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A Month by the Sea: Beauty’s Wound

The other night after dinner, Philip and I took to our bikes for a starlit ride along the beach. The island here has so little light pollution, and as there was no moon, I was obliged to use the flashlight on my iPhone to see—much less navigate—the twisting path between palms and salt cedars that leads to the shore. I always forget just how dramatic a starry night actually is until I come to the ocean; there’s something about the combination of a fathomless sea heaving gently in the darkness and a midnight dome of uncountable stars that puts me in my place more effectively than anything else on earth. My soul is awed by God’s heavens and stilled by His waters—a process that’s as reliable as it is difficult to explain. The beach was deserted at that hour, and the lights from the neighboring island across the sound were painting the retreating tide with bold splashes of silver and gold. And overhead, all that wonder of inexhaustible space. I hopped off my bike and stared till I grew dizzy—the longer you looked, the more stars became visible. The Milky Way was a clear swath of silver dust, the night was gentle as only a night in late summer can be, and the windsong in our ears was an invitation to dance. It was all so beautiful I could hardly bear it.

“Why does it hurt?” I shouted to Philip above the wind and the tide.

It’s a question I’ve asked myself a million times—why does Beauty hail us with a stab? The sights, scents, sounds of this place are beloved to me since my youth; they greet me with the warm companionship of old friends. And yet, there’s a twinge of sorrow that accompanies the desperate gladness with which I immerse myself in these familiar shades: a strange sadness lurks beneath the sunshot glooms of the live oaks; a gentle pathos wavers in the wine-golden sunshine. Fleetingness is certainly a factor: knowing that another exile awaits on the other side of this blessed sojourn lends a poignancy to our days (I have to stop myself from ticking them off in my mind). But it’s more than that. More, also, than the tender associations with which this island is crowded for me. I’ve spent many of the very happiest hours of my life under its trees, along its beach, on this very sun-warmed veranda from which I write. This place keeps my times for me, holds my summers alive and well, refreshes me with the dew of my own youth every time I return. This is all part of the sweet pain, to be sure—but not nearly all.

I was talking with a very dear friend recently about the way Beauty works on us, and how the modern mind seems to regard it with a growing distrust.

“Beauty opens wounds,” she said, and I knew she was on to something.

Beauty tugs and pulls and points. And when someone reacts negatively to Beauty’s proddings, it probably means there’s some raw nerve that its arrows have reached, some unhealed place its rays have revealed. Beauty engages the realest, most vulnerable part of us—the part we like to keep hidden under appearances and sufficiencies and achievements. The part that’s most uniquely, exquisitely us. This hardnosed old world of ours can drive even the stoutest of hearts into hiding—but Beauty won’t have it. It goes after us, piercing our darkness with its indomitable light, wooing our souls back into Wonder and Youth and Hope. But it’s a painful process, especially when the cares of life conspire to keep us so occupied we hardly notice the hard crust of practicalities forming over our tenderest places. It hurts a bit to have that crust chipped away; Beauty must wound before it can heal.

I once heard a lecturer say that all real sickness, of body or mind, is, at its essential core, homesickness. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. We’re always looking for that “other country,” the place we remember in the oldest part of our souls where there was no such thing as tears or pain or death. And, with typical human ingenuity, we’re often looking in the all the wrong spots, in all the wrong sorts of ways. All the success and money and health in the world won’t buy us back that original innocence, that sweet naïveté of sorrow—yet, Beauty tells us, the story’s not over. There’s a redemption in the works of which all the loveliness in the world is token in pledge. Beauty is a path along which we catch a glimpse of the chimneystacks of home; it is a lamp in the window on a dark night, a song remembered from our infancy. Beauty sings what the youngest part of our souls already knows: this is only the beginning.

Every heart that has ever entered this world has been or will be broken, and this exile is at the heart of it. Everything that we know instinctively “ought not to be” only underscores our alien status. We’re like expats, startled into inarticulable emotion by some scent or sound or breath of wind that reminds us where we’ve come from. I suppose that’s why the physical sensations of sorrow and joy are so similar, even to the point of pain: they’re both drawing us back to the same place.

I’d scarcely realized what a protective crust had formed over my deepest sensibilities, but after a summer of very grownup cares, I’m learning to bare my soul to Beauty all over again. I’m remembering what it means to stagger under the splendor of sunlight on water, to bow my heart to a kingfisher in flight or the parable of a live oak cloaked in the grave clothes of Spanish moss. I greet God’s emissaries in the fragrance of the marsh grass and the wild, joy-cries of the gulls overhead. And when He stains His sea and sky with violet and salmon-pink from the rim of the world, I welcome the sweet wound of it all, knowing that these beauties but house the real Treasure.

I read this sonnet to Philip on the beach last night—as usual, dear old Gerard Manley says it better than anyone:

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies! O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air! The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there! Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes! The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies! Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare! Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare! Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize. Buy then! bid then! — What? — Prayer, patience, alms, vows. Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs! Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows! These are indeed the barn; withindoors house The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.

G. M. Hopkins, The Starlight Night

Source: Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985)

The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. ~Anne Frank


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