Where have you been? Where are you going? And why?
The silence of the stage reverberated across the grand performance hall. The stage waited, naked without Shakespeare there to dress it: black flooring, black walls, and black curtains. Ghosts of laughter, tears, smiles, and gasps hovered like Hamlet’s father across the void. Red seats sat in anticipation, soldiers standing at attention. Only fifty of the two thousand chairs would hold people tonight.
I walked across the red carpet of the first tier’s entryway en route to sign in for the volunteer training. I weaved through chatting retired folks recounting the events of the now setting summer. They talked of the coming productions and the theater’s lineup for the fall season. I signed in and immediately went to work. I searched diligently for the seat that most hid me from the eyes of the trainer. Yes, even teachers act like students sometimes. I found a spot along the back row just under the windows enclosing the booth for stage lighting and special effects. Off to my left, trainees filled in the first twenty seats in six consecutive rows. Before long, the instructor arrived and immediately ordered my whole row to move closer. I grumbled and obeyed.
You see, I sat through these training sessions each of the last two years. I had already heard how to greet the patron, a word by the way that holds too much uppity power. I already knew how to hang a coat, how to direct someone, sorry patron, to the restroom. I knew how to brace myself for the cold, biting wind as I opened the door for folks. Despite my expertise, the performing arts center mandated the training, and so for my wife and me to attend any of the shows free of charge, I attended. But not as the golden student; I packed some personal reading in the form of a stapled packet that would blend in with the handouts they gave us.
My reading consisted mainly of a chapter excerpt a friend had given me. Reading about psychotherapy while attempting to hide and appear attentive all at the same time makes for difficult comprehension. The woman began her introductions and familiarized the trainees with the theater’s layout. I dove into psychiatric therapy. The premise of the chapter dealt with motivations by which humans operate and make decisions, both minuscule and epic. The author reduced God to a myth we’ve created out of our fear of inevitable death, one of the four assurances of human experience. His arguments crashed into my faith and it spun like a race car careening for the embankment. What if God isn’t real? What if I really have created him out of terror? I fought to hold onto the ledge of conviction as the rebuttal stood above me, threatening to mash my fingers that grasped the edge of the cliff. Suddenly I didn’t care about volunteer training, about hiding my reading, or about eating or breathing. I wanted to go home, lock myself in a dark closet, and pretend none of my eternal questions needed answering. Or better, I wanted to climb Everest to stare up into the starry sky, waving my fist demanding that God prove His existence to me.
At some point amidst the deconstruction of my life’s foundation, the director finalized the first half of the training and directed us into groups to receive instruction on various responsibilities. I sleepwalked to station one. Then I saw her. She was Eve in all her grandeur. I’d noticed her earlier in the evening, but now that she was in my group she became impossible to ignore. Brown curled hair fell just below her shoulders. She wore jeans that fit like jeans should and carried a bag strapped over her opposite shoulder that spoke of being a little more professional than a sorority sister.
The leader of our station taught us how to hang a coat. This time I really tried to pay attention, but Eve danced on the periphery. As we moved from station to station, I contemplated staring, following close behind, attempting a whiff of perfume, striking up a conversation. The night wore on and I partook in none of those. Thankfully I don’t think she battled with any of the same for me.
When the evening finally ended, I signed some papers indicating the performances we (my wife and I) wanted to see, and stepped out into the Nashville night. I glanced into my hand to see the chapter excerpt that only two hours prior had challenged my very essence. The woman’s splendor had seduced my energy away from contemplating God so quickly and wholly that I disregarded the struggle entirely.
I walked past the War Memorial and city fountains and pondered this reality: Beauty is enough to make me forget God. My mind had been so consumed with the challenge of God’s existence and the fear of death without that assurance, and it was all swept away by this woman’s sheer beauty. The experience of beauty really is enough to dispel the need for certainty and conviction.
Beauty is enough to make me forgot God. If God is the source of all beauty, and He created me with an insatiable longing for Himself, that means He created me to experience and need all the beauty that He is. In His goodness and grace He created a world that reflects His beauty, including myself, and in my depravity, I’ve skewed true beauty and settled for far less, which leaves me either gasping or anesthetizing. Still, my longing for beauty supersedes my need for assurance that God exists and that I am in good standing with Him. At first this sounds incredibly heretical. But perhaps beauty does not make me forget God, but actually points me to a deeper experiential need for Him that reaches a depth deeper than my heart/brain’s demand for certainty, faith, and belief of God.
Paul talks about faith, hope, and love in 1 Corinthians 13. In the context of discussing the significance of love, Paul concludes with a vision for heaven and a statement, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
When heaven comes, folks will discard faith and hope like worn shoes. Love will be the only activity, which of course makes it the only one of Paul’s three that has lasting value. I love the C.S. Lewis story in The Great Divorce where a man comes into heaven boasting in his ability or passion to share the gospel. It gets turned on him, however, when he realizes that his “gift” no longer has any value in heaven; the man valued sharing the gospel over intimacy with the Father, and once on the Golden Streets, enjoying God and ruling a redeemed world is all there is left to do. In heaven, dodo birds will far outnumber measures of faith.
When I am in heaven as I know it, I will have no need for faith. I will, however, gaze upon the completion of a word, beauty, that the world has spent my lifetime offering hints of, whether in distortions of illicit material or divine reflections like my wife, Hawaii’s Napali Coast, a river descending through the Rocky Mountains, and the Ponte Vecchio at sunset. But the experience of it will invite much more than gazing.
His Being will consume me with beauty words have not yet been created to explain. I can only dream about no longer aching for the attention of a pretty face. No more need to rewind a musical piece to hear a three second interval that triggers tears in my soul. It will be more than sitting aside the Painter with sunsets that never set. The Painter himself will hold my gaze. It isn’t that the need for peonies and Maui’s Black Rock Beach will go away. No, the desire will be fulfilled to a completion such that no more room for craving exists. And the consummation of beauty, in a place where faith has met extinction, will finally be a true offer of the love I searched for in the eyes of a stranger at the performance hall.