Monday, January 30, 2006

Fear of Beauty

Why are we afraid of beauty? Here is the best explanation I can offer for my own fear. I'd really like to quote C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory, because, as with most things, Lewis just says it better. But, my answer first:

I fear beauty because it both requires something of me and shapes me into something.

Unasked for beauty surprises us in mundanity; I never escape the short walk from my house to my garage without a pang in my chest or a dip in the pit of my stomach. Earth and trees and sky are beautiful, in rain or sunshine, in blue, gray, brown or green. Sometimes, when I am far down and can't move my body from the couch, trees outside my window beckon me; squiggly-patterned gray bark and stark branches writhe atop stolid trunks, like Medusa's snakes. The trees know something that I do not. Or possess something. Something true; and they invite me in, to pass through them into this thing for which I do not have a name.

Other beauties call, too: kindness, deep laughter, a child’s smile. Beauty not only hints at a knowledge far beyond my own, it also calls me to be worthy of each special beauty, of the truth which beauty reflects. My most common experience in the face of it is pain- the pain of personal incongruity with beauty.

This is where I get stuck every time, because every time I choose not to answer beauty’s invitation. I can only conclude that I turn away out of fear. This second fear of beauty, I confess makes little sense to me.

Beauty, interacted with, makes us beautiful. Not much scares me more than this. I have gone to great lengths to define myself with words like depressed, unmotivated, unlovable, failed, confused, sinful, useless, lost. As long as I beat and imprison myself for past error, as long as I act as though I do not deserve grace or love or children or talent, my life is under my control, even if that control perpetuates self-hatred with bad choices and attitudes. When I am open to beauty my hands slip, I panic for fear of losing grip and being un-made, like Orual before the True God. And even more frightening, I will be re-made, and I will not be the maker.

Several years ago I had a recurring, half-waking dream. Just as I drifted into sleep, my body tingled, like a foot gone asleep or an epidural coursing through my veins or like regaining consciousness after passing out. Loud rushing filled my ears and both the sound and the numbness increased steadily. I knew I was coming to a point, a jumping-off point, but I didn’t know what lay beyond it: Death? Levitation? Ordinary sleep? I couldn’t move or make a sound or open my eyes when it began, but I fought and feared and fought some more. Each time I broke the spell just before sailing off the edge of the world. I’d wake up sweaty, heart thumping, and relieved, but terrified to go to sleep again. More than once I determined to embrace whatever approached; I’d jump and see what lurked in the great beyond. But I couldn’t do it.

Maybe it is too much to hope that God will welcome me. Maybe it is too much to ask that I wed my need to something as unstable as human love. Maybe it is too much to believe that I was made to drink beauty, to become beauty. It is too incredible. And it hurts.


Michael Ciani said...

Move closer. We have much to learn from each other.
Love you.

Rachael said...

Is Alaska close enough?

I'm not the one who moved way across the country (yet). I'm still in tidy little G-raps near Ma and Pa and all our fellow Dutchmen.

Crap, what am I doing here?

Love you, too.

Bill said...

Very well said Rachael and way too close to my experience for any comfort whatsoever...which is OK.

Your dream reminded me of being with a woman in our parish when she died last year. She had been in a coma for a week or so and it was hard (for me) to be with her because her physical appearance had deteriorated so much. Our priest called me and asked that I go read the Vesper service with him in her room because she loved that service and he (rightly) thought she "needed it." Right as I got to the prayer of St. Symeon ("Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace...") she started making a screechy sort of sound - not very pleasant to listen to - and then she departed. I got the distinct impression that she was experiencing exactly what you describe from your dream. Her body was spent, and yet she kept holding on to this life - probably because of a "fear of beauty". The prayer of St. Symeon seemed to strengthen her enough so that she could make the leap - screeching, yes - but making the leap nonetheless. I get this horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach that if I don't reconcile myself to beauty in the time I'm given in this life, then death will be a really terrifying experience.

Thanks for your thoughtful post. And thanks for letting me know about it in your email - I didn't know you kept a blog. - Bill

Rachael said...

Bill: Good to see your name here. I always appreciate what you have to say. Thank you for the story of the woman in your parish. Now it's my turn to squirm in my seat, because I feel the same way about death. I know that Christians have hope for the life to come and shouldn't fear death. Still, I find that I do. And the "fear of beauty" is key in this. What you say about reconciling yourself to beauty before death is insightful. Clay pots have to be tempered before they are fired.