Guest Post: On Beauty, Truth, and Janitor’s Closets

I’m happy to introduce the blog’s very first guest post. It’s by Amy Lee–a fellow member writer in the Anselm Society Arts Guild. To get more of her (excellent) writing, visit her website, sunsteepeddays.com.

 

When I was a very young Christian, I went looking for truth in a janitor’s closet.

Thankfully the situation wasn’t as dismal as it sounds, because this was a rather exceptional janitor’s closet. It housed the library for a tiny international school, which took up the third and fourth floors of an old Korean office building. The closet was windowless and could only hold up to two patrons at a time — if the door was open — but what I found on its shelves had an enormous effect on my fledgling understanding of Christianity.

I read books like A Chance to Die, The Hiding Place, and Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret with a new believer’s voracity, mulling over them as I wondered how to talk to my family about God. From those pages it appeared that life with Christ was going to involve sacrifice, a sense of mission, and a wartime mentality, so I braced myself to meet it. I came to believe that knowing Biblical truth and living it out with God’s active guidance would be critical to developing a right and strong faith — and I still do.

But as time went on, my emphasis on truth led to a somewhat spartan approach to my heart and life. The things I really needed were few, like a compact spiritual survival pack: Scripture and prayer and service and the fellowship of other believing folk to keep me in shape. I loved and appreciated beautiful objects and restful experiences, but in my mind they were cordoned off as gifts to be enjoyed in the “off hours” — in crisis-free times, when all responsibilities had been met. They were luxuries.

I grew up and became a college student, and then a graduate student, and a wife, and a mother, but I began to notice I was struggling with a certain weariness and heaviness of heart on a regular basis. Cynicism crept in, and when I wasn’t second-guessing my own motives, I found it hard not to let hopelessness cloud my view of the future.

Gradually — very gradually — I realized I’d overlooked something vital for twenty years:

Faith must have joy.

Not “joy” of the grin-and-bear-it variety; the wholly glad, overflowing kind.

I’d wanted essential truths, and they are good; they’ve given me a solid path on which to stand. But it’s the hidden, refreshing springs of joy that have always enabled me to keep putting one foot in front of the other. “Rejoice always,” I Thessalonians says, and the other epistles resound with the same word.

If joy is imperative, then beauty, awe, rest, and wonder are also essential, at least for me, because they kindle that very joy.

Looking back now, it’s plain that I entered the realm and influence of beauty even in the tiny library. Frank Peretti, Francine Rivers, and Brock and Bodie Thoene first pulled my imagination into radically different historical periods and ways of seeing the ordinary world around me. Later I lingered in Rivendell and the Houses of Healing — knelt in Aslan’s Country — reveled in the homey atmosphere of Avonlea and Orchard House. I benefited from the company of their residents like a child dwelling among men and women of valor. And when I placed a bookmark in these portals and came back to my own world, I had fresh courage to face my own struggles and say, “No, this won’t be how this story ends.”

Life still involves sacrifice and a willingness to go to battle. But I’m starting to glimpse how truth and beauty interact: beauty reminds us what we’re fighting for, and points to the source of our help. When I read the old missionary biographies with renewed eyes, my first thought isn’t about all that could happen in our times and how we’ll deal with the fallout; instead, I watch the way God has answered His people through the ages. The smuggling of little Helen Stam out of China, Elisabeth Elliot’s peace at her husband Jim’s death, Corrie ten Boom learning to be grateful for fleas in Barracks 28 — there’s a nobility and even loveliness in these outlandish plot twists that remind me not to underestimate the Author and Perfecter of our faith.

At its best, beauty illumines truth. I see it now, almost everywhere — in the ministrations of art, music, poetry, nature, fiction and nonfiction tales, and the lisping warble of a three-year-old at mealtime prayer.

So, strange as it still sounds to my own ears, I’ve begun to plead the case for beauty. Not as an escape, as I once understood it, but as a constant exercise in reorientation.

Because our surroundings are full enough of opinions and fears, clickbait warnings and dire prophecies.

Because it’s a discipline to put ourselves in the way of things that help us grasp that Christ and His sufficient grace outshine our troubles.

We need companions for truth as we go on with the ordinary, arduous, and sublime business of living. And perhaps, in the end, what I’m trying to say is as simple as this: in the wearying din of a crowded room, a song works better than a strident voice to put our thoughts to rights again.

It’s worth listening for the music.

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was a light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

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ablAmy Baik Lee writes about finding Christ’s beauty and truth at work in stories and in everyday scenes. She can be found online at sunsteepeddays.com.

 

 

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Photo by Liz West

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