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Beauty and Mystery at Cruising Altitude

A few weeks back, I sat in the window seat of a Southwest plane, watching the bendy river and broad marshes of my hometown melt into the brown patchwork fields of the Midwest. From ten thousand feet, these fields are not lovely. Their harsh lines and crazy angles, outlined with straggling hedges, seem to flatten whatever dimensions the land originally possessed—the created grace of hills and woods and streams smashed beneath the boundary lines and irrigation systems of profitable agriculture.

Or so I thought at cruising altitude, as I stared disdainfully out the window. But a few days later, standing on the elevated platform of a train station plopped amidst fields of corn and soybeans, I had to reconsider.

From the platform, I could see the soft dips and rises of the land, and the continual quivering of drying golden stalks and leaves. Without a stand of trees holding it up, the immensity of the gray-blue September sky pressed straight down to the earth; magnificent clouds hovered right over wood-paneled farm homes, making them seem like dollhouses, putting the lives and hopes and worries within them into perspective. And those straggling hedges rested like soft charcoal shadings on a filmy horizon.

My haughtiness humbled, I could only wonder at the beauty, and wonder why I’d so grandly missed it from the plane. Now, looking back, I wonder whether it’s because, to our human eyes, beauty rests in mystery.

I’d missed the mystery at cruising altitude. The pilot’s and cartographer’s view of a landscape may satisfy curiosity, but I’m not so sure that it’s beautiful, if beauty is recognized by the wonder and stillness and awe it stirs in human hearts. Like any overview, it is useful for giving directions and getting moving, not for sitting still and gazing open-mouthed. From the ground I had no idea of the shape of the fields I was in, nor how far they stretched, nor what lay beyond the horizon—and these unknowns seemed to hold the scene’s beauty, as the setting for a gem.

The suspense in literature, the infinite in mathematics, the aporias of philosophy, the soul of a friend, the Trinity and the Incarnation and the Holy of Holies—isn’t it true that the greatest beauty always resides in the deepest mystery? And if it’s so, and we seek to rest in the mystery that gives form to beauty, how does that shape our learning and our living?

Could it, for instance, loosen our grasping for the “big picture,” the “roadmap,” the “timeline” that we prize as we plan everything—from school semesters to careers to romances to religion—as we recognize that, though useful for setting a direction or checking progress, the omniscient perspective is not where we’ll encounter the beauty that makes these things worthwhile? That the beauty for which we long comes instead when we’re down and close and among the verities themselves, not knowing what’s around the next turn or beyond the hill?

Could we, perhaps, get lost in class discussions and bump into wonder, venture into a friendship not knowing its end, contemplate a Creator whom we’ll never comprehend, and fall down worshipping amidst the mysterious beauty of holiness?

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