Love of the Beautiful

“Lord Jesus Christ, my God, You have said, “Apart from me You can do nothing.” In faith I embrace Your words, Lord, and I entreat Your goodness. Help me to carry out the work I am about to begin, and to bring it to completion. To You I give glory, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.”
-Orthodox prayer before beginning any task

My hope for this new year is to finally finish reading the first volume of the Philokalia, a collection of works written between the 4th and 15th centuries by monks. The word itself, Philokalia, meaning the “love of the beautiful, the good.” How can I resist that?

It’s a heady work, though– chewy and delicious but hard for me to digest except in small pieces. So I did the math- if I read one page a day I’ll get through it in a year. Twenty days in, so far, so good. I’m not patting myself on the back too hard just yet. I still have lots of time to lose sight of the goal. I’m still well poised to find other, more interesting things to fill that few minutes I meant to put aside each morning.

Just to add to the challenge, I’m writing a short reflection each day as well and I do that because, like so many other writers, I don’t often know what I think until I write about it.

Consider, a moment, my reaction to a quote from St. Issac the Solitary which states, “Sit in your cell, and concentrate your intellect; remember the day of death, visualize the dying of your body, reflect on this calamity, experience the pain, reject the vanity of this world, its compromises and crazes, so that you may continue in the way of stillness and not weaken.” (pg 36)

Well, that’ll perk you right up, won’t it?

The truth is that I do think about death. I don’t wish for it, but I do think about it. So my knee jerk reaction to an instruction like this is to make a fine checkmark in a box on a list I have somewhere in my psyche. Look at me, all ahead of the curve!

But there’s more to this instruction, and this is the essential thing–
Concentrate your intellect
Reject the vanity of this world

This is the part that escapes me. I’m far more inclined to think about the dying of my body as a means of escape, like a soap opera storyline wherein I am the proud matriarch on her deathbed or the wise and valuable friend who is taken in her prime. Or else I’m Huck and Tom at their own funeral peeking to see who’d mourn their passing.
(Okay, sure, I have a very active imagination. This is why I write.)

But the Philokalia gives me a new way to understand visualizing death. It shows me the beautiful, the good, the true. Who would have thought that pondering the day of my death might be best used to help me focus, to leave aside the temporary cares of the world, to move deeper into some stillness I cannot seem to grasp in the self-made busy-ness of my life?

St. Isaac the Solitary, that’s who. Go figure.

I will say that most of these writings refer to the life of the monk. I’m not sure St. Isaac imagined a modern day, nearly fifty-year-old mother of four would be taking these words to heart. Nor would he know that I’m not reading them in the starkness of a monk’s cell but in the cushy chair near the window that looks over the dirty alley behind my garage.

Even so, I stand by the deep-seated belief that, as my new favorite tee shirt tells me, I don’t have to be a monk to live like one. There are good foundational guidelines here, all based on the pursuit of the love of the beautiful and that is available to us, in small and valuable ways, one page or even one paragraph at a time.

Let’s seek it out. Let’s find it wherever it may be. I’m going to need that beauty. I’ll wager you need it too.

7 comments:

  1. “I have always — at least, ever since I can remember — had a kind of longing for death.”
    “Ah, Psyche,” I said, “have I made you so little happy as that?”
    “No, no no,” she said. “You don’t understand. Not that kind of longing. It was when I was happiest that I longed most. It was on happy days when we were up there on the hills, the three of us, with the wind and the sunshine … where you couldn’t see Glome or the palace. Do you remember? The colour and the smell, and looking at the Grey Mountain in the distance? And because it was so beautiful, it set me longing, always longing. Somewhere else there must be more of it. Everything seemed to be saying, Psyche come! But I couldn’t (not yet) come and I didn’t know where I was to come to. It almost hurt me. I felt like a bird in a cage when the other birds of its kind are flying home.”
    “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.”

    – Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis

  2. I, too, have been reading the Philokalia (the past 2 years and only about 80 page in). I find that I can only read a half to a page at a time and then let it percolate in the recesses for several days. Hope you post more about your reflections in the future. I may do the same.

    I am currently reading Fr. Damick’s “An Introduction to God” and hope to post on it as I get the blogging thing underway. 🙂

    And thanks for posting the link to Monkrock – looks like a fun shop.

  3. Just wanted to tell you how deeply moved I am by the book “Nearly Orthodox” . As I enter my second year as a Catechumen I relate to every aspect of your journey. As I continue the journey with the thought that it is all about the journey, I am grateful for your thoughts, pain, joys and journeying. Thank you! I’ll let you know when I’m ready for Baptism and Chrismation.

  4. I just want you to know that I love reading your blog! I’m an old punk rock/skinhead (not THAT kind!) hardcore kid (except I’m 46) from the 80’s. I’m still very much into hardcore music & politics, tattoos, and now, Christianity. I’m a practicing Roman Catholic and I’ve been studying Orthodoxy for the past six years. I’ve got a shit ton of Eastern Orthodox books! I read the Philokalia frequently. I also enjoy the writings of Father Seraphim Rose and anything out of St. Germany’s monastery. Keep up the great work, Angela! (Relax and put the first two FUGAZI albums on.)

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