Beauty and the Restoration of the Cosmos
Here are some thoughts on beauty. This might sound fairly incoherent, so rather than calling it an "essay" let's just call it random musings.
Let me begin by saying: "I have devoted my life thus far to beauty" - so I consider myself somewhat of an expert.
How is it, you ask, that you have devoted your life to beauty?
Well, those who know me personally may have heard me say before that I consider myself an artist. That is, I am afflicted with that life-long ailment (and super human power?) of an artist. I am not yet "accomplished" substantially as an artist, but I live my life with that constant preoccupation: how to accomplish something as an artist.
I am not an artisan. I think many of you will understand the difference with that distinction, and many will not. For those who don't: an "artisan" is someone who creates art as a craft, as a duty, as a job. Now, there are many artisans who are also artists. But, by and large, most artists are not able to "make a living" at their craft: though that craft may possess them day and night. To give you an example of the distinction (in the broadest possible sense) between an artist and an artisan, let me suggest the following: Vincent VanGogh was an artist. Someone working as a graphic artist for a magazine (laying out ad copy, or formatting pages of text) is an artisan.
Another way of putting it: an artist is obsessed with his craft, whereas an artisan is able to do creative things in a lesser scope to satisfy some commercial need of society. An artist may or may not be able to satisfy a commercial need of society. Some artist have become vastly rich, and some have died in poverty. But for the artist, it is never about making money (though every artist deep inside wishes he or she could make enough money to quit his job and be an artist full time.)
What is my craft: Literature. I have devoted my life to the pursuit of writing artistic literature. Novels, short stories, poetry - these are what I work with. As an "artist" I have always considered literature to be my main pursuit. Now, if I were independently wealthy, I believe I would expand my art into many different directions. Possibly film, stage, painting, and definitely photography.
You've probably noticed I've gone crazy since I bought my digital camera. I will continue to do so.
Nevertheless, I am not independently wealthy. And although I think visually when I work on some art, I continue to do so through literature, because I can. I have all the tools I need, and then some. Well, don't we all?
Anyway, that's my introduction and way of saying I'm an expert on the concept of Beauty. I was struggling with, thinking about, working on what my own understanding of Beauty was, long before I became Orthodox. Indeed, the beauty so abundant in the Orthodox Church was one of the biggest reasons I converted.
Now, on to those random musings.
Consider: Got made all things Beautiful. God Himself is infinite Beauty. God did not make sin, but allowed it by virtue of His Divine Love: namely, He chose and chooses to interact with us without coercion.
Sin is the perversion of Beauty. Sin does not strictly speaking "exist" but is only the aberration of the perversion of Beauty.
Death, suffering and the flesh: Death is the natural consequence of sin. Again, it is something God allows to happen to us physically, because He chose and chooses to interact with us without coercion. Suffering is also the natural consequence of sin. Again, God allows suffering because he deliberately refuses to interact with us through coercion.
The flesh, represents two things: On the one had it is the physical body. On the other hand it is a metaphor for the place in our souls where resides the thing we refer to often as "original sin" which is the place in us where the perversion of Beauty finds root and tries to grow. As such it is a spiritual chasm within us, and does not refer to our fleshly body. Thus when St. Paul says, "crucify the flesh" he is not trying to get us to commit suicide.
Asceticism is the struggle of the soul against the perversion of beauty. More on that later.
There are vast differences from Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Catholic, Protestant) though on the purpose of fasting. The West has succumbed to the heresy of Gnostic Dualism, in which the body is set up in drastic opposition to the spirit. The "spirit" is seen as that part of us bearing God's image, whereas the flesh is seen as that part of us which must be subdued in order to encounter the Divine. As such, the purpose of fasting in the West is to eradicate that which is inherently evil (the flesh) and exists within us. In the East the flesh has no such ontology. That is, it really does not exist as an entity in opposition to God. Rather than destroying it utterly, we elevate it, we transform it into something God-bearing, just as the flesh of Christ Himself was God-bearing, just as the Virgin's Womb was God-bearing.
The purpose of fasting in the East is not because the body is inherently evil, and we must cut ourselves off from nourishing its senses. We do not deny ourselves because that part of us we are denying is evil, and should be cut off. Rather we deny ourselves for spiritual discipline.
God has declared all things good. Thus we do not deny ourselves because things are inherently evil, but because they do not belong to us, and we must learn not to be a consumer and possessor. Thus, we do not gouge out our eyes so that we may see no evil, but rather we learn to look upon a thing without seeing evil.
Of course, it goes without saying that there are things each of us must refrain from looking upon, because we are not strong enough yet, and looking upon them will drive us to the perversion of beauty: sin.
On to the basic premise of this little collection of thoughts...
As an artist, my life is closely wrapped up in these concepts. Daily. For as an artist, I must look upon everything I can, and try to find the beauty in it. Of course, I am weak and feeble, and there are many things I myself am not ready to look upon. Nevertheless, my personal struggle, daily, is how to show forth the beauty in the ugliness all around me, how to shine forth the light amidst the darkness.
I do not work hard enough on my writing. I do not write daily. But I think about my stories daily. They are swooshing around in my head at all times like the contents of a washing machine. And I constantly try to feed the swooshing mess. And one more thing has occurred to me.
Everything is about the Incarnation, and the Incarnation is about everything that pertains to the topic of God and man.
Art is man's reaching toward God. Grace is God's reaching toward man. An artful work accomplished, and set into existence by the artist participates in the divine in as much as it is a creative act: ex nihilo. The artist has created something out of nothing. Surely he uses the substances of things that exist (paint, paper, canvas, bits on a computer) to represent that which he has created. But the thing itself that was created? It was created out of nothing, and now it exists.
The corresponding point of reference for this on the side of the Divine in this great interaction is the Sacrament. The Sacrament is the fullest embodiment of God's Grace. It is the thing that exists and bears God's Divine nature to us personally.
Instead of consuming the created, we consume the Divine.
Instead of possessing the created, we possess the Divine.
And as such, the Divinity consumes us... possesses us.
So, what if I create an un-beautiful thing?
Honestly, I do. Frequently in fact. I recognize that I am not perfect, but I also recognize that God does not insist that I am instantly perfect. Life is a struggle to achieve perfection in whatever tasks God has given us, whatever crosses he has given us to bear. And perfection comes more in learning to forgive yourself, learning to forgive others, than it does in a self-inflicted and self-imposed sort of perfectionism.
Thus, once again, the Fast is not all about self-imposing perfectionism, nor is it about self-infliction of pain. To think as such subjugates the mind to the western heresy of Gnostic Dualism.
The fast is all about becoming whole though the attempt to look at things as something other than consumables, as something other than possessions.
I remember a few words from a song in the 80s: "If you love someone, set them free."
Well, that's what the fast is all about.
You remember the Lenten prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian:
"Take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk;
but grant me rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love;
Yea O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother..."
Unfortunately many people during the fast concentrate on the "judging my brother" part. Namely, what are the eating that is against the rules of the fast?
I see far too many people preoccupied with following the nitty-gritty rules of the fast, and throwing out the purpose of the fast: learning chastity, humility, patience and love.
I'd like to focus on one word here: "chastity."
I do not remember the original Greek, but in Slavonic it is "Tselomudri" - and a literal translation of it is "wholeness" or "completeness." In the West with our preoccupation on sexual matters we have lowered the meaning of this word to something strictly sexual. But the original word refers to wholeness in life, wholeness of person. Namely, a lack of "wantonness" or "lust" - a lack of that thing that makes us want to go outside ourselves and possess, or consume from the beauty that surrounds us.
The restoration of the cosmos?
What is particularly significant in Orthodoxy Christianity is our concept of restoration of the Cosmos. Not only did the Incarnation accomplish the restoration of man to relationship with the Divine (in the fusion of the two natures, Divine and human) but it is also the beginning of the restoration of the whole cosmos. You see this in the many blessings we have in the Orthodox Church: sanctifying the waters on Theophany, blessing fruit on Pentecost, the way we bless our homes and our bodies and everything we have.
In a certain sense, when you give up the use of some physical thing (as in Lent) and when you give over the use of some physical thing (as in when our things are blessed) to God, we are seeing two sides of the restoration of the Cosmos.
The world itself will ultimately become supremely beautiful through interaction with the Divine. The world itself will become God-bearing. The world itself will become Heaven. It will become transfigured, and filled with the Divine Light, just as it was at the Transfiguration.
As an artist I work toward seeing this. I work toward somehow grasping this, today, before it has even taken place. I do not always succeed. I don't even know if I succeed often. I don't even know if I succeed EVER. But I'm working at it.