Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Pearl of Great Price

For the beauty of the earth,
For the glory of the skies,
For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies;
Lord of all, to thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.
—Folliot S. Pierpoint

Every fall when I was growing up, my family would find a reason to drive out among the fantastic colors of the Upstate New York autumn. My mom in particular would be transported over the reds, oranges and golds on the wooded hillsides between our home in Syracuse and her native Pennsylvania. Every few minutes she would exclaim, “Oh, it’s just so beautiful I can hardly stand it!”

On the face of it, this response to beauty seems strange, yet we have probably all felt that sort of pleasure that, in its intensity, verges on pain and which, notwithstanding, we can’t get enough of. Anne Shirley, in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel, felt the same sensation on her first sight of the spring flowers at Green Gables:
“It just satisfies me here"--she put one hand on her breast--"it made a queer funny ache and yet it was a pleasant ache…I have it lots of times--whenever I see anything royally beautiful.”  
 Somerset Maugham identified the same ambiguous ache in his novel, Of Human Bondage:
Along one side lay the Cathedral with its great central tower, and Philip, who knew as yet nothing of beauty, felt when he looked at it a troubling delight which he could not understand…It gave him an odd feeling in his heart, and he did not know if it was pain or pleasure. It was the first dawn of the aesthetic emotion.
Why should we ache in the presence of beauty? Why should the loveliness of either art or nature make us long for we know not what?

I am convinced that this movement of the soul has an exact counterpart in the body. What happens to us physically when we smell delicious food? We get hungry. What happens to us spiritually as we experience beauty? We get hungry. As the smell of cooking is the token of a feast for the body, whetting our appetite for the food that is the source of the aroma, so beauty is the token of a feast for the soul, whetting our appetite for the Source of beauty.

This, above all else, is why I seek God: just as the hunger of the body is meant to lead us to the body’s sustenance, so the soul’s hunger draws us toward the sustenance of the soul. If there were no such thing as food, there would be no such thing as hunger of the body—so because my soul hungers, I know that there is Bread of Heaven to satisfy it. Beauty is the aroma of the heavenly banquet.

Screwtape knew this, and did his best to warn his feckless nephew Wormwood of the power of beauty to undermine his demonic strategems:
Even if we contrive to keep them ignorant of explicit religion, the incalculable winds of fantasy and music and poetry, the mere face of a girl, the song of a bird, or the sight of a horizon are always blowing our whole structure away…So inveterate is their appetite for Heaven…  
These “incalculable winds” bear the scent of the “feast of rich foods” promised by Isaiah. God, I am convinced, draws us heavenward with this scent, just as the aroma of a pie in the old cartoons assumes the visible form of a beckoning arm that draws by the nose anyone within wafting range. We hunger, Paul Tillich tells us, in “anticipation of a fulfillment that cannot be found in an actual encounter.”[i] Simply put, because the smell is so good, we know the food must be even better--and because beauty moves us as it does, we know that beyond it must be something even more satisfying.

One reason I believe this is that Jesus, unlike other rabbis, sought out his disciples. Rather than setting up shop and attracting students as he acquired a reputation for holiness, which was the usual procedure, Jesus went out to the docks and dives and buttonholed his followers. “You did not choose me,” he told them later, “but I chose you.”

He talked about choosing in his parables, also:
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:45-6)
 I think the second in this pair of parables—the kingdom of heaven as pearl merchant—is often misunderstood. We hear references to “the pearl of great price,” but they often sound like the person making them thinks the term applies to the kingdom. Because the first parable likens the kingdom to a treasure worth acquiring at any cost, people seem to miss the point that in the second, the kingdom is the merchant, not the pearl. We are the pearl. It is us that God seeks, and gives everything to acquire. And the beauty of the earth, the glory of the skies, the love of family and friends, spring flowers and autumn colors, music and poetry and birdsong are like the moon that reflects back to us the sunlight of God’s love. Like the smell of Thanksgiving dinner, they are calling us home.

I wrote this poem years ago about the way God calls to us through beauty:

In an azalea garden one mild night,
A cloud of witnesses blowing around me,
Through crazy latticework of brief, wild white
The pale moon beams, like it had sought and found me.
Why does it almost hurt to gaze at blooms
That tug the heart with an alluring power?
We fill our shelves with books, and deck our rooms
With pictures, but we cannot own a flower.
Although we plant and tend it, still its art
Exists outside us, unassimilated;
We cannot have it—clasp it to the heart
And say, “Just this, and we shall be created.”
Soon it will leave us for another year;
It is wonderful for us to be here.

Happy Thanksgiving.

[i] Eusden and Westerhoff: Sensing Beauty: Aesthetics, the Human Spirit, and the Church (United Church Press, 1998)


  1. When I was in school and my parents still in Elmira, NY, I used to drive through hills like that on my way home for Thanksgiving - a wonderful way to get in the holiday spirit.

    C.S. Lewis, when not speaking through Screwtape, would call this ache and longing "Joy", and I don't think I'm too remiss saying it played a part in drawing him back from atheism. As you say, it makes us realize there is something more, something as yet unfulfilled and more precious in the longing for it than anything else might be in fulfillment.

    As always, beautiful and insightful thoughts. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

  2. Scott, this is exquisite. Your words and images themselves leave me hungry for more. The More God IS draws me through the gift of each day...I have been surprised of late to find something glimmering even in the ashes of suffering, a glimmer that draws me to dig deeper...seems like there are always hidden doors - it makes me think of Isaiah 45:3...the "treasures of darkness". Life is a regular treasure hunt, huh? Happy Thanksgiving to you, my delightfully gifted friend, and your beautiful family.

  3. So very lovely. I'm sharing this with everyone I know. I love you dearly, my friend.


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