The Allure of God

Experiences of beauty point beyond themselves.

IMG_2983

Last week my wife and I attended a play about the Christian conversion of C.S. Lewis. His conversion was a process, not a one-time event. An important element in that process, he says, was some early experiences he had of joy. They set the stage for his conversion. In fact, he titled his autobiographical account of his conversion Surprised by Joy.

He gives his understanding of joy, however, a twist. In his experiences of joy, the ecstatic elation of feeling did not last long. Joy triggers an intense, almost poignant, longing or craving, a craving for that which had somehow caused that momentary experience of joy. His concept parallels that of the romantic German concept of sehnsucht.

What is “that” that has momentarily touched him? For Lewis, it is on a surface level beauty. What we find beautiful may differ from person to person (“beauty lies in the eye of the beholder”), yet wherever we find it, it seems to trigger a sense of pleasurable elation. We are drawn to it, as the night moth is drawn to the porch light.

And, as Lewis found, beauty feeds that intense desire to be in the presence of what we find beautiful. To hold onto it and possess it if we can.

Beauty as a Pointer

But for Lewis, beauty wherever we find it points to something beyond itself. It draws its allure from a higher source–God. Beauty then becomes one of the defining qualities of divinity. When we are fully in the presence of God, we are touched poignantly by God’s supreme beauty and by the beauty that he in grace bestows on all he has made.

So when we stand in awe of a stunning sunset, we are experiencing a beauty which derives from the godhead. When we examine a complex spider web in the light of early dawn, we perceive a beauty that flows from a divine source. When we admire the beauty of a handsome man or woman, we take joy in a beauty that is conferred by his or her maker.

When we work on a mathematic problem and we discover the solution is one of sublime simplicity, we feel we are once again discerning a beauty that derives from the One who creates mathematics. When we feel a sense of amazement at the beauty of some kind, compassionate action, we are recognizing that beauty adheres not only to things, but to behavior as well.

Supreme Beauty

If God then is supreme beauty as God is also supreme goodness and truth, then the words of the psalmist make sense:

As a deer longs for the flowing streams,

            so my soul longs for you, O God.

My soul thirsts for God,

            for the living God.

When shall I come and behold

            the face of God? (Psalm 42:1-2)

When we are touched, if only momentarily, by the beauty, goodness, and truth of God, then we long, sometimes poignantly, for that experience again. Our soul thirsts with an intense thirst, that ultimately only God alone can satisfy by bringing us into his own presence. We can never quite be the same again.

That’s why, I believe, that believers have had a hard time not understanding the Song of Songs in the Old Testament allegorically. What is this longing for God like when we experience it deeply? The closest thing in human experience is the intense longing of lovers for each other. And the Song of Songs is primarily a poem about longing, intense erotic longing.

A Poignant Experience of Beauty

I write this way because of my own experience. When I was in graduate school, some classmates and I decided one weekend to make a retreat at the Cistercian monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts. There we were invited to attend the round of daily prayers in the chapel.

We were not allowed to actually sit in the choir stalls with the monks. Instead we had to gather in a separate room attached to the chapel. There we could listen to the divine offices through a lattice grill. We heard the monks as they chanted their psalms and sang their hymns, sometimes to a strumming guitar.

Even in our somewhat isolated confinement, I found the music flowing to us through the grill intensely beautiful. In Homer’s Odyssey, the music of the sirens is described as so intensely beautiful that sailors were inevitably drawn to plunge into the sea as they passed the sirens’ island. The plunge was always fatal as the waves would dash them up against the jagged rocks. So Odysseus ordered his crew to stop up their ears with wax. Only he would be able to listen, but securely lashed to the ship’s mast.

Well, for me the music of the monks felt something like that coming from divine sirens. I could not believe how deeply it moved me. In some strange way I must have been experiencing something of the beauty that was flowing in their voices from the very God they were praising.

A week later, back in my dorm room, I woke up one night consumed with intense longing to that music. The pangs were so intense that they bordered on pain. They kept me awake for hours. I so wanted to experience that beauty again.

The intensity of the experience confused and frightened me. What was it saying about me? I struggled with that question for years to come. I still do not understand all that was going on that experience, except it did reveal for me the immense power of beauty when we experience it in some very deep way. That power can resemble both pleasure and pain. It can shake us the core of our being.

Signposts of the Universe’s Destiny

Like Lewis, I have come to view such experiences of beauty as pointers to something beyond themselves. They are preparing us, I suspect, for that great experience of unimaginable beauty that will be disclosed to us when God brings the universe to its final fulfillment. God then will be in all that is, no longer obscure and veiled from our eyes, but shining in a dazzling effulgence that will be indescribable. It can only be experienced, not described in words. But all creation will break forth in pealing shouts of joy.

In that day will be fulfilled the words of the psalmist:

Those who go out weeping

Bearing the seed for sowing,

Shall come home with shouts of joy,

Carrying their sheaves. (Psalm 126:6)

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

The Spiritual Quest of David Bowie

Was Bowie a budding contemplative?

I have never been a great fan of rock music. My preferences have always run towards Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Mozart. So I have never given much attention to the rock scene.

That is, until I read the tribute that Simon Critchley wrote on the death of David Bowie. It is titled Nothing Remains: David Bowie’s Vision of Love. It was published in today’s New York Times.

It is a beautiful and loving tribute. It begins with this extraordinary statement: …for me, and for his millions of fans, he was someone who simply made life less ordinary. Indeed, Bowie’s music made me feel alive for the first time.

After reading that, I thought to myself: How many people would say that after their encounter with a worship service in most of our churches? That’s what a lot of Christians claim for the gospel. But how many Christians, let alone outsiders, really experience that sense of being fully alive?

Critchley goes on later to say: Bowie spoke most eloquently to the disaffected, to those who didn’t feel right in their skin, the socially awkward, the alienated. He spoke to the wierdos, the freaks, the outsiders and drew us in to an extraordinary intimacy, although we knew this was total fantasy. But make no mistake, this was a love story.

Does this language sound vaguely familiar? It should, for it describes the Jesus we encounter in the gospels. He, too, drew people, particularly outsiders, into an extraordinary intimacy.

Finding the Spiritual in an Unexpected Place

But what was especially impressive to me in Critchley’s tribute was how he highlighted the theme of “nothing” that recurs over and over again in Bowie’s songs. Nothing is everywhere in Bowie, writes Critchley.

Now most of us, including me, would be inclined to interpret this as a profound nihilism. But what fascinates me is how Critchley hears behind this theme of nothing, a clear Yes, an absolute and unconditional affirmation of life in all its chaotic complexity, but also its moments of transport and delight.

What Bowie was negating, as Critchley sees it, was all the nonsense, the falsity, the accrued social meanings, traditions, and morass of identity that shackled us. Says Critchley: At the core of Bowie’s music and his apparent negativity is a profound yearning for connection and, most of all, for love.

 If Critchley is right in his interpretation, then Bowie’s negativity is an expression of that spiritual virtue of detachment that contemplatives through the ages have seen as an essential condition for experiencing that deep connection, that intimate love, that they have named God. In this value given to detachment Christian contemplatives share a common understanding with Buddhist and other Eastern practitioners of meditation.

When I read Critchley, I feel strikingly at home, because the language he uses is quite resonant with the language I encounter in the masters of contemplative prayer that have so deeply shaped my understanding of the spiritual life.

I feel as if Bowie was on that contemplative quest in life, even though Critchley and probably Bowie too would not so name it. But Bowie’s yearning is cut from the same cloth as the yearning that the psalmist writes of when he says:

As a deer longs for the flowing streams,

            so my soul longs for you, O God.

My soul thirsts for God,

            the living God.

When shall I come and behold

            the face of God? [Psalm 42:1-2]

In saying this, I am not trying to co-opt Critchley or Bowie as anonymous Christians. Rather I am expressing my amazement at finding the spiritual in the most unexpected places. Maybe I need to broaden my musical tastes and listen more intently to the music of my own era.