For my birthday a couple years ago, my wife sent me on a hike through the Smokies. I borrowed a backpack and filled it with a little gas stove, food, water, and way too much superfluous artist-y gear (journal, expensive camera, binoculars, Audobon guide, copy of Essential Christian Mystics, etc.). Sixty-five pounds or so heavier, I made a laborious, laughable pedestrian assault on Cosby Knob, Mount Guyot, and points beyond. Around Mount Chapman, tired and sore beyond reason, I came upon a place called Eagle Rocks, where the Appalachian Trail crests along the narrow knife-edge of the Continental Divide. Mist obscured the steep drop-offs to both the right and left and blocked out all sound but the wind and my footsteps. It was a small, beautiful change in scenery that strengthened me to continue, and it got me thinking: What does beauty do for us?
Today is Independence Day. Millions of people around the nation will color coordinate, though they did not all get a memo. Otherwise well-parented kids will run amok in the streets with flaming sticks in their hands. Citizens will bake beans and consume unnumbered hectares of processed meat in buns. High above it all, against the night sky, we will blow things up. Lots of things, for forty-five minutes at a stretch. We will ooh, and also ahh. We will do this because seeing explosions in the darkness is beguiling to us in an elemental way. Fireworks wouldn’t be as beautiful to us if we all had to stare toward the sun to see them. As with stars and fireflies, we are excited by a shock of light against the dim. The Foundling House crew has been writing together for over a year now. In wrestling with the idea of what beauty is, I find myself wondering over this little corner of the web. What is this ungainly, wonderful thing that has forced us as contributors to add more weight to our workloads and stage awkward editorial dialogues between friends? Is it worth it to keep making beautiful, true things?
Discouragement whispers to me when I turn on the radio or peruse the follies of internet-published news. Given the amount of horror fomented by humanity, I’m sometimes tempted to hang it up and disappear into some wire-free abbey at the charted world’s wild edge. Not to say that escapism is the only reason people disappear into abbeys. Unique, powerful prayer happens in those places, along with great healing. For myself, I’m sure it would mostly be an escape.
Then there’s the other voice. It whispers against the cacophonous montage of darkness, speaking both peace and a strange kind of war. That voice gently conveys the notion that the most powerful things in the world don’t necessarily look powerful: prayer, truth, story, song, hospitality, kindness, and longsuffering. Against such things there is no law. There is peace in remembering how many times my own heart has blossomed under the sway of beauty. It surprises me like the quiescence of mist atop a ridge, and I persevere in response. Beauty blooms incandescent in the evening sky, and my heart stirs from its slumber. Neither am I alone in these small but important awakenings. We are all made to love beauty. Because of this, we continue to work and to push each other to do the same. We put pen to paper and pick up guitars. We bless the bright hammer stroke of each piano key. We rejoice to see a still-wet canvas, newly birthed into a life beyond the painter—a life of touching people in ways the painter could only dream.
It is my hope that as we continue to write stories, take photographs, paint pictures, weave songs, and create all the rest, we end up being like explosions in the darkness—a stark contrast to the dim, gray condition of our present reality. Do you recall C. S. Lewis’s Hell in The Great Divorce? It was a hueless sprawl of suburb upon suburb, each house built further away than the next as people tired of one another and put distance between themselves and their alienated neighbors. That’s a painful and accurate indictment of our nature as people. It is into such a drab milieu that I pray these stories go.
There’s a verse in Ecclesiastes 11 that, in the realm of story-making, has haunted me for years:
Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days, you will find it again.
Old King Solomon is speaking broadly, it seems, talking about generosity and about economy on a human scale. It passes for karma, if taken out of context, but there’s no denying that, in the final analysis, Solomon finds true justice poetic. When I read it though, I lean toward Solomon’s more mystical side—the Song of Songs side—and I see a man standing on a dock, tossing crusts of stale French loaf into a dark, fog-shrouded bay and watching them float away. Will they return? How will he eat in the coming days without them? That picture, with its attendant nimbus cloud of doubt, defines the professional climate (if you want to call it that) of being an artist in pursuit of resurrection. You churn out the best material you can, hoping that, at the end of the day, it’s not all for naught. You hope that people are encouraged or admonished or emboldened. You hope to create that moment, like a wall of mountain mist or a firework in the sky, that gives people the strength to keep going. It is why we write, paint, sing; it is why we play.