“Beauty will save the world.” — The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
“‘I said I’ve told you all I know. If you push me far enough, all I really know is that he was a fine fisherman.’
‘You know more than that,’ my father said. ‘He was beautiful.'” — A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean
I live most days somewhere between being a skeptic and a saint. I think that’s all of us, really. And sometimes I wonder who the saints really are, anyways. They sure as hell aren’t all sitting in pews. I think some of them can be found sleeping under bridges, or maybe cooking fresh chorizo in the back of a Super Mercado in the early hours of a Sunday morning. I think of the story of the Good Samaritan; the very one who Jesus said to be like was the one all the religious types would have tried to get to pray a sinner’s prayer. Meanwhile, the apparently lost and unclean Samaritan was the merciful one, the neighbor to the left-for-dead man — and Jesus tells the tie and button-up wearing religious prick to “go and do like wise,” which he might as well have said, “go and be like the guy you think looks nothing like me. Because he looks like me.” How sad is it that the story of Jesus is manipulated to oppress the very people he came to liberate.
My heart mourns for those who, in their striving for success, miss the mystery and wonder of life. A Catholic nun once said that, “it can be a life-long project to discover that you are loved,” and that is perhaps one of the truest and saddest statements I have heard. We dehumanize ourselves when we believe we are nothing more than our achievements, titles, experiences, etc. And yet in a sense it is easier to do so, because both to love and to accept love are bold and fragile things.
My greatest fear and greatest longing is vulnerability. I remember the first time I felt seen, the first time I felt the beauty of being known. The first time I felt a glimpse of intimacy. The hopeless romantic in me misses her, and the cynic in me tries to act as if I never mattered to her. But the tears know that isn’t true. All those years playing video games could never amount to the glory of the Lord I felt among those rocky beaches of Jamaica, and no screen click could compare to the woman I met on that island. As Norman Maclean puts it, “it is a strange and wonderful and embarrassing feeling to hold someone in your arms who is trying to detach you from the earth and you aren’t good enough to follow her.” Maybe one day I’ll follow in the footsteps of Will Hunting and go see about a girl, and whether it’s her I go see or a woman who actually cares, I have no idea. But I do know that love is never wasted, and I pray that what little love I have in me is enough. Jesus tells us that the pure in heart will see God, and I am starting to think that maybe that verse doesn’t mean, “those who have their shit together will see God” but rather, “those who are bold enough to love, to mourn, and to long for goodness will see God.” With that being said, I miss out on seeing Jesus every time I harden my heart to the wonder, mystery, and pain of the life I live. Life itself is grace, and to miss that truth is to lose yourself.
In the book The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the protagonist Prince Myschkin is referred to as saying that “beauty will save the world.” The words never come from his mouth, but instead come from the cynical heart of a nihilist, who scoffs at Myschkin’s hope in the redeeming value of beauty. He is, in fact, seen as an idiot; yet in another sense, he is seen as a Christ-figure, who very well was also seen by many as an idiot. For indeed, what is it about beauty that is in one sense so captivating and yet in another sense so daunting? The pragmatic man is blind to beauty; he sees not the magnificence of the mountains but instead the monetary value of the lumber. And yet the mountains cry out to him, groaning for the renewal of all things, begging him that if he would simply stop and pay attention to the wonder around him, his heart might leap once again with the joys of child-like faith and hope. But, more often than not, he quite literally misses the forest for the trees.
It is a daunting thing, too, to acknowledge beauty. To do so is to let go of our endless striving for more. Our culture has become so keen on efficiency, purpose, and proficiency that to simply enjoy life, much more to enjoy the joys of life, is seen by many as a sin, or, for the nonreligious, seen as a waste of time. As Brian Zahnd says in his memoir Water to Wine, “life is not a game, life is a gift. Life [is not about] getting to the top, coming in first […] life is about learning to love.” And yet, for millennia, we have been sold a lie that the truth is anything but beauty and love.
I imagine him much like Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump. A half-smoked cigarette sits on the edge of his night stand, and he lays belly down on the bed with his wife or concubine or girlfriend or whoever laying next to him, or perhaps no one because he pissed her off earlier and is too prideful to say “I’m sorry.” The knock startles him, and he tips over the cigarette and a glass of whiskey as he shuffles out of bed and manages to put a robe over his half-naked body. He rubs his eyes with the back of his knuckles, reaches for an oil lamp, and fidgets with the lock.
“What is your charge of this man?”
He couldn’t give two shits about this man, and found him not guilty despite the aggravation of being wakened up in the piss of night. He asks him that question that all of us ask him, the question of “what is truth?” And yet as he asks, his cynicism fades, if only for a moment, and he is taken back to his childhood when he was in deed in search of truth, as well as beauty and goodness and the mystery of God. His soul cannot handle the grief of desires and wishes long dead; a tear wells up within the corner of his right eye, and he turns his back on Truth as he goes to testify the innocence of the King of the Jews. Truth, in his classic way, offers no answer to the question. He simply offers himself, which is to say he offers his life.
To Pilate, the truth is power, coercion, and the upholding of the status quo. He mocks the playfulness of the kids, telling them they can’t make a denarii from spinning a dreidel. To Jesus, the truth is himself, and with it his self-giving and co-suffering love where he throws himself into the middle of our propensity toward self-destruction and isolation. And in doing so, he pierces our hearts with the wonder and mystery we were born for, so that we may all let go of death and cry out, or perhaps whisper, “surely, this man [is] the son of God” (Mark 15:39).
It is not the sword of Caesar, but the love of Jesus that will save the world. To echo the words of John Lucas, his justice is love and his revenge is forgiveness. May we all let the scales fall from our eyes that prevent us from seeing the image of God in each other and ourselves. Our lives are a paradox of brokenness and beauty, but the resurrection reveals that God’s heart has always been healing, restoration, and the affirmation that what He began in that garden however many thousands or billions of years ago is indeed good. No matter how many times we run back into the darkness, attempting to convince ourselves that death is better than life or perhaps that He who is Life is not trustworthy, the love of Jesus graciously haunts us, tenderly speaking throughout our lives that he is far better and far more beautiful than the cynics, skeptics, and angry pastors would like us to believe. So break the bread and pour the wine, and let us celebrate the beauty that has saved, is saving, and will save the world.