If I was asked to name something beautiful, my mind would immediately fill with the images of the natural world. I’ve been fortunate to have been covered in mist and drizzle standing in a boat in front of Niagara Falls seeing rainbows against the blue sky and listening to the thunder of the water pounding on the rocks. I’ve watched Half-Dome in Yosemite from the valley turn yellow with the setting sun. I’ve watched shooting stars from Glacier Point there several thousand feet from the valley floor. Living in Florida, I’ve sat watching gentle waves come in as pelicans skim the water in formation. I’ve walked through many different types of forests enjoying the flora and fauna. And I have a hard disk full of pictures and videos of these experiences.
The theme for this month however isn’t “beauty,” it is “nurturing beauty.” I realized the go-to natural beauty of many Transcendentalist Unitarian Universalists didn’t need to be nurtured. Far from it. It would be better for us to stop harming that beauty through human interference with it via contamination of water, soil and air, and the threatening that beauty through the introduction of invasive species, and pests.
The concept of “nurture” sent me off in another direction.
The cultivation of rose bushes that produce gorgeous blooms is not easy. Roses need a lot of direct sun, 4-6 hours a day. They need a lot of water, 2-3 gallons a week. There are a lot of molds, rusts, and diseases that attack them. There are a lot of insect pests that come after them. They need fertilizer in the fall but not too late in the fall. They need pruning in February, not the greatest time to be outside with your clippers. Yet with tender loving care, good soil, spraying and watering, beautiful blossoms come forth that appeal to the human eye and nose.
Not only can human care magnify the beauty of a rose, so can cross pollination and grafting propagate new varieties with different shapes, petals and colors. Through human coercion of natural selection as well as skill in cultivation, the rose can become even more beautiful – at least as we define that beauty.
Humans do the same thing with horses, dogs, cats and other domesticated animals. We tinker with their genes hoping to make them more beautiful and magnificent. A ministerial colleague and friend, the Rev. Lynn Ungar, who lives in Washington State, trains dogs to perform at dog shows. She is quite skilled at this training process working up routines with her dogs that she hopes the judges will find beautiful. Each year we see horses brought to Saratoga Springs to race who have been bred to be beautiful and fast.
Humans don’t just look for beauty in flowers and animals, they look for it in a human form. Ballet, for example, is a refined, highly disciplined form that seeks to express beauty through movement. Couples dancing can be quite beautiful too. Philomena and I connected with the beauty of human movement watching the show, “So You Think You Can Dance?” The skillful use of their bodies and the creative expression through their movement surprised me with the increased emotional response I felt watching them move to the music. They animated the music with their bodies in ways that touched an emotion I hadn’t expected the song to be able to reach. The show has been running since 2005 and stopped with COVID. It will start up again May 18th.
There are so many forms of human shaped beauty. The wide variety of musical genres that thrill the heart and stimulate the mind. I’m always amazed that designers can keep coming up with new ways to drape cloth on the human body in innovative ways that can be beautiful and not boring and repetitive. And what about beautiful food? Hasn’t every recipe been tried by now? Yet chefs continue to come up with new dishes and ways to plate them that we find appealing. How many paintings of mountains, rivers, waterfalls, trees and flowers do we need? Yet visual artists keep finding new ways to interpret creatively the beauty of nature.
This is all well and good but there is yet another kind of human beauty I’m seeking this month: A moral beauty; An ethical beauty; a spiritual beauty cultivated intentionally, with deep commitment.
This kind of beauty is a beauty of a heart that is full of love, compassion, and care. This kind of beauty is a beauty of a mind that is curious, interested, and explorative. This mind values lifelong learning, growth, and development. This mind seeks the ongoing development of wisdom. This kind of beautiful spirit is dedicated to generous service and social wellbeing before their own self-satisfaction. This spirit values justice, fairness, equity, inclusion, reconciliation, and peace. This spirit can and does say no to hate, cruelty, oppression, marginalization, and greed.
An important purpose of our congregation is nurturing the beauty of the hearts, minds, and spirits of our members and friends. This is especially true of our children and youth. I like this framing better than William Ellery Channing’s description of it as “character formation.” Nurturing beauty assumes the seeds, the root stock, the embryo, the creative spark, is already within us. We know we all contain inherent worth and dignity. But how much more … beautiful … for us to be nurturing the beauty in each other.
May we find ways to nurture the beauty in each other this month as the beauty of the natural world is on full display with spring flowers in full force.