Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 7 June 2015
(Click Read More for access to the audio files for this sermon)
I wrote these words five years ago in an early December. It was winter then, not a beautiful green spring day like today. Yet the image still remains powerfully vivid in my mind as I contemplate beauty and my love for this world.
It was in the early morning, the day before the sky became thick with a white, impenetrable cloud cover and the snow began. I was walking along the Lachine Canal. This is my landscape, the place where I often walk. That particular morning, the days being so short, the sun had only just begun to rise. Everything was hazy with a soft suffusion of pale mauve. The bricks of the buildings lining the canal were dark, the trees blackened, the city itself still sleeping— a foggy mirage of Montreal rising above the bridges.
Then the sun began to rise, a brilliant orange-red filling the light blue-greyness of the sky with pink and orange clouds. Along the canal, the bricks of the old factory buildings turned a glowing red. Along the horizon and against the backdrop of Mount Royal, one by one— from the lowest to the highest– the windows of the downtown office buildings turned a golden orange. The sun smiled. The city smiled back, and suddenly everything was glistening with light.
Later that same day, I headed out along the canal once more. It was only three in the afternoon, but the sun was nearly setting. The light was long and low, the sky turning that incredible dark bluish purple-grey— a most beautiful, indescribable colour that threw everything into luminous contrast as the landscape was gilded by the low sunlight.
How is it that the surfaces of the trees can be so black and flat in the morning, and then, on an early December afternoon, turn to such golden honey colours with exquisite textures that you can distinguish without touching? How is it that the bricks of the buildings along the canal that had been such a rich orange-red in the morning sunrise can become an even deeper and richer red in the afternoon, like late-night glowing embers in a hearth? I am left speechless by what I see. I am filled with a gratitude that nearly brings me to tears.
As I contemplate this light, this moment of beauty, I find myself thinking of a passage in the book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery. This novel takes place in a bourgeois apartment building in Paris. It contrasts a mundane, everyday life, with the profound interior lives that we may all secretly live.
The narrative interweaves two private journals or diaries written by two very different characters who ultimately discover they have much in common. There is Paloma, a twelve-year old girl who has already given up on life, who writes in a hard-edged, adolescent angst-ridden style. Then there is the lyrical, yet critical Renée, a woman in her mid-fifties who is the frowned-upon, lower class concierge for the building.
Paloma is seen as a little girl by her family, but her journal entries reveal that she has an exceptional intelligence, far beyond her years. Renée, the concierge, who loves Mozart, devours Tolstoy, and is a devotee of the arts, film, philosophy and all things Japanese, purposely hides her intelligence from the building’s self-important tenants. She is a gem about to be discovered.
One day Renée writes of a film she has seen by the Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu.
“This is my tenth Ozu film this month,” she writes. “Why? Because Ozu is a genius who can rescue me from biological destiny… I press the start button, sip my jasmine tea. From time to time I rewind, thanks to this secular rosary known as the remote control.”
Renée finds that two scenes in the film strike her as extraordinary. The first scene is an exchange between a daughter and her dying father after they have taken a walk through Kyoto. Together the father and daughter rave about the light on the Moss Temple and the contrast of camellias against the moss— nothing more, just an exchange about momentary beauty. Later, in the second scene, the same daughter and her younger sister revel in the violet colour of the Kyoto mountains.
“It’s true,” says the younger sister, “They look like azuki bean paste.” “It’s such a lovely colour,” the older sister responds, smiling. Then she says, “True novelty is that which does not grow old, despite the passage of time.”
Renée ends her journal entry with these words:
“The camellia against the moss of the temple, the violet hues of the Kyoto mountains, a blue porcelain cup – this sudden flowering of pure beauty at the heart of the ephemeral passion: is this not something we all aspire to? And something that, in our Western civilization, we do not know how to attain? The contemplation of eternity within the very movement of life.”
I often think about that last line, “The contemplation of eternity within the very movement of life.” I think of that line when I stand and revel in the colour of trees and brick walls on an early December afternoon, and I think of it when I revel in the deep purple and soft lavender-coloured irises emerging triumphantly from the greens of a city garden on a sunny June morning. I think about what beauty really means in our lives. Is it, as Renée suggests, something that we deny ourselves, something that we overlook, yet is an eternity that exists in every moment we live?
A number of years ago, the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue shared his thoughts about the inner landscape of beauty with interviewer Krista Tippet (for the radio show, On Being, recorded in 2007, http://www.onbeing.org/program/inner-landscape-beauty/203). It was O’Donohue’s last interview, a few months before he died unexpectedly in his sleep at the age of 52. Beauty, he deeply believed, is a longing, a calling that we all have. It is a threshold that connects the visible to the invisible in our lives. It is what defines the divine in our lives.
Beauty is not empty external glamour, but is something deeply connected to what is inside us, an interiority, that all humans have. As the German mystic Meister Eckhart said, “There is a place in the soul that neither time, nor space, nor no created thing can touch.” This is the place inside us where we have never been wounded, where there's still a sureness, a seamlessness, and “where there is a confidence and tranquillity…” It is here, to this untouchable place that quiet reflection, prayer, spirituality and love can carry us now and again.
But, oh, how disconnected we have become from this inner sanctuary. Instead of being able to contemplate the eternity in the very movement of life, we have become victims of time. We can be so over-structured in our lives that we only have time to respond to the driving demands of the external world. Yet it is the invisible, interior world that brings us to create or to appreciate art, poetry, or music. These are longings that are in all of us. Beauty is the place where we feel most alive.
In his gentle, lilting Irish voice, O’Donohue told Krista Tippet, “When I think of the word ‘beauty,’ some of the faces of those that I love come into my mind. When I think of beauty I also think of beautiful landscapes that I know. Then I think of acts of such lovely kindness that have been done to me, by people who cared for me, in bleak unsheltered times or when I needed to be loved and minded. I also think of those unknown people who are the real heroes for me, whom you never hear about, who hold out on lines – on frontiers of awful want and awful situations and manage somehow to go beyond the given impoverishments and offer gifts of possibility and imagination and seeing.”
He said, “I love Pascal’s phrase, you know, that you should ‘always keep something beautiful in your mind.’ … If you can keep some [beautiful] contour that you can glimpse at now and again, you can endure great bleakness.”
In the Celtic imagination, the landscape is truly alive. It has much to reveal to us, beyond the visible and the obvious. The divine is everywhere and in everything. There is an outer and an inner aspect to all the landscapes we experience in life. Landscape “recalls you into a mindful mode of stillness, solitude and silence where you can truly receive time… The dawn goes up and the twilight comes even in the roughest inner-city place…. Connecting to the elemental can be a way of coming into rhythm with the universe that’s there.”
So there I stand in the landscape of the canal, connecting to that very rhythm in every season, thinking of Renée contemplating the beautiful eternity of light shining on camellias and moss temples, of jasmine tea in blue porcelain cups, and I think of John O’Donohue and his inner landscapes of beauty. I wonder how to pay homage to what I see.
Then I remember a Sufi practice a friend once shared with me – a simple communion with light. Wherever you are, you stop to drink in the light. You let yourself become part of the light until it fills you, body and soul, with its beauty. My friend says, “That’s the only prayer, the only spiritual discipline, you need.” You fill up with the light and it nourishes you even as the darkness descends.
This is what I try to remember to do each day. Wherever I am, whatever season it may be, I try to take it all in. I gather up the images of beauty I see— to fill my heart, to lighten the burdens I carry, and to gather strength for the journey ahead.
Now in this sanctuary, in this landscape, I try to do the same, to simply become part of all that is here: The presence of each one of you, the children who will return to be with us soon, the flames of these candles we have lit, the music we have heard, the beautiful flowers that are waiting to be shared in our flower communion. I know that if, for a moment, I can let go of expectations, judgment and the demands of time, I can rest and find that beauty, that inner space, that connects me to the eternity within the very movement of life.
So I offer you this blessing for the rest of your day:
May you find beauty in all that surrounds you.
May you reclaim time and reconnect with all that is eternal.
And may you find yourself falling in love with the world over and over again.
Amen. Blessed Be. Namaste.
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