Stay With Me Beauty
Talk Delivered by James J. Geary before the Harrisonburg Unitarian
Sunday, April 1, 2001
Centering time II (spiritual music)
[As I turned on the music, I said "April Fool." It was What a Beautiful World by Louis Armstrong When it finished, I remarked that it was not April Fool after all; that the quot;Satchmo" really did give us a spiritual song. I then went right into my talk]
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world! And I think, what a world of beauty! This talk, or sermon if you please, is about beauty. Its about how beauty gives me — and I hope you — what for want of a better term, I shall call spiritual uplift. It’s also about the wonderful world we live in.
Some forty years ago I came across a brief supplication — a sort of supplication to oneself. It has remained with me all these years, and I often repeat it to myself. It goes like this: Stay with me, beauty, as the fire grows cold. Now, I don’t know what that meant, exactly, to its author. But I know what it means to me. I believe I draw strength in life principally from two aspects of love, my love for my family, especially for my wife, Pat; and my love for the beauty, and the wonder, of our world.
And so, when I say stay with me beauty, It means as I grow older, as my faculties fade, that I will continue to be supported by my love for the beauty of the universe, for my love of beauty in all its manifestations. And they are many.
But what is beauty?
Each of us, I imagine, has his or her own view. I doubt if any two are alike. Perhaps many of us have not thought about what we mean by beauty. Some things are just beautiful; that’s all. For some beauty is bright colors, of a sunset or a painting. For others it may be a religious image. For some it is a pleasing melody, or the architectural splendor of a great symphony, or the architecture of a building, the Taj Mahal, for instance. And, of course, beauty has for each of us many different forms.
We all employ the words beauty or beautiful in a multiplicity of ways. It can be the character of a great, good person — we say: she has a beautiful character. Or we speak of a beautiful gesture, or beautiful deed. Probably most of us say "what a beautiful woman," or "what a beautiful child." Some uses of the word are casual indeed — a beautiful car, the long drive of a golf ball off the tee, a broken field run by a football player.
For many, the night skies are beautiful and peaceful. Jeri Nielsen, the woman doctor rescued from Antarctica for a breast cancer operation, wrote in her book Icebound, of the "ecstatic wheel of stars" in that icy wilderness. We can be moved by such a vista, can be moved by a beautiful speech, a beautiful poem. A poem can make us feel more alive, more in tune, more appreciative of nature.
Whose woods these are, I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow
Robert Frost’s poem does that. We can feel the silence, can see the dark woods filling up with snow, and have a brief feeling of peace.
So, again, what is beauty?
Writers, philosophers, poets, religious leaders, have struggled with interpretations or definitions of beauty for thousands of years. The ancient philosophers discussed it at length.
Plato believed that there were perfect transcendental forms — in heaven, so to speak — for all things, and that everything in our sensible world, including abstract concepts such as beauty, were pale copies of those perfect forms.
Panaetius insisted that beauty of a visible object lies in the arrangement of its parts, and that this required a higher level of perception than animals have. Plotinus, the Neoplatinist, believed things possessing beauty were not only things seen or heard, but also "beauty in the conduct of life, in action, in character, in the pursuits of the intellect."
Early Christians had to admit there was such a thing as beauty, especially in the human body; and they wrestled with whether it was from Satan or was something they could embrace. Well, that preeminent Christian philosopher, Saint Thomas Aquinas, did embrace it. He said beauty consists in due proportion; because, he said, "the senses delight in things duly proportioned." He also said the beautiful is the same as the good.
Surprisingly, the great modern philosopher Emanuel Kant, so concerned with metaphysical and ethical inquiry, also found time to work out his own theory of aesthetics. I studied it one time as part of a philosophy course — pretty tough sledding. Essentially, he held that the judgment of taste is not a cognitive judgment; that the satisfaction in the beautiful is "alone a disinterested and free satisfaction."
These, of course, are gross oversimplifications of what these thinkers had to say. The subject is vast. I checked out of the library a 400-page book on aesthetics. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy has 20 pages devoted to the subject.
Literature is filled with thousands of uses of the word beauty and many interpretations. I came across a little book of selected verse by Goethe, with English translations. I opened it near the middle. One line on that casually-selected page read: "Remembrance of what is beautiful is the salvation of mortal men." I don’t know what he thought was the salvation of women.
I recently read something rather poignant: Christa McAuliffe’s mother, as she waited for her school-teacher daughter to take off in the Challenger, described the view of the shuttle, steaming and awesome in its cradle in the gantry, as "beautiful." I used the same term as I watched another shuttle lift off in a fiery nightmare and climb through the dawn sky, trailing its long smokey plume, pink from the rising sun, as the shuttle became ever smaller on its outward journey to space.
I believe a shuttle launch is beautiful because it represents such a triumph of human imagination, ingenuity, and courage. And we are human, so it gives us a feeling of expansiveness. — a feeling of expansiveness
And that brings me to my definition of beauty, which is a broad one.
To me beauty is that which does give one that happy feeling of expansiveness: of being more alive; of being a living, breathing part of this vast universe. It is that which gives us a feeling of satisfaction that we can appreciate the richness of the world, that we are imaginative and sensitive and sensuous. Beauty is richness, abundance, magnificence. It makes us feel rich, abundant, magnificent. I believe that in a subconscious way, we become newly aware that we are human beings, we are homo sapiens. We have those great brains and fine sensibilities that enable us to cherish the world and our place in it, to judge perfection or at least an approach to perfection. We realize anew that we are humankind — we can appreciate beauty. These are not thoughts that we put into words, of course. They may not even be thoughts; they are more a satisfactory feeling, a warm glow, a feeling of peace. We look at a lovely sunset; the sensuous beauty of a handsome galloping horse; or the thick fur, the nice lines, and the intense eyes of a mountain lion, and we experience beauty. We don’t tell ourselves we have a feeling of expansiveness; or that we are superior, or rich, or magnificent. We just, for a moment, feel good.
We don’t all find beauty in the same way, of course. Some seem to find beauty only in nature, and they can’t imagine your finding beauty in a city scene. Well, I surrender first place to no one in my love of the wild places. The beauty of the natural world is one of my chief pleasures and I have many hundreds of photographs I have made to attest that — the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, the picturesque vistas of Carmel Bay, or the wild juxtaposition of mountain and rocky shore of the Big Sur country. Yet I have seen cityscapes that are among the most lasting impressions of beauty in my memory.
I remember well an early one of those city scenes. I was 19 and an friend and I had hitchhiked from Roanoke to the Chicago Worlds Fair of 1933. The fair had been built on reclaimed land jutting out into Lake Michigan. So they had piled large rocks at the waters edge to keep the shore from washing into the lake. One evening we went out to those rocks to eat our brown bag dinner. The fair hugged the shore, which curved around in a great arc as we looked to the west. It was after sundown and the sky glowed with color. And there on our left, along that great arc, were the magnificent, gaudy neon lights of the fair, yellow, green, blue, red, every color of the rainbow, contrasting with the more subdued colors of the sunset. I was ecstatic.
I recall a somewhat similar scene, years later, during World War II. I had taken a trainload of newly indoctrinated sailors from Idaho to San Francisco. They were bound for the receiving station at Treasure Island, which, as you may know, is just west of the San Francisco-Bay Bridge. The train came in to Oakland, so the Navy provided a couple of whaleboats to deliver the men across the bay to their destination. It was my first trip to San Francisco, but I had heard many things about that fabled city. My anticipation ran high. As we left the dock and headed west, it was a little after sundown, the same as in Chicago. As we proceeded through the bay, the western sky was pink, and blue, and turquoise. And there on the hills on my left the lights were coming on in San Francisco. What an introduction to that great city. I was enthralled.
And then one night in New York I emerged from a night club on the East side. I guess I had had one or two, or three, And there before me was a scene I shall never forget. It appeared there were a million lights, in front of me, above me, and as far as I could see to the right and to the left , for it seemed that all the windows in all the skyscrapers in New York were lit up — like an immense jewel.
Views of these vibrant cities gave me that feeling of expansiveness..
Then there is another kind of beauty. I said my definition was broad. It even covers the feeling I get from reading a well-written piece on the great pageantry of human history, of evolution, of massive migrations, of Alexander the Great, or the power of the great world religions. It covers the effects of great scientific advances, like Newton’s laws, or the Hubble telescope. These readings, if they move me, I call beautiful. They also give me that feeling of expansiveness, make me feel more a part of the dramatic human march through
But, in the final analysis, I believe that what I am mainly thinking about when I ask that beauty stay with me, are those simple beauties of the natural world, a colorful sunset, the stars on a clear night, the rise of a golden full moon; or snowy clouds against a dark blue sky, a winding stream in a meadow, or a bird on the wing. . Those are the types of beauty that sweep over me with a warm feeling of peace.
There is a southwest facing window in our bedroom. Whenever I see evidence of a colorful sunset I rush up to that window, or out to our second-story deck, to watch it. I can see much the same vista as I drive up to our garage. Often I pause there, especially if it is sunset, or if low clouds are curling up the mountain sides, and I sit for a moment to take in the view and feel its magic. Or I will go out on our second-story deck in the late evening just to look down on the lights of Harrisonburg and the dark mountains and pale sky beyond.
This love for natural beauty, I believe, is love for the world, for the universe, for life. Is there ugliness in the world. Of course there is. That’s the other side of the coin. But this is about beauty. Cancer is one of the ugliest things. If I get cancer, or some other bad thing, I hope I won’t let it ruin what’s left of my life. I hope I won’t let it blot out beauty. And as time passes, and the years go by, and I consider the calendar, that old supplication that I read many years ago, means more than ever to me. Stay with me beauty, as the fire grows cold.