The Common Good
September/October 2007

'To Live Is to Praise'

by Rose Marie Berger | September/October 2007

Are beauty and truth a luxury?

Now we are in the season of storms. Supercells tower above the urban architecture. They vault and layer, striate and swirl. Below, neighbors cuddle beneath Speedy Liquor's faded green awning, laughing. Others stand silently in the clear box of the bus stop shelter studying the sky. From my second floor office window, I see both the upper and lower worlds.

I've always been excited by storms. In California's central valley where I grew up, thunderstorms were rare. Instead, we got the slow, steady, soaking rains that performed a reverse alchemy by turning our golden hills to fertile green.

I learned about real storms in south Arkansas, where I spent many summers. I learned to watch for the perilous violet-jade clouds with v-shaped mammatus; how to lie in a ditch if I saw a funnel cloud; how to barricade myself in the interior bathroom in the event of a full-on lightning storm, hurricane, or tornado.

One night in the summer of 1985, I found myself stretched out in a beat-up rowboat tied to a dilapidated pier on the Sea of Galilee. Just past midnight the stars began to disappear and I was caught in a full-fledged squall. Lightning shot directly to the ground. The storm's outburst turned the lake surface into liquid insurrection. Its speed and ferocity are something I will never forget.

I love the truth of lightning. I love the beauty of rain clouds and thunder. I love how their nearness makes my heart pound. Leben ist loben, say the Germans; to live is to praise.

FOR THE FOLLOWERS of Jesus—we who are called to tend the wounds of those crushed under the weight of our personal and collective sin—beauty and truth can seem a luxury. There's little of either in the daily news. Immigration reform stalled, so Gloria's hopes of seeing her children in El Salvador are again deferred. The ShotSpotter Gunshot Location System has been installed in D.C. neighborhoods to address the increased homicide rate—which includes a 13-year-old boy killed two blocks from my house. A 7-month-old baby boy was left by his mother on the lawn outside a local government building after she became so emotionally unstable that she was afraid she'd hurt him. Is it beauty that lets us experience the Divine? Or is it suffering that leads us to the greatest truths?

The cumulus clouds over the buildings are starting to flatten out. Shards of brilliant blue cut through. Somehow the world seems lit from below—light pouring up into cloud ridges, defining the ephemeral "edges" of warm air playing to cold. The streets have already dried after the downpour. Men wearing kufis and gimme caps stop to share a cigarette. A woman in a wheelchair sits outside her apartment, savoring the momentary coolness.

Beautiful things, writes Elaine Scarry, "always carry greetings from other worlds within them." If this is accurate, then beauty—and the truth that must reside in it for it to be truly beautiful—is a kind of angel: a bearer of good news. This angel warns us to not be mesmerized by the "cult of the ugly," as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger put it in a 2002 talk on "The Beauty and the Truth of Christ." The idols in this cult would have us sacrifice to them in a spirit of terror, insecurity, scarcity, close-mindedness, self-protection, and immediate gratification.

In Dostoevsky's The Idiot, a character asks, "What kind of beauty will save the world?" Dostoevsky answers elsewhere, "the world will become the beauty of Christ." It is a paradox that the facts we read in the daily paper are not the truest reports of who we are as human beings—though we begin to think they are. It is the sharp edge of faith that allows us to cut through the shroud of ugliness. Faith teaches us how truly "to praise the mutilated world," as poet Adam Zagajewski puts it, even when "the executioners sing joyfully."

From my office window, I watch the next storm build and strengthen. The sidewalks are wet again. From here, I don't really see an upper and a lower world. I just see Christ's world shot through with beauty, suffering, and small truths about who we are as human beings.

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

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