Monasteries of the Heart

Monks in Our Midst: Susan Baller-Shephard on Beauty

Let the Beauty we Love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. -Rumi

Beauty can inspire us and fill us with awe.

Flowers do that for me, the depth of texture and color. Birds do that: the artistry of the feathers and bird calls and the fact that a Lyre Bird in Australia can mimic any of the sounds around her like a camera shutter or a chain saw. Sunsets, where the sky blends orange and red and pink and yellow in such a way that your jaw simply drops open. We want to kneel and kiss the ground.

What is this craziness? This holiness? Who is this Creator that all of these things should come together in such ways that human beings stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon and say, “Wow,” or hold a newborn and say, “How can this be? This new one here?” as the starfish hands reach out and the teeny tiny baby toes and eyes that look at us with trust?

Visual beauty has the capacity to draw us closer to the Divine, to fill our hearts and souls so full that we utter prayers of wonder, or we’re left speechless.

As we think about the theme of beauty, let’s consider the beauty of words….What words have meant a great deal to you? What words have sustained you?

This is how I fell in love with words. How they held my attention. How I found an end to them.

When I was a child, my Grandma Mabel used to wash the dishes with scalding hot water. I'd always dry because I couldn't handle the hotness of the water, but it made her small kitchen into a sauna with all the steam. Grandma Mabel loved a good bakery, and she'd always have a kitchen full of Jaarsma's bakery breads. In this warm, soapy, bread-scented kitchen, after supper, after all the dishes were dried and put away, she'd recite poems to me that she'd memorized as a young girl. She'd started teaching school when she was 16 and had to quit teaching when she got pregnant with her first child, but she'd memorized dozens and dozens of poems which she'd recite. She would reciteThe Song of Hiawatha, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a poem she knew by heart or the poem In School-days by John Greenleaf Whittier, a poem about a little girl who passes her friend in a spelling contest.

Sometimes we have to grow into these words and over time they grow into us, these savored pieces of language become intertwined with our DNA. They take up residence within us…in a hundred ways. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, said, "A poem often has two subjects, a starting subject and then the discovery subject, the poem wants to leave the object and go beyond to something greater."

This is what faith can ask of us too, to travel from a starting subject to a discovery subject, to go beyond to something greater, to seek to move toward something or someone beyond, greater than ourselves, or a concept beyond the concept of merely me/myself/and I, to a concept of Us.

I mentioned the end of language.

As beautiful and stunning as language can be, there are times when we can fall wordless, we can move beyond a language, which is why I love the notion that God, when giving God’s name to Moses, gives an unpronounceable name, YHWH.

Sometimes the Divine is too big for words. Sometimes Life is too big for words.

The beauty of words is they have the power to build up. Take a moment to think of when that’s happened for you.

As followers of Christ, we want to be about that upbuilding, that supporting.

-- Excerpt from a sermon preached September 15, 2019, New Covenant Community, Normal, IL


Rev. Susan Baller-Shepard is a co-founder and editor of Spiritual Book Club with its blog "Real People, Real Lives, Real Spirituality" with over 200 interviews from around the world. Susan blogs for the Huffington Post religion section and is author of Matching Yu. She teaches religion at Heartland Community College in central Illinois, where she lives with her family.


Have beautiful words allowed you to move closer to God in your life? Explain.

Do you use a mantra that lifts you? What is the mantra and what is its appeal?

What words would you choose to inspire yourself and others to embrace the upbuilding of a new and just and peaceful world?


Please share your reflections with us here.


Excerpt from a sermon preached September 15, 2019

New Covenant Community, Normal, IL

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