Thursday, February 28, 2019

Towards a Language of Beauty: An autobiographical prologue

In the posts which follow, I am going to try to work out, largely for my own benefit, my own growing sense of something, of beauty as an objective reality--substantial, like holiness, and like holiness possessing a myriad of expressions which are quite individual while nevertheless variations on the same great theme. Indeed, I do not think this similarity between holiness and beauty is coincidental.

The study of the relationships of those expressions might be called a "science" or even a "theology" of beauty. But because both of those terms seem rather cold, and because I am philologist, I have settled on the metaphor (though it may be more than metaphor) of language.

This impression began at a very early age, as I suspect it does for most people, but has been influenced for me by my lifelong interaction with Christianity and the art, literature, and languages of the Middle Ages. In this prologue, it is simply my desire to record some of the early impressions which first brought about the awakening of my consciousness to beauty in the world and in the word.


One of my earliest memories is of reading Paradise Lost. I had discovered this book due to the happy accident that, because I was from a large family and because I was the only boy, all of the books were stored in my bedroom. It was part of one of those "Great Books" sets which I believe had belonged to my mother, and which had come (like most of the fiction in the house) with her into the marriage.

10 or so might be a somewhat precocious age to come to Milton, but I had been taught to read largely on King James's English, so the language was less of a barrier than it might otherwise have been. There were numerous classical mythology references which I did not understand and which went largely over my head, but the Biblical references I did understand. And the parts I did understand proved to be rich enough that I was able to let the others pass for the moment.

Because I've always been the kind of person who shares his enthusiasm with other people, I was very keen to make sure everyone in my family was as interested in Milton as I was. We got the book on audio and began to listen to it on a road-trip. After about ten minutes, my father switched it off, saying that he found it boring. That is the first moment I can remember feeling really alone, and it is the first moment when I realized that there are some things which some people enjoy which other people find dull and boring.

I'm more generous now, as an adult. I understand that a lot of people don't care for poetry, and that an audio book on a road trip may not be the best medium for encountering Milton for the first time. But I've never been able to shake the impression of that moment.


Beowulf came to me around the same time, not as lightning out of a clear sky, but as the treasure-laden funeral ship of Scyld: grey prow and mast and ropes looming up out of the mist, the guilt edges of the golden sail billowing just beyond sight.

When I first read the poem, as a young lad, I could only see the faintest outline of its dragon-headed prow. It was a story full of monsters, one which happened "in days of yore" in a land and culture so far from my own that it may as well have been on another planet. But there was something familiar about it even then, though I did not know what, and discovering the poem was like remembering something that I had forgotten.

As I grew older and read the poem again and again the outline of the ship became clearer, and I even began to mark the significance of the strange carvings on its ring-whorled prow. Or rather, I began to attempt to infuse them with significance of my own, for I knew that they must mean something, so I tried to give them meanings which they could not hold. The ship was fixed, like an island in the sea; it would endure, it was I who was falling away into the mist.

Then I first began to see where other men and women had also struggled to draw the ship into their own harbor, catching it with great hooks of iron and trying to drag it out of the mist and re-purpose it for their own use. "This is a fine ship," they said, "and it is a great shame that it should hold only the bones of a dead man. We will draw it into our harbor and make it useful again, to carry more practical cargo or make raids upon our enemies.." But it could not be done. For when those men had drawn their catch to shore they found they had not captured a living vessel at all, but only dead flotsam and jetsam - unsound vessels which could not keep out the sea.

Abandoning this plan, I began to chase the ship itself, determined that if I could not bring it into my own harbor, I would instead cling to some rope or spar, and let the ship carry me where it would. It was only when I learned to read Anglo-Saxon that the whole outline of the ship became clear to me for the very first time: tall, icy, ring-whorled, the beds of ancient kings and heroes laid out upon biers of gold under ancient standards, gray ropes trailing through the mists. I can see only the faintest glitter of that treasure now, and yet I no longer wish to fill my pockets with rings and gems to take home and strew among my pet causes and soapboxes. I cling to the side, damp with mist and the spray of the sea-foam, and hope that Scyld's ship will take me back, by the straight road, to Those who sent him.


I discovered Tolkien's Legendarium not long after I discovered Beowulf, and I cannot remember a time when Lewis's Narnia books did not permeate my imagination. They, along with the Acts of the Apostles and the Apocalypse of St John, are the first things I can remember reading. Of Narnia and Tolkien's Legendarium--and of the Apocalypse too--I want to say much more elsewhere, since they are so essential to the question of this language of beauty. But for now, it is enough to say two things: the imaginative debt I owe to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair is incalculable. I have never written a story which did not somehow contain those two stories within it.

Regarding Tolkien, my love for his works is deep and prolonged, and has only intensified as I got older. Yet, the first time I read The Lord of the Rings, it was the Appendices which most sparked my imagination. I can still vividly remember sitting on my bed in my room, reading Appendix F "On Translation" in which Tolkien discusses the etymology of the name of the Brandywine river. The realization struck me like a thunderclap: you could name a river.

I'd always loved stories, but from that moment forward I have primarily thought of myself as a writer of stories, a teller of tales. Adulthood, necessity, and the grace of God have required me to become many other things, but this was my first sense of calling, of vocation. That was the moment I knew it would not be enough to consume, enjoy, or appreciate beautiful things. I would have to learn to make them myself.


Somewhere along the way, that sense of vocation and those early stirrings towards beauty were buried, lying dormant for a time. It may be important to briefly recount the reasons: the exigencies of adult life, which involved finishing school, finishing college, starting a family, starting a career. My wife, Sophia, was always the living spark of beauty and joy throughout all of this, and she never stopped loving my stories even when I, for a time, stopped telling them. There was also a strongly pietistic, moralizing attitude towards art and storytelling that was part of the particular brand of Christianity in which I was actively involved starting at around the age of 16 which purged many things of beauty, transcendence, and solidity from my bookshelf and from my life. Narnia survived the purge, so did Beowulf. Tolkien did not.

It is hard to speak about this time, because I do not want to be uncharitable to people I still love and admire, but at the same time it is hard not to use very strong language to describe this marring of the Gospel--for that is what it is, and nothing less. It was a brand of Evangelical Fundamentalism which was and is a kind of prosperity gospel which says: let us teach people how to manage their finances well, how to raise happy families, how--in other words--to live out the "American dream" under the auspices of being well-off materially and financially so that we can "accomplish more for the Kingdom." People will then see how well we are doing as Christians--even, how much better off we are than they are--and be persuaded to convert as well. One slogan we heard a lot was "showing the world a better way of life." But that better way of life was not the way of the Cross.

It need hardly be said that this was not the approach Christ took in the Gospels, nor was material success a great distinguishing feature of the Church of the first four centuries, the Church of the martyrs, the Church which turned the world upside-down. But this approach possessed a certain allure. It promised Sunday's triumphalism without Friday's cross.

But if this particular theology had no room for suffering, it also had no room for beauty. Even when it did not reject beauty in a self-aware way--as indeed it sometimes did--there was simply no room for something which did not contribute to the categories of "success" it recognized. It is the kind of theology which leads to nice houses and driveways full of cars, but shabby churches which at best resemble conference centers or concert halls, and at worst are dingy and poorly maintained relics to American consumerism. All of this was, in turn, layered over a fairly typical Evangelical Fundamentalist approach to history and culture, which saw everything between the Apostles and Martin Luther as little more than a deep abyss of error.

Beneath all of this, and beneath the daily cares of life as a young husband, father, professional, and pastor, my early movement toward beauty lay dormant. And in a strange way, I think this was necessary. "Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit."


The reawakening began, not coincidentally, around the time of (I think, shortly before) the birth of my first child. Those early seeds of beauty which had been planted in my childhood--primarily by great literature, but also by the Baroque and Classical composers my parents had taught me to love--began to sprout and bear fruit. There has to be something more, I often said to myself in those days, and I have found that every time I have said that to myself, it has been true.

I did not yet know what was missing. But I knew that something was missing. And I knew that I wanted that something for my children. So I returned to the sources of beauty in my childhood, who I now intuited had a far better grasp of the other transcendentals--truth and goodness--than my own context. I went back to Lewis. I returned to Tolkien. Two works, absolutely crucial to this period and to my whole life after, were On Fairy Stories and The Discarded Image. Both are, I think, critical texts for a rediscovery of the Language of Beauty in the West, and so I will devote more detailed essays to each in due time.

On Fairy Stories showed me the place, the crucial role, of imagination in the Kingdom of God. And The Discarded Image introduced me to what Lewis called "the medieval model." I can only describe the difference between the modern and medieval ways of viewing everything--man, God, the whole of the cosmos--via a series of similes: it is like being raised in a hut and then being taken into a cathedral for the first time. It is like seeing the entire world through a small, grainy, black-and-white screen, and then being taken out into the vivid colors and smells of the open air. It is like believing your whole life that you are the only person in the world, only to wake up in the midst of a vast and impossibly ancient city.

And the modern man does not know what he is missing, because a fish does not know when he is wet.


That vision of the world which I found, first in The Discarded Image, and then later again in The Divine Comedy, drew me into a prolonged and detailed study of the language, literature, and theology of the Middle Ages. At the distance of so many centuries, these things could be encountered safely, at a time I would not have been able to meet them as living reality. But beauty is "not a tame lion," and by degrees and by many strange "chance, if chance you call it" encounters, I found myself standing in the nave of an Orthodox cathedral on the feast day of St Seraphim of Sarov. And I fell on my face, quite literally, before Beauty Himself.

Here, the Medieval Model was still alive. Here, the Incarnation--so central, as I had come to believe, to any understanding of beauty in the created world--was a physical, immanent reality, made present to our senses by sacramental art, and by the "tremendous Reality on the altar." And I was no longer safe.

Within this ancient Church, I found--among many, many things--the unifying principle which I had sought. There is an interplay between the Church's iconography--very different from Western religious art, both in its style but also in its conventions--and its hymnography, sacred Scripture, and liturgical calendar which show Truth, Goodness, and Beauty not to be the three rigid legs of a stool on which we may sit in judgment over the modern world, but rather as three partners in the intricate and beautiful dance of the soul towards God.

The posts which follow will be a series of reflections, or essays, aimed not at offering an apologetic for beauty--for beauty is its own apologetic--but rather at studying the steps of the dance. I confess that one of my motives in all of this is to try to put into words a sense of how someone who is not an iconographer, or a hymnographer, or clergy but is, as I am, a storyteller, might nevertheless understand their vocation in these terms.

Currently reading: For the Life of the World, Fr Alexander Schmemann
Current audio book: The Brothers Karamazov
Currently translating: The Aeneid, Virgil


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