Sunday, July 8, 2012

Beauty by Repetition?

"Mom, this picture makes my soul hurt, it's so beautiful." 
"Why the hurt? Why doesn't it make you happy?"

.          .          .

I remember the first time I heard a particular piano-driven worship song. It lifted my spirit from the present evil of homework and allowed it to soar with its truth and melody. I was smitten. For 5:44 minutes, I was consumed in all that was good and right.  Now here I am several months later, practicing the same anthem for an event; and, after frequently catching it on the radio and practicing it on my own instrument, I am sorry to say it is quickly losing its captivation. Not its power, per se, but the power's immediate effectiveness. Why?

Each spring, I get unreasonably excited every time I drive down Hwy 193. There is one piece of acreage in Cool that changes from a moist brown field to a lush green shire practically overnight. Trust me, it is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen. At least for the moment. I can be having a normal conversation in the car, but as soon as I realize we're approaching The Shire, I frantically switch my iPod to the track "Concerning Hobbits" and revel in the organic beauty. Thank you Howard Shore. No other green field holds such fascination for me, and after a month of such revelry, even the euphoria inspired by this little piece of Eden begins to fade. Why?

These experiences seem to disappear almost as quickly as they come. It seems that their entire purpose is to bring temporary gladness but initiate a yearning for something more. And I've come to the conclusion that this other-worldliness we encounter in such moments is richest when it's spontaneous and infrequent. Am I right? This is why a song that incites glimpses of eternity cannot be continuously repeated; or why a beautiful view cannot be looked at for more than five minutes (before one starts to notice the mosquitoes), or even why a humorous line from a movie is just not that funny the second time around. They lose their sense of wonder. Basically, it comes down to the fact that emotions come in waves that only last so long. But I'm convinced these waves are gifts that stimulate the soul and spearhead action.

I was recently blessed to be able to interview singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson, and I was struck by his description of an all-too-familiar experience. After watching a glorious sunset as a starry-eyed teenager, Peterson remembered "crying and feeling a terrible ache for that beauty. I felt terribly alone, but at the same time I felt spoken to. I felt a warm presence that somehow comforted me and made me sad at the same time. After I pulled myself together and drove home, I wrote it all down in a journal that's since been lost. Years later, when I read C. S. Lewis describing joy as sehnsucht (a German word for longing), I knew I had felt it that night in the cornfield."  

I get it when I stand in the wind; while playing piano; through photographs of England; when listening to Phil Wickham; during Samwise Gamgee's speeches; when I pray that God would do 'immeasurably more than we ask or think.' You get it in a dozen other ways.

The Oxford scholar himself has an entire testimony based around this experience, which he penned in the narrative that fills the pages of his autobiography. C. S. Lewis describes this sensation of Peterson's as "an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished from happiness and pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has one characteristic in common with them: the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. It might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world." -Surprised By Joy

Pleasure is being enchanted by the mingling of music and a grassy hill. Joy is the sensation of it momentarily slipping through your fingers. But it's also the deep-seated knowledge, however painful, that whatever has slipped through your fingers is coming back. In glorified form. 

Joy is two-fold: beautiful and unsatisfying. Rapturous while it exists, but fleeting in essence. It has something to do with passions, perceptions of eternity, and God's callings. Joy (sehnsucht) is the reality of "where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." -Frederick Buechner 

Let's not lose our sense of wonder. And for goodness sake, let's not kill it by repetition. I pray that in those moments of true beauty, we might revel in them, move in the way that joy moves, and, Lord willing, hunger for them again and again. We'll almost always draw nearer to our heavenly Father because of it. After all, it's what Andrew Peterson declares to be "one of the surest signs to me that the Gospel is true."

All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of the Lord stands forever. -1 Peter 1:24-25