The Vision of Beauty

But Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”

John 1:46

At a central dramatic moment in both yesterday’s and today’s gospel readings from John 1, we hear the injunction “Come and see.” Yesterday it was Jesus telling the two disciples of John to “come and see” where he lived. And today it is Philip telling the skeptical Nathanael to “come and see” the truth of what Philip has recognized in the person of Jesus. What is it that is to be seen in each case, and is the experience of seeing that the disciples and Nathanael have anything that we can recognize?

For several years I made an annual retreat at a retreat house, and former minor seminary, of the Discalced Carmelite Friars in Peterborough, New Hampshire. It was a place that was most congenial for me, with its rural setting and beautiful view of Mount Monadnock. Perhaps another reason I found it so congenial is that Peterborough is the inspiration for the town of Grover’s Corners, the setting of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. Act Three of that play takes place in the graveyard of Grover’s Corners. The narrator of the play, “The Stage Manager,” opens the act with a soliloquy in which he describes what is most distinctive about human beings and yet what most of the time we fail to see.

We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars…everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings…There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.

In this act of the play Emily, a young woman who has just died bearing her second child, is allowed to return for an ordinary day in the life of her family. She is warned of how painful it will be for her to do so, but she insists nonetheless. The pain she experiences, and why she realizes she cannot remain in our ordinary human world, is due to the inability of her family members to see the beauty of life, to see that which is eternal but which is hidden to them in the somnolence and routinization of everyday experience.

So it is something of the eternal that those who truly encounter Jesus experience, and it is this same experience of “eternal life” that is available to us. In his book Odyssey, Daniel Mendelsohn writes of the experience of his father’s attending his seminar on the Odyssey at Bard College. At the very end of the course, this 81 year old relates to the class of undergraduate students his identification from the experience of his marriage of over 60 years with the truth of Homer’s description of Penelope’s recognition of Odysseus. He speaks about what loving married people know of each other, their secrets that no one else can know. It is this, he says, that allows them to know and recognize each other through all the changes of their lives.

As Mendelsohn relates this incident, he describes the intensity of his young students’ attention to the experience his father is relating, even though they could not at all begin yet to understand it. He then says that in that moment his father and, to a lesser degree perhaps, his students, are changed and transformed. For the classicist Mendelsohn this is, he says, what Homer means by “wingèd words.” One of the ways we can come and see the eternal in life is through speaking and hearing the truly significant words of another or ourselves that are spoken “with authority.”

Life ceases to be mysterious to us because we live it, for the most part, on the surface. Our speech is an exchange of information in service to our functioning capacities. We do not usually speak from our own depth, and so we most often don’t hear the depth of others. Daniel Mendelsohn writes of having an experience of his now 81 year old father that he had never had before, because his father was speaking with an authority and, he says, a tenderness he had never heard from him before. As a result his father was now in the world in a different way, and that also changed the relationship  to him of those around him, including his son.

There is a strange paradox in everyday life which is that we avoid that which we most desire. In Our Town, Emily, from the perspective of eternity, witnesses how much her family fails to really be present to each other and so to realize the true life that lies within them. As Daniel Mendelsohn’s father speaks about his marriage, he tells the students, “His (meaning his son’s) mother is beautiful.” He reveals in this class what he never had spoken to his wife and children: that, in his eyes, his wife, their mother, is beautiful.

Beauty surrounds as, as it inheres in us. If we allowed ourselves to truly experience and express that beauty, how it would change our presence and behavior in the world. We would find ourselves drawn to a presence characterized by awe, wonder, reverence, and tenderness. We could not be violent or manipulative because of our reverence for the beauty that is creation, including ourselves. The mystery, eternal life, is always right before us; we are just usually unable to recognize it.

We are told in the gospels that Jesus spoke as one with authority, and not as the scribes. The knowledge of which he spoke was always his; it always sprang from the depth of his experience. The First Letter of John tells us of the experience of seeing, hearing and touching the Word of Life. This was the experience of those who came and saw and heard Jesus, for Jesus was always giving himself away, emptying himself out so that others could receive life from him. Whenever we come to and see each other in that way, we too can know that Word of Life.

Concretely, though, this means taking the time required to be present. I’m quite sure that I never got to hear my own father in the way that Daniel Mendelsohn was finally able to hear his. The seminar room provided a space and a context in which the elder Mendelsohn could speak from a place that his home life could not provide. In truth, most of us find it too difficult to be so vulnerable in the presence of those with whom we spend our days. So we seldom truly speak to and hear from each other. The expression and recognition of the beauty that we see in what and whom we love is of its nature fragile and vulnerable. That is because our life is itself so fragile. The beauty is beautiful because it is mortal. Eternal life is somehow only known in our vulnerable openness to our own and our world’s fragility and mortality.

At the moment we give voice to the truth of that fragility and mortality, we touch and taste eternal life. We are, if only for a moment, transformed. Although we are finite and mortal, the truth is eternal. To give it expression in our words but even more in our lives is to live life, as Jesus said, “to the full.” The experience the disciples have of Jesus is always available to us as well. To recognize it, however, we must dare to travel the hard road from superficiality to depth, from our illusion of power, control, and immortality, to the truth of the beauty in our mortality and vulnerability. We must come to know ourselves and each other as we are, and to dare to express that truth in trust, hope, and love.

And then, as I glanced around the table and felt their silence, I realized that this is what those magical transformations in the Odyssey really are. It isn’t magic at all. Something happens, someone speaks heatedly, or with authority—with “wingèd words,” as Homer puts it, “epê peroenta”—and you suddenly see things differently: the person actually looks different. At the moment my father pushed himself back in the chair after admitting that the Odyssey had gotten something right, that between couples there are secrets that serve, in the end, as the bedrock of marriage, secrets unknown even to the children of that marriage—at that moment it occurred to me that he looked bigger and more impressive, somehow the way that Odysseus looks taller and more beautiful when Athena needs him to succeed, to impress some stranger in whose hands his fate hangs. On that May day toward the end of the seminar, my father had succeeded, too. With this fleeting display of tenderness, before an audience of children too young to understand what they were witnessing, he had, for a moment, been transformed.

Daniel Mendelsohn, An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, And An Epic, pp. 257-8

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