When I was a kid, we’d go visit my Grandma Norma down in Vincennes. She and Grandpa lived in a house built in 1832, which they’d bought in 1929 for $1600, and fixed up. My grandfather added on to it so perfectly you couldn’t tell where the old stopped and the new began. A gorgeous home. When he was finished rehabbing the house, my grandpa built a playhouse in the backyard for all the sons they were going to have, but they had three daughters instead, one of whom was my mother, who was a tomboy and took over the playhouse and christened it the Cowboy National Bank and kept her BB gun there and her imaginary pony and real saddle and three bunks for friends to spend the night.
It was still standing when I was I kid, so we took it over, my brothers and I, and used it as a hideout after we’d rustled cattle and robbed banks and trains. There for several years during the 1960s we were the scourge of 5th Street in Vincennes, tearing down fences so our cattle could roam unmolested, chasing off the sheep ranchers, fighting Indians, then pausing from our misdeeds to attend church with my grandmother on Sunday morning, where we would confess our multiple sins, so we could return to our mayhem with a clear conscience, forgiven by the Lord and ready for more depravity. We loved visiting our grandparents.
We prized the freedom, the scarcity of rules, actually only one, the rule forbidding us to play in the front room where Grandma kept her pretty things—her piano, her china cabinet with Hummel figurines, her fancy sofa with the needle-pointed upholstery. We could walk through that room, but not linger there or, God forbid, play there. That room was for beauty, for Grandma and her friends, nicely dressed, well-behaved little old ladies who didn’t spill things or jump on couches or fight Indians. I remember that rule distinctly, not being able to fight Indians in my grandmother’s parlor. She wouldn’t stand for it. That room was for beauty, and beauty alone.
Now I’m older and no longer play cowboys with my brothers, and my idea of a good time is going out to eat with Joan, which we did last Saturday night, driving up to Zionsville for a pleasant dinner at the Friendly Tavern on Main Street, where we shared a fish dinner, then went for a walk, visiting the shops and galleries. We entered one gallery and saw a gorgeous handmade wooden table, crafted by a local woodworker, and I told Joan I wanted to buy it and put it in our front room where our pretty things are, where little old ladies who don’t spill things sit when they come to visit. I wanted the table for that room because it was so beautiful. It wasn’t cheap, being handmade, but just that day my brother Doug had closed out my father’s estate and sent us a check for $650, so really it was free, and I told Joan I wanted it, that I had earned it after caring for my father, from which I still have PTSD, and she agreed, so we bought it and brought it home, and now it’s in our pretty room.
We’ve been talking about depression and the effort to overcome it. You’ll no doubt remember the first thing to do when you’re experiencing depression. Can you repeat it with me? See your doctor! But then once your doctor has addressed the biological causes of your depression, there will be habits and practices that can nourish and cultivate your well-being, one of which is the presence of beauty in your life. Create in your life, whether it’s a room or a corner or even a flowered meadow in your mind, an atmosphere of beauty where no chaos is permitted.
The Irish poet John O’Donohue defined beauty as “an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth, and a kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding life.” That is the kind of beauty I want to talk about this morning, this beauty in the broader sense, the relationships and experiences that move us beyond our small and restricted selves toward admiration and awe, igniting our creativity, stirring our imagination, and inspiring us to acts of kindness and gratitude.
Many of us expend money, time, and effort to find beauty. We go in search of it, and sometimes find it. But just as often beauty visits us without warning. The Welsh poet, Henry Vaughan, in his poem The Revival wrote about the beauty of God revealing itself when we least expect it, ending with these gorgeous lines, “And here in dust and dirt, O here, The lilies of His love appear!”
Several years ago, while on a motorcycle trip on the Great River Road on the Missouri side, headed south, with the Quaker Oatlaws, we passed through a tunnel of woods, emerging into emerald-green fields running to the western horizon. I felt as if I were riding through a painting. When I revisit that trip in my mind, which I often do, it is those fields I remember more than anything else. At night, when I close my eyes to sleep, it is those fields I see. When I am overwhelmed, it is those fields I return to in my memory and am restored. Think for a moment of the most beautiful place you know—its colors, its scents, its dimensions. Go there right now in your mind. Enjoy a vacation right where you are seated.
This week I read of a weapons system that maims and kills with a sort of evil ingenuity, and for several hours I despaired of the human cooperation in ugliness that makes such things possible. But then I reminded myself that human cooperation also makes possible the beauty of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the evolving cure for cancer, the marvel of human flight, the stroke of paint on canvas. In every circumstance, beauty is a real choice for us, the decision to be lilies of love in the dust and dirt.
Remind yourself of this, Friends, always and often, that beauty is not a luxury. It is an essential quality of life, without which we will wither and die.