“But if you could just see the beauty,
These things I could never describe …”
– Joy Division, “Isolation”
We live in the human world, and in the natural world; and so we live, unavoidably, in the midst of beauty. But we are habitually blind and deaf to the beauty around us, hard-hearted and unappreciative toward it. This beauty runs far deeper than the mere appearance of things; but for that very reason, this blindness and deafness – our self-fortification against the “arrow of beauty that wounds man” (in Cardinal Ratzinger’s words) – extends even to those who are uncommonly sensitive to apparent, perceptible beauty. Only the saints, seeing with Christ’s own eyes, are exempt from the general law – while most of us remain determined, in our various ways, to defend ourselves against the mystery of beauty.
I remarked last week that times of crisis are also times of grace; and it is not possible to enumerate all of the ways in which this is true. In particular, I have noticed that suffering lowers our defenses against the mystery of beauty: caught in a state of fragility, deprived of our customary supports, we are made vulnerable to beauty’s assault against our sense of routine and self-sufficiency. At the threshold of death, loss, or great change, the world is no longer “ordinary” and one’s path through it no longer appears as a matter of plodding-along. And when the crisis is not so acute or catastrophic, but simply strains us almost to the breaking point, day after day – then ordinary things, newly understood as gifts, may show forth their hidden beauty; and extraordinary things may become signposts to our life’s true meaning.
The most painful loneliness I have ever known, I think, was when I returned to St. John’s College after the hiatus-year in which – rather unexpectedly – I converted to Christianity. By the time I moved back to New Mexico and re-enrolled, most of my friends had moved off campus, or simply moved on with life in other ways that made reconnecting difficult. (I was also now a year behind them in the college’s single mandatory Great Books curriculum, which I re-entered as a member of a new class I did not know.) There was an additional hurdle in the fact that most of these friends, like my family, did not share or even understand my faith; and over time, my attempts to explain it – especially after I determined to enter the Catholic Church formally – felt like just so much shouting and gesturing through soundproof glass.
All of this meant that, outside of class, I was profoundly alone – not by choice but by default. Combined with my academic workload and the experience of seasonal depression, this was a severe trial, one that I felt almost unable to withstand. When we speak, colloquially, of a “nervous breakdown,” that is the kind of thing I came close to. (This mental strain probably contributed to the physical illness that would later force me to leave St. John’s permanently.)
But the fracturing of our ordinary securities can also be a breaking-down of our defenses against beauty and meaning – an irruption of life’s true mystery into our too-settled world of routine. It was precisely in the midst of this personal hell, that I came to perceive new forms of beauty – including that form which would, slowly and circuitously, guide me toward my vocation in the monastery.
A sacred place does not have to be “consecrated ground” in any formal sense. For each of us, there are places – sometimes as “secular” as could be – that we can only recall as special in some profound way, mysteriously set-apart in the world of our experience. These places may change or disappear with the passage of time; and yet, because they have contained for us the radiance of something eternal – something more real than the passing world – we feel that there is some way in which they can never cease to exist: they seem to belong to the world as it exists “sub specie aeternitatis,” even though outwardly they belong only to “the world as best as I remember it.”
There is room for irony, in the infinite mystery of God; and this means we will experience the sacred in surprising places, alongside the expected ones. One of the holiest places for me, during this semester of hellish loneliness and stress, was the small basement lounge and kitchen that served as a common-room for the group of dormitories in which I lived.
Finding no real companionship among the students eating in the dining hall, I would often gather up platefuls of vegetables from the salad-bar, taking them back to this little subterranean kitchen – which was almost always empty – and making them the basis for elaborate stir-fries. There was something therapeutic about pushing the vegetables around the oily pan, standing at the stove as they began to sizzle.
In the same room there was also an old cassette player, and a tape of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. A onetime jazz musician myself, I had often told friends that this artform was the only music I really needed in life – as it seemed, in its highest expressions, to contain all other music in itself. So I would play that tape, from wherever I (or some other listener) had left off, and cook my meal; and for that short evening interval, loneliness became solitude: I felt connected to creation and to the order of things – if not to the student life around me, from which I remained painfully disconnected.
But it was something more than that, which made that basement lounge a sacred place and left its imprint on my soul. Near the tape of Miles and Coltrane, someone had left a copy of Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ – and this was surprising, as St. John’s (despite the name) is not a religious school and had relatively few practicing Catholics or other Christians. I do not know who would have left it there, or why. It was the old confraternity edition, with its black-and-white illustrations in an unmistakable 1950s-gothic style. One could open it, and read:
“The First Chapter: Imitating Christ and Despising All Vanities on Earth
‘He who follows me, walks not in darkness,’ says the Lord. By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ …”
On the same shelf, near the Imitation, was a large plastic canister of instant coffee crystals. The pairing was an image of a life stripped down to the essentials: an austere, simple, monastic life. I wondered what it would be like to live with nothing but the stove, instant coffee, and the Imitation of Christ.
Today, in the monastery, I have a twenty-minute break between the first service of the day and the longer morning service. It is usually enough time to make a cup-and-a-half of strong instant coffee, and do a very small amount of spiritual reading. And this brief respite often recalls for me the beauty of monasticism as I first perceived it: in the bare basement kitchen of the college common-room, amid soul-crushing loneliness and stress – in which this new vision of life stood out, like a beacon in near-total darkness.
This room was the first image of austere beauty that marked the fall and winter of 2006 for me. The other prime example of that beauty, from that time, is harder to talk about: firstly because, rather than a visual scene, it involves the music of the modern classical composer Arvo Pärt. Secondly, it involves the experience not of a brief respite from horrific loneliness and academic stress, but of a complete immersion therein – and part of the pain of such isolation, consists precisely in its being almost inexpressible. To speak of “depression” would not do justice to the feeling, any more than the mere word “beauty” would convey the essence of Pärt’s music.
Under these circumstances, not only the mind, but even the body, takes on the disposition of an old automobile – shaky and rattling but forced to keep running, seemingly without end, in constant dread of a sudden breakdown. And on some mornings, the ignition simply will not start: I remember feeling, on occasion, almost physically unable to leave my room or do much of anything except stay in bed listening to certain works of Arvo Pärt – and especially his “Tabula Rasa” – under headphones. I would cocoon myself all morning, hoping to regain the strength to attend my classes in the afternoon and evening.
“Tabula Rasa” is a work in a style that has been described as “sacred minimalism,” because of the composer’s own Eastern Orthodox faith and the stylistic influence of traditional chant and polyphony. Its title means “blank slate,” and it was among the first fruits of a prolonged artistic impasse – during which Pärt published very little music for nearly eight years, before returning in a radically stripped-down style that bore little resemblance to his past works.
In light of this fact, as well as its title, it seems likely that “Tabula Rasa” was meant to express something of Pärt’s own wilderness-experience, as an accomplished man who found himself reduced to the humblest foundations. I appreciated this, given my own exhaustion and frustration with the studies I had once pursued so ardently. Perhaps the music also expressed my growing sense that life might never again be the same: that my future would be found in simplicity, silence, the “blank slate.” (And this was ultimately true, despite my efforts to forestall it.)
Certainly, the sheer sadness of “Tabula Rasa,” a sadness so total that it transcends mere feeling, was cathartic and a source of consolation for me. But that was not the most important thing about it. What mattered most was its non-verbal conveyance of truths that are neither “sad” nor “happy.” Rather, these are truths that – like the faces of the ikons – transcend all such dualities, resolving all things into Wisdom: that God – the Crucified God – is in the depths and ruins, and not only the heights; that there can be a new start, a Resurrection, after great losses; that life itself is still beautiful, even when desolation seems to overtake and dominate it. Perhaps anyone can mouth these sentiments, turning them into platitudes. But to found one’s life on them, to embody such truths in one’s own person: that is grace, the gift of God.
For sensory creatures such as ourselves, this can start with dropping our defenses against beauty: having “eyes to see” and “ears to hear,” even – or especially – when it meets us like an arrow through the chest, destroying our sense of self-sufficiency.
(AUTHOR’S NOTE: This essay is dedicated, with gratitude, to Fr. Louis, O.C.S.O. [January 31, 1915 – December 10, 1968] on the centenary of his birth.)