The unprecedented global phenomenon of the pandemic COVID-19 is an invitation to universal reflection. In spite of the posturings of various political figures, the reality is that we did not see this coming, even though a handful of enlightened prophets did issue some unheeded warnings. There is hardly an individual on the face of the earth who has not been affected in some way by the crisis, and that is surely unprecedented in our lifetime at least. The tiny, silent, obnoxious killer that is the corona virus has crept into all our lives and will colour our existence for the foreseeable future. Normal life as we knew it will hardly return in the short-term, and much of what we took for granted is now a luxury that we aspire to. Among the many thoughtful and indeed beautiful reflections going around on social media, the following captures the spirit better than most:
‘We fell asleep in one world and woke up in another. Suddenly Disney is out of magic and New York is asleep. Hugs have suddenly become weapons, and not visiting grandparents becomes an act of love. Suddenly you realise that power and money are worthless and can’t get you the oxygen you’re fighting for. But nature continues its life and it is beautiful, sending us this message:
You are not necessary. The earth, air, water and sky are fine without you. When you come back, remember that you are my guests. Not my masters!’
And indeed nature has continued on its own sweet way, without any help from us. And people have begun to take notice in a new way. In the early days of lockdown, with scarcely a plane in the sky, and minimal traffic on the ground, did we not notice unusually blue skies, and the striking lessening of noise levels accentuated the birdsong in a way we had not experienced before. And walking in restricted space, did we not begin to notice the small things with a keener eye, and marvel (for example) at the process by which the humble dandelion morphs into the exquisite delicacy of that white orb that captures the hearts of children. In that sense, we all became children again, for in the previous ‘normal’ we knew the truth of Francis Thompson’s words: ’Tis we, ’tis our estranged faces That miss the many-splendoured thing’. The daffodils were in full bloom as the crisis hit, and we were able to marvel with Shakespeare at ‘daffodils that come before the swallow dares and take the winds of March with beauty’.
We have regained something of the wonder of William Blake:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
‘Without wonder the people perish’
is a lovely quality that enables us to see into the freshness of things, to be able to look with a new eye on every day that dawns, on every sun that sets. Wonder it is that sends a thrill through our being when spring sends the sap through the trees and makes the heart leap up “when I behold a rainbow in the sky”. The Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, laments in later life that he was no longer able, as he says, “to see wonders in the grass”, as he did when he was a child. In one of his poems, he asks people to ‘pray that I may be alive when April’s ecstasy dances in every white-thorn tree’. April, though, this year brought an eerie silence, and right in the middle of it we had the muted celebration of the Paschal Mystery, and we got a new sense of Holy Saturday all over the earth, when the haunting reflection of that anonymous early Christian writer took on more significance than usual: ‘What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness’. And indeed that silence permeated most of the lockdown period.
Many people were challenged by the silence and the solitude and, understandably, some went under. But many came to know the power of silence in a new way and learned to touch into their inner spirit in a way that was not accessible before, discovering the giftedness of silence, enabling them to get a hint of what Eckhart meant when he said that ‘nothing in the world resembles God so much as silence’. The haunting stillness of the landscape was tangible and eloquent. ‘To come into silence is to come into the presence of the divine. One of the great healing functions of landscape is that it is the custodian of a great unclaimed silence that urbanised postmodern society has not raided yet. This landscape, living in a mode of silence, is wrapped in seamless prayer’ (John O’Donohue).
While tragedy, sadness and hardship have been the inevitable concomitant of the virus, it has brought many unexpected benefits too. The slower pace of life, the enforced leisure, the needs of others: all these have led to an enhancement of the quality of life for countless people, resulting in a more caring, reflective society – dare I say it, a more prayerful society too, for when people are thrown back on their own resources, they realise their shortcomings and their limitations and tend to cry out to a ‘Higher Power’. The words from the Book of Esther come to mind: ‘Queen Esther took refuge in the Lord in the mortal peril that had overtaken her’.
The American environmentalist, Thomas Berry, has a startling statement which stops us in our tracks: ‘To wantonly destroy a living species is to silence forever a divine voice’. There is a beauty in small things that tends to get overlooked in the hustle and bustle of life. There is a story told of a Belgian Carmelite who was imprisoned during the Second World War. In his solitary confinement, a fly came in one day on his dinner-plate, and he struck up a great rapport with this fly, being the only other living thing in that hovel – to such an extent that, on his release, the friar could not abide the killing of any kind of insect!
Patrick Kavanagh again speaks about ‘the beautiful, beautiful, beautiful God breathing his love by a cut-away bog’. For many, the COVID crisis, and the enforced isolation, brought a new appreciation of beauty, and that was (is) a new enrichment of life for, in the words of Ralph Emerson, ‘beauty is God’s handwriting – a wayside sacrament. Welcome it in every fair face, in every fair sky, every fair flower, and thank God, for it is a cup of blessing’.
Beauty refines the soul and brings colour and richness into the dullest life. And maybe amid the noise and haste, we had become blind to beauty and lost our sense of wonder, with a consequent impoverishment of spirit – the spirit that only grows by opening to beauty as a flower opens to the sun.
The fact is, we are surrounded by beauty at every step – but do we notice? Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder; if the beholder is not fully alive inside, then beauty can pass us by.
|O WORLD invisible, we view thee,|
|O world intangible, we touch thee,|
|O world unknowable, we know thee,|
|Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!|
We might not be able to define beauty but we all know what it is, and how it can brighten up life. ‘One may lack words to express the impact of beauty, but no one who has felt it remains untouched. It is renewal, enlargement, intensification’ (Bernard Devoto)
“It is only beauty that will save the world. Beauty is a sacrament; it is Christ’s tender smile coming through the world” (Simone Weil).
St Thomas Aquinas said that God created the world in a spirit of joy! The Scriptures echo this joy at every turn, thrilling to the beauty of nature. Ecclesiasticus: ‘He clothed them with strength like his own, and made them in his own image … gave them a heart to think with, filled them with knowledge and understanding … put his own light into their hearts, to show them the magnificence of his works … their eyes saw his glorious majesty’ (Eccles. 17: 3, 13)
And later on: ‘Look upon the rainbow and praise its Maker, exceedingly beautiful in its brightness … He scatters the snow like birds flying down. The eye marvels at the beauty of its whiteness, and the mind is amazed at its falling’ (Eccles. 43: 11-13, 18-20)
The Romantic poets were intoxicated with beauty, Keats for example: A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: Its loveliness increases; it will never Pass into nothingness; but still will keep A bower quiet for us, and a sleep Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing. Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing A flowery band to bind us to the earth.
New-found leisure enabled many to ponder on the deeper things in life and to ask the basic questions: ‘What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare’. The Italian concept of ‘dolce farniente’ (sweet idleness) took on a new meaning, and of course in the early days of the COVID crisis, the Italians were very much to the fore, taking the brunt of the pandemic, but in the process the spirit of the country rose to the surface, and the resilience and creativity of the Italian people became a template for other nations when they were struck down later.
The power of music
Who will ever forget the power of that great paean of freedom, the ‘Va pensiero’, sung from the balconies of flats in northern Italy. Or the poignant spectacle of Andrea Bocelli singing in the empty Duomo in Milan. And taking their cue from the Italians, other nations sang their way through the trauma. Indeed, music came into its own as an expression of deep feeling and solidarity and took on a beauty that uplifted the spirit. For music has that power.
Music is an expression of beauty, counteracting the widespread disharmony and ugliness that is all too prevalent – the ugliness of pollution, the disharmony of war. Music is a spark of the divine, touching a deep chord in every heart; it refines the spirit when we listen to the music of life, the sound of the wind in the trees, the sound of laughter, the sounds of nature – ‘the music of what happens is the sweetest sound of all’.
Music ‘soothes the savage breast’ (William Congreve). The poets are eloquent when they speak of ‘music when soft voices die, vibrates in the memory’ (Shelley) ‘The man that hath no music in himself Nor is not moved by concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, strategems and spoils’ (Shakespeare: Merchant of Venice). ‘Music that gentlier on the spirit lies, Than tired eyelids upon tired eyelids’ (Tennyson).
Music is a means of tapping into the core of life, and being energized – being in touch with our own deepest feelings, and getting in touch with others – listening to ‘the still sad music of humanity’, and giving us the sensitivity, too, to listen to the cry of the poor.
There is a moving scene in the film ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. Andy is all alone in the warden’s office. He plays an aria from The Marriage of Figaro, first for himself: and then he puts it through the public address system, and every last man in the prison looked up and stood still to listen to this beautiful aria. And then Andy’s friend Red, played by Morgan Freeman, says: “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are better left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and makes the heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a grey place dares to dream. It was as if some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage, and made those walls dissolve away. And for the briefest moments every last man in Shawshank felt free. That’s the power of music. It can free the body, the heart – even the soul. I believe it can free one from sin and all that is bad in oneself: and take one away from all that is evil in the world. I also believe it can so lift the soul that it gives it a taste of heaven’.
The great Mozart, whose music is incomparable, wrote his Clarinet Concerto just three months before he died. There is little in the suave and relaxed lines of the second movement to suggest that the composer was in dire financial straits, seriously ill and would shortly be dead, The beauty and extraordinary simplicity of the melodic line is delivered in meltingly arched phrases. As someone said: ‘There are times when unbearable sadness seems to linger in the music’.
The dance of the universe
Bishop Helder Camara, the great liberation theologian in Latin America, speaks about the music of the universe. He says: ‘God has put music and harmony in all of us. The role of genuine music is to arouse the music within us that the rough, hard life we lead so often puts to sleep … God has stamped a rhythm in human beings, animals, plants, and even stones. A person walking, a bird flying, a leaf falling – everything proclaims the beginning of a dance. At the heart of the atom, in the ballet of the stars, rhythm and harmony have been sown by our Creator! Listening to music, watching dance – these are true prayers’.
Thoughts surely echoed by Pope Francis, whose landmark first encyclical ‘Laudato Sí’ five years ago has turned out to be truly prophetic and should serve as a template for all world leaders in caring for ‘our common home’. ‘The earth cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will … We have forgotten that we are dust of the earth; our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters’.
Pale Blue Dot
The renowned American astronomer, Carl Sagan, waxes eloquent on the beauty of the universe, and he enthuses in particular on the wonder of an image of our planet taken by Voyager 1 at a distance of 4 billion miles, where our earth appears as a tiny point of light. Sagan comments:
‘Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives … The aggregate of our joy and suffering, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam … There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known’ (Pale Blue Dot – Carl Sagan).
A rediscovery of wonder and beauty will be a positive and enriching by-product of the present crisis and will lead to a new appreciation of what we took for granted before. In the words of Pope Francis, who has been an inspiration in all this: ‘(When all this is over) the normal will seem an unexpected and beautiful gift. We will love everything that before seemed ordinary to us. Every second will be precious’. And we will have begun to respond to the great cry of Gerard Manley Hopkins: ‘Give beauty back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s Giver’.