Today, like every other day,
we wake up empty and frightened.
Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading.
Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
From Rumi: The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing, by Jalal al-Din Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks
I've just had the most wonderful dive into The Divine Comedy, offering lectures in Napa and a three-day retreat in Inverness. Revisiting Dante was a wonderful reminder of how much beauty can be found even in the midst of despair. The great composers, artists and writers of the world didn't wait until life was calm before picking up the paintbrush or the writing pen. Rather, they channeled their pain, grief, anxiety and fear into courageous acts of creativity. The Divine Comedy was written in the midst of financial catastrophe, rampant political corruption and personal despair in the years after Dante was exiled with a death sentence over his head and all his property confiscated. Bach's sublime Chaconne in d minor for solo violin was the outpouring of his broken heart after returning home from a business trip to find his beloved wife dead and buried. Beethoven's magnificent sonatas were composed as his deafness mounted and liver disease overtook him. Rumi's ecstatic poetry was birthed as an imaginal pathway to reunite with the mystic spirit of his beloved soulfriend Shams of Tabriz, who legend has it, was murdered by his own inner circle.
Too often we think we will make time for beauty and creativity after things "settle down". I hear people say they will make time for beauty after the stock market stabilizes or the Corona Virus is contained or after the next election or (fill in the blank).....But for Dante, Beethoven and Bach, life never "settled down" and got easier. They each created light in the midst of the growing darkness, light that shine on us still. It may well be that it was only the beauty that they brought forth in their acts of creativity that gave them the strength to endure and have resilience to hope.
In the escalating fear of headlines, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that life has always been -- and always will be-- tenuous, uncertain and fraught with anguish. This is not news. In fact, it is the First Noble Truth in Buddhism. However, it may be helpful to be reminded that things have been much, much worse throughout history. The Corona Virus is nowhere near as deadly as the Flu Epidemic of 1918, which claimed almost two hundred-thousand lives within thirty days. The flu was nowhere as lethal as the Black Plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century, when 30-60% of the population of most large towns died. What our ancestors did in the face of true epidemics like these can give us pause and inspiration-- and a pathway of consolation.
The Laudario, two collections of extraordinarily beautiful music were penned by anonymous artists in the midst of the Black Death plague. Their songs of lamentation were sung as the guild members tended the dying and buried bodies in mass graves in Florence; the songs of joy were danced in the woods outside Cortona where the celebrants gathered to remember St. Francis's call to praise all of creation and befriend the entire cycle of life, offering even "Sister Death" a place of honor in their dances.
Ultimately, no one is immune from suffering and death. The question is, will you inhabit your days fully, drinking from the well of beauty while you are here? Can you unleash your creativity to give voice and shape to your longing, love and even loss? If you can, you will have found a path worth following, one that might well soothe your anxious spirit and offer an oasis of beauty, a sanctuary for your heart in times of trouble. In the poetic words of Mary Oliver, when death comes, will you be "a bride married to amazement? Will you be "the bridegroom taking the world" in your arms? Our ability to open to joy, Dante's Paradiso informs us, is directly related to our capacity to our ability to behold beauty. In times of distress, enlarging this capacity seems a matter of great urgency. What can you do this day to open your heart to more beauty?