|Opening the Book of Nature
Note: This is a sample of one of the many exercises used in the Opening of the Book of Nature program.
Beauty as an Action
One thing have I desired of the Lord, and that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, and to behold the beauty of the Lord...
Deck thyself now with majesty and excellency; and array thyself with glory and beauty.
And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou
the work of our hands upon us....
In this exercise you will learn to walk in Beauty. Historically beauty has been understood as an aspect of divinity. There are three parts to this exercise:
(1) you will seek for and discern the Beauty of God in the world.
(2) you will reflect upon how you are made in the image of God and that the beauty you see exteriorly is also an interior quality -- a quality rooted in your own nature.
(3) you will manifest that beauty in your every thought, word, action and every part of your being.
This three-fold process brings about a prayerful action. As you see external Beauty, this brings remembrance that you are discerning something of God. Because this Beauty is also in you, the awareness of Beauty reminds one that we are in Beauty, of Beauty and going toward Beauty. As you strive to manifest Beauty, a prayer emerges, to manifest ever finer levels of Beauty.
The Scriptures describe Beauty as "an aspect of the Lord." Similarly, the nineteenth century transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said,
"Tho we travel the world over to find the Beautiful, we must have it in us, or we find it not."
As you spend time with this exercise, please avoid the pitfall of associating beauty with glamour or merely external appearances. True beauty is NOT merely "in the eye of the beholder," but is an objective, interior quality. True Beauty is of God and involves the touch of divinity.
It allows a transparency of the divine nature to shine through..... It is timeless and ageless.
Beauty is an attribute of God's presence in the world by which we glimpse that which is higher, fairer, purer, and more representative of that which is right, holy and true in this world.
Beauty lifts the soul and spirit. It tells us of the goodness of God in the world. Beauty is a song of the Creator declaring that which is higher, uplifting and yet more lofty.
When you start the practice phase of this exercise, ask God to help open your understanding of Beauty. Make this a prayer that continues through all of today's activities.
As you learn about beauty, explore how to make your words and actions a reflection of Beauty. How do you do this? What are the qualities which derive from beauty? What happens when you do make your actions beautiful? Can you do this? How? How often?
"Beauty will save the world!" declared the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky in response to the deepening ills of his day.
Most of us who have been shaped by modernity (individualism, materialism and commercialism) do not understand how Dostoyevsky connects social healing to beauty. In our society, beauty involves aesthetics; or some harmony observed between mountains, trees, skies and water; or the texture, colors and delicacy of flowers; or perhaps the features of someone. These are more likely the things we call beautiful. Seldom is the word beauty used to denote an inner disposition which in earlier times would have been referred to as "spiritual beauty."
Religious writings once saw Beauty in the nature of God and His created "nature." In this view, Beauty is radiated outward from within. It is not merely aesthetics, but represents the grace and energy which sustains the universe. This is the early Christian conception of beauty.
Discerning Beauty is discerning the mark of God s presence. It is as much an inward challenge as an outward exercise. The more one seeks Beauty, the more it is found in every leaf, every beetle, every squirrel, and at last, in every person. But it takes work. One must first discern what is beautiful in God, and then in ourselves, before finding it in our neighbor and in creation.
"Going in beauty" manifests in harmonious existence. It informs an understanding of architecture, education and nutrition. It raises our assumptions about relationships, right behavior, entertainment and recreation. It provides vision for the structure of our lives.
In our thinking it means the removal of anger, hostility, greed and all the other vice-like qualities which defile human nature. Beauty replaces them with patience, love, generosity and all of the virtues which bring nobility and healing to people and creation alike. Beauty goes further and removes profanity, slang and judgemental language. These are replaced by a striving to speak simply and charitably, to use a minimum of words, to listen more than to speak.
So what does Doestoyevsky mean when he says, "Beauty will save the world!"
St. Hilary of Poitiers (315 - 367)
The sky and the air are beautiful, the earth and the sea are beautiful. By divine grace, the universe was called by the Greeks "cosmos," meaning "ornament." ... Surely the author of all created beauty must himself be the Beauty of all beauty?
St. Francis of Assisi (from his biographer)
When he considered the glory of the flowers, how happy he was to gaze at the beauty of their forms and enjoy their marvelous fragrance! How easily his spirit would take wing and rise to meditation on the beauty of that unique flower that blossomed fair as the approaching spring, from the "root of Jesse," and by this fragrance brought new life to countless men who were dead in their souls!
John Calvin (1509 - 1564)
You cannot in one glance survey this most vast and beautiful system of the universe in all its wide expanse, without being completely overwhelmed by the boundless force of its brightness.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882)
The pilgrim goes into the woods, but he carries with him the beauty which he visits. God has not made some beautiful things, but Beauty is the Creator of the universe.
Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God's handwriting -- a wayside sacrament. Welcome it in every fair face, in every fair sky, in every fair flower, and thank God for it as a cup of blessing.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 - 1861)
Glorious indeed is the world of God around us, but more glorious the world of God within us. There lies the land of song; there lies the poet's native land.
Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty -- if only we have eyes to see them.
Thomas Merton (1915 - 1968)
One of the most important -- and most neglected -- elements in the beginnings of the interior life is the ability to respond to reality, to see beauty in ordinary things, to come alive to the splendor that is all around us.
Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862)
The perception of beauty is a moral test.
Fyodor Doestoyevski (1821 - 1881)
"Truly all is beautiful and a source of wonder, for all is truth, and Christ is with His creatures. How can it be otherwise, for the Word is truly for all things, the whole creation and every creature, every leaflet yearns toward the Word, praises God, and achieves this unconsciously through the mystery of its blameless life....
John Muir (1838 - 1914)
All of God's universe is glass to the soul of light. Infinitude mirrors reflecting all, receiving all. The stars whirl and eddy and boil in the currents of the ocean called space.... Trees in camplight and grasses and weeds impressive beyond thought so palpably Godful in form and in wind motion.... The pines spiring to the star-flowered sky are plainly full of God.... Oh, the infinite abundance and universality of beauty. Beauty is God. What shall we say of God that we may not say of Beauty.
Francis Schaeffer (1912 - 1984)
The Church has not spoken out as it should have done against the abuse of nature. But when the Church puts belief into practice, in man and in nature, there is substantial healing. One of the first fruits of that healing is a new sense of beauty. The aesthetic values are not to be despised. God made man with a sense of beauty, in a way no animal has. Man, made in the image of God, has aesthetic quality, and as soon as he begins to deal with nature as he should -- as having dominion but not exploiting nature as though it had no value in itself -- beauty is preserved in nature.
Minot Savage (1841 - 1918)
"Earth's Common Things"
Seek not afar for beauty. Lo! it glows
In dew-wet grasses all about thy feet;
In birds, in sunshine, childish faces sweet,
In stars and mountain summits topped with snows.
Go not afar for happiness. For see,
It is a flower that blooms at thy door.
Bring love and justice home, and then no more
Thou'lt wonder in what dwelling joy may be.
"Dawn at San Diego"
Behold! the Holy Grail is found,
Found in each poppy's cup of gold;
And God walks with us as of old,
Behold! The burning bush still burns
For man, whichever way he turns;
And all God's earth is holy ground
Reflections for facilitators
Instructions for teaching this introductory exercise
The beauty exercise is one of our initial stand-alone exercises. This means it can be done away from a group context and continued at home with no change in the effectiveness of the practice.
It should be reiterated, even though this is emphasized in the written text of the exercise, that when we use the word "Beauty," we are using it as an aspect of the nature of God, or another word which describes a way to understand God.
There are three elements to a full understanding of the dynamics of this exercise that are not made explicit in the written instructions. These can be conveyed by the facilitators and imparted as appropriate during the discussions either before or after the exercise is put into practice. However, remember that too much information is generally not helpful because participants can feel overwhelmed with words and ideas and cannot always separate what is central and essential from what is interesting background and in fact peripheral. Therefore the initial task of the facilitator in this Beauty-as-an-Action" exercise is both to keep it simple at the onset but then to gently add perspective after the exercise has been applied.
The Philosophy and Conceptual Assumption in this Exercise
The essence of what we are doing in this exercise is making operational the basic assumption that the Holy Trinity extends into creation. We do this by identifying how the Trinity manifests in creation, and then applying that in a manner that connects to our hearts and minds and all our behavior.
The operational suppositions in this exercise then are: (1) the interior of creation, from which derives the genesis of Beauty, is infused with the presence of God; (2) this interior of creation connects to the spiritual side, or the interior, of the individual, and somehow has a harmony with its nature (because we are in the image of God who shapes creation) and called to manifest the likeness of God (i.e., the imitation of Christ); and (3) the outer manifestation of the individual is motivated by his or her vision of God and the corollary suppositions about one's own nature. Therefore, by looking to what is inherent in the Beauty of creation, then modelling that first into our attitudes and words, and finally bringing that out into every aspect of our behavior, we have a trinitarian relationship that brings a dimension of God's Spirit through us into personal manifestation. This means that this exercise, while it offers insights into creation, is also spiritually transforming. As it transforms, it allows ever deeper penetration and awareness to take place into the nature of the Creator-creation relationship. The deeper we go, the more we can see and realize about the nature of our journey to God and the nature of His creation.
Another feature of this exercise is that, once you do it in a group dynamic, it becomes imprinted into one's psyche so that one who wishes to continue the exercise can continue to do it as a daily practice. As a side note, most of the "intermediate" level exercises which we will inaugurate this year has this trinitarian dimension hidden in its structure so that they will each have some ability to provide continual insights into both God and creation while shaping and reshaping our perceptions about both. In this way we are providing spiritual vision about the creation that will help those who come to our events go deeper and deeper into their own church's spiritual framework.
The challenge in this exercise is to go from the abstract and elusive to the specific and concrete. To do this, some people will need help to get the concept. Therefore, break this exercise up into segments, the first of which is only an hour long. Then bring all the participants back for a discussion. Let them air out their insights, and in this sharing, a further dimension of understanding of how it works will emerge. The same ground rules still apply as for the introductory program. The discussion time will help them make the translation from the Abstract and asymmetrical into the specific and concrete.
The facilitator should help the group to stay within a biblical framework for defining the specific attibutes of Beauty as an action: these are all aspects of virtue and goodness and all of the other qualities which this exercise cultivates. A total of three to even five hours can be devoted to learning this exercise. This exercise is different from the others encountered so far in that, once grasped, it can be taken home and continued for the rest of one's life.
As I tried to emphasize this year in Toccoa, we are just getting started, and it will take at least five years for facilitators to get a good handle on all the dynamics of the Opening the Book of Nature program. This is why it is important for facilitators to stick to the form of the program and NOT make any changes in its fundamental three-fold trinitarian dynamic.
A more developed commentary for applying this exercise will follow after we have some experience with its interpersonal dynamics and impact on participants.
Go slow with this exercise. For some this exercise raises up a lot of interior "dust" and causes so much confrontation with habitual patterns of thinking that for some it can quickly become overwhelming if too long a time is allocated for practice.
I recommend only half an hour or maybe an hour for the initial application of this exercise, just like with the Christian Nature Walk. This will "pattern" the application for the participant, but not let it become overwhelming. Many will complain that there was not enough time, but it is better to go for too short a length of time, than to go too long for the others.
The next day, the group can come back to it refreshed and take it up for another period of time, perhaps another half hour.
Some Review Questions for Facilitators
Q: What is beauty?
Q: If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, is it first an interior or an exterior quality?
Q: What is the epitomy of beauty?
Q: How do you become beautiful? Start with thoughts, go to words.
Q: What is the art of being gracious?
Q: Beauty and glamour are different things. Distinguish.
Q: How does appreciation of beauty lead to respect?
Q: What is an aesthetic education?
Q: The term "Beauty" is used for that which is of divinity in creation.
What other identifying terms could be used?
Are these terms fully adequate?
Q: Compare what each person wrote before doing the exercise with what he or she wrote after the exercixe.
Q: How can this practice be continued after the OBN program?
Q: How (and why) does it bring change to the individual?