Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A definition of beauty...


“…for seven weeks I’ve lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto.
But I have found what I love here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut branches in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.”[1]

            If this writer is to answer the primary question driving this research and postulated throughout these pages, ‘What pastoral care method(s) effectively provide a space of beauty at the end of life?’ one must first define beauty and understand its importance in ministry at the end of life, if one is to know for what to look.  This writer accepts that a definitive definition of beauty can never be fully comprehended and that the exploration of beauty is limited and tentative at best[2]; however, the hope in attempting a definition, no matter how fleeting, will provide a mosaic with which to focus this investigation into its existence at the time of death.  To do this, this writer will look to Jonathan Edwards and John O’Donohue for a simple, but poignant, definition of Christian beauty and to the Old Testament for a pre-Christian understanding of God’s beauty. Further, he will identify the need for pursuing God’s beauty, acknowledge the increase of ugliness which is the result of a loss of America’s God consciousness, and send a call to the Christian community to awaken and see His beauty and to the hospice chaplain, who is uniquely seated to facilitate the seeing of God’s beauty at the time of death.
It would be difficult, if not impossible, to attempt to define and understand beauty without considering the work of Jonathan Edwards who was/is the most prolific writer on beauty, with beauty being “…central and more pervasive [in his writings] than in any other text in the history of Christian theology.”[3]  Further, Edwards felt it was not enough just to know the definition of beauty in some logical format; “instead, one had to have a sense of it or, we might say, one had to experience God's beauty for oneself.”[4]  So, it seems to be our duty to both articulate a definition and grapple with a sense of this beauty that exudes from God’s being. It is just such a sense that this writer hopes to extrapolate from the musings of experienced hospice chaplains: chaplains who have seen such beauty when the Lord was/is among them and their patients, as on Sinai, in a holy place[5].  “[One] does not merely rationally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart.”[6]
            As simple as it may sound, John O’Donohue, a 20th Century Celtic philosopher, defined beauty this way, “God[7] is Beauty!”[8]  Jonathan Edwards’, an 18th Century theologian and sometimes mystic, believed that the theology of beauty “…begins and ends with God …an extraordinary vision of the divine Beauty replicating itself in all of creation.”[9] Throughout Christian history, theologians have built upon the foundation of biblical revelation for such a definition. They have continually sought to understand beauty as a “…sense of the divine being and character, as well as the works of God, and to define beauty in terms of the excellence and glory of God.”[10]  Therefore, there is one thing that this writer desires; like the Psalmist … one thing will I seek after… to behold the beauty of the Lord![11]  “Edwards argued that God’s ravishing beauty is the first and most important thing to be said of God. ‘God is God, and distinguished from all other beings and exalted above’em, chiefly by his divine beauty.’”[12]
O’Donohue mostly rejects tangible beauty for a mystical/spiritual beauty, embracing the ‘God is beauty’ mantra, and sees items such as art or music only as a possible vehicle to experience real beauty.  O’Donohue identifies beauty more as a state of being or God’s creative work on a journey towards completion/fulfillment.  As an illustration, O’Donohue offers, “You may hear a piece of music which turns your thoughts to one previous moment of love.”[13]  The aura remaining/created from that previous moment of love is the real beauty and not the music.  It therefore becomes the chaplain’s job at the time of death to provide the vehicle, or trigger the aura, that allows/helps the dying to find such a place of beauty.  Joan Chittister writes: “It is beauty that magnetizes the contemplative, and it is the duty of the contemplative to give beauty away so that the rest of the world may, in the midst of squalor, ugliness, and pain, remember that beauty is possible.”[14]
            Even before the Christian era, Old Testament writers related the idea of all beauty with the beauty of God.  Such beauty, grounded in God, fixes “…a degree of permanence and objectivity to the very idea of beauty.”[15]  There are at least three ways in which the Old Testament conceptualizes God’s beauty that has influenced the understanding of beauty into the Christian era and is apropos to this research.  First, “…behold the beauty of the Lord;” the very being of God testifies of His beauty.  Second, God’s beauty is associated with His moral character; God's excellence, honor, and majesty exude His beauty throughout all the creation, created in His image.[16]  “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God hath shined.”[17]  Throughout Scripture there is no greater moral virtue coupled with beauty than God’s holiness. [18]  The psalmist David exhorted God’s creation to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness,[19] and declared that God would live among those who worshiped Him in such beauty.[20]
God made everything beautiful in His time; from the very first, “Let there be…” to the very least of His creation today, God, with all of His creation looking on, continues to agree about His ongoing creative work, “It is good!”[21] The third idea associating God with beauty is His continued work in creation. “The whole of creation, functioning according to its intended purposes, in harmony and fruitfulness, is said to be beautiful.”[22]  Beautiful, because the beauty of the Lord our God is upon His creation, and has established that His ongoing creative work is now in the hands of His creation.[23]  Forever, oh God, you are beauty, your creation created in your image is beauty, and the beauty of your essence continues in the work of your creation.
While Edwards understood beauty as described above, primarily as a celebration of God’s being, he also understood that contemplating God’s beauty was secondary to the celebration of God’s being.  However, humans, as finite creatures with a finite understanding, must transverse contemplating God’s beauty on the road to celebrating the beauty of His being.  “Thus, while secondary beauty focuses on what immediately delights, primary beauty takes us out of ourselves into a contemplation of God’s own beautifying life and how we contribute to its expansion in the world.”[24]  Conversely, refusing to delight in our immediate surrounding that is endowed with God’s beauty will prohibit the celebration of the beauty of His being and blind us from seeing the ongoing influence of His beauty in the lives of His creation around us.  “The conscious celebration of God’s beauty is the end toward which the whole creation is drawn.”[25]
Edwards felt that creation is drawn to God’s beauty and that we should be concerned with living in the presence of such beauty more than anything else.[26]  Maybe we should not be as concerned with finding beauty as in recognizing His existing beauty and the ongoing work of beauty in His creative work, which surrounds creation every day.  “The natural world … enlarges the human capacity to sense the fullness of God’s beauty, and the appreciation of that beauty subsequently leads to ethical action.  Nature teaches us God’s beauty, and God’s beauty drives us to its continual replication in space and time.”[27]  Edwards loved the outdoors and spent much of his time outside in the woods or fields around his home, because the beauties he found in nature were really  “…emanations, or shadows, of the excellencies of the Son of God.”[28]
            For the sake of this research, it seems important to digress before progressing to a definitive understanding of beauty and how it applies.  The question that must be in the mind of the reader, as it is in the mind of the writer, is, What about the ugliness that seems to permeate the world around us?  If God is beauty, if He exudes beauty in His ongoing creation, and if His creation is participant in this beauty, where is this beauty?  This "…violence, oppression, economic enslavement and social irrationality," this ugliness has "…given despair a new warrant."[29]  George Steiner, along with many others watching our world, feels there is a "…systematic turn-about towards bestialization."[30]  When comparing the suffering in our world up against God’s beauty, it often seems difficult to see… or is it, as will be discussed below, overlooked, ignored, or clouded by the distractions of an increasingly violent world?
            T. M. Moore writes extensively on this point and feels that, “…the demise of beauty in the arts is the result of the loss of regard for God, then the hope for a recovery of beauty is somehow linked with restoration of respect for God.”[31]  While Moore is considering the demise of beauty in aesthetic art, it is still apropos because he also understands beauty as defined by Edwards and O’Donohue.  God is beauty; He exudes beauty through His holy creation, and His creation has (or can) become part of this beauty in the things that he does.  Therefore the artist, as beauty created by a holy God who is radiant beauty, creates beauty in his artistic work when influenced by the God of beauty.  Moore recognizes that, at least statistically, there “…seems to be no shortage of belief in God in contemporary America; yet the decline of beauty and the ascendance of ugliness has become a daily and widespread complaint.”[32] 
Because of a decline in contemplation of God’s beauty, it is possible that the celebration of God’s being is ignored and His beauty is hidden.  Christianity has dumbed down everything associated with God, His work, and His church.  “Much of the stress and emptiness that haunts us can be traced back to our lack of attention to beauty.”[33]  One has only to attend the postmodern worship service at the church on the corner to realize the theological shallowness of the songs, the art, and the d├ęcor; nothing seems to matter.  Modern Christian theology has become a mile wide (reflecting its modern resurgence), but only an inch deep.  Moore insisted “…that the hope for recovering beauty in an age of ugliness and death rests with those who embrace this biblical and theological perspective and heritage and who undertake the responsibility of cultivating a theologically informed taste for beauty.”[34]  Gerald Hopkins believed that God was/is trying to make His being “…known through the things of this world, and he lamented the fact that people seem so dull of hearing and blind to the beauty and glory that God is revealing all around them.”[35]
This demise of beauty in the arts and/or in the recognizing of God’s beauty in both His being and His creation, “…is the result of the loss of regard for God, then the hope for a recovery of beauty is somehow linked with restoration of respect for God.”[36]  If there is to be a restoration of respect for God, it will take Christian leaders (theologians, pastors, and Christian educators) accepting their God-ordained responsibility to nurture a theological taste for beauty in the hearts and minds of the ecclesia. “For, if cultivating taste as a spiritual gift and discipline does not begin with these, the teachers of the Christian community, it will never be established among the hosts of the community at large.”[37]
A “…persistent longing for beauty can serve as a starting-point…” or a place of awakening “…a true sense of beauty in this age of ugliness and death.”[38]   The call to awaken is a call to take one’s rightful place in God’s creative beauty, and when one does, one becomes more aware of the beauty in the world.[39]  “When we waken to beauty, we keep desire alive in its freshness, passion, and creativity.  Beauty is not a deadener but a quickener!”[40]  As one awakens in her approach to God, she “enters the presence of One who is the embodiment of all things beautiful.  Being in God's presence is supremely pleasant, filled with delights, majestic and excellent beyond description, and leads the faithful to exclaim, ‘how great is His goodness, and how great His beauty!’[41][42]
This research project is a starting point motivated by a persistent longing for seeing God’s beauty at work in the efforts of the hospice chaplain, especially at the time of death.  This project is a call for chaplains to awaken to the beauty in God’s creation and to the beauty in the lives (work) of His creation.  The beauty that is already there, but often missed in the business of paperwork, travel, and scheduling.  The mentally and physically exhausting work of the chaplain is especially suited for seeing God’s beauty; “Edwards found the reality of God’s beauty was most obvious during a time of ‘sensory overload’.”[43]  No one recognizes the decline of, and the recognition of, God’s beauty more than chaplains who live in the daily ugliness of death.  Patients, as most people today, rarely, if ever, understand God in the beauty of His being, His character, or His work; therefore “…it makes sense for us to believe that, if there is to be any recovery of beauty in this age of ugliness and death, it must arise from within the community of those who know God today.”[44]  The chaplain must become the mirror in which both patients and family can see God’s beauty in their lives and their own creative work.
Surrounded by pain and suffering each and every day, it would seem difficult, for most uninitiated, to discern beauty; however, it is “…the ‘new sense’ imparted by God’s spirit that makes this discernment possible.  The new capacity for perceiving God’s beauty makes one simultaneously more sensitive to deformity, more attentive to the distortion of God’s mirrored loveliness.”[45] Only those who have been there understand the ability for something strange and beautiful to happen when a patient is at the end of life.  The face relaxes as all fear, horror, pain, and suffering seem to fade away and disappear.  “‘I have often watched a look of happy wonder dawn in his eyes when he realized what was happening,’ writes a veteran [caregiver].  ‘He seemed to come alive in a new form.’”[46]
No symbol greater epitomizes suffering than the Gospel’s rendition of Christ’s suffering on the cross, and yet, no greater picture of beauty has ever been recorded.  There was never another time when God’s “…divine glory and majesty covered with so thick and dark a veil …yet never was His divine glory so manifested by any act of His, as in yielding Himself up to these sufferings.”[47]  Edwards’ love for beauty caused him to look for God’s beauty in places that astonished some; he “…knew that God’s most astonishing beauty lies hidden in the earth’s suffering, because the anguish of nature points to the agony of the cross.”[48]  There was/is no limit to which God would go to right the full brokenness of creation that it might be in harmony with His beauty; the ugliness of the cross was that symbol to all of this ongoing creative work.[49]  “The experience of finite beauty is …grounded in the transcendent beauty that belongs to all being [and] …persists regardless of the destructive forces of ugliness or evil.”[50]
            So the job of the chaplain could/would basically be one of holding up a mirror so the world can see its own inherent beauty as one created by God.  When one sees this beauty, there is a sense of homecoming, a sense of belonging to something greater than this temporary life.[51]  Not everyone hears/sees [G]god the same way as everyone else,[52] yet however one sees God, there is beauty in the seeing!  This becomes especially poignant for the chaplain, because when one loses “…sight of beauty [the] struggle becomes tired and functional.”[53]  Therefore, the joint search for beauty, the dance between patient and chaplain, seems to obligate them in two directions: “First, to seek this gift, and to desire it earnestly; and, second, to practice this gift as part of one's everyday spiritual discipline.”[54]
            Throughout this section one can seen how beauty and God are inseparable ideologues; God is beauty and/or beauty is God.  This is supported by both the pre and post New Testament writers, calling communities everywhere, in spite of the increase in ugliness, to awaken, pursue, and see God’s beauty.  Finally, hospice chaplains are uniquely situated to holding up a mirror so the world can see its own inherent beauty as one created by God.  When communities look for beauty and “…respond with joy to the call of beauty …in an instant it can awaken under the layers of the heart a forgotten brightness.”[55]  God’s beauty will not lay dormant, but is sure to spread when lifted up in joy, for “God’s beauty within the world is infectious.”[56]



[1] Pavel Friedmann in I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944 (New York: Schocken Books, 1993), 38.
[2] John O’Donohue, The Invisible Embrace of Beauty: Rediscovering the True Sources of Compassion, Serenity, and Hope (New York: Harper Perennial Publishers, 2003), 9.
[3] Belden C. Lane, Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 171.
[4] Edward Hickman, "A Divine and Supernatural Light," in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2, ed. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1995), 14, quoted by T. M. Moore, “The Hope of Beauty in an Age of Ugliness and Death” Theology Today 61 no 2 (2004), 161.
[5] Psalms 68:17.
[6] Jonathan Edwards, as quoted by Lane, Ravished by Beauty, 184.
[7] While this writer makes no excuse for his open belief in God, however, he also recognizes that some who read this research may be of the non-theist belief.  Two of the eleven chaplains interviewed for this research were non-theist. This author believe that this research is valuable regardless of one’s understanding of God and that most chaplains, theist or non-theist, recognize a part of G(g)od in the lives of all people.  Regardless of how one understands or explains G(g)od, a piece of the Holy is there in each human life.
[8] O’Donohue, The Invisible Embrace of Beauty, 217-247.
[9] Lane, Ravished by Beauty, 172.
[10] Moore, “The Hope of Beauty in an Age of Ugliness and Death,” 162.
[11] Psalms 27:4.
[12] Edwards quoted by Belden C. Lane, Ravished by Beauty, 173.
[13] Ibid, 194.
[14] O’Donohue, The Invisible Embrace of Beauty, 215.
[15] Moore, “The Hope of Beauty in an Age of Ugliness and Death,” 159
[16] Genesis 1:26.
[17] Psalms 50:2.
[18] Moore, “The Hope of Beauty in an Age of Ugliness and Death,” 158-160
[19] Psalms 29:2.
[20] Psalms 22:3.
[21] Genesis 1.
[22] Moore, “The Hope of Beauty in an Age of Ugliness and Death,” 160
[23] Psalms 90:17.
[24] Edwards, quoted by Lane, Ravished by Beauty, 196.
[25] Lane, Ravished by Beauty, 171.
[26] Edwards, quoted by Lane, Ravished by Beauty, 174.
[27] Ibid, 172.
[28] Ibid, 177.
[29] George Steiner, Grammars of Creation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 5-16.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Moore, “The Hope of Beauty in an Age of Ugliness and Death,” 156.
[32] Ibid, 157.
[33] O’Donohue, The Invisible Embrace of Beauty, 4.
[34] Moore, “The Hope of Beauty in an Age of Ugliness and Death,” 157.
[35] Gerard Manley Hopkins, "On the Origin of Beauty: A Platonic Dialogue," in Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose, ed. W. H. Gardner, (London: Penguin, 1963), 166.
[36] Moore, “The Hope of Beauty in an Age of Ugliness and Death,” 156.
[37] Ibid, 172.
[38] Ibid, 158.
[39] O’Donohue, The Invisible Embrace of Beauty, 7.
[40] Ibid, 4.
[41] Zechariah 9:17.
[42] Moore, “The Hope of Beauty in an Age of Ugliness and Death,” 159.
[43] Lane, Ravished by Beauty, 188.
[44] Moore, “The Hope of Beauty in an Age of Ugliness and Death,” 169.
[45] Lane, Ravished by Beauty, 192.
[46] Glen Davidson, Living With Dying (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1975), 95.
[47] Edwards, quoted by Lane, Ravished by Beauty, 192.
[48] Lane, Ravished by Beauty, 191.
[49] Ibid, 192.
[50] Deal W. Hudson, An American Conversion: One Man’s Discovery of Beauty and Truth in Times of Crisis (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2003), 125.
[51] O’Donohue, The Invisible Embrace of Beauty, 2.
[52] Diana Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco Publishers, 2006), 205
[53] O’Donohue, The Invisible Embrace of Beauty, 6.
[54] Moore, “The Hope of Beauty in an Age of Ugliness and Death,” 172.
[55] O’Donohue, The Invisible Embrace of Beauty, 13.
[56] Lane, Ravished by Beauty, 175.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Chaplaincy Context

        “Chaplain Joey!” is a phrase that follows me throughout my ministry each day.  It is called out by patients, family members, nurses, aides, doctors, receptionists, secretaries, cooks, food servers, and many more.  Each has expectations… each has needs… each wants someone to listen, and each have preconceived ideas about the services I can or can’t provide.  Throughout the course of each day I am regularly called on to minister to hospice patients, their families, and medical staff alike.  In the course of a single day this week, I ministered to six hospice patients (5 routine, 1 crisis/actively dying), two distraught spouses, five daughters of a hospice patient, a nurse with an an hospitalized daughter, a health aide who needed an automobile, and a secretary whose husband’s was in a tornado while she was talking to him a few minutes prior.
The variable nature of the context of my daily ministry is difficult to describe at best.  Such variableness of the context is largely due to the variableness of humanity, and each participant would be different from the next, because death is no respecter of race, sex, creed, faith, age, orientation, wealth or residential location.  Due to the public nature of hospice and the public funding of hospice care by Medicare, the context cannot be limited, even if it were possible.  Even if you could limit the certain context, you would find significant variables due to family traditions, personal experiences, education, personality types, current health, etc.  It is a fact of life that every man faces death at some point and each will face it as an individual.  Almost 100% of my ‘parishioners’ will die in the next six months, and of the very small percent who defies medical logic will only do so for weeks or months at best.  Further, when one faces his own death and the death of others, even within a particular culture, it will be faced differently.
Imagine with me a parish/church where individuals will walk, hop, swim, or slither into and out of my care.  My eyes scan the congregation – ‘What an odd assortment!’  There’s a giraffe, a goldfish, a beaver, an elephant, a flower, a penguin, an insect, a duck, a… Ok!  Ok!  Not really!  But they could hardly be more different than the duck is from the giraffe or the goldfish.  Male and female, rich and poor, young and old, educated and uneducated, republicans and democrats, foreign and domestic, homosexual and straight, religious and…  Religious, let me tell you!  There are Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, Wiccans, and Christians!   And of those Christians, there are Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Old Believers, Episcopalians, Baptists, and Pentecostals!  And of those Pentecostals, there are Oneness and Trinitarians, Traditional, Charismatic, and Third-Wavers, first and second works of grace, holiness and liberated; all of them speaking in tongues and shouting, “Hallelujah!”  Each one an individual cocooned in his/her unique context.
I find my patients in hospitals, nursing homes, senior housing, and private homes.  I find them in the city and down long, lonely country roads.  I have passed (within feet) both drug dealers and cows to find my patients.  I have provided pastoral care while the rain leaked upon my head and the bed of the dying, and I have ministered in multi-million-dollar homes with servants.  I have provided care to politicians, US Marines, and housewives.  Each one is a human in need of an act of God’s love… to be welcomed for a moment into a holy place of peace.
They are all so different, and the variable nature of hospice ministry begs the question, “How can I find a common context from which to work and provide illumination on being Jesus to the dying?”  This is especially difficult when I am often restrained from even speaking His name out loud.  In spite of such variableness, I rarely have difficulty finding a common context that is acceptable and beneficial to all (including myself).  Among caregivers and family, most (almost all that are gathered at the bedside of the dying) are motivated by the sentiment expressed in St. Francis of Assisi’s prayer, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace!”  Let me love, extend pardon, have faith, offer hope, shine light, be consoling, be understanding, and share joy.
I recently knelt by the chair of a lady with end-stage Alzheimer’s disease.  Her limited language expressed confusion and fear over the recent transfer from home to nursing home.  I was the only constant in her tumultuous world as she tightly gripped my hand.  I ran my hand through her closely cropped hair before I fumbled with my IPod to play her favorite, old, sacred hymn.  In a brief moment of recognition, her frail voice joined the recorded words, “…then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee.  How great Thou art!  How great Thou art…”  She doesn’t recognize her family or friends, but she has not forgotten her life’s sustaining faith or the words of worship that she has lived with during her life.  Thirty minutes later she hugged me tightly as a single tear ran down her face.  She had no words to express what she was thinking, but for a small window of time we had gone to a holy place together.
I then sat with a non-Christian high priest in his coven (a small commune of about 25 individuals).  For two hours he expressed his fears, loves, and anger at the lost dreams that death was robbing from him.  I then met with the patient, another priest, and a Wiccan witch to plan his memorial service (in which all three of us are to have a part after his death).  We are to be his final ‘dream come true’… “a religious world at peace with one another.”  As I left, we hugged, and he said, “If more Christians had been like you, I would have been a Christian!”  While I had made no effort to convert him, my efforts to be an instrument of peace were an invitation to share in a holy place:  a holy place that draws me out of bed each morning to share the holy with another dying woman, man, or child…