Forgiving Even Beauty

In Absence from Felicity Ken Wapnick tells a story about Helen Schucman. Mary shows Helen the Pieta – Michelangelo’s heart-breaking sculpture of Mary holding her son’s crucified body – and says “this is not real.” The first time that story was shared with me,  it shook me to the core. I can deal with somebody telling me that the front yard maple trees aren’t real – hell, I can deal with death not being real – but do not – repeat, do not – mess with beautiful art.

For me, there are certain works of art that have sustained and enriched and inspired ever since I first encountered them. Certain poems of Emily Dickinson, for example, are more sacred to me than any story in the bible. Indeed, if we played that game Desert Island and I was allowed one book, it would be Dickinson’s collected poems. It contains everything I need. You can have ACIM. You can have the New Testament. Give me E.D. and I’m okay.

I understand that the Helen Schucman Pieta story is really about the unreality of death – Mary was not talking to Helen about the form of the message (the sculpture) but rather its content. In Michelangelo’s rendition, Mary’s grief is poignant. It is like we are witnessing a private moment of sorrow so intense it is beautiful. We are like flies on the wall of a sepulchre. Mary’s point to Helen was simple: this death never happened. I am not – I cannot – be separate from my son. And you cannot be either.

But the whole “death isn’t real” thing has never been especially hard for me to swallow – at least at the narrative level. Some variation of it has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. You don’t do thirty some odd years of Catholicism (while dabbling in Buddhism) without ingesting some pretty strong “death is not the end” vibes. Even as I challenged the concept of Heaven as some sort of highly desirable (and ethereal) real estate, I didn’t doubt that something continued when the body was finished – in terms of energy, or consciousness or whatever. So when the course came along and said that death wasn’t real – because I’m not really a mortal body plodding through a world devoted to endings – it wasn’t such a leap.

But man, take away my Emily Dickinson poems . . .

A Course in Miracles teaches us that the world is not real. We all resist that teaching in different ways. Some things we can comfortably let go of as illusions while others we hold apart because they are special. For some of us, the exception is death. For some of us it is our children. For some of us it is Chopin. Or the Pieta. Or Emily Dickinson. It doesn’t matter. It’s all unreal.

Sit quietly and look upon the world you see, and tell yourself: “The real world is not like this. It has no buildings and there are no streets where people walk alone and separate. There are no stores where people buy an endless list of things they do not need. It is not lit with artificial light, and night comes not upon it. There is no day that brightens and grows dim. There is no loss. Nothing is there but shines, and shines forever (T-13.VII.1:1-7).”

We have to accept the absence of equivocation here. We have to see it in the text, even if we are not ready yet to accept it. We cannot keep any part of this world and know God (T-13.VII.2:2). It is an all or nothing proposition. As soon as we insist on our special exception or exceptions, then we are in the ego’s illusion as deep as we can go.

I like to think that when my hackles rose in defense of the Pieta I was being deeply loyal to beauty and truth. I was standing firm in favor of great art. Who wouldn’t stand with me? It’s the side of Shakespeare and Gertrude Stein and Georgia O’Keefe. It’s the side of Johnny Cash and Odetta.

The problem, of course, is that I’m seeing it all in terms of sides. In reality, I was simply insisting that this physical world is real and that you and I are real within it. I was defending the separation – I was insisting that we are not united with God. Look again at that passage form chapter thirteen of the text. How hard would it be to add a line about no breathtaking sculptures, no enlightening poetry and no inspiring songs? Not hard at all.

I am not saying that we cannot enjoy and appreciate art – or cheesecake, or walks with our children, or even death if that’s what floats our inner ark. It certainly worked for Emily Dickinson. She knew as well as anyone that there is precious little to be gained from denying either the world or our experience in it.

The body is merely part of your experience in the physical world. Its abilities can and frequently are overevaluated. However, it is almost impossible to deny its existence in this world. Those who do so are engaging in a particularly  unworthy form of denial (T-2.IV.3:8-11).

The question is, as always, what is it for (T-17.VI.2:2)? We have these appetites – one of which is for narrative and beauty and truth. What is it for? If we use that bodily appetite to seek out art in order to reinforce the separation, as I did in my initial response to the story of Helen, Mary and the Pieta, then we are going to experience the separation. We are going to feal fearful and guilty and angry and all of that.

But there is another way. We can perceive in the form of the art, the content of the greater Love that underlies it. Thus, we can behold the Pieta not as a centuries-old chunk of marble fashioned by an Italian genius, but as a symbol of God’s love. We can do that with Emily Dickinson’s poetry. We can do it with a really good loaf of bread. Or a flash of lightening. We don’t make the form real. Instead, we see past the form to the content, which is Love. We might call that Love insight or inspiration or beauty or whatever but the point remains. When we bring our illusions – even the loveliest of them – to Truth they are undone and we can then perceive the forgiven world.

The stars will vanish in light, and the sun that opened up the world to beauty will vanish. Perception will be meaningless when it has been perfected, for everything that has been used for learning will have no function. Nothing will ever change; no shifts nor shadings, no differences, no variations that made perception possible will still occur. The perception of the real world will be so short that you will barely have time to thank God for it (T-17.II.4:1-4).

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