“We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.” -Hans Urs von Balthasar
Last night, I took a brief bike ride through a nearby woods, an activity that’s become somewhat of a routine after the kids are in bed and my wife is at ease. After a long day at work and the rough-and-tumble that occurs upon arriving home, it serves as a brief respite before assuming the remaining tasks of the day.
But though it’s intended as a time of rest and prayer and wonder, I often give way to my more modernistic impulses, listening to a podcast or an audiobook through my iPhone to make every last second of my day “count” toward something “productive.”
Last night, I did just that. But as I came whizzing down the gravel path through one of the darker, more shaded areas of the woods, I suddenly spotted two deer — a mother and a fawn — standing right in the middle of the path. I slowed down, moving closer and closer before stopping just a yard or two away. I had expected the deer to run away, but to my surprise, neither did. I turned off my headlight and pulled my noisy headphones out of my ears, standing eerily close and looking them straight in the eyes for 30 or so long and stirring seconds.
Eventually, they turned around, walking slowly off the path and disappearing into the woods. I stood there watching, and even after they faded into the darkness, I was compelled to simply stay and listen to the surrounding sounds. I stared up at the moon, which just so happened to be full. I hadn’t even noticed it until then.
I was struck with a sense of wonder. Throughout the ride, I had convinced myself I was “making room” and “taking the time to slow down” — to meditate, to surround myself with God’s creation, to decompress from the busyness of life. To some extent, I was, and yet there, in the same stillness of that same twilight, something was different.
I was simply beholding God’s creation.
In Episode 6 of For the Life of the World, which focuses on the Economy of Wonder, Stephen Grabill captures my situation, noting that in modern society, we rarely give ourselves the space to appreciate the value of things in and of themselves, seeking instead to put them to some sort of pragmatic use. “We need to develop a palate for what is good,” he says, “not just for what it can do for us, but for what it is in itself.”
Later in the episode, artist Mako Fujimura (who will be speaking at Acton U next week) expands on this, explaining that if the church cares about spreading the Gospel, it has to regain a sense of beauty and wonder:
Perhaps the greatest thing we can do as a Christian community is to behold. Behold our God. Behold his creation. The church has exiled beauty from its conversations, and I think that we need to rediscover the beautiful in order to recover ourselves — our humanity. Jesus seemed to indicate that beauty is a door into the Gospel. Beauty is the door…
…God somehow demands of us so much more than this transactional nature. It is really about the gift that we’ve been given, and the only response we can give back is with extravagance, with gratuitous beauty. And we need to tell this story. Not the story of pragmatism. Not the story of utility. This story of extravagance, of gratuitous beauty, is the Gospel. That is the story I’ve come to die for.
There in the quiet of the woods, I had made space for God to whisper, but I still needed interruption from those deer in order to stop and truly listen. Riding my bike in the woods and listening to an audiobook was probably a better way to steward that time than watching a reality show on TV, but there are better ways even still. Even as we stretch and grow in this area, the temptation toward pragmatism will remain.
“Scripture says ‘taste and see that the Lord is good,’ not just intellectually understand that God is good,” Grabill concludes. “If we lose the sense of God’s goodness and wonder at what he’s made, we risk losing a fundamental aspect of our mission in the world.”
Those deer and that moon had to catch me by surprise. What more might we achieve — how much more “productive” might the church be, in the ways that truly matter — if we steward our time with the intent to taste and see: to simply behold our God and marvel at his creation.
Watch the trailer for Episode 4 here: