Thursday, August 22, 2013

Beauty and the Beast

I remember at a film festival watching Jean Cocteau’s classic version of this famous fairy tale and being unexpectedly disappointed at the end when, transformed through Beauty’s love, the monstrous but endearing Beast became the tiresomely-handsome prince! The tale endures because the lessons which it contains are so readily accessible: true love sees beyond outward appearances, and love is about acceptance of the other for who that person really is. These truths weave their way through the story, and we recognise and respond to them, and so keep the tale fresh and alive through the generations. But is it still possible to discover new truths in the tale?

Forty one years ago, a deranged Hungarian stood in front of one of the most beautiful works of the spirit which art has created. Without warning, he leapt at the marble statue and dealt it repeated blows with a hammer, smashing off the left arm, and leaving the face severely damaged. Shattered fragments of Michelangelo’s Pieta lay strewn across the floor of the Vatican before staff and shocked onlookers could react. It took more than five months just to collect and identify the various fragments – one tiny chipping being identified as the eyelid of Mary, who in the statue holds the body of the crucified Christ, her son.

Why did this man commit such a terrible act of destruction? Even given his apparent mental instability, why destroy such beauty? The principal damage to the marble was directed, not at the crucified body which she supports, but at the figure of Mary. But Michelangelo does not show us Mary’s features contorted with grief, as was customary with a portrayal of the Pieta. Instead, her features seem to embody a transcendence which lifts both her and us beyond the greatest pain of the soul which a mother – and specifically this mother – has to endure: a manifestation of beauty which for one man apparently proved unbearable.

It seems that it is not just the acceptance by Beauty of the Beast which should concern us, but also the reverse. We are at times the Beast who needs to accept a transcendent and confronting Beauty. In Afghanistan the Taliban, driven by religious fanaticism, reduced with dynamite the centuries-old serene statues of the Buddhas of Bamiyan to dust and broken rubble. Many other examples of such destruction of created beauty are provided by history. What is beautiful must, it seems, be destroyed for one reason or another. And such destruction is not limited to the created works of artists both known and unknown. An idyllic valley is flooded to make way for a giant dam. Whole forests are cut down and reduced to waste land, or for housing development. The natural world around us, the most beautiful treasure which we have in our care, is ransacked, either for its resources or in the name of a dubious progress.

It is as if the human soul is torn between that soul’s need for the experience of beauty and an equal need to destroy it. In the story of Beauty and the Beast we all recognise the inner work to which Beauty has to commit herself before she is able to accept the appearance of the Beast. But what tends to be overlooked is the equal commitment which the Beast needs to make in order to accept – and to allow to exist – the soul-healing appearance of Beauty.

The drawing is a portrait by Kahlil Gibran of his mother Camille, who stands in front of a frieze from the palace of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal depicting a wounded lioness.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Angel

Those below 
do not realise that when they breath
when they utter even the softest of whispers
that I rise upon the thermals of their words,
that I climb ever upwards on their sentences,
let fall my pledges to the earth
and dance when they sigh.

Sometimes one who is more attentive
becomes aware of my passing;
a soft flow of air, the merest zephyr betrays me.
Sometimes as I rise I pass one at prayer, 
or in quiet meditation.
Briefly our paths cross:
fellow travellers in the same airy spaces.

But mostly those below remain unaware
when I plummet in a cascade of light.
Becoming, in the last shard of time, 
fluid as water 
and our beings merge.

Painting by William Baxter Closson

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Don't Look Back

They are so close. The world of light and life is just a brief few steps away, and having braved the shades of the kingdom of the Underworld, Orpheus is leading his beloved Eurydice back to his own world, back to the land of the living.

The drama had begun when Eurydice, while in the company of her companions the Muses, had fled from the inappropriate advances of the shepherd Aristaeus. In her frantic flight she had stepped upon a viper, and the bite had proved fatal. Devastated with grief, her husband Orpheus gave voice to his sorrow in the most articulate way known to him: he sang of his grief, he played his lyre. But the music of Orpheus was no common sound. Even before this, his music was so renowned for its heartfelt expressiveness that it was said that even the very trees bent their branches to listen, and the unyielding hardness of the very rocks softened. 

But even the magic sounds of Orpheus’ music could not return his dear Eurydice to his side. And so he had resolved to undertake a perilous journey. He would descend to the Underworld itself to find and bring back Eurydice to his own world. Entering by way of a dark cave, he journeyed ever farther downwards, until the spectral ghosts of the dead drifted around him, thin and pale in the darkness. Arriving at last at the throne of the god of the Underworld, he petitioned Hades with his music, assuring him in his song that he had not come to learn the secrets of the dead, but only to plead for the return of his dear Eurydice. 

The sweet music of the lyre touched even the heart of stern Hades, and Eurydice was granted leave to accompany Orpheus back to the world above. But Hades made her return conditional: Orpheus must lead the way, and never look back until he had reached his own realm. Along the dark ways of the dead the two journeyed, with the sounds of Orpheus’ lyre even bringing tears to the eyes of the surrounding ghosts.

And there in front of them at last is the light of the sun. All this time Orpheus has not looked back once, trusting that his dear Eurydice was indeed following him. With the entrance to the cave just a few steps away, he risks a quick glance over his shoulder to reassure himself that she is indeed behind him. Yes, Eurydice is with him. But, oh… in the moment that he turns round, he sees her being pulled backwards by some unseen force to disappear forever. There is only enough time for a last called farewell, and Orpheus stands alone in the light of day.

Despairing anew, Orpheus takes to wandering, arriving at last in the land of the fierce Thracians. It is to be his undoing. Torn to pieces by the savagery of the Thracian women, his head and lyre are thrown into the waters of the river Hebrus. Still singing, the sorrowful music of the head of Orpheus continues to fill the air, and the trees along the river’s banks once more bend their branches to his song.

The Muses, who had been the companions of his beloved, and who had filled his own heart with song, gather up his head and lyre from the dark waters and bury them at the place known as Libethra. There at his grave the nightingales are said to sing more sweetly than anywhere else in the whole of Greece. And now a shade himself, Orpheus is united at last with Eurydice. No longer restricted by a backward glance, he may now gaze into her loving eyes forever, and she into his.

So much sorrow must Orpheus endure to learn a simple trust. Trust in the way forward. Trust that all is well, and that all shall be well. And don’t look back. 

Painting Orpheus and Eurydice by Edmund Dulac

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Eyesight of the Soul

The 13th-century mystic Hadewijch of Brabant occupied a place at the very heart of literature in the medieval Low Countries. Through the medium of her spiritual courtly poetry she was the first woman in Europe to risk openly singing of mystical love in a pure poetic form.  This mystic  called her revelatory experiences 'the eye-sight of the soul, which has two eyes: reason and love.' If we have had such experiences, we know that the hardest thing is to attempt to communicate them to others. Language fails us, and we find ourselves floundering in descriptions which, when we hear ourselves say them, seem to us to fall far short of the experiences themselves. But Hadewijch tells us that the soul’s two ‘eyes’ are reason and love. Such an experience might feel as if it is flooded with the love of the Divine, but we still need our capacity to reason – to think about and digest the experience – to give the experience meaning.

This might at first seem like a contradiction, because such a mystic experience happens in a place beyond the borders of our everyday world. It happens in Hadewijch’s ‘eye of love’. But we cannot remain in such a world. The intensity would be unendurable, because we are not meant to be in such a place for any extended length of time. It is not our world: it is, as it were, the realm of the gods. Our natural world is the world of our everyday reality, and it is that world through which we have to navigate our way. It is Hadewijch’s ‘eye of reason’. It seems like our ‘natural world’. But is it really?

Hadewijch reassures us that these realms are not separate, but the two ‘eyes’ which give the soul its vision, because the soul has a place both in the earthly world and in the world of the spirit. But are these two places equal? If we can manage to let go of the familiar borders which we use to define our world of experiences (and it takes an effort!), to let go of all those things which our upbringing, our education, our social habits, have formed around us like a shell which has been hardening since the innocence of our childhood, then we shift inside ourselves towards a realisation that ultimately, all is contained within the realm of the Spirit, within the Divine.

We are fortunate that such mystics as Hadewijch, Beatrijs of Nazareth and Theresa of Avila were gifted enough to articulate their experiences through their writing, and Hildegard of Bingen also through her paintings and her music. We have these riches to inspire us, even if we ourselves have not reached into the places which they did. But Hadewijch also recognised that the road which she called the road of ‘geestelijke minne’ – of spiritual courtly love – is one of uncertainties, of doubts, and can only be trodden in the complete trust and faith which comes with surrender to the Spirit. But she also knew that such a road, once committed to, would lead her further than were she only to allow herself to see with one eye – with the eye of reason.

He who wishes to serve love sublime
must serve with unbounded zest
and suffer in every season and time
if he is to thrive and be blessed
by the knowledge of love ever growing
and in love overflowing,
that stole his heart, his reason, his rhyme.

To serve love in new seasons would 
be new indeed – that noble art 
few will embrace: few feel they should 
find out what true love can impart. 
Never will those cruel strangers know 
how the season that I’ve longed for so
has stolen my heart.


Painting by Greg Spalenka