September 18–Beauty: The Nature of Things

In his work De Veritate Religione, the 4th century Christian theologian, Augustine asks:  “Is a thing beautiful because it gives delight, or does it give delight because it is beautiful?”

That can be said to sum up the philosophical argument over beauty for the last nearly 3000 years in western civilization.  Is beauty a given, inherent quality in things, or is beauty in the eye of the beholder.  Of course, one can argue in favor of both perspectives. Human beings tend to agree very often about what things are beautiful (which implies that those things come with inherent beauty), and individuals disagree about whether some things are beautiful (implying that beauty is what the individual mind of perception makes of it).

In these days when we seem capable of arguing about everything, even those things that more recently we would seem to have had near universal agreement on, I don’t want to argue about the nature of beauty.

I do want to point out what happens when we fail to perceive beauty.  If beauty is subjective, then a failure to perceive beauty implies that we are failing each other, at least from one generation to another in pointing out beauty in the many places that we might find it. If beauty is inherent in things, then a failure to perceive it implies a disconnect between humanity in general and the nature of things.

When we fail to perceive beauty, regardless of its nature, we participate in the devaluation of things in general.  Nature.  All things belong to nature.  All objects belong to nature.  All people belong to nature. I think we see this devaluation all around us.

Why does the opioid crisis suddenly get national attention when it was just an inner city problem, we did not mind?

How can we see rising water temperatures and water depths, a huge increase in the number of storms and the mass die-offs of birds and continue to deny climate change?

How can we see the continual disproportionate number of suicides and murders among LGTBQ youth and not see that our cultural practices toward them are killing them?

How can white people still say with impunity that “we don’t see color” when not seeing color is a vehicle of racism?

I suspect you could add to the list.  The list is of those places in the human community where we fail to see beauty, where we collectively experience a failure to perceive what is beautiful in nature.

By the way, in the fourth century, Augustine concluded that we delight in things because they are beautiful.  Look what we do when we fail to see that.

Bob Patrick

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September 14–Beauty: Present Tense

It seems that there is something awfully present tense about beauty.  Of course, we can all remember a time when we saw or experienced something beautiful, and that memory is fond.  But, honestly, wouldn’t it be sad to live out one’s entire existence thinking that the memory of a beautiful experience was the only beauty there was?  It seems to me that beauty is really always best as present tense–in this moment.  Now.  The memory of a beautiful think or person or event or landscape is a treasure, but in a sense it ceases to be beauty.  It becomes a good memory.

Beauty is now.  Hafiz captures what I am after in two little poems.  Consider.

Stop Being So Religious

Do sad people have in
It seems
They have all built a shrine
To the past
And often go there
And do a strange wail and
What is the beginning of
It is to stop being
So religious
Like That.

(“The Gift” – versions of Hafiz by Daniel Ladinsky)

That is the problem of the past.  But, he also captures the present tense of beauty in this little verse:

Every child has known God

Every child has known God,
Not the God of names,
Not the God of don’ts,
Not the God who ever does Anything weird,
But the God who knows only 4 words.
And keeps repeating them, saying:
“Come Dance with Me , come dance.”

— Hafiz

I wonder today what people, what events, what landscapes, what experiences will whisper those words to us:  Come Dance with Me.

Bob Patrick


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September 13–Beauty: Strewn About

The wreckage after the Hurricane, whether it is entire communities or just the damage to your fence or roof is not beautiful.  It’s hard and sometimes dangerous, and it creates what will likely be weeks and months of recovery.  Maybe longer.

It’s as if the wind has picked up everything that was in place and scattered it about in every direction.  Being humans, we begin the arduous task of picking all those things up and either discarding them or replacing them–as in putting them back into place.  Some unexpected encounters can happen–sort of like dumping a drawer out on a table and sifting through what lands there–discoveries of things forgotten which include, from time to time, unexpected beauty.

Lichen Moss Enchanted Lichen Trees by Jon Gavin

On a walk yesterday, I came across a couple of pieces of wood–oak, blown from some high place that I would never have seen without the assistance of Irma.  They both called to me, and we brought them home.  I can’t explain that.  Wood, certain pieces of wood, have always called to me, and I have something of a collection in our garage, waiting on me to start or continue whittling them into something.

One of these yesterday will most certainly become a walking stick.  It practically told me so.  It was covered with lichens of several kinds, some of which stood up like miniature ferns.  I gently removed them with my knife so that they could be placed back on the ground. I don’t know if they will continue to grow there or simply turn into more rich forest compost.

But there was this time spent looking at this amazing beauty that Nature creates in places that I don’t often get to see. High in a tree, under the cover of an oak tree’s canopy these beautiful little beings grow.  They grow there all the time.  Most of the time, I am oblivious to them.

But for a storm named Irma.  I wouldn’t wish the likes of Irma on anyone, but I am aware this morning that because there was Irma, there will be many instances of beauty that we human types discover in the process of recovery and rebuilding–beauty we hadn’t expected.  Beauty we would likely not have encountered without the storm.

Bob Patrick

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September 11–Beauty: It’s in your hands

And it is always there, like love is there.
Whether it fairly shouts at me or hides,
Whether it turns and turns in my heart
Like a slowly turning dagger, it is there.
                               And I shall find it.       It Is Always There, by Kenneth W. Collier

We pondered these words yesterday at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Gwinnett.  This morning, out of the dark of early morning, I could hear the wailing and yelping of our 18 year old Dachshund, Jewel.  She was downstairs where she sleeps these days, far too old to make the staircase up to our bedroom.  She now has her own plush sleeping quarters in the sun room.

But, I could tell that she was unhappy.  I got up to go and check on her.  The rain from Irma had already begun.  I took Jewel outside and then back in.  She was inconsolable.  She got in and out of her bed a dozen times, tried to get under her blanket and then came out from under it half a dozen times, wailing and crying the whole time.  Nothing soothed her–nothing that usually does, not the offer of food, not the comfort of her bed or her blanket, not going outside.  Apparently not being inside.

So, instinctively, I got down on the floor next to her bed, and held her–mostly her head, cupped in my hands.  Her wailing became whimpers.  Her whimpers, after they stopped sounding continued to reverberate through her body for several more minutes.  And then, she was asleep.

It was something between us that worked.  It was in our touch. It soothed, it calmed, it cared, it worked.

This is September 11, a day that bears a national scar for us as Americans. Today, I am home from work because Hurricane Irma is moving through our area and schools are closed.  Much of Florida is waking up to devastation.  In the Caribbean, they are out of food and in panicked states.  The Houston area is still trying to catch its collective breath, to calm the panic that reverberates through life there after Hurricane Harvey last week. To the south of us, Mexico is dealing with the aftermath of an earthquake.

It strikes me this morning that “IT” always exists within us and between us–whether IT’s the fears and anxieties of an elder dog, the horror of terrorism, or the devastation of nature’s storms on human dwellings.  We do IT for each other.  We are IT.  We have IT always.  IT flows between us. IT moves us toward pain and suffering with hands ready to help.

So, let us be aware of IT, and answer IT’s call today.  Comfort is as close as our hands, and when we find them reaching toward another, IT is about to happen again.

Several years ago, a short prayer emerged for me that I say almost every day during my morning meditation:

This is my deep soul, and this is Spirit of which I am a part.

For me, this is IT.

Bob Patrick

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September 5–Beauty: Gratitude Practice

I have shared this practice here before.  I began doing this years ago, and it has a powerful effect on me.  It can be done in any public space.  I began doing it while at the gym.

As you move around and through public space that you share with other people, do the following.

  1. Let your gaze fall on one person.
  2. Hold that person in sight, mind and heart.
  3. Begin to see that person as a real person and not just another body taking up space around you.
  4. Silently, within, speak to that person as if they were the only person in the room:  Thank you, for your beauty.
  5. Allow whatever change within you to happen.
  6. Move to the next person and repeat.

You can practice this with the 2-3 people you encounter in the grocery aisle.  You can practice this while waiting on the service to begin at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Gwinnett.  You can practice this while standing in line to get your driver’s license renewed.  You can practice this while waiting in the doctor’s office.

To be honest, I remember to practice it when I am in public space that is beginning to irritate me (too crowded, too noisy, too slow, too unfriendly, etc).  It becomes clear, at some point, that I cannot change that public space, but perhaps I can change me.  This practice of gratitude for beauty in others just might change the public space, too.

Bob Patrick

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September 4–Beauty: The Gods Revealing

I woke up from what seemed like a night full of just weird dreams, and that is most often my experience. I began a complaint in my mind: why can’t I just have a joyful dream every once in a while. Instantly, as if in conversation with someone else, I was reminded that I had also had just such a dream and I slipped right back into the full memory of it.

I was back in the area where I grew up, in a house that I never knew, on a front porch looking out over the beginnings of the Appalachian hills and mountains of north Alabama. There was a child on the porch with me and the child’s mother, and it was clear to me that I was to teach the child something.  I said to the child:  look out on that (pointing to the mountainscape in front of us) and tell me what you see.  I had in mind the beauty of the mountains and particularly the beauty of the sky and clouds above them.  “Tell me what beauty you see.”

The child responded pointing lower in the landscape:  “The Southern Railway.”  I looked out, and the child was right (and that was true in the place where I grew up–the Southern Railway traveled parallel to the mountains north and south bisecting several towns along the way which became little train stations).  “Yes, so it is.  But look higher, I said. What beauty do you see?” The child gazed up and pointed at the blue sky and the beautiful clouds in it.  “Yes,” I heard myself saying.  “Jesus reveals himself to us in beauty.”  I looked into the face of the child, and the child’s eyes made me smile.

I realized, lying there in the dark of early morning, remembering this dream, that there were actually three beauties through which “Jesus was revealing himself.”  There was the beauty of the mountainscape.  There was the beauty of the child’s fascination with the railway.  And there was the face of the child itself.  And it became so clear to me that in each of those instances, beauty became the way the gods reveal themselves to us: the beauty of the Earth, the beauty of the things we are drawn to, and the beauty of every human face.

I don’t know what “the gods” mean to you.  They don’t have to mean anything.  They may mean everything.  You may think of God.  You may, like my dreaming self, think of Jesus. I also realized that Jesus was the beautiful version of God that I came to know growing up. Now, I think of the gods and goddesses as all of the expressions of that great unifying life and love that really has no name and all names at once.  Beauty is that–revealing itself to us.

Notice the beauty giving itself to you, today.  In the Earth.  In what you are drawn to, and what you see others drawn to.  In every face.  In every single face. Each instance of beauty is the gods revealing themselves to us.

Bob Patrick

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August 30–Return Again: To the Present

Let go of your tears that have been a symbol of your attachment to the past. The sadness and self-pity will not wash away one tiny fragment of your past. Gently remind the wounded part of yourself that that was then and this is now. Learn from those experiences. Bless them as great teachers, and then come rushing back to the working unit of your life, now!  Dr. Wayne Dyer

I often enjoyed the insights of Wayne Dyer while he was alive, and have some of his books as well.  I also tend to think that at times he works in hyperbole.

I don’t want to rush back into the working unit of my life if some wound has caught me from the past, but I do need to return.  The return can work both ways.

If right now, I find that I am wounded and that the wound is old, I must return–to the past–to see whatever there may be there for me to let go of, grieve over (which in its best sense is an ultimate letting go of something or someone) or see differently.  Tears themselves are a letting go, are they not?  This deep feeling from the wounded past begins to move through me and often can manifest as tears, the letting go of that movement of feeling.

And then I need to return, again, to now.  Here I am now, maybe with a scar from that wound, maybe with insight, maybe with wisdom.  But I am here now, and I am able to breathe, take the next step, open to the next moment.

It seems to me that when we see the return as moving in both directions, we can, as Dyer says, bless those moments that wounded us and from which we heal, but when we return to the present we are more able to bless those moments that are unfolding–even the kind that might have wounded us in the past.

I think that’s one sign of wisdom for me–that what once might have wounded me I can now see coming and even bless it (if not dodge it!).

Bob Patrick

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August 29–Return Again: Human Dignity

Return again, return again, return to who you are . . .

I continue to have this theme of who we are arise in my daily life.  It comes in many forms, and because it does, it seems to want to surprise me in and underneath different faces.

There is the website that a friend and colleague sent to me earlier in the summer about the way that adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s) actually change the human brain and
DNA.  I began pouring over the students I have taught in recent years who likely were those children, walking into my room with experiences I could not begin to imagine. Then, on Sunday, as I was driving to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Gwinnett, I heard a piece of a TED Radio show highlighting the work of pediatrician, Nadine Burke Harris, who has been key in working with children who experiences large numbers of ACE’s.  Not only do these adverse childhood experiences change the brain and change DNA, but interventions by physicians, social workers, teachers and other responsive adults also change the brain and human DNA–in a healing way!

Then, one day, a young man bursts into my room, disrupting the class that I had been teaching for nearly half an hour, shouting:  hey, I’m in your class.  He had missed not only most of that class, but he had also missed the first two weeks of school. It’s easy to see others who burst upon us like that as irritating and a problem. I want to choose to see the human being and the dignity underneath the face of the one who bursts into the room.

Another student shared with me recently that he got a ticket and two points on his insurance because another driver called 911 and reported him for reckless driving.  The police officer did not witness any reckless driving. The officer wrote the ticket based on the 911 caller alone. After listening to the story, I had to ask this African American male student:  did you see the other driver.  Yes, he did.  Was the other driver white?  Yes, a white woman. And I was left wondering–did she just see the black male face and decide that he needed to be reported?  Another example of driving while black? How could this woman have seen the human being I know–not aggressive, funny, intelligent young man? If the caller had been black and the young driver white and female, would the officer have given a ticket on hearsay? How do we find ways to allow ourselves to return to human dignity?

And then, I spent over 24 hours on a FB thread trying to hold the line on what I consider to be human dignity with a religious woman who insists that government is good when it enforces her religious ideas on others.  There were moments through that on again, off again conversation when I felt like the two of us were trying to see and hear each other, but when it meant having to loosen the grip on religious doctrine, the chasm between us reappeared.  Was I too bull headed?  Why couldn’t she see the human dignity at risk if her religious positions are made law?

The more that human dignity–seeing it, hearing it, caring about it, responding to it–arises in my life, the more questions I have.  Rilke urges me to live into the questions.  Mary Oliver urges me to hear the honking of the geese overhead as a reminder.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

I want to be reminded.  I need to be reminded, especially when I run into you–that you have your place in the world, in the family of things, and that that place is, all by itself worthy of honor, respect and veneration.

Bob Patrick

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August 21–Return Again: Born Again

The phrase “to be born again” holds a lot of religious power for some folks.  It’s an English translation of a line in John’s gospel (written in Greek) which is probably better translated “to be born from above.”  In the context of John’s gospel, it’s a call to examine your life in the larger scheme of things and open yourself to God’s vision of things..

What it has come to mean is having an emotionally charged religious experience during which you “accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior” (a phrase, by the way, that does not appear anywhere in the biblical witness) so that when you die you are promised eternal life in paradise.

And it seems to me that this more recent, very capitalist interpretation misses the point entirely.  Why call it a capitalist interpretation?  Seeing one’s primary relationship to the Divine as a means of securing your place in heaven, in so many words, is about buying property and making sure your spot is reserved. It’s “the deal of the century” and if you stick with me, I can get you in on it, too.  Sad to say, those who don’t get in on the deal will all go to hell.  They won’t get to live in the good neighborhood forever.  So sad.

You don’t have to scratch the surface of this outlook on faith and religion to see the parallels that individualism has painted over the gospel message.

The fact is, none of us has any real knowledge of what happens beyond this life.  What we do know is that we are alive, today.  We know that today we are living this one life.  We know that today we have choices to make, and choices always have outcomes.  We know that today we will do things, say things, hear things, choose to read things that will deepen our attitudes for or against the other human beings in our world.

If we wake up today to a new day of life, we have been given our return, again.  We have, if we open our eyes today, been born again into another sunrise, another set of relationships, another series of opportunities for practicing trust, practicing compassion, practicing asking really good and deep questions about life and our engagement with it.

At some point, each of us will arrive at that moment when we draw our last breath.  Then, we will know if there is anything else beyond this life to know.  Here’s how my faith as Unitarian Universalist helps me with that.  I trust that the Divine connects all things into One, and I trust that nothing and no one is lost in that process.  I trust in the eternal and boundless compassion of the Divine, and I am convinced more every day that if I cannot at least try to live into God’s love today that I probably wouldn’t make good use of eternity. I often wonder:  what if I arrived at the end of my life and discovered that this life is all that there is.  Could I take that last breath and smile knowing that I’d done fairly well with my days here? Because, as I said above, if I get to that moment and find that there is more beyond this life–I trust.  I trust that all will be well with my soul.

This is our return.  Today we are born again.  If being born again means anything, it’s about what we do with today.

Bob Patrick

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August 17 – Return Again: Coming Home

“Coming home” won’t always be a pleasant experience immediately, and I didn’t anticipate that truth happening to me.  My feelings when I touched down back in Atlanta, after almost ten months of calling another city and other people “home,” were complicated and intense.  I was afraid and sad – plus guilty for feeling such things.  Why couldn’t I be excited to be coming home?  Shouldn’t it feel safe, warm, and inviting?

I felt like I’d left the safety of the home I’d created for myself back in Newcastle.  When I walked off the plane, I felt like I’d walked into an unfamiliar space – a space that was no longer mine and mine alone.  That lack of “feeling at home” amplified my homesickness for the place I had created all by myself, just for myself.

My partner’s mother messaged me when I got home, and said, “it must be really weird having your heart in two different places.”  And she was more than right.  I am longing to return to the other half of my heart, with the other people whose homes I wish to continue to be a part of.  I expect that longing will drag me back there, but not before I find my happiness in Georgia again.

Coming home isn’t always happy.  It might be angry, sad, lonely, excited, lost, and scared before it can ever make it back around to being “happy.”  And that is okay.  Home is home because it opens its arms to those feelings, and holds you while you feel them.  With patience, love, and warmth, home helps you heal.  Home gives hope that the happiness you expected to feel when you get off the plane, will come in time.  And until then, home will be there for you, every step of the way.

~ Jo Benshoof

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