Winter’s come to Rome. The surest sign of this was felt last weekend during our Advent triduum (a three-day retreat) at a nice little retreat house on Rocca di Papa, a town on a hill not far from Rome. On the final morning of the triduum, I took a walk in the garden only to find that most of the grassy patches seemed to have been painted white overnight. ‘Snow?’, I thought to myself. On closer inspection, it wasn’t snow but frost on the grass and leaves that fell on the ground. The dew that fell on the grass froze overnight and left a fine dusting of frost on them. Held up to the light, the frost shimmered like little jewels on the surface of the leaves and grass, almost as if a clumsy thief had run through the fields overnight, dropping his loot of jewels willy-nilly on the grass.
I didn’t take this photo but it comes very close to what I saw. [Original]
I picked up a leaf, aflame with autumn red, to examine the little ice crystals that formed on the surface. As a result of the leaf’s proximity to me and the fact that I held it in the sun to see it sparkle, the ice began to melt. Beauty changed. The sharp angular edges of the crystals quickly softened into subtle curves which then turned into beautiful glistening globes of water. Diamonds turning into pearls almost, before the droplets rolled of the leaf, revealing its full autumn finery.
The beauty of the frosted leaf and the revelation of the fiery beauty beneath led me to realise that what we call beauty is something not just complex in itself but infinitesimally changeable both in space and time. Upon further reflection on this experience, I realised that I beheld three moments of beauty in that small little leaf. The first was the moment of temporary manifest beauty of the frost on the leaf. The second was the moment of transitory beauty of the red autumnal leaf. And the third was the permanent existential beauty of the leaf itself.
Beauty that is temporary and manifest happens in the moment and is special. It does not last long, as the frost on the leaf demonstrated, but it provides a momentary insight into the possibility of the sublime. It’s often fleeing and we thus have to be attentive to the world around us so that we don’t miss the opportunities to participate in this form of beauty. Given the temporality of this sort of beauty, we respond by relishing and savouring the moments that we can catch, enjoying and participating in it as much as we can. It’s catching the moment of joy in the laugh of a child, the depth of a note in a piece of music that touches our soul, the flicker of a candle in the gloom of a darkened chapel. These are moments that we sense, relish and remember.
Transitory beauty is all about change but change in itself is a moment of beauty. I’ve been reminded how beautiful autumn can be as the trees along my normal running route changed over the past months. The change has been almost imperceptible but when one does realise it, one cannot help but wonder at how change and the seasons bring beauty anew all the time. We appreciate the process, the transition itself. It’s all about sitting to watch the sunset, enjoying the transition from day to dusk to night. Watching the light fade, colours deepen and shadows lengthen until all that’s left is the shadow of day. It’s realising that we too are continually transformed, from golden evening through crimson dusk to indigo twilight, every day of our lives.
And then there’s the permanent, existential beauty that lasts and underlines everything that is temporary and transitory. It’s the inherent beauty of the leaf that goes beyond the autumnal reds and covering of frost. And it’s not just the physical beauty that’s involved here – it’s the existential beauty of the thing that’s in question. The leaf’s not just beautiful in its shape and form but beautiful in its ecological function and even more beautiful in it’s being part of the creation of God. It’s beautiful because it’s a leaf that’s created by God and not for any other external reason. Existential beauty drives our ability to love. We’re naturally drawn to beauty and more than just the externals, we’re drawn to beauty that’s deep within all things that we see. There’s a power in the simplicity of this moment of beauty – a power that we appreciate innately but may find difficult to express. This is why people fall in love and stay in love with each other for their entire lives. This is why works of art remain works of art for all ages. Beauty draws us to it and draws us to love.
There’s beauty in the world and there’s beauty in the Word made flesh. During these last days of Advent, we’re invited to contemplate the coming of the Lord into the world. We feel the beauty of transition as we live in this liminal space, quietly living in anticipation as we reflect on how we are changed and brought closer to the Lord in this time. Our anticipation reaches a climax in the singular event of the Nativity that, while momentary, is also infused with the permanence of the Word who is its centre. We celebrate the coming of Jesus into the world, the event of God becoming man to live among us. We also celebrate the permanence of this coming – of God’s continual presence among us now and for eternity.
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6 (KJV)
May this time of Advent be one of beautiful waiting and may the beauty of the Lord’s Nativity draw us into a deeper love for Him and His people around us. May the Prince of Peace bring true peace and joy into hearts so in need of consolation and may we have to courage to spread this joy to all. Amen.