The simple beauty of place
Chris McDonnell CT November 18th 2016
There is an inspiring article in this month’s edition of the Irish Dominican Journal, ‘Spirituality’, written by Daniel O’Leary, entitled ‘Ministry of Beauty’. In it he reflects on the beauty of God that we experience in ourselves, in others and in the world in which we live.
It set me thinking of places and situations where I might have experienced the beauty he talks of, where, through circumstance, something remained that has not been lost.
Many years ago, when on holiday with my family in Northumbria, I remember walking the beach from the small harbour town of Seahouses as far as Bamburgh Castle on the north-east coast. It was low tide and the expanse of sand was vast. In a couple of hours I passed only one person, then at some distance, too far apart to even be able to exchange greeting. But the pleasure and peace of that walk remains, a truly beautiful place.
In contrast to that open beach, the banks of the River Dee on the Wirral were a place for an evening walk, when as darkness fell, I would occasionally light a small fire from drift wood gathered in a rough circle of stones and sit watching the flickering orange flames dancing in the night.
Nearly twenty years ago, my daughter lived for a while in Canada, in the city of Toronto. During our stay with her I visited a city centre church and there, high in the wall was a small alcove, home for a candle-lit icon. It was so restful and simple a place where attention was held and reflection accommodated.
Three small examples of the beauty of place where something memorable happened, where something was shared and a still point in a turning world found. Ask any couple and they will tell you of a place made beautiful in the expression of their growing love.
Is this what we find when we share the Eucharist week by week in our own very familiar place, our parish church? do we open the door and feel welcomed by a cared-for building whose very walls have been witness over many years to a place of prayer, in times of great joy and also of deep sorrow? Whether it is a large cathedral or a small village church, both can offer that moment of beauty which we recognise as we go inside. The beauty of the interior of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool is truly exceptional, not only for the open expanse of the circular design round the high altar but also for the quiet dignity of the side chapels that surround it. I kept a small print of the background wall design in yellow and white from the Blessed Sacrament chapel in Liverpool above my office desk in school for many years.
There is something about scale that is also very important, our human place in context, a design for occupancy. There is a strong case to be made for the art of creating a space of prayer to be offered to both seminarians and serving priests as an important part of their mission. We neglect the sensitivity of design at our cost. I would suggest that poor art implies poor theology. It was ignored when the New Translation was imposed on us, five years ago this coming Advent, and we live with the consequences. When words and surroundings are incompatible with our intentions then the unease of distraction and the subtleties of prayer are disrupted.
But take this idea away from the public space of a church and ask a similar question about a small room at home which has been chosen as a place of prayer. I wrote this short piece a few days ago.
A space within
Before you can settle
in the quietness of a room
you must learn
how to close the door.
The simplicity of the space within
should not be disturbed
by the hurried movement of the door
through which you entered.
into the peace you sought
by first opening the door
and there rest awhile.
Our actions in such a space should help, not hinder, our reason for being there. A place not cluttered unnecessarily with distractions but an environment that is one of encouragement for the task.
We all have moments and places that we recognise for their simplicity and beauty, places of calm where we can bring our troubled selves before the Lord and recognise his beauty expressed in our very being and in all about us.
Such places require our nurture and respect for they help make us what we are.