation on the north coast of Ireland. Just the name brought back a flood of memories, but more than that, an intense desire to experience the location once again - not for any specific purpose, but just to be in the presence of such peace and beauty one more time.

I've been a lot of places in the US, but I'm not otherwise well-traveled. I've left the continent only twice, but in both instances discovered one of these places of refuge. The Causeway in Northern Ireland and an ordinary, non-descript public beach on the Big Island of Hawaii. I'm not one for sun or sand, necessarily, but this beach was tree-covered and sheltered - as much as I have a long list of international locales I'd love to see, I might want to return and just sit on this beach more than any of them.

Previously, those feeling have not been associated with the places in which I experience them; they've felt more like participation is some larger truth. I've got profound memories of rightness sitting on a rock, near the top of Mt. Elbert, in Colorado, watching the morning fog stream up from the valley into the sky at almost impossible speeds; the same feeling in a similar spot on Mt. Katahdin, in Maine, viewing the vastness of untouched wilderness comprised of nothing but trees and lakes, the bright sun magnifying the colors and reflections. But those are simply places connected to connection; it doesn't feel like the places themselves are part of it.

I love those moments because they remind me of my insignificance and that is unbelievably comforting. All of my anxieties and stress melts away in the wild as I'm reminded that this vast, complex, unfathomable universe does not in any way require my participation. It puts things in perspective. I also enjoy the realization that such profound beauty - an experience, a reality beyond just the physical attributes of location and composition - is literally impossible without my participation. No one will see or experience exactly what I see or experience. That's also comforting.

So many things I do I do just to check them off the list. I've been to the highest point in 31 states now, but they're not all magical - most are pretty formal. That doesn't make those experiences less valuable, just different. Unless there's some real (likely unrelated reason), I probably won't go to most of them every again. I don't tend to read books a second time, even if they are profound or enjoyable or profoundly enjoyable, because there are always other interesting books to read.

Maybe it's because those two locations are so disconnected from my normal life - they are exotic in that they're far away from any place I ever reasonably expect to be. Perhaps they're special because they aren't places I ever planned to be. I was in Ireland for a work conference on ministry in places of conflict - our retreat center was rural and remote, but most of our time had been in the city. We took an afternoon whirlwind tour of the coast and snuck into the Causeway just before it closed. The beach was my wife's idea - the beach is always my wife's idea - I've never seen a beach I've particularly liked or disliked in any way save that one.

I don't know what it is that drives my desire to return to those places. I don't doubt that water has something to do with it. I've always found comfort in the crashing of the surf, in the cool cut of an ocean breeze, in the peace of otherwise silent nature. The steady rhythm of the waves, perhaps reminiscent of the heartbeat felt in that womb I don't remember, brings a calm and a peace no amount of psychoanalysis could ever touch. I wonder more, though, if my having experienced them before somehow adds to the beauty. There are plenty of beautiful places around the world I would love to experience, but perhaps its beauty already infused with experience that speaks more deeply to the heart and soul.

I do a lot of art - I can't draw or paint or sculpt, but words are my medium (or maybe my canvas) - rarely, though, do I create something that feels truly beautiful. When I do, there's a sense that it's not mine, that it's never been mine - and yet my DNA, my fingerprints are all over it. Beauty is a portal to something cosmic, something true on a level beyond our understanding, yet there is an element of beauty which cannot exist without our participation.

A great painting is not beautiful on its own; it is beautiful when someone recognizes within it both themselves and something so outside themselves as to be nearly unapproachable. Beauty is a connection between the impossibly immanent and the indecipherably transcendent.

I doubt my experience of beauty perfectly matches with the experience of any other - perhaps my experience is totally foreign to every other -
but I suspect that my experience of beauty is precisely what people experience when they experience beauty in whatever ways they experience it.
Whatever that looks like, it looks as it does because of our presence.

Maybe, just maybe, the key to seeing beauty in everything is just to be constantly present - not here, but present - and isn't that beautiful?

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