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Beguiled by Beauty

Message for June 14, 2020

Text: Ezekiel 31:3-7

I’m willing to bet that most of you tuning in to worship today had not read or heard this particular Bible passage before. That’s because not only is this passage not part of the lectionary, the entire book of Ezekiel is almost completely overlooked by those who put together that 3-year cycle of scripture readings for worship. There are good reasons for that. I think there are just two key passages that are included in the schedule, and both of those passages are rather strange visions that the prophet had. One of my seminary professors told me that Jewish teachers frown on anyone under the age of 30 reading Ezekiel, because it is simply too complex, and requires a certain level of wisdom and maturity to comprehend it. But I think we can take a gander at this particular Ezekiel snippet, which was selected by Marcia McFee of the Worship Design Studio for this first week of her “Beguiled by Beauty” worship series.

It’s a choice that strikes me as just a tad strange, though, because as beautiful as the imagery is, the point the prophet was trying to make was not actually a very positive one. Ezekiel tells his listeners to “consider” neighboring nation Assyria, describing that rival with this poetic metaphor, as one who appeared to be as strong as a great cedar tree, but who was proud, and whose arrogance had become its undoing. 

Did your parents ever use someone as a negative example? Did they ever say something along the lines of: “You see that snotty kid Joey over there? He’s not as tough as he seems.” And then that parent would tell you something you didn’t know — about the bad grade he got, or the time he got in trouble — and then would wrap up with a warning: “Don’t be like Joey.”

That’s what Ezekiel is doing in this passage, comparing the once-great Assyria to a tall, proud tree, and urging the King of Egypt — and his Jewish audience — not to aspire to their worldly definition of “greatness.”

But notice how this lesson is constructed: the beautiful use of language, the detailed description, the invitation to contemplation of deep truths through making comparisons to a concrete and appealing element of the natural world.

It is frequently through contemplation of nature’s beauty, its uniqueness and its fierceness, that I can hear the voice of God talking to me. There is something about beauty that unlocks the spirit (or maybe it is the right side of the brain), and allows us to settle more deeply. And there’s something about the practice of contemplation that also settles us, makes us more able to listen, to hear God’s voice.

This series was inspired by the title of a book that is set to be published this fall by professor Wendy Farley of San Francisco Theological Seminary.  “Beguiled by beauty” is a phrase she has borrowed from the work of a 6th century theologian known as Pseudo-Dionysius. His works are written as if from the perspective of an earlier Dionysius who was called the “Areopagite,” a member of the Athenian council converted to Christianity by Saint Paul in the 1st century. The writings of Pseudo-Dionysius were quite popular for centuries in both Orthodox and Western Christian circles, frequently quoted by other theologians and mystics whose names might be better known to you, like Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas. Dr. Farley is charmed by the idea, first proposed by Dionysius, that “Divine goodness fell in love with creation and so was compelled to bring it into being.” God’s love for creation is made “manifest in the beauty of beings, which are themselves expressions of the divine beauty.” She goes on to assert that “beauty … is a link between the human spirit and the divine goodness.”

Society defines beauty in a particular way, proposing standards of perfection that we’re supposed to measure ourselves up against. Then, when we come up short, we’re urged to buy something, consume something, fill up the hole that is made by that tear in our sense of self-worth and self-confidence.

Connecting with God, however, will remind us of the truth: “What is beautiful and sacred in us cannot be destroyed, however much it can be marred.” 

When I first joined a gym, years ago, I found myself, as an adult, spending time in a locker room, surrounded by all different types of bodies. Having left most of the awkwardness of adolescence behind, I noticed the voice in my head that said, “Gosh, everyone is imperfect. Everyone has something ‘ugly’ about them.” But then I heard another voice which said, “Everyone is beautiful.” And I marveled at how I could believe either voice, depending on which one I listened more closely to. Everyone is imperfect; and yet, everyone is beautiful.

I recall a scene in the Robin Williams film Bicentennial Man, an adaptation of a novelette by science fiction writer Issac Asimov. Williams plays an unusual robot — or more properly, an android — who longs to become human. In the course of the story he comes into contact with a scientist-innovative-repairman named Rupert (played by Oliver Platt) whom he convinces to make alterations to his appearance and even his insides, over time making him more and more human-like. In one scene, Rupert is preparing to give the robot a new, human-looking face. He explains that the key to doing this well is imperfection. Machines are pretty symmetrical, but people? “Imperfections make us individuals, that’s what makes us unique.” The scientist points to his own large, pock-marked nose. Peering at him, the robot says, “It’s enormous!” Then, more softly, and with a touch of awe to his voice, he adds, “But beautiful.”

“What is beautiful and sacred in us cannot be destroyed.” Healing words of grace like this can come to us in the quiet of contemplative prayer, which, unlike some other forms of prayer, is not about words, but simply being in the presence of God, as in an embrace.

Many people these days tout the benefits of various spiritual practices — how they enhance our mental or physical health. But, Dr. Farley says, “As worthy as self-improvement, relaxation, spiritual benefits are – they are not the purpose of a contemplative way of life.” Rather, she says, “When we love Divine Goodness more deeply, we love the world more passionately.”  Furthermore, when we fall in love with the world, over and over — as contemplative practices enable us to do — we cannot help but move into acts of compassion and justice. 

I am reminded of the sentiment that I hear expressed in the words of the wedding ritual: that the love shared between a couple is meant to overflow into love and service for the world around that couple.

In an interview Marcia McFee posted between herself and Dr. Farley, the professor uses the illustration of parenting to connect the dots between beauty, contemplation, and justice. Parents, she says, take care of their infants — no matter how difficult it is to keep responding to their cries and middle-of-the-night wakings — because they have fallen in love with them. It is the same with the world. When we allow ourselves to fall in love with the world, we will be compelled to respond when and where there is need.

And if contemplation is doing its proper work on us, the call of that urgency to care won’t just move us to compassion for the most attractive elements of creation, or for the creatures that we’re most closely related to. “Radical compassion,” Dr. Farley writes, 

does not impose conditions that say some are worthy of compassion and others are not. It does not limit compassion to certain groups of people. It does not indulge in hatred or demean opponents. We may feel the edge of compassion when we find it difficult or impossible to wish a particular person or group well or when we are motivated by rage at destructive people. But we can recognize this limitation of our heart as alien to our deepest desire and work to weaken the resistance we feel…. Radical compassion resists harmful acts but it also recognizes that to do evil is itself a kind of suffering and therefore one can wish for [the] transformation [even of our enemies].  

I wonder whether you have had this experience of “beguilement” — where you’ve been so taken, so enchanted, by something of beauty, that you’ve lost track of time just contemplating, soaking it in? I wonder if you’ve heard God speaking to you in such moments, turning your heart toward a truth that you had not considered — perhaps a metaphor that broadened your perspective, or perhaps a call to justice or to action to bring about the relief of suffering? I wonder if you will join me, over the next few weeks, on a journey of contemplation.