“I walk in beauty.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to say this to ourselves continuously as we walk through our days? Wouldn’t it make a wonderful affirmation? There is a well-known Navajo chant that offers this affirmation quite powerfully.
Beauty is before me and Beauty behind me.
Above me and below me hovers the beautiful.
I am surrounded by it, I am immersed in it.
In my youth I am aware of it, and, in old age,
I shall walk quietly the beautiful trail.
In beauty, it is begun,
In beauty, it is ended.
I love this chant because for me it evokes the beauty of the Creative Spirit that pervades the beauty of the physical universe -- a beauty that is indeed above, below and all around us. Beauty is a great and sacred power. Its appeal upon us is direct and immediate. It can stop us in our tracks, take our breath away, render us speechless. Beauty can soothe us, ground us, heal us. All true beauty, I believe, derives from the beauty of God’s goodness, and that beauty, too, has an immediate appeal upon us. As we open ourselves to God’s love for us, as we get in touch with that part of our souls which is profoundly in love with God, we find ourselves surrounded by inner, spiritual beauty.
When I reflect on the mix of beauty and ugliness which currently exists in the world around us, I am left deeply puzzled. Given beauty’s attractive sway over us, why don’t we walk in beauty every moment of every day? How have we become surrounded by so much ugliness, physical, emotional, moral and spiritual? Why are our cities so full of blight? Why is the landscape so trashed and polluted? Why are we so prone to ugly thoughts and ugly feelings? Why is there so much shabbiness in what we say and do? And when we turn our thoughts to God, why do we so often approach “Our Maker” in fear and shame? Why do we not find ourselves running -- spontaneously, eagerly, joyfully - iinto embrace of the beauty of the Holy One?
Part of the answer, surely, is to be found in the saying of Jesus we read this morning:
Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness. Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, with no part of it in darkness, it will be as full of light as when a lamp gives you light with its rays.
The ugliness which surrounds us, I believe, has its root in a certain kind of inner blindness. “If your eye is healthy, your body is full of light.” If we see the beauty of God’s goodness and God’s love for us, if we see that within us which has always been deeply in love with God and longs to return to God, we are filled with love. We see the world through the eyes of that love, and we set our priorities accordingly, we seek first to serve God and neighbor. But “consider whether the light within you is not darkness.” If we look at the world through the eyes of fear, greed and delusion, we will come to see it in terms of our own self-interest, as this is most narrowly defined. We will be led to put our own comfort and security first, and ignore the impact we are having on the whole. We will see ugliness in the world around us, and, perhaps unwittingly, contribute to the ugliness as well.
We will not continuously and consistently walk in beauty, until we have recovered our inner, spiritual beauty. Our reading from Isaiah this morning can be read as a symbolic expression of this process.
Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion! Put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city.
In Isaiah, there are two levels of meaning. At one level, he talking about the actual city of Jerusalem of his own time. But he is also talking about our own inner, spiritual reality. Jerusalem is the holy city and Zion a hill stronghold within Jerusalem. Symbolically, Jerusalem and Zion refer to that part in us which rises up to meet God. Isaiah is calling on this part of us to awake and to put on its “beautiful garments.”
Given my job here at Wayfarers, the phrase “put on your beautiful garments” makes me think of the beautiful garments people put on for their wedding day. This beauty, moreover, is an outward manifestation of the inward beauty of a couple’s love, a beauty which is usually clearly visible for all to see. In memorial services too, people often bring in a display of photographs of their departed loved one. These may include formal photographs taken in beautiful garments, but they also usually include casual, candid shots which allow a unique personality to shine through. They are made beautiful by the love with which the departed person is remembered. The face of an old friend is a beautiful sight - whether or not the friend is conventionally handsome or beautiful, whether or not he or she is glamorous by mass media standards. The friend is made beautiful in our eyes by the love that is shared.
The passage continues:
For the uncircumcised and the unclean shall enter you no more. Shake yourself from the dust, rise up, O captive Jerusalem, Loose the bonds from your neck, O captive daughter of Zion.
At a literal level circumcision was and is the male rite of membership in the Jewish people. The unclean is that which is set aside under Jewish ritual and kosher law. Symbolically we are being promised the removal of all that which is unworthy of our higher selves and which obscures our inner beauty. To shake off the dust is to shake off all trivial concerns and worries, all small minded and selfish feelings and thoughts. To be free of them is indeed to be freed from captivity.
A few lines later, Isaiah continues:
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news.
It seems strange today to talk about a messenger’s beautiful feet. Mountains symbolically, however, are the places where heaven and earth meet. ‘Messenger’ in Hebrew is also the word for ‘angel’. Our feet are the part of us which touch the ground. The feet of the messenger on the mountain, then, comprise the point of contact between heaven and earth, the place where they communicate. And thus they are beautiful. In ancient philosophy, and especially in Plato, outer, physical beauty was seen as continuous with inner, spiritual beauty. This seems to have been true of the Hebrew Scriptures as well. In the early centuries of Christianity, physical and spiritual beauty came to be seen as in opposition. In the Swedenborgian tradition that guides us here, we have come again to see physical and spiritual beauty as in harmony. The design of Wayfarers Chapel itself is an expression of this. Its glass walls and ceilings invite us to focus not on human works but on the works of God. Looking at the beauty of creation we see the beauty as well of the Creator.
Today I give thanks to the Holy One for bringing me here to work in a place of great beauty and peace. And beyond that, I thank the Holy One for allowing me to witness the inner beauty that this sacred place makes visible in the wayfarers who come here -- those who come here for prayer and meditation, as well as for all those who come here for baptisms, marriages or to remember the departed. And I thank the Holy One for the beauty of all of you who come here to worship. I pray for myself and for all of you that the Holy One may kindle in us the true light, allowing us to see the inner beauty of all of those around us. May we all ever walk in beauty.