Beguiled by Beauty | Wendy Farley

Beguiled by Beauty

The following is an excerpt from Beguiled by Beauty by Wendy Farley. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.

How difficult it is to maintain an open heart in these dark days! Climate change performs its destructive work even more quickly than we feared. Hatred is given permission to rage with impunity. Work, school, and religion are often alienating. Technology silently steals our ability to concentrate or think deeply. Our activism can make us sympathize with Sisyphus, condemned to endlessly push a stone up a mountain, only to have it roll back as it nears the summit. Religious commitments sometimes feel dry as dust. But the world remains so tender and lovely, so vulnerable and enigmatic. How can we keep opening our heart to the sorrow and tragedy of the world and yet remain alert to its endlessly proliferating splendors? How can we train ourselves to fall ever more deeply in love with the world without glossing over deception and cruelty?

Beguiled by Beauty began to percolate many years ago when I started teaching a freshman seminar at Emory University that I called “Contemplating Beauty.” The idea came from nowhere and did not seem to be any- thing but a whim. We read Gregory of Nyssa and Dostoevsky, Natasha Trethewey and Simone Weil. Our readings continually exposed us to the paradoxical intertwining of beauty and compassion. Over the years the power of beauty as a threshold to the divine became deeply rooted in me, changing the way I experience the world. Tragedy and affliction do not operate in some other world, as if the truth of suffering were alien to creation, but are always present or just below the surface of awareness. Beauty does not stand apart, bright and unscathed, but permeates everything. It is heartbreaking to see the interdependence of these things; to acknowledge sacred beauty in the midst of disaster seems a betrayal. To allow in awareness of suffering in a moment of intoxication would seem to spoil it. But becoming aware of the radiance of beauty anoints all events—all people, beings, and environments—with the holy chrism of the sacred.

Like many Protestants, I thought of social responsibility as one thing and enjoying nature or poetry as something completely different. I understood obligations to a public world but thought little of how the distortions of my mental habits would be mirrored to the world, whether I liked it or not. I did not appreciate how central intimacy or union with the Beloved was to earlier Christians’ understanding of how the commandment of love could be practiced. I have studied many forms of contemplative practice and meditation, but I missed the connections between awakening to the beauty of beings, falling in love with the Beloved, and cultivating radical compassion. There are many paths, and for some reason, the path of beauty has called to me.

The beauty of beings is not their external “prettiness.” The man on death row, the old woman dying in her bed, the bleached coral reefs are not pretty sights. But this man, this woman, this coral are beautiful and sacred. They are irrevocably woven into the family of being. Glimpsing the raw beauty of beings is a joy. It opens us to the eternal incarnate in time and in flesh. It is also a long sorrow. Beauty is constantly perishing. All things pass away, but too often the beauty of beings perishes because of violence, rapaciousness, indifference, and betrayal.

Beguiled by Beauty is about a contemplative way of life. It is not so much a description of particular forms of meditation, though the last chapter offers examples of concrete practices one might experiment with. Its pages describe some ways one might cultivate habits of wonder, attention, compassion, courage, joy. It offers a conversation that might spark your own ways of awakening to beauty and sustaining compassion.

Though there are many exceptions, descriptions of contemplation or meditation often imagine life with sufficient luxury that one can dedicate serious time and energy to religious practices. The monk’s cell is the traditional ideal for a contemplative life. I am the mother of three children, a professor, and have walked in dark valleys where hope seemed very dim. I know more than I wish I did about trauma. I mention this because it shapes the way I understand a contemplative way of life. I did not have the time or ability to follow the instructions of dedicated meditators. One can hardly meditate twice a day for twenty minutes or rise before dawn for an hour of practice when every second is dedicated to children, work, and keeping terror at bay. Or maybe you can. But I couldn’t. I have no doubt that the ability to dedicate hours, days, and years to religious practice is an enormous gift and may deepen capacities for union and love in ways nothing else can. But that was not my life. There were not many signposts for people in my situation. I thirsted for the Beloved and longed to deepen and purify capacities for courage and compassion. But my dedication to being a mother and teacher, entangled with the lives of my family and friends, my community and nation, made a contemplative way of life difficult to cultivate.

Whatever your life is like, signposts may feel few and far between. You may be inspired by teachings about prayer, meditation, and contemplation only to crash against the constraints of a busy or difficult life. But whoever we are, we are made for the Beloved and made to share the Beloved’s delight in and care for the world. The responsibilities of ordinary life do not alienate us from our nature. They are the environment in which we encounter it. Rather than imagine contemplation as an impossible ideal, it is possible to nurture your spirit within the terms your life is setting for you—whether you are an aging person whose wisdom expands even as your body or concentration diminishes, a delighted and exhausted mother, a person working more hours than there seem to be in a day, someone whose spirituality is damaged by a cruel church community, a trauma survivor who may be triggered rather than supported by meditation books or communities, a retiree with more time available to explore new things, or a pastor eager to find fresh approaches to faith. For those of us who embrace life in the company of lovers, spouses, children, activity, and work, it may seem that a contemplative way of life is nothing more than a wish or dream. This is only true if we under- stand monasticism as the only model for spiritual life. If we split apart the world into various dualistic categories, then we tear apart aspects of ourselves that long to be together: activism / spirituality, prayer / work, interiority / public life, family life / contemplation, friendship / universal compassion. Life is a seamless whole. Every part is related to every other part, just as every being is related to every other being. There are no absolute divisions anywhere. Contemplation is not something separate and apart from ordinary life. It is a way to inhabit ordinary life. We might take periods of time for meditation or prayer or contemplative walks or working with a poem or piece of music, but these are not separate “contemplative” moments; they are simply part of the inter- weaving of life. Brother Lawrence said to a friend, “For me the time of action does not differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are together calling for as many different things, I possess God in as2great tranquility as when upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.” This eye-of-the-hurricane calm may seem a fantastic dream, but it is possible because “God is everywhere, in all places, and there is no spot where we cannot draw near.”

A meditation pillow, a lit candle, a quiet corner, and a prayer circle are all very nourishing. These moments of silence and solitude help to cultivate a space within us that is less reactive and open a depth in our heart. When we are able to find moments of prayer and silence, we can become more centered in intimacy with the Beloved. But they do not make the divine Beloved present. They can only make us more aware of the presence, which is there in the pots and pans, at the sickbed, and present while we nurse or cry or type or protest. A contemplative way of life reorients our awareness to the presence that is always with us. There is a sacred energy—the Beloved, Holy Wisdom, the Divine Mother, God, chi, prana—that is nearer than our breath. “Everything in the world shares in this energy, contributes to it, benefits from it, is sustained by it. This energy connects us…That is simply the way the universe is made.” The Spirit of Goodness is everywhere and always. When we integrate our awareness into it, in whatever ways make sense to our life as it is right now in this moment, we can participate in the beauty and compassion that endlessly flows throughout creation. We weave contemplative awareness into every moment, whatever is happening. We do this more naturally and spontaneously the more we practice it. It is not a duty or something that earns us salvation. It is not a way of perfection or of perfect holiness. It is simply being human, being a creature of spirit and flesh, bearing a flaming and broken heart, and constituted by our infinite connections to others.

Beguiled by Beauty may be part of the conversation as you think about how you want to nourish your heart’s longing for—for what? This yearning may be hard to name. We are creatures of spirit and made for the Beloved, for the ultimate mystery that has no name. As creatures of spirit, our longing for the sacred is not only a private relationship with the holy other. It is a call to honor the sacred worth of every creature. Our inchoate longing is a desire to love more deeply, feel more unconstrained compassion, wonder at the glorious creativity of nature and art. We long to be alive to all that is—the Good beyond all names, the beings that inhabit the world, the creativity of the human spirit, the inconsolable tragedies of our lives and of the world. We desire to be fully alive, but the world does not always support this desire. We are entangled in things that dull our senses and distract us from our loves. Suffering or witness to suffering make us want to become numb to the world and shielded against our own heart.

We cannot love the world without accepting its tragic suffering as part of the whole. I do not know why these are woven together and have no theories about it. But beings are beautiful and they suffer. Contemplation requires that we intensify our awareness of both of these truths. We often dull down our capacity for beauty because we cannot bear to stay awake for the atrocities that we encounter when we love fragile creatures. It requires so much courage and strength to endure love for the beauty of the world. As Galway Kinnell points out, love requires courage: “perhaps it is courage, and even perhaps only courage.”

We cannot expect to live a contemplative life or to love the world or even love one single thing in it without courage and without sustained resources to feed our courage. The very word “courage” comes from the word for heart. If we want our heart to live, we must feed it and nourish it. Contemplating the beauty of beings is one way to do this—in the ordinariness of life, in the unending bodying forth of the divine goodness in the depth and width and height of creation.

Praise for Beguiled by Beauty

“Thomas Merton wrote that contemplation is the spiritual life ‘fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive.’ In Beguiled by Beauty, Wendy Farley develops a remarkable account of contemplation that demonstrates the truth of Merton’s insight. Drawing extensively on the historic wisdom of the world’s contemplative traditions, Farley describes the Christian contemplative life as one open and attuned to Divine beauty and immersed in everyday joy, sorrow, delight, suffering, and routine. Not a ‘how to’ book, this work is nonetheless filled with practical wisdom for anyone who longs to more fully embrace and embody God’s love, compassion, and justice in the world.”
Timothy H. Robinson, Lunger Associate Professor of Spiritual Resources and Disciplines, Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University

“Lots of books ask questions, but few of them put us in question. By doing the latter, this book helps to make us who we hope to become. Contemplation leads to compassion and Farley leads us toward both.”
J. Aaron Simmons, Professor of Philosophy, Furman University

“Wendy Farley gently lures us into a world of wonder. We begin to sense the nuance of each detail, infused as it is with divine goodness. She pivots us from one scene to another, showing us ever more instances of inherent beauty even in heartache. She invites us to make a shift from a moral obligation to ‘do right’ to a deep desire for all beings to ‘be right’–whole and beloved. As we follow her lead into this theology of compassion, we finally come to notice that the world we have fallen in love with Is our own. We discover that the ‘rich, courageous, generous, and joyful’ life she describes can be our own. And she gives us tools to make it so, helping us into practices of contemplation to center and guide us, opening deep wells of respite in these times of grief. Dr. Farley’s writing style has wide appeal–theologians, philosophers, pastors, parishioners, and practitioners will find themselves ‘beguiled’ by the experience.”
Marcia McFee, Ph.D, Creator and Visionary of the Worship Design Studio and Ford Fellow Visiting Professor of Worship, Graduate School of Theology, Redlands University, home of San Francisco Theological Seminary

“In luminous and lithe prose, Farley invites readers into a more contemplative life. She situates that life in an alluring and compelling theological vision; one that connects the human and the divine not through arduous discipline, but through beauty, wonder, and compassion. That theological vision is, in turn, embodied in the gentle guided walk through various practices she offers in the concluding chapters. It’s an invitation that I hope we’ll all accept – for our own sake as well as that of our troubled, yet beautiful world.” –Ellen T. Armour, Vanderbilt Divinity School

“I recommend this book to anyone who wishes to delve more deeply into contemplative pursuits in the company of an astute theologian and experienced practitioner of them. It is basic enough for a beginner yet deep enough for longtime devotees of contemplative practices.”
Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology

About the Author

Wendy Farley

Dr. Wendy Farley is the Rice Family Chair of Spirituality at San Francisco Theological Seminary, part of the Graduate School of Theology at Redlands University. In that capacity, she is the Director of Programs in Christian Spirituality and Director of Programs in the Art of Spiritual Direction. She is professor emerita from Emory University, where she taught in the college for 28 years and chaired Theological Studies in the doctoral program for more than two decades. She is the author of several books of theology and wisdom, and is a celebrated speaker and teacher. She has studied many forms of contemplative practice within Christianity, Buddhism, and yoga, including chant, energy work, meditation, centering prayer, visualization, and lectio divina. She is an associate at the Green Bough House of Prayer in Adrian, GA. She lives in San Anselmo, CA.

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