SERMON: Seek Not Afar for Beauty

The very first service I attended in a Unitarian Universalist congregation is as fresh in my memory as if it were just last Sunday. It happened to be a service in which the youth who had just finished a coming of age program were speaking. They had just completed their very last task, modeled on a Native American Vision Quest. They had gone out into the woods to spend an entire day–about eighteen summertime hours–alone in and with nature.

There were many powerful stories, but I remember only one in any detail. A young woman stood in front of the congregation with great poise and began talking about how much she hadn’t wanted to go on this all-day quest because she thought it seemed stupid and contrived. She described her “bad attitude” so accurately that I began to worry where the story was going. This was my first visit to a UU church and you can bet I was beginning to wonder what in the world I’d gotten myself into!

The young woman continued to talk. She described how, in her disillusionment with the process, she decided that if she had to spend a day alone in the woods, she might as well get some rest, so she set about to sleep through it. She managed to make herself a nest under a tree, just comfortable enough to get to sleep. She was able to sleep through most of the day.

I was getting really worried by this point, thinking that this youth was going to spend ten or fifteen minutes of the service letting the adults know that the vision quest was, in her opinion, something so pointless that all she did was sleep. But something in her tone changed as she paused before beginning the next part of her story. She took a deep breath and described what happened next:

When I woke up the sun had moved through the woods and was just beginning to go down. I was a little confused and was looking around to get my bearings, when the light seemed to begin to sparkle. All around me were hundreds or maybe thousands of spider webs. The light was just right and was shining through them all and making them glow like gold threads. They were everywhere: from the trees to the ground, from tree to tree, from the tree up into the sky, and even from the trees to me. And in that moment, I realized that it’s really true. We really are connected to everything else. We really are part of an interdependent web that connects us to every other living thing.

And then she told of coming back to the church and opening the hymnbook randomly, looking for some words to help her hold on to the experience. She opened to this poem by Denise Levertov:

Intricate and untraceable
Weaving and interweaving
Dark strand with
Designed beyond
All spiderly contrivance,
To link,
not to entrap:

Elation, grief, joy, contrition
Shaking, changing, forever
Forming, transforming:

All praise, all praise to the great web.

The telling of that story was an awesome moment. Not only because the young woman articulated it with such grace and simplicity, but because each of us recognized ourselves in her story. We had all, at one time or another, stumbled upon beauty that not only took our breath away, but made us stop and consider our place in this world.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote:

Pilgrims go into the woods, but they carry with them the beauty which they visit. Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwriting–a wayside sacrament. Welcome it in every fair face, in every fair sky, in every fair flower, and thank God for it as a cup of blessing.

We carry within us the beauty that we visit. What an amazing statement, especially for Emerson’s time! He, and the others that came to be called Transcendentalists:  Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller and many others–had begun to articulate, like the young woman in my first UU service, the connection between our experience of nature and beauty and our own place within it. Unlike those who had gone before, the Transcendentalists were willing to trust human senses and the human spirit. They saw us as participating in the beauty of nature, and saw it as a human duty. Thoreau even wrote, “The perception of beauty is a moral test.” In other words, the ability to see beauty is the beginning of our moral sensibility. What we believe is beautiful we will not wantonly destroy.

The poet Joaquin Miller puts it this way:

Behold! The Holy Grail is found
Found in each poppy’s cup of gold;
And God walks with us as of old.

Behold! The burning bush still burns
For all, whichever way we turn;
And all God’s earth is holy ground.

There is something powerful and necessary about coming to understand that beauty is not something far-off and ethereal, but something that pervades all of life and can be found anywhere and everywhere. It is a test of our ability to care, to pay attention to each other and the world around us, to lift ourselves beyond our tiny egos and petty troubles and notice the majesty and beauty of life itself.

One of the lessons we all must learn is that there is beauty to be found everywhere, in the everyday, in every moment. We do not have to travel to glorious places to find it. We carry it with us, and can find it as close by as each sweet breath. As we sang earlier:

Seek not afar for beauty, lo, it glows
In dew wet grasses all about your feet,
In birds, in sunshine, childish faces sweet,
In stars and mountain summits topped with snow

Go not abroad for happiness, behold
It is a flower blooming at your door.
Bring love and laughter home, and ever more
Joy shall be yours as changing years unfold

In wonder working or some bush aflame,
We look for Truth and fancy it concealed,
But in earth’s common thing it stands revealed,
While grass and flowers and stars spell out the name.

So often we think that beauty, truth, happiness and love should grow up like wild irises, marvelous and miraculous, and somehow unmistakable and grand. Instead they are often unremarkable, even ordinary, coming from the midst of everything else, tender and simply willing to be vulnerable, to remain connected by golden, but near-invisible strands to everything else.
Thomas Merton wrote:

One of the most important–and most neglected–elements in the beginnings of the interior life is the ability to respond to reality, to see beauty in ordinary things, to come alive to the splendor that is all around us.

It is disconcerting at first, but eventually delightful, to realize that beauty is not “something out there” that we must find ways to encounter and apprehend, but “something in here” that we apply to our lives. Beauty is not a “thing” but a way of seeing things. We do not have to travel the world, searching for wonders. We only have to wonder at the world we travel, day in and day out.

This is, perhaps, the practice most compatible with Unitarian Universalism: to cultivate our ability to see beauty in all things, to notice the meaningful, to appreciate the diverse and surprising forms that beauty takes, to celebrate the beauty in every face and the myriad of stories that speak truth.

This morning’s news was a reminder to me of these very things. When I sat down to read about today’s elections in Iraq, my heart was heavy, afraid of the violent news I expected to find. There, amidst the expected news of suicide bombers, I read this:

Rumors of impending violence were rife. When an unexplained boom sounded near one Baghdad voting station, some women put their hands to their mouths and whispered prayers. Others continued walking calmly to the voting stations. Several shouted in unison: “We have no fear.” At one polling place in Baghdad, soldiers and voters joined hands in a dance, and in Baqouba, voters jumped and clapped to celebrate the historic day. At another, an Iraqi policeman in a black ski mask tucked his assault rifle under one arm and took the hand of an elderly blind woman, guiding her to the polls.

Kindness and hope prevail, even in the midst of war and terror. There is indeed, beauty everywhere, even in the middle of pain and sorrow. It is our job, our responsibility, our privilege to find it. May our eyes be open and our hearts soft and ready for the task.

Amen. Ashe’. And Blessed be.


2 thoughts on “SERMON: Seek Not Afar for Beauty

  1. A lovely sermon, Sean, and one that echoes a sentiment that I suspect most UUs have felt at some point along the journey.

    I gave a lay reflection in my church last year that mentioned (among other things) some similar points. We also sang “Seek Not Afar for Beauty” for that service, but we sang it from the old Red Hymnal. For some reason, the grey one leaves out what I think is an archetypically Unitarian verse:

    Dream not of noble service elsewhere wrought;
    The simple duty that awaits thy hand
    Is God’s voice speaking his divine command:
    Life’s common deeds build all that saints have thought.

  2. Hmm. As I look more closely, I see that the grey hymnal version also purges all of the original’s invocations of God and Justice, substituting instead “Truth” and “laughter”. This seems unnecessary to me, considering the impeccable Unitarian credentials of the 19th-century author, Minot Judson Savage — not to mention the many different ways in which it is possible, even necessary, to apprehend the concept of “God”, and the longstanding UU concern for justice.

    Don’t we UUs do ourselves a disservice when we avoid and whitewash our own tradition’s authentic religious insights?

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