“Beauty and affliction are the only two things that can pierce our hearts.”
As I’ve reflected on the landscape of Lent, it presents itself as open, empty, deserted. Traditional lenten observance, following Christ into the wilderness, emphasizes relinquishment. Following the One who emptied himself, we give up a familiar pleasure or comfort for forty days until Easter. Alcohol, chocolate and meat are meant to be on standby, but these days it might be Facebook, twitter or gaming. Maybe with less clutter we’ll detox a bit and have a few more moments reaching toward God in prayer, study and reflection.
That much will do. We all could use a little more simplicity, and a lot more spiritual connection. Especially for those of us who are more inclined toward activism, Lent proves worthwhile for revival, refocus and renewal.
If Weil and the mystics are right, the desert experience of the soul holds the possibility for a shift of entirely different magnitude—tearing open the human heart. Towards a place of authentic, wisdom and growth. There is no preparation possible; the assault of affliction or of beauty is upon us before we can collect ourselves. We are practiced in the skill of averting our gaze, distracting ourselves, of forcibly resisting. We prepare our masks, nurture distraction or spin even more plates in our frantic cultural speed-setting. We’re ready for only a small trickle of joy, and never any anguish.
But the wilderness lures us into unguarded space. For Jesus in the desert, this space literally was the natural world. Silence invited new hearing; the wide sky provided new sight. The mystic poet of Psalm 19 sings it this way:
“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy.”
The Psalmist moves seamlessly from awe of nature to delight in the dazzling beauty of God’s own ways, and the heart’s capacity to apprehend it. For Weil, the big fist breaking down the doors to our souls wrecks our defences with an double-blow of both beauty and affliction. They subtly and powerfully break our various falsely-constructed selves and lay open the possibility for discovering our true and unfolded self. Beauty compels desire for beauty, into which we are becoming. This pursuit is the greatest reward along the way!