Over the last few years, I have written on my blog site, Noticing Beauty in a Troubled World, articles on the many ways in which to find beauty. When times are good, it is a very easy task, but in troubled times, we find it much harder. It has long been my habit as the old year passes into history and the new year, with all its yet unspoken hopes and dreams begins, to spend some time in reflection and gratitude – a year long Examen. Last year I recalled a reflection of Pope Francis in which he expressed three aims:
To look to the past with gratitude; to live the present with passion; to embrace the future with hope.
As 2020 dawned, we had no idea of what was to come, of how we would be challenged – pandemic, a fear that strikes at the heart of everything and everyone. How does Pope Francis’ three aims equate with a pandemic of the magnitude we are now experiencing?
To look to the past with gratitude We can recall past times of war, of crippling droughts and devastating floods, and most recently, the horror of the fires that swept the country, and be grateful for the strength and solidarity that helped us to face these catastrophes. Together, with love and faith, we fought back and overcame.
To live the present with passion Once again we must work together, with passion and kindness and support for each other , to fight back against COVID-19. To do whatever is required, no matter how inconvenient we may feel it to be, to pray unceasingly for all those who work, at great risk to themselves, to prevail over this threat.
To embrace the future with hope In Urbi et Orbi Pope Frances exhorts us to exercise patience, offer hope and take care to sow not panic, but a shared responsibility – “Prayer and quiet service: these are our victorious weapons.
So, how and where is it possible to find beauty in these circumstances? The late John O’Donohue, Irish writer, philosopher, and theologian wrote in Divine Beauty:
Beauty waits until the patience and depth of a gaze are refined enough to engage and discover it. In this sense, beauty is not a quality externally present in something. It emerges at that threshold where reverence of mind engages the subtle presence of the other person, place or object. The hidden heart of beauty offers itself only when it is approached in a rhythm worthy of its trust and showing.
In the end, the truth is surprisingly ordinary – that there is beauty in every life regardless of how inauspicious, dull or hardened its surface might seem.
Being in the ‘vulnerable’ category, I have spent a lot of time in the last weeks of isolation, in my family room, or my soul room as I prefer to call it. This is where I find beauty, in books, poetry, music and art, especially the beautiful art works of my niece Domenica. They nourish my soul and revive my spirit. Then, last week I received an email invitation to join in forming a community of prayer during an eight-day online retreat. The retreat is drawn from Marlene Marburg’s beautiful book, Grace Upon Grace – Savouring the Spiritual Exercises through the Arts. I accepted this invitation and in this room today, Palm Sunday, in communion with 42 people, I began this retreat which will conclude on Easter Sunday. Beauty has indeed waited “until the patience and depth of gaze are refined enough to engage and discover it (O’Donohue). As I travel through this week to Easter Sunday and the transformation of the Resurrection, my prayer will be for peace, love and joy in this time of trial and fear. In a meditation three years ago, When Things Fall Apart, Richard Rohr wrote that:
transformation more often happens not when something new begins but when something old falls apart. The pain of something old falling apart—disruption and chaos—invites the soul to listen at a deeper level. It invites and sometimes forces the soul to go to a new place because the old place is not working anymore.
Finally, beauty at its most profound manifested in Pope Francis’ meditation on the calming of the storm from the Gospel of Mark, Urbi et Orbi . “When evening had come” (Mk 4:35) These simple words from the beginning of this gospel were echoed in the simplicity and beauty of Pope Francis as he made his silent way through the rain to deliver his stunning blessing for the city and the world:
“Why are you afraid? Have you no faith”? Dear brothers and sisters, from this place that tells of Peter’s rock-solid faith, I would like this evening to entrust all of you to the Lord, through the intercession of Mary, Health of the People and Star of the stormy Sea. From this colonnade that embraces Rome and the whole world, may God’s blessing come down upon you as a consoling embrace. Lord, may you bless the world, give health to our bodies and comfort our hearts. You ask us not to be afraid. Yet our faith is weak and we are fearful. But you, Lord, will not leave us at the mercy of the storm. Tell us again: “Do not be afraid” (Mt 28:5). And we, together with Peter, “cast all our anxieties onto you, for you care about us” (cf. 1 Pet 5:7).