Seek Not Afar for Beauty

March 6, 2005
Rev. Victoria Weinstein


THE SERMON

I went off to New York City last week to see "The Gates." You might have heard about them: "The Gates" was an installation by the artist Christo and his wife Jean-Claude, who spent $23 million dollars of their own money to festoon Central Park with about 7500 sixteen-foot-high gates -- which actually looked like orange goal posts – fluttering with saffron-colored panels. You can see a photo of me underneath the gates on the cover of your order of service. (I got out the Crayolas so you could get a sense of the color.)

I got to New York on a Peter Pan bus and saw "The Gates" right away as we drove into the city on the Upper West Side. I grew up an hour outside of the Big Apple, and any entrance onto the wonderful island of Manhattan makes my heart leap with joy and nostalgia in the first place. But lately, as I have usually arrived in New York City by train, I have come around by the river and my heart sinks into my toes when I see the empty air where the great Twin Towers used to be. Last Thursday marked my first arrival into New York City since 2001 that hasn' t been full of grief, but of hope and joy.

So if you were one of those Americans who read about "The Gates" and thought, "What a load of hooey --- that' s not art!" I would have to say, "I won' t disagree with you. I' m not sure how I would define art myself, but if you say it' s not art, it' s not art." But oh, it was an extravagant gesture on behalf of joy and delight, and while that might not be art, it feels like something worthwhile to me. It felt, in fact, a little bit like church. All those miles of bright color flying in the breeze – those flapping banners the color of the robes worn by Tibetan monks -- thousands of people out and sharing in the experience, complete strangers saying "hello" and "What do you think?" and some scowling, and others smiling and holding hands. Isn' t that what worship is, anyway? Standing together and regarding things of worth and beauty, and confronting together those aspects of our shared landscape that desperately need the artful touch of love and care?

My friends (two ministers, a spouse, and a religious scholar) and I climbed up to the top of the Castle that sits majestically in the center of Central Park and we looked out and saw The Gates marching their way across the landscape for as far as the eye could see. All that color against the bleak winter landscape was such a relief to the color-starved eye. I thought how life-giving it would be for someone who lives in the gritty center of urban America to get an eye full of all that sunshiny orange. And I got to thinking about beauty itself, beauty as a transcendent value.

I thought about this church as a place that affirms the importance of beauty in the world. We do this on the material level in several ways: we keep our physical surroundings beautiful, a majority of us are patrons of the arts on some level, our church originally gave the town the James Library and Center for the Arts next door --that gift of literature, art and music to the wider community -- and we are embarking on an exciting effort to upgrade our organ in the coming years. At First Parish, beauty is not some subsidiary thing that we hope might happen occasionally by accident, as we are groaning along trying to be good ethical people. We know, we understand together, that beauty itself feeds the spirit, and it is easier to extend love and care into the world, and to maintain an optimistic viewpoint on human potential, when we cultivate beauty as well as reverence.

I remember a quiz I gave to my high school students in Chicago some years ago. It was a requirement of one of their curricula, and it asked them to rank their list of priorities for a good life. On the list were such things as love, money, power, education, a nice home, a good reputation, romance, art, and beauty. There were other items which I have forgotten. While "beauty" was one of my top five items, none of my students included it among their top ten. Their lives in the city were far from beautiful, and I imagine that not having beauty a major aspect of their current existence, they didn' t think to identify it as important. I thought a lot about that for years afterward, asking myself, did they really not need beauty, were they in fact starved for it and didn' t even know what they were missing, or would they have defined "beauty" differently than those men and women who had designed the original quiz?

So I stood there at the top of Central Park looking down at The Gates merrily winding their way through the snow, and I thought, well, it' s awfully nice but if your eyes are always set on a dirty downtown landscape but if not, it might all seem a bit silly: just a waste of money and effort. My friend Rachel told me about The Somerville Gates, constructed out of frustration by a Boston-area guy to mock the Christo installation. Rolling his eyes at all the hoopla in New York, Geoff Hargadon went to Home Depot and bought materials to make thirteen 4" high replica of The Gates and set them up in different places in his Somerville apartment, strategically placing his cat in each shot. He posted this exhibit on the internet, christening them The Somerville Gates and himself, with all appropriate pompousness, "Hargo." Mimicking the self-important tones of the artists Christo and Jean-Claude, Hargo wrote that "These gates will remain standing… until my cleaning lady comes."

What "Hargo" never expected was that his website would get 4 million hits within one week, and that his joke would bring him 15 minutes of real fame, as the Mayor of Somerville proclaimed February 24th "Hargo Day," and Mass Art is currently auctioning off his little orange goal posts.

Some people can afford to poke fun at the artist' s vocation to make public gestures on behalf of beauty, and to transform urban landscapes into places of color and movement. Others cannot afford to be so cavalier. Their lives are not so abundantly blessed by the presence of beauty, and they are either numb to their soul' s need for it, or they crave it with an intensity that hurts their hearts and wounds their very being.

There is a story by Willa Cather about such a person. He is a schoolboy named Paul, and he lives what is to him a very dreary and prosaic existence in Pittsburgh, PA of the early 1900' s. As we heard in the earlier reading, Paul merely endures his school day – maintaining an air of superiority and disdain so that his teachers and schoolmates will know how "above it all" he really is. He suffers the intense loneliness of the truly misunderstood, and only really comes alive during his hours of ushering at Pittsburgh' s Carnegie Hall, or while haunting rehearsals and the backstage area of the local theatre.

Paul is almost maniacally defiant. When his teachers and the school authorities reach the point where his obnoxious behavior is no longer tolerable, his father removes him from school and sends him to work, forbidding him to either usher at the symphony or to visit his actor acquaintances at the theatre. Bereft of these consolations to his bleak existence, Paul feels desperate. One afternoon he is sent by his employer to make a deposit at the bank, giving Paul the opportunity to live out his fantasy of escape. Paul steals a thousand dollars and takes the long train ride up to New York City, where he has the most beautiful suits custom-tailored for him, visits Tiffany' s to select a scarf pin, and then he takes a suite at the Waldorf. There he lives a luxurious and elegant life for a little over a week, drinking champagne with dinner and satisfying every desire of his beauty and refinery-loving soul.

One night at dinner, while the orchestra plays "The Blue Danube" waltz and a waiter pours champagne into his glass, Cather writes,

"Paul wondered that there were honest men in the world at all. This was what all the world was fighting for, he reflected; this was what all the struggle was about. He doubted the reality of his past. Had he ever known a place called Cordelia Street, a place where fagged-looked businessmen got on the early car, mere rivets in a machine they seemed to Paul, sickening men, with the smell of cooking in their clothes." ("Paul' s Case")

Of course his fantasy life cannot last forever, and from the Waldorf dining room Paul reads about himself in the Pittsburgh papers, and he reads that his father is coming by train to fetch him. He reads that his employers do not intend to press charges against him, but he nevertheless feels that he cannot return to his former life. He feels the waters closing over his head. And so, Paul hires a cab to follow the railroad tracks out of town, and instructs his drive to let him outside of Manhattan. After a brief moment of contemplation, he jumps in front of an incoming train. Rather than return to the unbeautiful life he feels he cannot endure, he kills himself.

Perhaps it would have helped if Paul had had some help expanding his concept of Beauty, and if he had had a community that helped him navigate the difficult terrain of feeling different, or feeling misunderstood. Perhaps it would have helped if someone had mentored him, and appreciated him, and had comforted him by telling him that to hunger and thirst after a life that feels true to one' s own sense of beauty is a common human need, and to acknowledge that yes, that need drives much of the ambition in the world. If only Paul had been made to feel acceptable in his own sight. If only someone had said, "I understand. And someday, Paul, you may earn your way to a life full of art and theatre and music and champagne and flowers on the table. Until then, let me tell you where I find beauty and abundance in this life, the one we share today. Let me help you see it."

In the story, part of what so oppresses Paul' s spirit is his church, with its tired homilies and its clichés. It hurts me to hear a church described in this way, even in a short work of fiction, but I understand what Cather is saying. What have churches taught us about beauty, after all? That beauty resides exclusively in stained glass and in soaring organ music, and not so much in the common man and woman' s ordinary life, yours and mine? What counts for beauty in the average church? Is it only in sitting side by side and contemplating God' s great creation "out there" and never in turning to recognize the radiance in the familiar face next to us? Where are the stained glass images of a fragile old man tending his garden, or of a tired mother feeding her child after a long day' s work? Who has ever composed a cantata about a potluck supper, or about making a visit to your legislator to advocate for civil rights?

In expanding our idea of what is beautiful, we find that beauty is not contained merely in the external objects that delight the senses. It is present in the way we hold and cherish our ordinary struggles; our common predicament of loving this world and having to leave it someday. Beauty is discovered when we look upon each other and ourselves as works of art, given in raw form at our birth and shaped by the hands of love and adversity, experience and inspiration, all our lives long.

The poet John Keats, whose own life was tragically short, said it best when he wrote, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." That is our communion, that is our purpose. To abet creation and to witness to it (Annie Dillard) by training our hearts and our minds and our eyes to see, in the ordinary sights and sounds and people of our lives, the banquet --! the feast -- ! the abundance of beauty and sanctity that God has daily set before us.

[At this moment, I picked up a swatch of orange fabric from "The Gates" and pinned it up on the curtain behind the pulpit]

Would you please say our covenant with me?
In the bonds of fellowship and love, we unite
To cultivate reverence,
To promote spiritual growth and ethical commitment,
To minister to each other' s needs and to those of humanity,
To celebrate the sacred moments of life' s passage,
And to honor the holiness at the heart of being.

Let it be done in beauty, let it be done in beauty. Amen.