Seek Beauty Amid The Strife of Tongues

Come away from the rancor for a few moments, my friend. In the lines that follow, I make no argument and I offer no commentary regarding the disputes surrounding our presidential election. My invitation and my appeal is entirely different in these divisive times. I invite you to seek the beauty of the Lord, to find refuge amid the strife of tongues.

Exhausted by the constancy of conflict surrounding him, King David turned his eyes upon the abundant goodness of the Lord. He found refuge in the Lord’s presence: “you store (those who fear you) in your shelter, from the strife of tongues.” (Psalm 31.20b)

In the Lord’s presence, there is shelter from the strife of tongues, yet the presence of God offers more than protection from conflict and danger. Saints find the beauty of the Lord in the very middle of strife. Saints develop a keen eye for goodness and loveliness, even when their souls are under siege.

Consider Etty Hillesum, who set her eyes on the beauty of God in the midst of Westerbork concentration camp during World War II:

I am in Poland everyday, on the battlefields. I am with the hungry, with the ill-treated, and the dying, every day. But I am also with the jasmine and that piece of sky beyond my window.” 1

Hillesum’s trials and suffering were tremendous. She became a martyr of the Polish concentration camps. Yet the smallest, briefest encounter with God’s beauty sustained her life in dark moments.

Joy for Exhausted Eyes and Ears

So I invite you, my friend, to turn your eyes and ears to the lovely works of God. Open your ears to the music of moving water. Rivers and streams are not metaphors alone. They are real presences, real sources of grace to renew the soul.

Listen to well-composed melodies and songs. Harmony mends the soul worn down by divisive, endless arguments. Gerard Manley Hopkins spoke to his own weary soul when he said:

I do advise/You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile/Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size 2

So let joy increase and let you come to your ears. An evening with Bach’s Cello Suites and a glass of your favorite vintage is not an experience you will regret.

Let your eyes read well-crafted words. Find joy in the elegance of words again. The pleasure and gentle wisdom of Wendell Berry’s Port William stories stirs the soul to goodness and faithfulness. Read or re-read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as Advent nears (it’s full of Advent themes, too). The story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s repentance and redemption never goes out of season. Dickens’ joy refreshes the soul with levity and laughter.

For elegant words, I also commend the verse of Anne Porter. She knows that God’s beauty, especially in creation, brings renewal to exhausted souls:

I never will have time enough
To praise
The way the stars
Hang glittering in the dark
Of steepest heaven
Their dewy sparks
Their brimming drops of light
So fresh so clear
That when you look at them
It quenches thirst.3

Our eyes not only suffer strain from staring at screens; they have been malnourished by offering only passing glances at God’s natural beauty. Instead of glancing, try gazing into the wonder of God’s creation.

Each season reveals its own wonders. As I write, we are nearing autumn’s end and God’s earth prepares for the coming winter. So I take delight in the flight of the last Canadian geese migrating south before winter. I savor the shimmering maple trees alive with brilliant golden leaves. I believe with Stephen Dobyns that these lovely sights and sounds strengthen my soul even more than I can know.

Much later they will remember only a color,
a golden yellow, and the sound of their feet
scuffling the leaves. A day without rancor
or angry words, the sort of day that builds a life,
coming a soft place to look back on,
and geese, geese flying south out of winter. 4

Our eyes were made for wonder. Our ears were made to hear living things praise their Maker. Days when eyes and ears turn to God’s glory in creation—these are the sort of days that build a life.

A Deeper Encounter with Reality

The beauty of the Lord is neither a withdrawal from reality, nor is it an escape from reality. The beauty of the Lord is a personal encounter with Reality in a world of shallow depths.

To find one’s joy in something other than political or social issues is nearly scandalous in our time. But exhaustion is inevitable unless the beauty of the Lord renews one’s eyes, ears, soul, and heart.

Etty Hillesum’s encounter with God’s beauty helped her transcend the strife and violence of her own age. She did not remove herself from the suffering and conflicts of her time; instead, she turned to beauty and found renewed energy for difficult work: “I felt that God’s world was beautiful despite everything, but its beauty now filled with me with joy. I was deeply moved by that mysterious, still landscape in the dusk. I went home invigorated and got back to work.”

Beauty, then, is not only essential, it is ultimately practical, too. The beauty of God keeps us anchored in permanent things amid times of strife. Beauty and work are inseparable, even in times of trial, according to ancient wisdom. Perhaps we have overlooked and forgotten these words, but our present, exhausted moment is the best time to revive and embrace this prayer:

“Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” (Psalm 90:17, ESV)

  1. Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life: Letters from Westerbork ↩︎
  2. Gerard Manley Hopkins, “My Own Heart” ↩︎
  3. Anne Porter, “Looking at the Sky,” from Living Things, 146. ↩︎
  4. Stephen Dobyns, “The Music One Looks Back On” from Autumn: A Spiritual Biography of the Season. ↩︎

One Comment

  1. Barbara said:

    Thank you Jack,
    I have always been one to look up and in, so to feel, glorify and cherish moments in my journey. You have expressed my yearning to hear these very words and to delight and conduct myself in this beautiful season.
    God Bless,
    Barbara Berry

    11.13.2020
    Reply

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