Monday, 25 March 2013

Infinite Beauty

Some people are able to see and express beauty more intensively than others. Thomas Traherne (ca. 1636-1674) was one such soul. His writings and poetry emerged from a view of the world inspired by a life of worship, which resulted in Traherne becoming an Anglican clergyman. His presentation of beauty in the world was so inspiring that the Anglican Church eventually considered him a saint.

One of the Traherne stained glass windows at

the Anglican Cathedral in Hereford, England.

Here’s just one example of Traherne describing what it means to see beauty in the world:
You never enjoy the world aright; till you so love the beauty of enjoying it, that you are covetous and earnest to persuade others to enjoy it. And so perfectly hate the abominable corruption of men in despising it, that you had rather suffer the flames of Hell than willingly be guilty of their error. There is so much blindness and ingratitude and damned folly in it. The world is a mirror of infinite beauty, yet no man sees it. It is a Temple of Majesty, yet no man regards it. It is a region of Light and Peace, did not men disquiet it. It is the Paradise of God. (Centuries of Meditations, First Century, Section 31)
In light of this quote, I came across the following time-lapse video of the Aurora Borealis (the “Northern Lights”) during a recent solar flare:

Watching this video, I think I caught just a glimpse of what Traherne meant when he said that “the world is a mirror of infinite beauty.”

***You can get Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations physically here, or digitally here.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Another Way to Be

I was deeply impressed by an article I just read that describes the new Roman Catholic Pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis). This impression was all the more forceful given its context in the media – most of the news articles I read leading up to the Pope’s election focused largely on negative issues surrounding the Roman Catholic church. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t at all surprising - there’s been a long history of antagonism towards Catholicism in general, and the Pope in particular. Here’s an example from a Reformation-era pamphlet:

It wasn’t just through the use of cartoon-like monsters that the image of the Catholic church and the Pope were disrespected; this attitude was perpetuated through the publication of several religious texts that served as foundations of “faith” for thousands.(1)

Now, while accusations of the Pope being the Antichrist aren’t as common nowadays, this same sort of negative sentiment has remained in the public square, in part because of occasional scandals. These are terrible, to be sure, but the actions of a few individuals often obscure the abundance of faithful, humble, and beautiful lives that Roman Catholics lead throughout the world.

It seems as though Pope Francis is just what the public needs to renew its trust and – dare I say – faith in the Catholic church, an organization that has done an incredible amount of good for the world. According to the article I mentioned above, “[Pope Francis] loves the poor and not in an abstract way. He gave the cardinal's palace in Buenos Aires to a missionary order with no money. He lives in an apartment, cooks his own food, rides the bus. He rejects pomposity. He does not feel superior. He is a fellow soul.”

The archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, washes the feet of an unidentified woman on Holy Thursday at the Buenos Aires' Sarda maternity hospital on March 24, 2005.

My first exposure to the new Pope’s namesake – St. Francis of Assisi – was in my grandparent’s garden, where his statue stood among overgrown plants and thriving weeds. The statue itself had been stained by nature and was covered in small craters (the result of repeated target practice). As a child, I wondered how something that was supposed to be holy could be left to ruin. Answer: the statue was neglected, and apathy allowed for abuse.

This became all the more heartbreaking to me when I started learning about St. Francis and what he stood for. One of the best-known statements attributed to St. Francis is the following prayer (this particular version was delivered by Mother Theresa before the United Nations in 1985): 

Make us worthy Lord to serve our fellow men throughout the world,

who live and die in poverty and hunger.

Give them through our hands, this day, their daily bread

and by our understanding love, give peace and joy.

Lord, make me a channel of thy peace,

That where there is hatred I may bring love,

That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness,

That where there is discord, I may bring harmony,

That where there is error I may bring truth,

That where there is doubt I may bring faith,

That where there is despair I may bring hope,

That where there are shadows I may bring light,

That where there is sadness I may bring joy.

Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted,

To understand than to be understood,

To love than to be loved.

For it is by forgetting self that one finds.

It is by forgiving that one is forgiven,

It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life.

Even if this prayer was not written by St. Francis, it certainly represents his ideals. He wanted to be a creative force in the face of destruction – to edify that which had been torn down. Again, from the article I mentioned above: 

One of the most famous moments in St. Francis's life is the day he was passing by the church of St. Damiano. It was old and near collapse. From St. Bonaventure's “Life of Francis of Assisi”: “Inspired by the Spirit, he went inside to pray. Kneeling before an image of the Crucified, he was filled with great fervor and consolation. . . . While his tear-filled eyes were gazing at the Lord's cross, he heard with his bodily ears a voice coming from the cross, telling him three times: ‘Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin.’” Francis was amazed “at the sound of this astonishing voice, since he was alone in the church.” He set himself to obeying the command.

Like St. Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio – now Pope Francis – is in a unique position to rebuild and repair the image of the Roman Catholic church. A life forged in service and tempered by modesty has created a weapon of peace – the only possible way to counteract the effects of hate and destruction. Noticing this remarkable characteristic of humility in Pope Francis, one observer noted:

That is more than strength…This is not cynical humanity. This is showing there is another way to be.

This man is living proof that we don’t need to inherit the idea that strength, power, and prestige means influence and importance. We can choose to build up, create, and give life to people, ideas, and movements. We can repair the world.

May we all choose this “other way.” 

Read this inspiring article in its entirety here.


1) Case in point – Protestant Reformation figurehead John Calvin’s Institutes contains the following passage: “Shall we recognise the Apostolic See where we see nothing but horrible apostacy? Shall he be the vicar of Christ who, by his furious efforts in persecuting the Gospel, plainly declares himself to be Antichrist? Shall he be the successor of Peter who goes about with fire and sword demolishing everything that Peter built?. Shall he be the Head of the Church who, after dissevering the Church from Christ, her only true Head, tears and lacerates her members? Rome, indeed, was once the mother of all the churches, but since she began to be the seat of Antichrist she ceased to be what she was” (Institutes IV, 7:24).

Thursday, 14 March 2013


I’m learning to see.

It’s not that I’m physically going blind, but in this day and age, it’s easy to lose sight of the truly good, the beautiful, and the wonderful in the world. Much of what I hear on television, online, and from others is focused on what’s wrong with _(fill in the blank)_. This has been especially true in my graduate school experience, where students have been expected to read the writings of others with an eye towards what they got wrong. Students who do so are then praised by teachers and rewarded with the respect of their peers.

I’m tired of poking holes in the arguments of others and watching them bleed. I’m tired of seeing a world in a state of constant decay. I want to see the world as I did when I was a child, filled with castles and dragons (and robots, and lightsabers, and dinosaurs, and so on).

My bewildered brother and me attempting to
tame the metal garbage-eating goat at
Spokane's Riverfront Park (circa 1983)

I want to reclaim that enchanted worldview. I want to be able to stand in awe at an idea, an image, an object, and another person – any other person – living or beyond living.

I’ve found that the more I believe that I can see the truly good, the beautiful, and the wonderful, the more I can distinguish the edges of these on my personal horizon. And, like the person in the following image, I am able to break through the world of the mundane and am dazzled by sights more amazing than I had imagined.

The Flammarion engraving is a wood engraving by an unknown artist that first appeared in Camille Flammarion’s L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (1888). The image depicts a man crawling under the edge of the sky, depicted as if it were a solid hemisphere, to look at the mysterious Empyrean beyond. The caption translates to “A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet...”

Such “dazzling” must happen gradually, as Emily Dickinson explained so elegantly:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind
One of the things that I love most about Mormonism is its unembarrassed reaching for the truly good, the beautiful, and the wonderful. Joseph Smith once stated: “One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from where it may.”(1) 

As this fledgling group of truth-seekers began to establish themselves in the mid-1800s, some made attempts to summarize their religious beliefs. Parley Pratt was one of the first to do so (2), followed by his brother Orson (3). When Joseph Smith finally set down his own summary, he went beyond these previous attempts, grasping at something higher.

Joseph Smith's signature

In what became known as the Articles of Faith,” Joseph began by outlining the doctrines most fundamental to Mormonism and then moved to brief statements of belief regarding several important religious issues of the day.(4) It’s how he ends this little document that stands out the most to me – he did not end with a declaration that Mormonism had all the answers, or even that it possessed all truth. Rather, the culminating “Article of Faith” was something much more beautiful:
We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.
This is what resonates most with me, and this is what I want to see – the virtuous, the lovely, and the praiseworthy in the world. But not just “the world” I’ve grown accustomed to – I expect to be surprised by the good in unexpected places and by unexpected people. I want to see it with my eyes, my mind, and my heart. And I don’t want to receive it passively. I want to “seek after these things.”

And that’s why I’m starting this. I want to counter the trend in academia, in the public square, and in everyday conversation that is quick to belittle, criticize, and dismiss almost every contribution made by individuals or groups or religions. In believing that there is good, beauty, and wonder in the world, I am seeing it more and more – not only in the present, but also in the past, where my studies often take me. And I've decided to share that with anyone who’s interested in recovering such an enchanted view of the world.

I want this to be a space where we can lead each other in our dazzled semi-blindness, so please join the conversation by leaving your comments and questions in the following posts.

I’m learning to see, but I need help. Won’t you join me?


1) Sermon of Joseph Smith, 9 July 1843 (Sunday Morning), in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1980), p. 229, spelling and punctuation standardized. 

2) This appeared in “An Address by Judge Higbee and Parley P. Pratt, Ministers of the Gospel, of the Church of Jesus Christ of ‘Latter-day Saints,’ to the Citizens of Washington and to the Public in General,” Washington, D.C., 9 February 1840. Available here.

3) This appeared in “A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records,” Edinburgh, Scotland, 1840. Available here.

4) Joseph Smith penned this as part of a longer letter in 1842 to John Wentworth, and was reprinted in the Mormon periodical Times and Seasons, March 1, 1842. Available here.