“Beauty is the battlefield where God and Satan contend for the hearts of men.” The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky
When our son Gabe was seven or eight, we were driving back from Portland to our home in Farmington, Maine. At some point on Route 202 near Winthrop, he rid himself of a pesky bit of trash out the open back window of our Ford. In Maine, then as now, littering is a hanging offense, and a state trooper spotted the infraction and did a quick U turn behind us. A mile or so down the road, he pulled us over. He politely asked if I knew what we had perpetrated, and I pleaded ignorance. He instructed me on the serious nature of our offense. Gabe in our backseat looked like a puppy who just ate the stew meat off the kitchen table.
I asked the trooper, who understood exactly what had happened, if Gabe would have to go to prison or just work off his fine in home confinement until he was twenty-one. We negotiated a just settlement, and the trooper took me at my word we would reverse course, find the offending litter and retrieve it, which we promptly did with no Maine State Police vehicle following us. Gabriel learned from his experience, and it was many years before he had to spend a night in jail.
We’ve noticed on our bike rides here in Maine that roadside litter is much rarer than in Rhode Island, where it is a plague – an occasional yahoo beer can on these rural roads in Maine, but if we see three in a mile, it is unusual. In Rhode Island, just past the welcome to beautiful Rhode Island signs, the mess begins along the road, even on the beaches after hours. I’ve often wondered what combination of neglectful parenting, ignorance and arrogance prompts passersby to believe it is someone else’s job to clean up after them.
I think the lack of jeopardy may account for some of it in Rhode Island-I’ve never seen littering laws enforced; and in Maine residents and visitors alike harbor a respect, almost a reverence, for the beauty around nearly every turn.
“Late have I loved thee, Beauty ever old, ever new; late have I loved thee. Lo, you were within, but I was outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong.” Confessions of St. Augustine [i]
As we stood silently for long minutes watching the sunset just to the south of Tumbledown across Webb Lake, I was struck anew with the gratuitous beauty of sun, clouds, mountains and water. Why was nature made beautiful instead of pallid and enervating? Why are human beings such that their senses and spirits perceive the beauty? What grace and gift is at work here? The same grace and gift moves artists of music, form and hue to create as best we can a reflected beauty. And, most importantly, what Truth is to be found congruent with the Beauty?
When we fail to ask such questions, when we persist without respite in the endless business of commerce and noise, amusements and entertainments precisely to avoid asking such questions, we dodge not just blundering through some sophomoric speculations, but hazard missing why we are on this big blue beautiful ball hurtling at unimaginable speed around the galaxy and through the void: we risk missing the entire point. We fail to pay attention to the jeopardy of forgetting our teleology, the end for which we exist as separate from the other creatures on this fragile planet, and perhaps from the other creatures (if there are any) in this universe.
In an Associated Press syndicated technology article this week in the Lewiston Sun Journal, the latest “big leap” in Apple technology was lauded. “Augmented reality” (AR) will be rolled out in the next iteration of software for iPads and iPhones with built in capability for entrepreneurial “killer apps” to layer on enhancement to our staid, just plain old reality. Related to virtual reality, it will feature the ability, like the washed-up “Pokemon Go” phenomenon, to allow us to visualize in our surroundings magical apparitions that aren’t there. Millions will be able to spend billions of their finite, irreplaceable hours distracting themselves with these wonderful apparitions because, apparently, we don’t have enough distraction already. Facebook, Google and Microsoft are frantically working to roll out their own AR versions. Tim Cook, Apple CEO, hailed AR as “profound technology.” Indeed. “I am so excited about it, I just want to yell and scream!” exclaimed Mr. Cook. Exactly so, I say; I have a similar urge. [ii]
I would make a modest proposal to Mr. Cook and to you, dear reader. Perhaps we could better spend a little time undistracted, unentertained, without a screen, with some unaugmented reality. And in that quiet without noise and interruption, without beer cans and roadside trash, ask ourselves some questions. I would suggest that a sunset over Webb Lake, looking towards Mount Blue and Tumbledown might be a good place to start.
“We’re all haunted by (death) in one way or another. And it’s the easiest thing in the world to push away, you just get a cappuccino. But, yes, you’re haunted by it in a different way (as you get older). I feel its presence. I feel it in my sleep, in dreams, in waking.” Sam Shepard, who died this week at 73.
[i] Quotes from Dostoevsky and Augustine were cited in “Strangers in a Strange Land” by Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia. In writing about these things, Archbishop Chaput quotes some lines from “Evening,” a poem by Rainier Maria Rilke and continues with his own comments:
Slowly now the evening changes his garments
held for him by a rim of ancient trees;
you gaze: and the landscape divides and leaves you
one sinking and one rising toward the stars.
And you are left, to none belonging wholly,
not so dark as a silent house, nor quite
so surely pledged unto eternity
as that which grows to star and climbs the
To you is left (unspeakably confused)
your life, gigantic, ripening, full of fears,
so that it, now hemmed in, now grasping
is changed in you by turns to stone and
Philosophers and psychologists have offered many different theories about the nature of the human person. But few have captured the human condition better than Rilke does in those twelve lines. We are creatures made for heaven, but we are born of this earth. We love the beauty of this world, but we sense that there’s something more behind that beauty. Our longing for that “something” pulls us outside of ourselves.