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Filtering by Tag: beauty

Do You Smell That?

Callie Feyen

14 rules eat My 8th grade classroom smells like mint gum, and body odor. The gum is not allowed. I am to tell the kids to get rid of it, and then report it into a shared record system that’s stored on the computer. After a certain amount of gum busts, I think the student gets a detention or something along those lines.

There is no rule against body odor. Body odor is allowed in my classroom, and by the end of the day the smell is knock-you-over palpable. So I say nothing about the gum because each shift in a chair, each reach for a book, stapler, or clipboard, each step towards the “complete work box” brings with it a stench followed by a cool minty breeze.

“Mrs. Feyen,” one boy walks up to me while I’m standing at a counter in the back of the room sorting through papers.

“Yes?” I ask and pivot towards him.

“I don’t understand this assignment. You want me to write about something beautiful, but it has to be bad in some way?”

As he asks, I see bright green gum stuck to his bottom teeth. When I was a kid, I was so careful to keep the gum at the roof of my mouth. I could even fold a Fruit Roll-Up so it perfectly fit inconspicuously in my mouth and I could enjoy it from noon until three. My teachers never knew a thing. I am sure of it.

“I want you to write about a time when you saw beauty in a situation where beauty didn’t seem to belong.” He looks at me like I’ve answered in Japanese. He shifts, than scratches his forehead. If we are going to continue this conversation, I need him to start chewing that gum to balance out the smell.

“Like Mayella’s red flowers in slop jars in her front yard,” I remind him. We’ve just finished studying that scene in To Kill a Mockingbird and I want my students to do what Harper Lee did; write about beauty that baffles.

“Can you think of a time when you were really scared, or really angry, or really sad, and you noticed something funny, or pretty, or even interesting?”

He isn’t staring at me blankly now, and I think something is starting to take shape, but he wants more.

“The thing you noticed didn’t fix the situation,” I say. “I mean, it doesn’t make everything all better, but you noticed it. That’s what I want you to write about.”

He’s chomping his gum now and nodding vigorously. “OK,” he says, “I got something.”

I should tell him to spit his gum out now, but I’m afraid it’ll break the spell, so I choose not to, and he pivots, leaving me in a wake of B.O. and mint gum, and the unease of letting him off the hook.


In her book, Wearing God, Lauren Winner writes about finding God in smell. She tells of a homeless man who sued a public library because he was banned from it due to his smell. Other people couldn’t focus because of this man’s body odor. At first, the court sided with him, but in a second case, the court sided with the library.

Winner contemplates this incident along with similar situations she’s experienced in her city, and she decides that this sort of reflective thinking is a form of prayer. “Prayer in which you replay scenes from your day, scenes from your year, and try to see God in them, or try to see them with God standing alongside you, looking too…What do I see when I try to look with God?”


The kid writes about a park in his neighborhood where he goes quite a bit to play sports with friends, but he also shows up alone, on days when he wants to pray. He climbs trees and prays. He has a lot on his mind, he writes, a lot to figure out. But he likes those trees with their sturdy trunks and thick leaves.

“Jesus,” Winner writes, “was a sometimes homeless man whose body was not always perfumed by women bearing nard. He surely sometimes stank.”

I smell thirty-one images of God in my classroom. Sometimes they reek. Sometimes they blatantly break the rules. Always they bring with them beauty that confuses, overwhelms, doesn’t fit in. I believe it is my job to help them notice and name this ridiculous, life-saving beauty.


It is May. The last instructional day of class and my students have to write two exit essays to show where they are as writers. One essay is narrative: write about something memorable. The other is expository: explain something you know well. The kid who goes to the park to pray raises his hand, and I walk over. He switches his gum to the other side of his mouth. I guess he thinks it’s not as obvious there.

“Mrs. Feyen,” he says. “For my expository essay I want to write about baffling beauty.” That’s what I called their writing assignment back in October. “Do you think the high school teachers will understand what I’m talking about?”

I stand and take a quick survey of these kids I’ve spent nine months with. The kids I have to say goodbye to, who in less than four years will be adults. They’ll be able to chew gum whenever and wherever they please, and they’ll have this B.O. thing figured out by then. But right now, I get to work with the image I’ve been given, and that’s just fine with me.

I lean towards my student and I smell all of it: dry erase markers, the air-conditioning, carpet, mud, and yes, mint gum and body odor.

“I think you better explain what you think baffling beauty means,” I tell him.

The Messiah

Christina Lee


As a college freshman, I was assigned a class called “Choral Union.” I assumed this was some sort advocacy group that made sure everyone had fair access to sheet music and water breaks during rehearsal. Whatever it was, I—as a new music major—was game.

It turned out to be conscription in a weekly three-hour evening rehearsal of Handel’s Messiah. The “union” merely signified that the whole community, regardless of musical ability, was invited to join up.

This should have sounded fun to me. But it did not. I’d never heard the term “oratorio.” I’d never seen a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Of course I’d heard the “Hallelujah Chorus;” I’d even sung it. But I had no desire to spend three hours a week singing the “Hallelujah Chorus,” fun as it had been. That seemed excessive.

As I’d feared, rehearsals were tedious, often dragging on past their promised 9:00 dismissal. Our zealous, rubicund conductor was nothing if not thorough. Movements were broken up into tiny chunks, every measure picked apart for its diphthongs and dark vowels and sagging pitch. Hours were lost on a single page of the score as earnest, tune-deaf community members gave it another go.

To be fair, the music was hard. Much harder than what I was used to. I wasn’t so great at it myself. Inevitably, right when I would catch the tune, we’d be angrily cut off with a baton tap and a vociferous, “like women, please, not little girls.”

Our conductor’s face would purple as he reminded us, “it’s the KH-LORY of the Lord. Not Gulory. KH-lory.” As everyone around me earnestly took down this note, I doodled sad little sketches of angry penguins in the margins of my score.

Is it embarrassing to me, now, my attitude? To think that I would have preferred to be back in my dorm room, gossiping about boys and listening to Savage Garden? Of course it is. It’s mortifying.

The real embarrassment? I so utterly lacked curiosity about the work we were preparing to perform. It never once occurred to me to sit down and listen to the piece, so I couldn’t hear the beauty we were working towards as we picked at it in rehearsal.

I’d like to tell you that, on the night of the performance, I was struck by the glory of the score and I repented of my grouchiness. I cannot. I was so fed up by then, so jealous of the soloists mincing out in their shimmery ball gowns, so tired of being yelled at to sound “more like a WOMAN,” that the performance was blur.

My conversion came years later, when a friend invited me to attend the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s “Messiah Sing-a-Long.” The thought of the music still made me a little nauseous, but I’d always wanted to see the Disney Concert Hall, so I went. The hall was filled with giddy Angelinos clutching their battered Messiah scores. As we launched into the first movement, I noticed two things. First, the notes came back to me as if I’d rehearsed them yesterday (confirming my grudging suspicion that that conductor was a very talented man). Second, this music was glorious. It was soul-rending to lift my voice with these 2,000 others. It was euphoric.

As rich, rippling chords splashed around the curved walls of the hall, I glanced at the score for my next cue and caught a glimpse of the angry penguin brigade, circa 2002.

And I remembered grumpy little freshman me, surrounded by all this glory yet totally deaf to it.

If you have a few minutes, sit down and listen to my favorite movement: “Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs.” I dreaded this piece most in Choral Union. I slouched through it, rolling my eyes as our long-suffering conductor barked out, “CH-UR-LY, people. Not Surely. Ch-ur-ly!”

Sometimes I listen to remind myself that, while grueling, measure-by-measure rehearsal is necessary, it isn’t the end result. And you can’t let yourself drown there, in the details.

When I listen now, I think about the classes I teach. I think about the family relationships I’m working to mend. I think about the poems in my “keep revising” desktop folder. I listen to remind myself not to stall out in the measures I’m slogging through, so I’ll be able to hear the beauty when it comes.

Wordsworth and Learning Through Nature

Joy and Matthew Steem

mountain clouds

When You send out Your

breath, life is created,

and the face of the earth is made beautiful and is


- Psalm 104:30 (The Voice)

I once had the words "To Lucy" embroidered on a notepad for a friend's birthday. He's been a lifelong fan of Narnia, so I had the salutation stitched on the book to inspire the childlike wonder, receptivity to beauty, and spiritual heroism of Lucy Pevensie in his own writing.

I had mostly forgotten about that notebook until I recently returned to the Romantic poets, specifically Wordsworth. While reading the Lucy poems, I was reminded of the embroidered name and began thinking about what was to be learned from the Lucy of Wordsworth's poems.

In the fourth Lucy poem, “Three Years She Grew," Nature recognizes something extraordinary in the small rural and solitary child named Lucy. In the first three stanzas, Nature speaks of how she will instruct the tender child in the ways of glee, gentle grace, and sympathy. Nature says that she will teach Lucy about the sportiveness of the fawn and the tranquility of insensate, or inanimate, things.  Through her relationship with Nature, Lucy will acquire the "state of floating clouds" and be shaped by grace through sympathetic storm watching. By submitting herself to Nature's guidance, she'll learn to be attentive enough to recognize and admire the dimmest of midnight stars and tune her ear to the obscure and quiet places where rivulets murmur and brooks make gentle whisperings. What’s more, her internal receptivity to beauty will be mirrored in external loveliness, for “beauty born of murmuring sound/ shall pass into her face.”

And then, there it is. The first three lines of stanza six and I am truly stilled.

               And vital feelings of delight

               Shall rear her form to stately height,

               Her virgin bosom swell

In Wordsworth, it is in "vital feelings of delight" that Lucy is brought to the "stately height" of true and admirable maturity. And, I too am reminded of the fruit of living in wonder and delight as Lucy does; I wish to daily live in the maturing gratitude that "the land is satisfied by the fruit of His work," as the Psalmist says (104:13). And while my notion of Nature may be closer to St Francis’ (the patron saint of ecology) “Sister Nature” than Wordsworth’s “Mother Nature,” I still wonder if Lucy could be an exemplar of the reciprocal relationship of ministry our Creator has set up between us and the natural world. As we, in following our Father’s example, minister to Nature through attention and care, Nature, through God's bounty, ministers to us.

Beauty and Saving the World

Jean Hoefling

 Fire-Leaves-ArtBeauty will save the world.  - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

In the Orthodox Church, from Easter to the Ascension, an ethereal hymn is sung while the faithful partake of Eucharist. The brief lyrics implore all who will, to receive the Body of Christ, drink of the Fountain of Immortality. Assuming this transformation of bread and wine into God-flesh and fluid to be mystically true, one can only wonder why an earthquake doesn’t rupture the flooring or angels crack the rafters wide as we small and salvaged ones string forward like ducks to water to ingest Life itself. I’m reduced to a whisper as I sing, as the beauty, the “high art” of this hymn enmeshed with Eucharist, incrementally saves me.

My composer friend Don Newby explains that technically, the musical setting of this hymn feels the way it does on the human psyche partly because its composer has introduced suspensions—non-chord tones—into the line of music at strategic places to create tension, which is then each time given over to release. To the emotions and unconscious mind, these suspensions and subsequent releases feel familiar, mirroring human experience with its constant tensions and releases, dejection and joy, wretchedness and nobility. The music reflects life’s troubled splendor.

Yet I wonder, is my perception of the hymn’s beauty subjective, or is there something inherent in this piece, as in any work considered high art, that appeals to a common human urgency, consciously recognized or not, which is longing for unity with God. Given exposure to the “Body of Christ” hymn, would an un-churched teenager immersed from infancy in rap music find his throat constricted too, because the need within him for salvific beauty is the same as mine, who was weaned on Bach and sacrament?

Art theorists suggest that true art must ask the Big Questions, and sometimes seek to answer them. “Art should start a fire,” says artist Wes Hurd. If, as human beings, the thing most needed is inner brokenness made whole, sobriety of spirit wrought from turmoil, shouldn’t that be enough to ignite that fire?

Get Closer

Jayne English

untitled1318221534589 She is an old woman. A double amputee with age spots and flaking skin. Would she attract your attention by that description? Would you seek her out? Probably not, yet millions travel to the Venus de Milo every year, sometimes crossing the world to view her at the Louvre. It’s interesting that though she is broken we consider her a masterpiece because of her beauty and antiquity. But also because her brokenness lends an air of mystery that leads us to want to engage with her. So we stand in front of her and silently wonder.

Contrast the reaction to the Venus with how society views the flesh and blood “broken.” Pro Infirmis, a Swiss organization for disabled individuals, created a video titled "Because Who Is Perfect? Get Closer." Mannequins, modeled after the disabled, were placed in storefronts in one of the world’s most glamorous shopping districts in Zurich. They were stooped, had crooked spines, and were missing limbs.

The project sought to challenge society’s view of what is beautiful and to showcase the disabled; the often invisible among us. It’s a double paradox, that when we do “see” the disabled, we both stare and turn away from them. We stare because we’re curious. But why do we look away? Because the world is broken and we keep expecting it not to be; because disability is a painful reminder of suffering; because it mirrors and reminds us of our own internal deformities?

There are different responses to the displays in the video. The models are clearly pleased with their mannequins. They caress them, hug them, and one model gives his mannequin his prosthetic and shoe. They contemplate how the public will respond. One model says, “the people passing will be really irritated.” The public reacts diversely. Some glance and look away. Some look pensive, perhaps realigning their own ideas of beauty. One tries to shape her posture into the same twisted angles as one of the mannequins. This was perhaps the best response: a spontaneous gesture of empathy, a simple attempt to experience life as one of the models.

Walt Whitman writes, “Agonies are one of my changes of garments,/I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”1 This is the flame Pro Infirmis hopes to light. To see the invisible, not with pity, or just compassion, but with an empathy that leads to engagement. The video hopes to do what Ralph Ellison attempted in The Invisible Man, to bring song from where we don’t expect it, to “make music out of the invisible.”

The Venus de Milo is one of a handful of masterpieces at the Louvre before which people spontaneously stop to stare.2 While stopping to stare at the disabled cuts across all societal norms. What is the best way to empathize? What does it mean to get closer?

Of Beauteous Saints

Joy and Matthew Steem

Lilith-Back-Cover-HR I find something indescribably haunting about the “woman most beautiful of all” in George MacDonald’s Lilith, for on her “stately countenance” rests a “right noble acquiescence” and “assurance, firm as the foundations of the universe, that all ... [is] as it should be." For me, the white-haired woman who captures the intrigue of the protagonist, Mr. Vane, is an image of what a physically and spiritually mature approach to being human might look like. In the gallery of my mind, her resplendent repose reflects an organic and wholesome response to her world rather than a hasty effort conceived in restlessness. Ultimately, when I think of the portrait of this pulchritudinous lady, I think of an individual who has overcome our inborn resentment of time; she is one who, as Byron penned, “walks in beauty.”

Indeed, the more I think of the characteristics of this unnamed lady, the more I am reminded of the saint which Gordon T. Smith depicts in Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity. For Smith, in a saint, we encounter “beauty, integrity and congruence." He suggests these characteristics are not achieved by merely trying to emulate Christ’s life on earth. Nor are they attained by adhering to some sort of a moral code. In fact, he suggests that in striving for rigid perfection, we dislocate ourselves from a spiritual life that genuinely flourishes. Instead of toil, Smith advocates humble response; instead of fear, Smith draws our attention to hopeful faith; instead of proving ourselves through our work, Smith reminds us of Love’s work. Ultimately, he reminds us that He is the vine and we are the branches; there is great rest in understanding that instead of trying to be like Christ, our call is to realize we are in Christ.

Which brings me back to MacDonald’s lady: in her stately countenance, I see the reflection of a wisdom grounded in an understanding of interdependence and borne out in humility. In her noble acquiescence, I envision an approach to work that glorifies the divine; she is not frenetic or flustered, but rather content with what time she has been gifted to live in and work with. In her assurance, I visualize a life of joyfully ordered affections because she has an inkling of the depth, width, and breadth of the creator’s love. And so, in “this woman most beautiful of all,” I see a portrait of Smith’s saint; for at the marrow of Smith’s invitation is the reminder that our creator’s call does not only save us from, but saves us to: to an abundant life which results from restfully abiding in our maker.

Maybe, for me, she is an image of Smith’s saint because in time she has grown wiser, not just older. She has employed her minutes, hours, days and years not in despising time, but embracing its facilitation of her growth.  In nurturing a life-affirming delight in God’s good creation she has not indulged in ignorance of the horrific evil at work in the world. Rather, her peaceful gaze assures me that, like a true heroine, she has lived out her days in a grace and gratitude and wonder that holds fast to a belief in an impending Eucatastrophe: a swiftly advancing redemption so beautiful its event will bring forth tears of joy.

Beauty, Any Beauty

Brad Fruhauff

Poetry Editor Brad Fruhauff, pictured with flower Poetry Editor Brad Fruhauff read two things about beauty today and couldn't help but put them together.

Mark Jarman in "Tea Fire"* tells of driving toward a forest fire one evening, "seduced / like night moths," to witness its terrible beauty. He and his unnamed, unnumbered companion(s) are in awe of the way the smoke turns silver as it passes over the moon and the way the "red body" of the fire seems to desire to follow the waves of "ashy cumulus" into the sky. Then, however, they come upon homes threatened by the fire and turn back "embarrased--"

Not moths at all but dazzled lovers of beauty, any beauty.

The poem works because Jarman convinces us as readers of the beauty of the fire just as the "we" of the poem saw it, but then we share, too, in the abashment of realizing that this beauty comes at the cost of people's homes. It is immaterial whether the homes are the extravagant vacation cottages of the wealthy which, when we hear of them, we often want to think were extraneous and expendable anyways; for Jarman, they are still homes - "doomed homes," in fact. The valence of the poem is that the dazzling beauty of the fire momentarily dislocated the speaker from the heaviness of this world of responsibility and care.

"Not moths at all" could be read as "not drawn to the fire by a morbid fascination with death - our own or others," for it is the threat of destruction by fire that embarrasses the travelers. But "dazzled lovers" does seem to suggest that their difference from moths is not in their volition but in the object. They are drawn by beauty rather than destruction, but they are drawn just the same. As "lovers," they exist in a timeless, even exclusive state - the state of early passion familiar from our adolescence that, we must admit, while pleasant is not without blame. Yet the poem affirms that what they pursued was, indeed beauty - any beauty, beauty wherever it can be found when it is so rare a thing.

I've been thinking about beauty ever since I started studying the sublime. Beauty is often figured as the pacific, angelic counterpart to the dark, excessive sublime - roughly the attributes of Blake's Heaven and Hell, respectively. Suffice to say that Hell and the sublime are quite chic these days, while beauty is trite at best (think Snow White) and dangerous at worst (something like her wicked step-mother). Classical beauty, after all, entailed an ability of the viewer to perceive it adequately, which we nowadays recognize as the road to violence.

Enter David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Eerdmans, 2003). There are a number of bold and counterintuitive aspects to this title, but suffice to say Hart does not find beauty violent or trite. Instead, he attributes to beauty a "gratuity" and a "prodigality" that gives of itself - sometimes in startling and disturbing ways: "a village ravaged by pestilence may lie in the shadow of a magnificent mountain ridge . . . ; Cambodian killing fields were often lushly flowered." Beauty is saved from the violence of abstraction precisely by its particularity, its inherence in just such a arrangement of things. Christian beauty, he argues, inheres in the unavoidable and often offensive narratives of the gospels; most centrally, of course, in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

In "Tea Fire" Jarman registers our modern ambivalence about beauty - something we're drawn to but also embarrassed about. It's a tension also present in "The Heronry." Seeking the solace of a forest preserve, he reflects on his own processes as he sits quietly observing a pond and its many birds. Among his many reflections are these final ones, which I hope I'm okay in quoting at length:

I almost think I could write about it forever, Adding word to word like coral in a reef, An excess of language like the genetic code, an extravagance like all the stars, Too much ever to be needed except By the need for there always to be more, That need which, when the end comes, looks past it For woods and hills and ocean, For fields and streets and houses and horizon, Repelled by blankness, expecting beyond sleep The dream country and its population.

Here he finds himself caught between beauty, language, and desire. Is his experience a projection of his own need "for there always to be something more"? (And if so, what?) Or does it inhere, as Hart would argue, somehow in the world itself, if not in any precise way? Or is it a function of language, words that spring up in the mind as a coral reef?

Jarman's poems may lack the confidence that faith ostensibly offers, but they are nonetheless compelling meditations on beauty because they are full of the desire that faith, in many ways, is - desire for there to be more than what is given and at the same time desire for the given to be "given," as a gift, as what is not labored for or dubiously "earned." Sometimes the challenge for the (American) Christian is to clear away the screen of faith to see - really see - the manifestations of glory that so many have pointed us toward without knowing their name.

* Jarman's poems can be found in the Autumn 2010 edition of The Hudson Review.