I have a friend who works as a chaplain providing spiritual support for people in mental health crises – as an aside, I’ve been wondering what the difference is between a spiritual crisis and a psychiatric one, but that’s a whole different article. Anyway, he was telling me about someone who asked him what he thought a good symbol for God would be. One of those questions meant to start a conversation rather than seek an answer, the querier had an answer: electricity. Which I think is a pretty cool answer – energy, the thing that animates. My chaplain friend said this answer got him to thinking symbols don’t have to be physical tangible things [like rocks, or goats] but if the horizon is open to other options his vote would be for beauty.
Beauty. I think he’s definitely on to something there. So I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately and thinking beauty doesn’t happen in isolation, beauty needs to be seen. Somehow I think beauty is about some kind of communication. There’s a line in a Harry Manx song (Make Way for the Living) that always catches me: “the flowers bloom for no-one’s sake, and yet…” And yet… Never has so much been said by three little dots.
When I think about my own symbol for God (with beauty brewing in my mind) I get this image, the most extraordinarily beautiful thing I’ve ever seen: I was walking in the woods one spring evening and as I passed through an aspen grove the sunlight filtered through the new leaves and lit them all up like stained glass. Doesn’t sound like much but it was a heart-stopping moment for me, so struck by the beauty of it I was brought to tears. And when I think of it as a symbol, it’s a kick-ass one (at least in my brain). Setting sun – nice to look at, freshly opened new spring leaves – pretty; but the light through the leaves – stellar!!!
It’s that coming together that is so powerful. I was watching an interview with Bill Russell on the Daily Show and he told a story about asking the Dalai Lama about how he reconciled spirituality with reality (the Dalai Lama’s answer was that it came on gradually and took 30 years – a great comfort to me who hasn’t even been an adult for 30 years; I’ve got lots of time). But the idea that even the Dalai Lama has to reconcile the two is remarkable; it isn’t one or the other, it’s the place where they meet. Roger Penrose grapples with the same issue in The Large, the Small and the Human Mind when he tries to reconcile the Platonic perfect world of mathematics with the messy physical world it manifests in.
And there is mathematics in beauty. The golden ratio, the 2:3, 5:8, etc. that is used in art, and is so appealing to the eye, is based on Fibonacci’s sequence (totally a math thing!). We use it in flower arranging all the time, where the flowers are one and a half times as high as the height of the vase. If you don’t follow this (or another ratio based on Fibonacci) it looks goofy and out of balance. We have an intuitive sense of beauty, but it’s actually based on math.
The platonic and the physical, the divine and the human, it’s in the space where they meet that all the juicy stuff lies. Space – that’s the key ingredient, and art brings it to us when it leaves things out. Negative space in flower arranging is the place where you don’t put anything; when form draws your eye to the place where there is nothing, but there wouldn’t be a nothing if it wasn’t for the something that created it. Some of the most powerful moments in music and dance are the moments where things just stop for a heartbeat, a little bit of emptiness in all that movement and sound. I watched a Mia Michaels contemporary dance piece on So You Think You Can Dance (known as the Butt Dance) that exemplifies this – Google it! A simple, silly little piece, but in the moments where everything slows down…wow. And it’s wow, not because of the stillness alone, but because of the movement the stillness happens within.
So, maybe it’s not a symbol for God, more the place where you’d find God; but my vote would be to look for God in the place where things come together, the space between the notes. Where the sound and the silence meet. You need both to make the music.