Sunday, November 11, 2007

Working for beauty

I want to write something beautiful. I'm not sure it's going to happen. Sometimes I feel that way about music, too. And sometimes it just comes out, almost effortless, glorious. Sometimes it is just work - and lots of it. What the difference is, I don't always know. It's not preparation, mental or spiritual: it simply is. Sometimes things are just work. Perhaps that is simply life: that while it has its own beauty, it is often a beauty that is muddled and obscured by the drudgery of accomplishing it.

Writing is hard work. So is composing. Both are completely different from the sorts of hard work I spend most of my time on in the world of physics. Physics drives the mind forward logically, in coherent progressions that, while beautiful in their orderliness, are concrete and the results tangible: a right answer, or a wrong one. The satisfaction is in having successfully derived a solution that is accurate and complete and correct, and in having done so with the power of one's own mind.

Writing and composing are both far more abstract than physics in practice. I wonder at times, though, if we have not abstracted them both more and less than we ought in our conception of them.

More, in the sense that while there are many differences between them and physics, there is something much the same, as well: that our end desire is to accomplish something that is truly right, not merely neutral. The definition of "right" varies somewhat, of course: but here we are thrusting at truths equally profound (and sometimes far more so) than those at which we probe in the world of hard science. For this physical world is not the sum total of existence; nor is the equation the final result of the examination of the heart. We strive in writing and composing to touch the heart, and to do so in true way, not merely any way.

Humanity is not reducible - and we should not expect it to be. For God is not reducible, and man, however fallen, remains a reflection of the very nature of God: imago Dei. It is in this sense that we make writing and composition less abstract than they deserve: for they are, in their truest form, stretching to describe the indescribable, to evoke in the mind of the reader or listener the faintest hints of the majesty and splendor that are divinity: divinity from which we are sundered by our own decisions: a gap far too terrible and wide ever to be bridged by the mere stretching of human ambition. And here, again, we return to the notion that writing and composition are more concrete than physics: for they are striving to illuminate a reality that is more real than the laws of physics. The very nature of reality.

What is real?

The existentialist has answered "myself" and the nihilist "nothing;" the postmodern embraces both and all: "whatever" his ultimate declamation, no less suicidal than the nihilist, but a suicide that is prolonged and stretched across the surface of a pallid existence.

The theist answers, "God," and the Christian answers, "the Trinity." A perfect, consummate being, self-sufficient, in perfect community: unity and diversity in unadulterated harmony, incomparable and incomprehensible yet ultimate and necessary: as Anselm might say: that which greater than Himself, nothing can be imagined.

So as we write, as we compose, as we stretch for beauty and find it fleeting, ever outside our grasp, ever abstract, it must always be with the remembrance that it is our very finitude in contrast with the infinite expanse of He who is truly real.

Beauty cannot be summarized. It cannot be pinned down. It cannot be reduced, understood in its entirety, categorized, or bottled for future use. It is. Because beauty is a part, one corner of that multifaceted gem, of the glory of God.

And so, like our faith, writing and composing, in their effort to set before the mind's eye a conception of the transcendent, are at times of necessity hard work. If it is so in our pursuit of holiness, in our pursuit of a true and deep knowledge of God, why ought we expect it to be otherwise in our attempts to reflect one aspect of His nature?

And in this sense, physics, writing, and music are all the same: for all are, ultimately, attempts to grasp at emanations from the Ultimate. Order. Transcendence. Beauty. All combining. Words without order are meaningless; notes without structure are cacophony: simply tones. Physical equations absent transcendence are, in their final form, a sum that yields only a crisis of meaninglessness.

When Bach signed his manuscripts soli Deo gloria ("to God alone be the glory"), he was signing works that were transcendent struggles, unmatched splendor born of sweat and perseverance. Sometimes true beauty is born not of inspiration but of dedication. There are moments of inspiration: but it is a dedication in the moments absent inspiration that allows those moments of unparalleled insight to flourish, to blossom, to grow beyond a mere flash of light into a beacon that illuminates a small measure of Truth to the mind's eye.

We, in our culture of instant gratification, have not remembered how rewards follow work; nor have we understood how the natural consequence of laziness is destruction. And in all of this, we have lost beauty: not because it is not there to be discovered or created, but because it is elusive, and discovering it, like discovering any of the other deep things of God, requires us to toil and strive.

But more, it requires us to let go our own straining, our own wisdom, our own understanding, and realize that we are fallen and blinded beings who could not have seen the sum in perfection, and certainly cannot now in this downcast state.

We must understand that writing, composing, and physics are all opportunities to worship; and we must revel in glorifying God no matter what we do. We must come to our knees and surrender our own thirst for recognition and accolades, choosing instead to surrender our every attempt to the all-consuming fire of the glory of God and the supremacy of Christ.

We must seek to make the Real become real in the understanding of those around us. And for that, we are insufficient. The Spirit of God, however, is more than sufficient: He is indeed the Light that illuminates the world. And when He is controlling us, then we are indeed servants of the secret fire, bearers of Truth: honored witnesses to Beauty.

- Chris

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