I really dig some of the philosophies explored by the literary sets of the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly transcendentalism and romanticism. I absolutely subscribe to the notion that the individual locates any true spiritual experience within the self and experience, and that doctrines borne in religious or political establishments were not intended for the benefit of someone like me. I don't see how that has to be so far off from the general message promoted by every one of those doctrines, but then again, everything can be twisted around to say something else.
No doubt my arrival in the 20th century – starting in the sixties and coming of age in the seventies – has something to do with that questioning of establishments in general. But it's more than being anti-establishiment. It's about transformation; about finding those things that elevate my experience from its earthly hangout.
Sometime in the nineties, one of my more esteemed English professors, Eugene McNamara, was lecturing about one of the harbingers of transcendentalism and preeminent orators of his time, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He suggested that ol’ R.W. would not much appreciate finding his essays chopped up into quotes on fridge magnets and stationery on drug store shelves. I recall reaching into my bag and pulling out a small datebook and showing my friend Dale in the next seat the Emerson quote providing insight for the month of March.
I suppose Emerson didn’t anticipate the reduced attention spans of those who would inhabit the twenty-twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I'm afraid we like our ideas succinct.
But I sure would have loved to hear him express this [not succinct] idea aloud in a talk about living a successful life:
To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and to endure the betrayal of false friends. To appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson might hate it, but let's call him and his really big ideas beautiful thing number 44.
What if our religion was each other
If our practice was our life
If prayer our words
What if the temple was the Earth
If forests were our church
If holy water – the rivers, lakes and ocean
What if meditation was our relationships
If the teacher was life
If wisdom was self-knowledge
If love was the centre of our being
That, my friends, is the most beautiful thing I read all day, and thing number 26 of 101.
I can find beauty in the seediest parts of any city. Beauty is easy to find if, if you believe as I do that it has many more layers than that which sits on the surface of a thing or a person.
But then there is the kind of beauty that transforms you, the kind the Romantics explored. I’ve experienced this kind of transformative beauty a number of times in my life, and it’s always the product of me encountering some work of art or some aspect of the natural world. I valued beauty even as a kid, and that’s probably why I found such power in studying Romantic literature in university. When I found these poets writing of sublime experiences in encountering beauty, I got it, because I’d been there.
I was about sixteen when I sat in an art history lesson and saw slides of Michelangelo’s Pieta. It was the first seed of an idea that I’m now certain of: that great artists channel a source that moves beyond the confines of human understanding. I experienced a similar conviction about witnessing the transcendent when I studied John Keats and his achievements during his short stay on this planet.
Encountering divine splashes in nature has had even more startling impact on my sensibilities. A northern Ontario forest floor carpeted with trillium; the ancient rocks on the shore of the Manitoulin Island; great masses of bluebells covering the rolling, lusty landscape of mid-Wales; farm fields of yellow mustard radiating a colour you wouldn’t believe existed if you didn’t see it with your own eyes.
The most arresting encounter with the sublime in nature was in a forest next to a monastery and retreat I visited in Finland over the Orthodox Easter weekend some years ago. Saturday church services ran all night, and most of the visitors to the retreat had attended. I awoke with the sun, feeling some regret that I didn’t attend any of the services, feeling shy and out of place in my Presbyterian upbringing and largely secular sensibility. When I walked outside Sunday morning I felt very alone – everything on the compound was closed up tight; everyone was asleep but me. So I went for a walk.
I headed into the woods adjacent to the monastery grounds. Not far in, I was stopped short by the sight ahead of me. The sun was spilling its pale, shimmering ribbons through the dark contrast of the trees, landing in golds and pinks on the snowy forest floor. The picture was so stunningly beautiful I cried, knowing for certain I was being presented with a divine gift. I wondered for a moment if I’d stumbled onto heaven.
Perhaps some would say it’s simply a way of feeling, of exploring sensibility and one’s ability to pay attention to the experience of encountering magnificence. I am not a religious person, though I have experienced transformative moments of beauty in churches. I suppose I find more certainty in the tangible, finding the divine in great artistic accomplishments and the spontaneous magic in nature rather than through any strictures of organized worship or scientific rationalizations.
For me, these spontaneous experiences and the subsequent emotion and inspiration that result are the most convincing evidence that we are living in a magical world. Really, you couldn’t convince me otherwise.
And he, with many feelings, many thoughts,
Made up a meditative joy, and found
Religious meaning in the forms of Nature!
~Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Fears in Solitude
Story Copyright © Jennifer Morrison 2010