Essays and Sermons

At the Villa Borghese in Rome, there is a statue of Apollo and Daphne by the late Renaissance artist Bernini, that is — to date — the most beautiful sculpture I have ever seen. When I saw it for the first time — it took my breath away.  To refresh your memory of the Greek myth or in case you don’t know the story, Apollo makes the grave mistake of offending Cupid, that diminutive son of Venus, the goddess of love. Cupid’s revenge is to draw two arrows from his quiver.

The first arrow, tipped with a potion to excite love and desire, he aims and shoots directly into Apollo’s heart. And the other, tipped with a potion to repel love he wings toward the water nymph Daphne with whom Apollo is about to fall in love.

That means of course that when Apollo tries to woo Daphne with eloquent words, he does so in vain. She wants nothing to do with him. She flees from him, literally, runs from his attentions. But he pursues, chasing after her, begging her to stop, to give him a chance to speak of his love.

What Bernini captures in his statue is the moment when Apollo, about to overtake Daphne, lunges forward, reaches out and grasps her waist. As he does, Daphne cries to her father, the river god Peneus, to save her. Which he does, though perhaps not quite in the way she imagined.

Peneus “saves” Daphne by turning her into a laurel tree, so that even as Apollo’s arm encircles her waist, he begins to lose her. Delicate leaves sprout from her outstretched fingers. Her toes become roots that dig into the soil below. And thus we have the reason a stunned Apollo vows that for love of Daphne, he will forever after decorate his harp and quiver with laurel leaves, weave her branches and leaves into the crowns of victors.

Bernin’s figures are so life-like you half expect their features to warm, take on flesh tones, expect them to move, cry out. And the delicacy of those leaves that sprout from Daphne’s fingertips. They are so thin you can see light pass through them. And they say that during restoration work, it was discovered that when struck by a work tool (accidentally I’m presuming), they were found to be so delicate that they rang like fine china.

I said that when I saw this statue, I found it so beautiful that it took my breath away. And it did. Just for that fraction of a second I stopped breathing.

Plato spoke of such “breath-taking” experiences. He believed that it then, in split second moments, that the unseen spiritual world was made visible. Only in part, and only for that fraction of a second perhaps, but such glimpses what led him to believe that there was a more perfect world beyond our ordinary, everyday experience. He would have said that when I beheld the Bernini sculpture I was catching a glimpse of Beauty, with a capital B. Divine beauty.

To be able to be swept away like that, to be able to appreciate beauty seems to be one of those unique qualities that marks as human — doesn’t it? . And we sense that being able to experience and appreciate beauty can even be an indicator of our well being. If someone we know, someone we care about claims that they see no beauty, anywhere, we begin to be concerned, to worry whether or not they are depressed, or suffering.

Yet, what we perceive as beautiful is often ” in the eye of the beholder” as the old adage acknowledges. Someone else might see Bernini’s statue and find it lovely, but not as breathtakingly beautiful as I did. That does not concern me greatly, being only a matter of artistic taste or preference. But what does concern me is that the “eye of the beholder” and its definition of beauty is shaped, subtly — and sometimes not so subtly — by the idealized standards of our culture. Because of that our perception of what constitutes beauty too often becomes narrowed. And a narrowed view of what is beautiful — particularly when it is applied to physical appearance — can do great harm.

Two books speak to this particular anguish and raised my awareness of it. The first, Truth and Beauty written by the novelist Ann Patchett. And a book that should be read immediately after or before, entitled Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy.

They are intertwined these two books. Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy became best friends when they met and lived together during graduate school. They were soul mates. Both working towards their Masters of Fine Arts degree, they shared a passion for words, both longed to make their passion their profession.

The one distinct and visible difference between the two was this: Lucy Grealy’s face was gravely disfigured. At the age of nine she had been diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a form of bone cancer that had lodged in her jaw. In those early years of cancer treatment she underwent draconian methods of radiation and chemotherapy.

For two entire years, she received radiation almost daily. And then, every Friday of every week, she received a massive injection of chemo that had her retching before she even eased herself off the doctor’s examination table. The retching would continue, sending her to bed for the entire weekend, too weak, too sick to move until Monday when she would try to attend school if she could — though often she couldn’t.

The treatment worked. Lucy Grealy was a cancer survivor. But as a result of the radiation treatments her jawbone disintegrated, she lost all her lower teeth and her face fell inward. When Lucy Grealy looked at her reflection in the mirror, from a very early age she believed she was ugly.

She might not have drawn that conclusion so clearly, or so early, if it hadn’t been for the taunts of her classmates, the horrified stares in the grocery store, on the subway, even from adults — often from adults. Her book, Autobiography of Face, tells the story of her years of physical pain, the thirty plus attempts at reconstructive surgery, which never were very successful. And the story of her emotional pain, experienced as a child, as an adolescent and then a young adult.

Written, as the book was, by an intelligent, obviously accomplished writer in her thirties the reader could easily assume that Lucy triumphs, manages to salvage a measure of self-esteem and happiness. And at times she did. She had scores of friends, lovers even. When Autobiography of a Face was published she appeared on the Today Show and Oprah.

But the real story, the truer story is told in Ann Patchett’s book, written after Lucy died (according to the coroner’s report), “of an accidental overdose of heroin.” Ann Patchett tells the story of a young woman who believed that no matter how many friends she had, how many lovers, she could never really be loved because she did not believe she was beautiful enough.

I have been raised in the Christian tradition which means that I value the Way, the wisdom, of one who — as Rabbi Abraham Heschel says of Hebrew prophets — saw the world the way God saw it, cared for the things God cared for and so beheld beauty where others did not¬: in a leper, a blind man, a woman shunned because her flow of blood never ceased and so she was considered unclean, repulsive.

When I read Ann Patchett’s lament for her friend, read Lucy Grealy’s own account of suffering, I remembered those biblical stories and suspected I knew what someone like Jesus would have said, what he might call us to do, so that others like Lucy might not need to doubt their worth.

But even as I say that, I sense I want to be very clear about what I mean when I identify myself with the Christian tradition. So if you will, follow me for a minute or two on a brief tangent.

These days, I find I am often ill at ease being identified with Christianity. I don’t want any part of the brand of Christianity that I read about, too often, in print, or hear quoted on some daily television or radio news — a rigid, moralistic, literalist Christianity, especially in its most fervent, born-again, evangelical insistence on only one Way to God, only one way to believe and, regrettably, only one way to vote.

I grow increasingly fearful of a hard pendulum swing to a narrowed extreme of what is right and what it wrong, what is permissible and what is not — even what is beautiful and what is not — propelled by a politicized religion.

I am fearful any religion — be it Christianity or Islam or any other religion — that begins to try to legislate the tenets of its faith. But in this case I’m fearful of Christianity when it claims it can tell everyone when life begins, which has consequences not just for abortion but for life saving stem-cell research as well.

I am fearful of any religion, but lately it has been Christianity in the forefront, that says to our gay sons and daughters, our gay brothers and sisters, our gay friends that they have no right to fall in love, no right to be encouraged to commit to each other for the rest of their lives, or to care for one another in sickness and in health.

And I will always be afraid and angry when people not only believe but say, publicly, and from a position of power, that God calls them to make war in order to further “The Almighty’s cause of freedom in the world.” (emphases mine)

Yet let me say also — I do not want to dwell there. I do not want to be fearful, or angry — not for too long and not in an all-consuming way. And though I might prefer at times to disassociate from certain aspects of religion and the people who embody it, I can’t.

There are people close to me, people I care for deeply, that simply view the world differently. They believe with all their heart that they are doing what is right. I must find a way to live with that, to continue to care for them, and I will.

Which is a good thing. Because I am no better than I accuse others of being if I can’t leave some space for real dialogue and understanding and listening. And without such a space, without dialogue rather than polarizing polemic, we will just keep shouting at each other from either side of the riverbank while the current of the world’s suffering flows past us, unaffected, unchanged.

With that clarification made, let me say again that I value a Way, any way, that beckons me to see the world, see humanity, as I believe Jesus might have seen it, to catch a glimpse of what I believe is his original vision. Not the one clouded by doctrinal interpretations, but a vision of compassion that can still beckons us to broaden our awareness and our embrace of what and more importantly who is beautiful.

In preparing this sermon, I asked a number of people to tell me of someone who struck them as beautiful, someone who might not, by our culture’s narrowed, idealized standard be perceived as such. Many people responded. I am sorry that I could not use all of their stories. But it is my hope that those you do hear this morning will move you, as they moved me — to open our eyes a little wider, and our embrace too. Hear then, Beauty as they beheld it…

It pains me to even write some of these words, because I don’t like society’s messed up standards of beautiful. But I’ll tell you about Amy. I’ll tell you about her full-bodied laugh, the way her eyes smile, and how she believes in the power of a hug.

I’ll tell you about the way she cared about her students. She knew every family in our school. She had such a bond with her students and their families, that they kept coming back to ask her advice, even when they’d moved on to middle school and high school.

She started a Lemonade Brigade as she called it, a place where students could work through problems and feelings. She gave and gave and gave. She retired two years ago and we’ve still not found a way to fill the void.

But if you saw her in the grocery store, if you used those messed up standards I was talking about, you might walk right past her and miss everything she is.

His name was Jimmy. He was in his 70’s, very heavy, lots of health issues. Played the blues, long ago, with some of the big names but when I knew him he was playing in the local black churches, and at funerals. Everybody knew him.

He had adopted three developmentally disabled black men, all brothers, when they were in their 20’s. By the time I met him and his sons, at the soup kitchen, one of the brothers had died and the other two were in their 50’s. They were a family. He cared for them all by himself.

No one, at first glance, would ever look at him and think “beautiful” — this heavy man with his two strange looking sons. But when I was thinking of people to pose for large 3’ by 4’ black and white portraits which we were going to hang on the walls, I thought of Jimmy right away. Because you see, for me, beauty is more than the physical appearance. It is has to do with the soul shining through, the spirit that never gives up but is always reaching out.

I could be having a bad day, and then there was Jimmy and I forgot the day. I brought his food, sat down to chat a bit, and everything got right again. His beauty was of the healing touch variety, the heart to heart kind of beauty.

He was gay. Did I mention he was gay? Not that it matters, though maybe it does. Some people don’t think gay is beautiful either.

The child appeared as if she had risen up from the ocean of dirt that was everywhere. From soil caked feet to matted black hair, every inch of her was covered with dirt. I wondered how often her clothes were washed, or if ever, the color indiscernible because of the dust and grime. I could hardly bear to look at her — but then she smiled, showing openings where teeth had once been. The one part of her not covered in dust, her eyes. Windows to her soul. And there I saw something beautiful, a hope that had not yet turned to hopelessness.

I had told them not to come. The surgery would be long. Both breasts would be removed and breast reconstruction immediately after. I told them their Dad would stay with me. I would be sedated. They should go to work, school, their Dad would call to tell them how it went.

But then, when I woke, barely woke, in the recovery room, my eyes not quite ready to open wide…what I saw was all of them standing by my bed. Those faces, their faces, the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. Someone else might have only seen an ordinary group of people standing there. I saw their love.

I pass them in the morning on my way to work. She – much shorter than before scoliosis warped her spine and caused her clothing to stretch tight across her back.

He, tall and straight, but missing most of his left arm, perhaps lost long ago to a war better remembered by our parents and grandparents, or to some horrific industrial accident.

He always wraps his long thin right arm snugly around her waist, to provide (and receive?) assuring gentle support. He walks more slowly than his long legs would prefer, keeping pace with her irregular gait.

Time has left indelible angry marks on their bodies. Timeless devotion has left indelible beauty in their shared expressions. I drive on thankful for what they give me — a fleeting glimpse of the beauty of each, through the eyes of the other.

God, is an immensely inadequate word for the tremendum to which we refer. In the languages we create, we use words to focus our minds, focus our attention in a particular direction. God is simply a word we have conceived and can be used to point us towards the good, the true and the beautiful.

Hear that as I say this: Jesus tried to see the world the way God saw it, to care for the things God cared for. All he ever asked of us, if we chose to follow his Way of living and loving… was to “go and do likewise.”

Benediction: ” Life is short. We have not much time to gladden the hearts of those who journey with us. Therefore, be swift to love, make haste to be kind.” (

A benediction by Dr. Edmund Jones adapted from words by philosopher and writer Henri Frederic Amiel, (1821-1887)).

Meditation offered at Fountain Street Church, Grand Rapids, MI – 2001

Recommended Reading:
Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy, Harper Perennial/ Harper Collins 2004
Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett, Harper Collins, 2004
The Heart of Christianity by Marcus J. Borg, Harper SanFrancisco, 2003
The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, Harper Perrenial, 2002 (first published 1991)
Survival of the Prettiest by Nancy Etcoff, Anchor Books, 1999