My life revolves around two things: duty and beauty.
Duty includes the work I do for a living. It starts with showing up every day, despite adversity.
I believe in work. It gives structure and dignity to my life. I admire anyone who does honest work well, whether their work is grand or humble.
But duty is broader than employment. Sometimes my duty is marching in the streets, or showing up at a vigil, or holding a candle outside the prison to protest an execution. Sometimes it’s writing a letter to the editor. Often it’s writing a check to relieve hunger or support a cause. That is a joyful duty, for my ability to give is a measure of my strength.
I learned the hard way, however, that excessive devotion to duty can consume, and that life requires balance. One thing that provides that balance for me is beauty.
The experience of beauty lifts me out of the preoccupations of my to-do list. Sunrise at the ocean takes my breath away. A starry night sky puts my whole world into perspective. Listening to exquisite music changes the very way I breathe. Seeing light reflected in a Monet painting or streaming through stained glass fills me with joy. Even the iridescence of oil on a mud puddle can give me delight.
In the presence of beauty, awe is a reflex. Worship – the ascribing of worth – is for me spontaneous and joyful. Beauty blesses me simply by being. It neither evokes nor exploits guilt. All I must do to be blessed is pay attention. Beauty, my brother tells me, is one of the attributes of God. For me it is an avenue to God.
I pay homage to beauty by haunting the art museums and cathedrals and concert halls of every city I visit. I make offerings to her in the poems I write, the hymns I compose, the paintings I create.
I find acts of compassion to be beautiful. The face of a mother gazing at her child is a thing of beauty. So, too, the glow in the eyes of an old couple still in love. It’s not about glamour; it’s about light from within.
Perhaps my deepest esteem is for the beauty of holiness. The collage of heroes I made for my office includes saints of four religions. Experience has taught me that my tradition doesn’t have a corner on the market. In many faiths I have found those whose warmth and generosity, integrity and courage, humility and compassion mark them as holy. In their lives duty and beauty join in a harmony of being and doing. Perhaps it’s that kind of harmony I need to heal myself. Perhaps it could heal the world.
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