Brazen Beauty by Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity Inspired by John 12:1-8 Acrylic on raw canvas with digital drawing
Usually when we use the word aesthetics in conversation, it’s as a synonym for the word style- a building might have a modern aesthetic, for example.
But the word has another meaning too; In Philosophy and theology it’s the study of art and the beautiful. It not only considers the question what makes something art or beautiful, but also what is the relationship between the beautiful and the good, or in our case, God.
This might seem like one of the less serious aspects of philosophy to explore, and there can be a certain light heartedness to it. It’s a fun time to argue with friends about favorite bands or musicians? The deeper question, that’s a little harder to answer is why are they your favorite band or musician.
I bet, that for at least one of your favorite bands or musicians, there’s a specific memory of time and place tied to them.
For example, Listening to Bruce Springsteen, always takes me back to New Orleans Jazzfest 2012, where I got to see him live and had an incredible experience.
Reverend Jill Caratini, pastor in the Reformed Church of America, wrote an article I read recently called “Lavender and Bread”, and noted that smell has this same power, perhaps to an even greater extent. In it, she cites the poem
Paper Mill, Macon, by Anna Krugovoy Silver in her collection I Watched You Disappear. Here’s the poem.
When the sulfuric stench of the paper mill wakes me at night,
I rise from bed to find my vial of vanilla cologne and spritz it twice on the pillow case.
Now, face-down on scented cotton,
I escape the fetid downwind creep and fall asleep instead to the false sweetness of rising yellow cake.
And sometimes, too, I spray perfume on my son’s sheets,
or hold my wrist to his nose, so that after I’ve died, the smell of vanilla will return me to him—overcoming, briefly, the foul smell of loss.
Even the title is evocative. If you’ve driven through or lived in Georgia, you might have had a visceral reaction to the words Paper Mill. Driving from Miami up I-95, you’ll pass by a paper mill or two, and oh boy do they have a sulfurous stench.
The poem itself is beautiful and full of imagery; we can picture a young mother, dying of cancer as Anna Silver was while writing this poem, trying to give her precious son something to remember her by when she died.
Her hope is that in a world that seems to know only death and sulfur, loss and stench, that one day maybe when he is baking his own son’s yellow birthday cake and adds a dash of vanilla, they would be reconnected across the seemingly insurmountable chasm of death.
Perhaps this was Mary’s goal as well in our gospel passage today.
The week before the events of Holy Week, Jesus is on his way toward Jerusalem when he stops in the town of Bethany, where he had in the chapter before, raised her brother Lazarus from the dead.
These two stories are inextricably linked; just as this passage reminds us that Mary is Lazarus’ sister, the introduction to the chapter before this, the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead, references this story even though narratively it hadn’t taken place yet.
I believe that we are supposed to link these two stories in our memory in the same way that the sounds of Bruce Springsteen bring me back to New Orleans, or how the smell of vanilla could bridge the gap between life and death.
But I don’t think it’s only memory that the beautiful and the good touches inside of us. Although we are creatures who tend toward nostalgia, we are not purely so. Indeed, our Isaiah passage is not about glorifying the past, although it acknowledges it, but rather that God is doing a new thing.
So let us go back to those earlier questions about what makes something beautiful. We asked “What is your favorite band or musician?” and the deeper question, “Why is that your favorite band or musician?” And we will add a third question: What about them speaks to you, touches the soul, sets us into transcendence? With the corollary: when you experience that moment of artistic transcendence, when the beauty overwhelms you, what is it inside of you that is being touched?
Some might call it a soul, others the deepest part of our psyche, I will call it God. It is the part of us that realizes that there are more smells than the sulfurous stench of the paper mills of Macon Georgia, to life than only death. Yes death will come to us eventually but there is much to live for in between now and eventually, and we also know that there is a hope and a love that endures beyond death.
When the grey prison walls, physical or mental close in on us, when we are beset on all sides. This is the hope that sets us free.
My favorite scene in the 1994 movie The Shawshank Redemption starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman explores this connection through the famous opera scene. Tim Robbins’ character, Andy Dufrense, is a falsely convicted murderer, and the movie is about his struggle for freedom and dignity in the midst of prison, a struggle that is a more intense metaphor for our own prisons.
Andy has found an Opera record in the warden’s office, and being left alone in there, locks the door and puts the record on the PA system throughout the prison. All throughout the walls of the prison, people stopped, and for about a minute and a half, listened, enraptured. This is what Morgan Freeman’s Character Red has to say about it:
I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don't want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I'd like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can't be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.
When beauty touches your soul, touches the piece of God inside of you, may you be comforted, and may you find hope, and may that set you free. Amen.