Lent gives us the opportunity to see life as more than coping, more than an endless sequence of problem-solving. Under stress, that is often how it can seem, because time contracts, energy is dissipated in short bursts of imperfect attention and a feeling of failure and missing an important appointment grows stronger every day. No wonder burnout is such an issue in so many walks of life today.
If we think of life as an exponential series of problems clamouring for our diminishing attention we are heading in the wrong direction. A Chinese saying of staggeringly obvious wisdom says ‘if you keep going in the direction you are going, you will arrive where you are going.’ In other words, repent and believe the good news: or else go over the edge of the cliff. Repentance is a change of direction, saving ourselves from disaster.
Instead of seeing life as impossibly problematical, why not see it as artistic? The three pillars of Lent we have looked at are ways of developing the art of living, for the rest of our life as well as this special season of simplification and focus. The outcome of any art is beauty.
‘Late have I loved thee, Beauty so ancient and so new. Behold, you were within but I was on the outside, looking for you. And I pounced on the beautiful things you had made.’ St Augustine’s describes his great turn around as a discovery of the nature of beauty. Like Dostoevsky, he felt beauty as a personal salvation. But facing the violent chaos of his time the Russian mystic said more: the world will be saved by beauty.
Not technology, not ideology, not politics, not power or economic growth, but beauty. This cannot mean only aesthetic beauty, art, music or poetry. Nor just the beauty of the natural world that so entrances and delights the artist and the mystic but remains invisible to those whose interiority has, like Augustine’s before his conversion, been shut down.
Beauty is the breaking out of the whole in a part. It breaks the rules. It is exceptional. It can happen in a poem or a piece of music, in a beautiful face or voice, but equally in a gesture or a moral act which astounds and delights us and makes us say ‘wow, what a beautiful (and unexpected) thing to do’. We are wowed by beauty because it cannot be manufactured, only created and creation is the source of wonder.
The most urgent problem we must solve is a lack of perception. Our perception of beauty in art, nature or human behavior depends upon our having discovered our own beauty and goodness. If we do not see that we are beautiful we cannot see the beauty of a rain forest, music that becomes us when we listen to it or the heroic humanity of those who forgive and show compassion for no reason other than that this is the right and natural thing to do.
Meditation is a continuous Lent because it constantly cleanses the doors of perception, opening us to this primary level of beauty. This is knowing ourselves, not just as parts of the whole, but as a manifestation of the whole.