Beauty as Spiritual Nourishment

A Sermon by Rev.Lilia Cuervo

Rev. Lilia Cuervo, a native of Colombia, was the first Latin American woman ordained in the Unitarian Universalist denomination.

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Whether she was gardening, or cooking, or traveling to serve the poor, my mother would point to a flower, to a rock, to a tree, a cloud, or a fruit, and ask me: my darling daughter, what man on this earth could make such a perfect and beautiful thing?  And often I heard her addressing her Beloved God: Oh Beauty, always ancient and always new.  Her love for nature and her direct contact with the transcending Mystery and Wonder, made her, without knowing it, a Transcendentalist.  Fortunately for me, with her example, I became one also and so, wishing to be surrounded by beauty and harmony, and loving nature, has been a constant in my life.

Emerson the paramount Transcendentalist  wrote:

No reason can be asked or given why the soul seeks beauty.  Beauty, in its largest and profoundest sense, is one expression for the universe.  God is the all fair. Truth and goodness and beauty are but different faces of the same All.  But beauty in nature is not ultimate. It is the herald of inward and eternal beauty.

Beauty is everywhere.  We just need to become aware of its ubiquitous presence.  Some of us might need to train our senses to see, to touch, to feel, to smell, to taste beauty.  With perseverance and love for what could bring sustenance to our spirits, it is possible to discover every day, anew, that, in fact, we are surrounded by beautiful things and phenomena: the smile of a stranger in a supermarket, the patterns on woods and marble, the formation of geese flying overhead, the beauty of the equations, the motions in dance and in physical sports, the beauty and elegance of certain chess games, the solitary yellow flower planted by the winds inside the fracture of a boulder in the remote Rockies, all different faces of the same All.

One immediate place where one can find beauty is in the kitchen. When preparing vegetables for a salad, what a delight is to discover precious mandalas in slices of tomatoes, of carrots, of onions; look at a very thin slice of red onion through the light, and you can see there a semblance to a beautiful stained glass of a cathedral.  Just here through the windows of the sanctuary I see beautiful images of the sky, the   trees, the buildings and houses, like a painting in muted pinks and yellows and browns.

With so much beauty surrounding us it is sad that so many of us have lost our capacity to see it, and to enjoy it.  Activist Theologian Matthew Fox tells of a time when Rollo May, had been invited to a talk show to discuss his newest book.  When Rollo told them the title, My Quest for Beauty, the show was cancelled.  Rollo explained that most people in our culture suppress their reactions to beauty because it is too soul baring.

The fear of exposing our naked feelings, the distaste for showing emotion, the reluctance to bare our soul when our senses are overcome by the experience of beauty,  can lead to a deprivation of joy, of harmony and ultimately to our dehumanization. For how can it be human to suppress our tears, our laughter, and our desire for human relatedness when we are deeply touched by beauty’s presence?

The deprivation of beauty in our physical surroundings, as well as in our minds and souls, has dire consequences.  I, for one, become restless and even depressed when I have not been in nature for a while; or when I have not been to a concert or an art gallery.  Perhaps some of us here, are suffering from a decrease in living and working space in our homes, offices, and even cars, due to a gradual accumulation of too many objects, papers and books to read later, materials and tools to be used in countless future projects, ever enlarging numbers of collectibles, and so on.  All of these could end up overwhelming us and could lead us to boredom, to a sense of dissatisfaction, to sadness, helplessness, and even despair.

The same effects can be had when we clog our brains and our minds watching T.V., constantly checking our smart phones, listening to divisive political discussions, and to gossip.   Many times we do this to escape boredom, to have a break from our responsibilities and from more serious work.  Besides all the cited consequences, a prolonged deprivation of harmony and beauty for whatever the reason could end up separating us from those we love, and from the Ultimate Source of all Beauty. Just as Rabbi Heschel observes:

Modern society has stunted beauty and withdrawn from the sublime, he says this happened because everything has become utilitarian.

And he pronounces this grave indictment:

When humans look only at that which is useful, they eventually become useless to themselves.

It seems that our society more than ever is greedy for power and wealth, and getting more and more unbalanced in the distribution of its goods.  The beauty of compassionate, democratic, and just laws is being overwhelmed by the ugliness of oppressive laws and regulations affecting disproportionally the poor, the uneducated, the disabled, the immigrant, the other.

I feel that we are all being impacted negatively, perhaps becoming useless to ourselves.  And so, we are longing for that which brings joy to our hearts and nourishment to our souls. Let us listen how poet Baron Wormser describes, in his poem Opinion, precisely the imprisonment of our souls, the longing for beauty, as he is carpooling to his office on a winter day.

Halfway to work and Merriman already has told me
what he thinks about the balanced budget, the Mets’
lack of starting pitching, the dangers of displaced
Soviet nuclear engineers, soy products, and diesel cars.

I look out the window and hope I’ll see a swan.
I hear they’re bad-tempered but I love their necks
and how they glide along so sovereignly.
I never take the time to drive to a pond

and spend an hour watching swans. What
would happen if I heeded the admonitions of beauty?
When I look over at Merriman, he’s telling Driscoll
that the President doesn’t know what he’s doing
with China. “China,” I say out loud but softly.
I go back to the window. It’s started snowing

How would you answer Wormser’s question?  What would happen if you heeded the admonitions of beauty? We make all sorts of excuses for why we cannot spend even an hour here and there to be in contact with nature, with friends, with the Transcending Mystery.  But, really, what prevent us from paying heed to the admonitions, to the callings of beauty?

I confess that like Merriman and Driscoll, I spend precious time in idle talk, listening to the political talking heads, too busy dreaming of beautiful places instead of walking the short block to the nature preserve near my home where I can be quiet and listen for a moment to the song of my heart.  Perhaps we convince ourselves that our responsibilities both the outer and those self-imposed, make it impossible to take even a short walk on the beach, in the woods, at a nearby pond, or even around the block.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, upon seeing a dandelion blooming out of a crack on the pavement, was moved to write:

The dandelion is there by the sidewalk,

smiling its wondrous smile,

  singing the song of eternity. 

The wildflowers in the immense extensions of the prairies, and the gorgeous cultivated orchids in sophisticated nurseries and for that matter, all the creatures and elements and humans, if we care to notice, are smiling their wondrous smile, singing their song of eternity. We just need to bow our heads and listen to their song…

Again the question begs: What would happen if we heeded the admonitions of beauty? I dare to say that we would find meaning in our lives that we would be healthier in body and in spirit as joy would substitute for sadness.  Mirabai, the famous Indian mystic says:

I know a cure for sadness:

Let your hands touch something that

makes your eyes


I bet there are a hundred objects close by

that can do that.

Look at beauty’s gift to us —

her power is so great she enlivens

the earth, the sky, our


And for those who might not even think of finding beauty, in their bodies, (and who does not have some part that they would like to change?) Kabir says:

Do not go into the garden of flowers!

O friend! Go not there;

In your body is the Garden of flowers.

Now, there is no denying that sometimes it takes courage and spiritual insight to recognize that in our bodies, no matter their shape, color, height, or ability, there is an innate beauty and gardens of flowers.  Just smile in front of a mirror and you will see the beautiful blossom your lips can create.

Sometimes, when we pay heed to the admonitions of beauty, we are rewarded with what are called unitive experiences, also called mystical experiences.  Although they are some of the most amazing experiences a human can have, in reality, they are quite common, especially when we happen to be in the presence of arresting beauty.  I was in front of the Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone Park for the first time.  As the many other visitors surrounding the geyser, I was filled with expectation and excitement waiting for the big moment when Old Faithful would make its grand appearance. I could say I was in a trance seeing the pulsating plume of water growing taller and taller. When Old Faithful reached its highest point, I was brought back from my trance by the thunderous applause of the crowd, many with tears in their eyes just like I was.  What a gift it was being in that crowd of strangers, sharing tears of joy and hearing their clapping as a spontaneous expression of reverent excitement and appreciation of beauty.  That crowd added their human beauty to the already spectacular beauty of Old Faithful.

Another example of the unifying power of beauty, this time on a massive scale, happened to millions of us when we saw for the first time the picture of Gaia, our planet earth rising above the horizon of the moon.  Seeing the picture of the whole earth, our blue boat, traveling in silent space, elicited in us the sensations of unity, of love and tenderness toward mother earth.  It also made us conscious that we are really all together wandering at great speed in space, safe in our beautiful home.

The grateful appreciation of the awesome power and beauty of mother earth, and of the starry skies, bring so much excitement and grace to our lives.  However, nobody can deny that we too, individually and collectively, can create beauty when we share the best in ourselves.  Never mind that it takes courage and generosity of spirit to share the beauty of our convictions, to let others know the depth of our feelings for them, to let others witness our human vulnerability.  I have heard consummate artists tell how they fear the rejection of their art.  To offer our thoughts, our words, our actions, all that we can give to make a more beautiful world can be frightening.

I love the following insight by Hafiz:

How did the rose

ever open its heart

and give to this world

all its beauty?

It felt the encouragement of light

against its being.

Otherwise, we all remain

too frightened.

Where can we find that light giving us encouragement?  Naturally we can draw warmth, encouragement and strength from our interior wellspring, from the spark of divinity dwelling in us. Encouraged and guided by that divine spark like the rose, we will be able to open our hearts and give all our beauty to the world. My wish for all of us is that we embrace beauty in whatever form we happen to encounter it; and that we appreciate it as the expression of the Sublime Beauty, Source of all Delights.

My wish is that we show our gratitude for beauty by creating it everywhere we go. Let us walk on the path of beauty, admiring, praising, and being grateful for the awesome gift of being able to contemplate, and feel the radiant beauty and mystery of the universe.

Amen.  Blessed be.

Testimonial by member Bela Teixeira

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Text of testimonial

Good Morning! My name is Bela Teixeira. I am very pleased to be in front of you today to share why being a Unitarian Universalist, for me, is a joyous experience and what that impact and meaning is in my life.

Initially, I took my cue from Marilyn Meardon and Bob Frederiksen, to drive them here for Sunday worship, parish suppers, and the Women’s Alliance luncheons, and I stayed to listen. In this sacred space I found my purpose renewed and a sustaining place among you.

The Coming of Age programming was very supportive of my parental responsibilities for Alexia and imparted to her important lessons. She made new friends and learned how to honor her own thinking that was separate from mine.  She and I are grateful for this particular UU ministry and the community that we’ve become a part of because we are here. You are brave, curious, creative, and compassionate thinkers and doers. So it was easy for me to sign the membership book and make pledges to support the congregation – because I am aligned and I’m engaged. I have a desire, like you, to make a difference for the common good.

I dove in a little deeper with Harvest the Power to better understand UU’s history, its missions, and aspirations. Here, among the very diverse in faith, background, history, and spirituality, I felt better prepared for my own life. It allowed me to stand and march — all on the side of love, for justice and for peace.

During these very interesting times – with distressing realities related to lack of gun control that’s resulted in the death of so many innocent school children this week and in prior weeks destroyed families destroyed sitting in churches pews or socializing in nightclubs or marching for justice. They were all targets of hate and weapons of war. We’ve got to do something about that. As our government breaks its promise to Dreamers, as our neighbors are rounded up for deportation, as some of us due to our race, our country of origin, our gender or sexual orientation, or because we might practice a different faith other than Christianity are viewed as “less than”, as some of us become the likely targets of hate that are stoked into a normalcy of very chaotic daily experience — I find solace and hope here.

Because we in this congregation are not just offering thoughts and prayers, I know that we will march and raise our voices, take action to change policies and dismantle this new apartheid to reclaim and re-strengthen our America and our world.  That’s why I am so pleased to be a UU along with you. Thank you.