Note: I gave this teaching, Lessons on Beauty Awake, March 29,2016 at the funeral of my friend Kathy Barkman, who died from cancer at age 57. Before I spoke, Juno Award winning (and friend) artist Steve Bell played a new song, included below. I used this song to unfold my teaching.
When Lyle asked me to offer a homily on the occasion of our dear Kathy’s death, he said there was a new song by Steve Bell, which totally captured the essence of Kathy’s stunning simple beauty. He sent me the lyrics and a demo of the song. The same song we have just heard from Steve Bell play , Let Beauty Awake. (Click here to here Steve Bell sing the song). After repeatedly listening to the song while contemplating the life and death of our dear sister and friend, I decided that I would use the unfolding of the song to try to articulate what I see as the gift and challenge of Kathy’s life and death.
Before I begin a quick word about myself. First, I know Lyle and Kathy and Ben and Dan from decades of living life together in church community. However in recent years I have not be able to be very physically present to them as I have been learning full time how to face my own disease for which there is no cure. It is from that location of trying to live well in the face of certain death, that I share my insights about Kathy.
In my own notes I’ve entitled my reflections, Kathy’s Way: Lesson’s on Living Beauty Awake. I offer four lessons of how Kathy lived beauty awake.
Lesson One: The Art of Behold the Sacred in the Everyday
To me, the first verse of the song is about the Art of Beholding the Sacred or another way to put it, The Art of Attention. Listen
Let beauty awake in the morn from beautiful dreams,
Beauty awake from rest!
Let Beauty awake
For Beauty’s sake
In the hour when the birds awake in the brake
And the stars are yet bright in the west!
Let beauty awake from rest
The poet starts with everyday common experiences that all of us share – morning, sunrise, dreams, rest. And these every day activities he dares us clothe them in beauty awake. Anyone who has sat quietly watching the sun’s first kiss of the earth in the early morning, knows the beauty of which the song speaks. And yet the song invites us to move beyond the spectacular one-off awe-filled moment. Because beyond the specular, lies beauty of the mundane; that is beauty in everyday life. I see this as the Art of Beholding the Sacred.
Kathy was a genius at beholding others! Lyle, Ben and Dan - Kathy beheld you. She saw deep into you, her eyes touching your sacred beauty and goodness. We are here beside you today, in part because we have also been beheld by Kathy. Kathy had a bold, quiet attentiveness. Anyone who got close to Kathy – no matter their age or social status, could feel the warm attentiveness of Kathy’s gaze. Kathy knew her attention was a like a watering can – whatever she gave her attention to would grow. She gave her attention to other.
I think Kathy lived a beauty awake life because she recognized and beheld the beauty of others. Elizabeth Barrett Browning said “Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes. This was Kathy – she was a shoe taking off kind of woman. She was one who truly saw deeply, beholding the sacredness of the everyday. Kathy knew and practiced the art of beholding.
Lesson Two: The Art of Dynamic Loving
In the second verse of the song, it is as if the poet starts again with the beauty of the common and the art of beholding but then suggests that the art of beholding is not enough. If you want to follow the enfolding path of beauty awake, you need to go deeper. Seeing the sacred is not enough, you need to add the dynamic to and fro of the art of love. Listen
Let Beauty awake in the eve from the slumber of day,
Awake in the crimson eve!
In the day's dusk end
When the shades ascend,
Let her wake to the kiss of a tender friend
To render again and receive!
Let beauty awake in the eve
Anyone who has been married for at least a year, knows that dynamic of giving and receiving of love is messy business – where we are sometimes meeting each other and sometimes missing each other. This kind of dynamic love that poet calls rending and receiving, is always changing. If we want to live beauty awake we have to learn the art of loving in the midst of ongoing change. This is no easy task. The Art of Dynamic Love is about constantly learning to love anew.
Kathy knew about the Art of Dynamic Love - Kathy and Lyle were married far longer than a year - their journey together is a beautiful, messy journey of soulmates unleashed. Kathy knew more than her share of suffering and health issues. Consequentially, she knew more than her share of prayer.
If Kathy was a song-writer, I think she could have written these words Leonard Cohen wrote at a time of grave illness. If it be your will. That a voice be true; From this broken hill; I will sing to you; From this broken hill; All your praises they shall ring; If it be your will To let me sing.” Kathy did sing beautifully from her broken hill. As the world kept changing she kept finding new ways to love those of us who had the huge gift of living alongside this dear woman.
Lesson 3 – The Art of Gardening Creation Blessed
To me, each new section of the song, kind of starts with an implied critique. It is as if the poet is saying, you like the art of beholding and the art of dynamic loving, well it is not enough. If you want to live beauty awake you have to go deeper. It is not enough to see deeply and love deeply.
The poet warns we cannot be bystanders of the sacred, only watching it and loving it. Rather the poet calls us to engage the world in the here and now. To touch the earth as creation blessed. To touch the earth and the world as sacred and holy, and then to transform this sacred soil into beauty of the flower. Listen.
While we, the gardeners of creation blessed
Furrow the soil at our saviour’s behest
And bury the seeds of our own life’s death
And suffer God’s glory to grow
Kathy was not a bystander of the sacred. Kathy was a gardener of the sacred. Where others sought the spotlight, Kathy loved as any had need. From the youngest to the oldest, Kathy loved any.
I`ve come to see the parable we just heard from scriptures (Matt 13:3-9) as story about a wasteful gardener who keeps throwing seed where there is very slim chance of success. What kind of gardener throws seed on the path, or rocky ground, or among the throwns?
Kathy was like this so called wasteful gardener – for both of them, planting seeds in love was more important than succeeding. Part of way Kathy lived beauty awake was to seek out those who were suffering and simply be a loving presence in their midst. There were other ways Kathy was a gardener of the sacred: she helped plant and cultivate a bakery rooted in love and justice. While Kathy was not a proud person, I think one of her favorite acts of gardening creation was helping to raise sons into men of love. Now these are very advanced sacred gardening techniques – but Kathy was in love with her family. Ben and Dan, you are living embodiment of your mother’s art of sacred gardening.
Lesson #4: Let Beauty Awake from Death
In this last verse, to me it seems, the poet tires to trick us. Having sucked us in with beauty of sunrise and sunset, having taught us the art of beholding, the art of dynamic loving, the art of gardening creation blessed, the poet now unveils the center, the gift hidden in this journey. It’s as if we have climbed the mountain and now get to see from the summit the secret of life. The big reveal: Let Beauty Awake from Death. Listen.
Let Beauty awake, in the morn from the cool of the grave,
Beauty awake from death;
Let Beauty awake,
For Jesus’ sake,
In the hour when the angels their silence break
And the garden is bright with His Breath.
Let beauty awake from death
Lyle, Ben and Dan, this is the chapter of Kathy that we are all still writing. Kathy lived her life as a profound example of Beauty Awake. But now what of her death?
Listening to the song over and over I started to fight with the poet.
Is death not the interruption of beauty awake? Isn’t death the robber of a beauty awake? Did we not pray that God would save Kathy and us from this day? Now, here in the presence of Kathy’s dead body, and mourning friends and family, here you want me to say let beauty awake from death? Really? At first I was jealous of the song-writer, he ends his song, with Let beauty awake from death but offers few clues what that means. How are we to hear those words today? The song offers nothing. Let beauty awake from death, HMMMM, HMMMM. Sudden end. Thanks Steve.
As I kept listening to the song, it was as if the poet whispered to my ear.
Did you not know this journey leads to death?
Did you not know that to live beauty awake you must also embrace beauty in death?
Then it was as if the poet whispered into my ear, almost mocking: If you did not know this journey includes beauty from death, then go back to the beginning and see again with eyes of Beauty Awakening from death.
Did I not point you to the sunrise and sunset?
Did I not gave you this mini birth and death of sun everyday on the large screen of sky?
And did I not make both the birth and death of the sun beautiful? Did I not give you the beautiful birthing and beautiful dying of the sun so that every day you could practice embracing the beauty of life and beauty of death?
Did I not make you gardeners of this sacred soil so that every time you put your hands on this messy, dark soil, you could practice touching death and know that it is ok?
Did I not tell you to touch the soil of creation blessed, so that you would learn what every gardener knows to be true: there is no beauty of life without also the death of life - Together created very good?
And so the chapter we are still writing about Kathy is about beauty from death. The challenge I think we are left with is how can Kathy’s way of living beauty awake, provide us with guidance of how to also embrace her dying in beauty awake? How do we apply all the insights of her life, now to her death?
Tomorrow as her body is laid back into the ground, she gets to return to this soil we call creation blessed. Often as the body is laid to rest, someone speaks the words from Genesis: Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust. Remember, these words are not a curse. They are blessing and a dare to living. You were created from the earth and to the earth you are intended to return. You were created from dust and to dust you shell return. Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust. These words beg us to live our lives embracing our dustness, not as a curse but as a blessing of beauty awake. So that from the cool of the grave of our dear friend and sister, we can say with deep loving kindness: let beauty awake from death.
LET BEAUTY AWAKE
Music by Steve Bell
Stanzas 1 & 2 Robert Louis Stevenson
Stanzas 3&4 Steve Bell
Stanza 5 Tom Wright