stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness . . .
Galway Kinnell, “Saint Francis and the Sow”
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How it is that modernity (and modern Christianity) are the poorer for abandoning the ancient idea that beauty is in the beingness of things–atoms and daisies and persons and prime numbers and everything.
How it is that contemporary life has taught us to regard beauty as consumable, reducing it to “the ornamental and innocuous pleasant.” (Stephen Garrett)
How it is that our task as creatures of a God who is beauty, truth, and goodness is not so much to possess beauty but to understand how it possesses us–how beauty is at the heart of what it means to be human.
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And then the fall semester began and I was caught up in syllabi and course rosters and faculty meetings and the grim bureaucracy of a higher education philosophy that expects us to regard students as customers to satisfy, revenue sources to retain at all costs (awkward pun, I realize; we need to keep these students so they can pay us). This philosophy is so pervasive across the disciplines and across campuses everywhere that we don’t even question it much anymore.
And beauty seems absent. And who can blame her.
And on the first day of class I look out at a sea of faces telegraphing everything from anxiousness to indifference, eagerness to sleepiness. And what’s with the two young men on the back row who chatter away under their breath the whole time I’m talking despite a gentle warning (it’s the first day, after all) and a few daggered stares?
And what does beauty have to do with any of this?
I’m not completely sure, but here’s the thing. Or at least one thing:
I want these anxious, indifferent, eager, sleepy students to see the beauty of our common work. As we delve deeply into texts, as we risk failure and embarrassment in our class discussions, as we ask hard questions about impossible things (God, and faith, and the nature of evil), I want them to find it beautiful–to see the intrinsic worth of our work, not to calculate its potential contribution to their future plans or their personal satisfaction.
At the risk of sounding sentimental and presumptuous, I want to help reteach them their own loveliness–or help reveal it to them for the first time. I want them to know–perhaps more than anything–that they are beautiful.