The Alhambra is an ancient Arab palace in Granada, Spain. I knew a little of the history of the palace, but nothing prepared me for the beauty of the intricately carved stone archway at the entrance. It was poetry in stone. So powerful was the beauty of this architecture that my legs became weak, and I almost fell. I have to change my life, I thought. In the face of this beauty I have to change my life. I wish the buildings in my city of Vancouver were beautiful. My city is a machine for making money. When I go back home, I want to make something beautiful.
Vincent Van Gogh saw the ugliness and injustice of his society. He wanted to help people who were suffering, and he went to live in a mining village where the people were very poor. He wasn’t any help, though, because he gave everything he owned away, and his family had to rescue him. Slowly an idea formed in Van Gogh’s mind. He would make the world a better place through his paintings. He would make something beautiful, and give it to someone as a gift. “How can I be of use in the world?” he asked in a letter to his brother Theo (July, 1880). “Cannot I serve some purpose and be of some good?” The millions of people who line up to see the paintings of Van Gogh, and come away with renewed hope, have answered that question.
I wonder what Van Gogh meant by the word beautiful? He said that he wanted to paint things as they really were, and the writer, John Berger, thought Van Gogh’s entire life was an endless yearning for reality. (Selected Essays of John Berger, edited by Geoff Dyer, Vintage International, 2003) The problem is that different people see reality differently. The reality Van Gogh was seeking was not the reality of the scientist who said that what was real could be measured with a calculator. Van Gogh’s reality was closer to William Blake’s statement: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, people would see everything as it is, infinite.” This was a vision of the sacred, using Mircea Eliade’s definition of the sacred as that which is saturated with being – the essence of things.
The philosopher, Karl Jaspers, described how Van Gogh’s paintings captured the essence of things. “It seems to me,” he wrote, “that some secret spring of life is opened to us for a moment, as if the depths hidden in every existence were unveiled right before our eyes.” To see things as they really are is to experience the sacred. The person who sees with full attention becomes a seer, and that person will reject the materialistic, profit-driven society we live in. In this sense the spiritual is political.
The philosopher, Heidegger, defined truth as the unconcealedness of being, and beauty as the clothes of being. This is the reality Van Gogh sought. This is what Keats meant when he wrote in his poem Ode To A Grecian Urn, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” We share being, for all things are one in that they are, and all things are many in what they are. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Nation expressed our connection to all that is when he said, “The earth and myself are of one mind.” If we are of one mind, or one reality, with all that is, then we are kin with the mice in the forest and the stars in the sky. First Nations people state this reality in the phrase “All my relations”. Beauty as the clothes of being carries a political message because we have no right to harm or exploit our relatives. Brother Sun; Sister Moon.
We are part of the healing of the world when we create something beautiful. We reach out to our sisters and brothers with the gift of hope – a song, a poem, a dance, a painting, a banner, a poster, a photograph, a quilt, a sculpture, a play, a newsletter, a story, a speech, an opera, a collage, a drawing, a wall hanging, a mural, and the giving of a kind word from one person to another. All these creations are precious stones for the bridge we are building across the river of despair and injustice to a land of beauty where everyone is included.