We are now approaching two months living into this new disrupting personal and social condition. Impacts have been various, determined by physiologies not yet known, preexistent medical conditions, economic placements, psychological dispositions and, sadly, racial and economic inequities, again, now made glaring. One halting aspect of this epidemic is its pervasiveness and invisibility which ultimately means that the way each of us moves through the world bears, even mortally, on others. If we use the image of personal actions and responsibility as reflecting a more comprehending truth, namely, we are all, for our well-being or misery, intrinsically connected biologically, intellectually, emotionally, in every human dimension. Understanding and enacting this multi-dimensional web of mutuality in our being together, opened out to include the natural world as well, will serve and secure our survivability, but also happiness, and from a faith perspective, our soul and spirit.
This World/American corona crisis has highlighted and confirmed VEC’s vision and mission to serve the common good, serve human needs and well-being, while presupposing and working toward a unity in diversity, and addressing inequities through the empowerment of participation. While I have been relegated to stay at home for physical vulnerabilities, it has been a joy and inspiration to witness the VEC team in action in response to the upheavals of the coronavirus, the courage, commitment, creativity, and collaborations, both inside and out. For us, for other institutions, communities, our country, and beyond, if there is something to be gained through losses, it will be to the extent we name and allow and choose for our transformation newly emerged or forgotten valuations. To name a few large but simple ones: the simple fact that the nature of our belonging to one another, worldwide, nationally, in the neighborhood, is total, and demands new ways of imagining life together; nature has quickly been showing signs of cleansing; and another reality folks have named is that, for many, the pace and breath of our lives has compromised simply spending time with family. We can all name the life enhancements we have recently seen come to the fore. It will be the ones we see together, and agree, and set our feet to, which will transform our lives together.
As many have recently said, the coronavirus is making manifest the best and the worst of human beings. It also makes manifest enduring human tensions and issues, social, political, and I would add as someone who thinks of these things, existential. It is our confrontation with the loss of final control, ultimately mortality, which spins out all our other stresses and is the backdrop of our ultimate anxiety. Far from being a damper, reflection on mortality can be purifying and lightening since it brings life into focus. For the last several years thefollowing words of Dag Hammarskjold, the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, have been for me something of a koan. He writes in Markings, “Do not seek death. Death will find you. But seek the road which makes death a fulfillment.” At a breakthrough turning point in his life Hammarskjold arrived at a transformative understanding of “Thanks!” and “Yes!” “For all that has been—Thanks!” “To all that shall be—Yes!” However we understand to translate the meaning of “Thanks!” and “Yes!” to our own life and history, it is an answer to the problem of death. “If I must die someday, what can I do to fulfill my desire to live?”
Let us each, and all, follow the threads of “Thanks!” where we are grateful for life’s presentations,and “Yes” where we are relaxing, surrendering, and consenting to life’s presentations. Following the threads lead to “Thanks!” and “Yes!” permeating the whole of life, even into our contradictions and failures. I suspect we will find, each of us configured within the contours of a unique life, a shared horizon of our belonging together, and where we are giving ourselves away for the life of others, we may note the bubbling up out of us and between us a life and love that is freely given and is our security and joy, and future.
Co-founder/Director of Multi-Faith Services
Village Exchange Center
“Beauty will save the world,” is an intriguing phrase out of a Dostoyevsky novel which has been notably repeated and explicated within the Christian Russian Orthodox tradition. Beauty understood as a fold of ultimate reality is not new to human experience. In the 4th century we hear, “Late have I loved you, O Beauty, ever old, ever new, late have I loved you.” The human experience of beauty universally gives voice to the fact we are existentially and emotionally attracted, in ways not immediately evident at first, to the meaning of our life and its unfolding. Whatever it is human nature is, beauty serves as an attractant toward our actualization. Because it is a human being who sees, beauty carries within itself the qualities of goodness and truth, so that, for example, part of what makes a sunset beautiful is its sheer gratuity.
Beauty as the lure of our ground and future addresses the whole person, senses, awareness, intelligence, emotion, all of it engaging the part of us that says “yes,” our agreement and participation with the given. Beauty is a thread within our lives which gives primacy to experience over thought. Beauty links us to reality, to be responsive and alive to it. At a time when so many seem allergic to propositions of truth and behavior, and with some seemingly to work to annihilate truth, “Beauty will save the world,” still holds promise. The human experience of beauty, in myriad forms, arises from, and returns us to, our belongingness, to the world and one another. A simple instance, at one of our recent food pantry events which also featured a barbecue, I was given pause to see a young Muslim woman who had just come off the fast of Ramadan jump in to serve pork hot dogs. She did so with gusto, in freedom and pleasure. The image was beautiful, and I told her so the following week. It spoke of a person simultaneously saying “yes” to her faith tradition and to the human family.
Beauty satisfies desire within us, shaping desire, and giving pleasure. Pleasure is not something which is just sort of fooling around, it attends creating things, struggling for justice, whatever one desires and does well. When a person finds his or her greatest, deepest pleasure, it is their vocation they are discovering, in full, deep breaths.
In our culture, the truth and depth of beauty is lost to entertainment and commerce. An absolute requirement for beauty to work its power for our human transformation and maturing is an inner life. Spiritual writer and psychologist, Henri Nouwen, once said to a friend in a conversation about Dag Hammarskjold’s Markings, “Most people don’t have a rich inner life.” An inner life begins with beauty and it sets us off on a spiritual adventure. Life of the spirit is a life of knowing and loving, of hope and peace, and friends and intelligence. It can be described as attention to the life within beauty, the life of life, the core of my own identity and of others, and because I am looking at a reality beyond what can be objectified and named, it is a simple unconditioned gaze, a ‘yes,’ a loving, trusting, receiving gaze, in other words, it is resting in the presence of God. An inner life, traditionally called ‘contemplation,’ is the silence within which we hear discoveries of new modes of being, or, of an inner life. It covers a spectrum of expression including dedicated periods of time, spiritual reading, and simple human engagements. Older cultures, such as represented by Village Exchange partners who worship here weekly, the Nepali, Congolese, and Kachin congregations, are all familiar with inner lives. Inner lives are evidenced for me by the faces of our Nepali congregation as they prepare for common worship individually and in small groups with rhythmic liminality-inducing prayer. Our Pentecostal Congolese Congregation prays in the tradition of tongues which is a non-conceptual praise which leads naturally to contemplation. Here too, faces give evidence of an interiority.
Religion without an inner life is mere ideology, in competition with other ideologies. Spirited with an inner life, faith becomes communicable, beyond argument and intention, a presence comprehending the whole person, body, mind, and heart, lit, as it were, by grace. It is in this manner the way of beauty communicates life to others, gifting possibilities to be invigorated with the ability to love life, acquire an unshakable self-confidence, stand on one’s own feet, in the divine beauty that is the belongingness of the spirit.
Rev. Marcel Narucki
Director of Multi-Faith Services
Village Exchange Center