Nothing is sacred. The statement answers a question that I heard raised in the 1960s and ’70s when irreverence exploded, the hypocrisy of people with power and prestige became broadly apparent, and when individuals sought their own means to personal fulfillment. Is nothing sacred, people asked? For a long time we’ve been able to answer comes with confidence and without hesitation: No.
But if that’s true, it’s also true that we – humans that is – consistently look for something beyond ourselves, . Intellectuals concluded by the mid-tentieth century that religions would fade. Mainline denominations that didn’t demand much of their adherents, and that didn’t aspire too much in the culture, are indeed fading. But more zealous religious organizations exploded by the end the twentieth century and in the early years of the twenty first. For all the fervor though, the energy might be less about some specific belief in the unbelievable than toward a human need for beauty, virtue and meaning, for that elusive something beyond ourselves.
The writer David Brooks says that the fastest growing political affiliation is unaffiliated; the fastest growing religious affiliation is the Nones. But those trends don’t exhibit a lack of yearning to belong to something meaningful. Instead, they represent a heartfelt need for something worthy of our loyalty, devotion, reflection and sacrifice.
Our culture honors work if it yields financial success. Our culture honors competition if you’re a winner. It honors consumption if you have – or if you can project – the ability to pay for it. It honors commerce as the engine that drives everything else. But we’re more than competitors, and we’re more than consumers. When the government becomes a morass of self-aggrandizing partisanship; when religion loses its virtue and becomes another tribe; and when commerce and the way of life it imposes on us wears us down with its relentless pace and merciless performance metrics, something in our nature awakens and at some level refuses to submit, to remain silent. We might not all be poets, but we all have the capacity to be moved by the same events and forces that foster poetry, that inspire art.
Art can provide an outlet, an avenue of expression of that human need, particularly in times like this.
In his book, Art Can Help, photographer and writer Robert Adams, said that
More than anything else beauty is what distinguishes art. Beauty is never less than a mystery, but it has within it a promise.
In this way, art encourages us to gratitude and engagement, and is of both personal and civic consequence.
And later in the book, in his comments on images by the photographer, Wayne Gudmundson, he said
For many artists, beauty is the voice out of the whirlwind.
Before concluding this piece, I should note that beauty isn’t trivial nor sentimental. It’s not some surface loveliness but rather a quality of toughness, of symmetry in more than a physical or geometric sense, and it embodies a wholeness, that moves us toward relationships of completeness and integrity. I’m not directly quoting the late Irish poet, John O’Donohue, but his thinking and eloquence have informed my own thinking and helped me to find my own understanding and expression of a definition of beauty.
I will end with one more quote that helps focus my thinking as well as my lenses. I don’t have the source although it was uttered by the critic, R.P. Blackmer, and was conveyed by the poet, Christian Wiman. Blackmer’s observation was that the poet’s work increases the stock of available reality. To whatever extent I’m capable of it in my own work, I strive to increase the stock of available reality, to note the beauty available in the world, in ordinary places, at ordinary times, to all of us who possess ordinary capacities of perception. When we’re able to open our ordinary ability to perceive the world around us, the effects can extraordinary. When that happens, whether or not it’s through my own work, it might help open us to an encounter with the sacred. It’s certainly worth searching for.