Easily the most influential book I read during my seminary career is from liturgical advocate John Navone. His book Enjoying God’s Beauty argues that beauty is more than an effect of God, but is an attribute on the same paradigm-establishing grounds as His love, wisdom, goodness, etc. In short, this simple book urges the reader to take time during their day to contemplate God’s beauty. He contrasts this contemplation with that of merely seeing, in that the latter solely acknowledges, while the former engages. Ultimately, his thesis calls the reader to step out of their busy context, and step into a time of intentionality and sacred space.
A few weeks ago I wrote about what sacred space is, and why we should entertain the idea of it. The purpose of this post is to take that one step further, and articulate the human need we all have for a place that we can call sacred. If you look back into God’s early work with His people, you’ll notice many times where He takes a seemingly normal setting, and reappropriates it into a sacred setting (e.g. Moses and the burning bush). Two of my favorites are Eden and the Temple.
Eden - in this context - serves as a primary mover of sorts. We as a human race have the stamp of Eden on our souls, given that we were made for it. We know of it. We long for it. Its imprint has given us a specific disposition that, when triggered by some external object, can further awaken us to the reality we were not only created for, but can engage and enjoy today.
This brings up the Temple, or rather, the Temple’s premier artist, Bezalel. He was commissioned by God to create forms and decorations, which under the Lord’s influence, would evoke movement within those dispositions - not directly, mind you, but as an inevitable effect, though. Bezalel’s works were used to remind any observer of the Eden that we as a race were made for, and that through God’s common and providential grace, can step back into congruency with once again. They called the viewer to contemplation, and from there, an elevation of the soul. Bezalel’s ministry testifies that God’s desire is for us to use the physical as a means of taking time to step out of the physical. In a sense, He desires for us to use our immediate contexts to temporarily return to Eden.
Likewise, He’s done this within each individual as well. Humanity was given multiple lenses to see through so as to gain clearer perspectives on an issue at hand. As part of the imago dei, we have the capability to act as a king, for the mini kingdoms He’s given us; a priest, for those in our lives who seek counsel; a warrior, for those who need encouragement to fight; and a lover, for those who are in need of intentional care and relationships. The beauty of this is that those roles also benefit the user as well. The detriment is when a person only acts within one.
If I were to remain in one of these quadrants alone, not only would I be less effective at offering the majority of my friendships what they need to thrive, but I too would remain hindered, as I’d only be engaging life through a solitary “lens”. It’s the whole square-peg-through-round-hole story. But unlike a child who lacks the strength and patience to continue working at that puzzle, the older we get, the more stubborn we become, and thus the more we learnhow to make the square peg fit through the circular role. It’s not convenient. It’s not comfortable. But pride makes us think we can simply carry on and still be effective.
To take it one step further, the context that we are given by others is unavoidable and becomes part of us and our narrative as well, whether actively or passively. We can’t simply ignore these contexts away, nor force the peg hard enough that it just “works”. Nor should we have to. The need is to take time to step out of our own immediate contexts, and recalibrate to an edenic connection with God and His beauty through contemplation, only to then proceed back to the shared contexts with others in a more centered, joyful countenance.
So, in the words of Navone, “encountering beauty… is always a faith experience,” in that it’s a step into something else. It’s a stepping away from the familiar, if just for a few minutes, and into the paradigm-shifting reality of God’s otherness. Navone reminds us through the words of Ignatius that we should seek to “see God in all things but also… God’s love for us in all things.” We can’t do that by keeping our heads down while trudging along through our routines. We need to be a people in practice of finding sacred space, so that truths like this can properly be contemplated, and therein fully enjoyed.