Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Beautiful People

My Desert Home
-barren and beautiful-

Before moving out to the desert, we lived in Los Angeles. Every morning I could look out my bedroom window and see the Hollywood sign up on the hillside, the great icon of a culture of glamor, fame and fortune.

In LA, we lived quite close to a very popular neighborhood street lined with little boutiques, trendy restaurants and coffee houses, often frequented by Hollywood types- celebrities, producers, writers, all sorts of people connected with the entertainment industry.  

I would often sit in an outdoor cafe and watch the folks stroll by or sit next to them sipping coffee - all the "Beautiful People-" designer jeans, whitened teeth, firm bodies - even the dogs they walked looked beautiful.  

But as I sat and scratched just beneath the surface, I saw a lot of fragility, pain and brokenness in those "beautiful people." As I sat at that cafe I would listen to the conversations at the tables around me and listen to the countless stories of so many talented people who came out West to become famous and now find themselves working as servers in restaurants. I heard so many stories told of failure, disappointment, anger, rejection. 

Truth be told, those tales of fragility and failure were what made the "beautiful people," really beautiful  in my eyes. 

Brokenness is endemic to our humanity. When we recognize and name it, we find deep peace and freedom.

Over the years I have had many opportunities to visit Canterbury Cathedral in England. Like many ancient British cathedrals, the vast space of Canterbury is filled with tombs and effigies of many great historic figures, kings and queens, archbishops and nobility. 

There is one particular tomb that always stands out to me, and every time I go to Canterbury I am sure to find it, ponder and pray before it - the tomb of Bishop Chicele, a 15th century Archbishop of Canterbury. While I honestly know very little about the archbishop, I am fascinated by his final resting place.

At first glance, the tomb looks very regal and elaborate. An effigy of the dead bishop is placed on top of the tomb. He looks very peaceful, lying in state, vested in all the resplendent robes of his office. Unlike the many stone effigies of most of the other tombs, this one is colorfully painted-- from the vibrant red silk of his vestments, to the sparkling jewels on his ring and the glowing gold cross around his neck.

But when you look just beneath this elaborate monument, you see that there is another effigy of the bishop depicting of what he "really" looked like underneath it all when he died-  a frail, naked, grotesquely decomposing body. 

The tomb was erected years before the bishop's death and placed in a spot that the bishop would pass by every time he entered his grand cathedral. It served as a daily reminder to the archbishop that in all his earthly splendor fame and glory, he was simply frail and mortal flesh.

Living out here in the desert often reminds me of Bishop Chicele's tomb. Instead of waking up and seeing the Hollywood sign, I now wake up and look out into the wilderness in front of my house.  The desert is stark and barren and empty. Every day it reminds me of the fragility and brokenness of my own humanity. It reminds me of my own mortality, the frailty of my own flesh. 

When I recognize my own brokenness, I find great strength. There is Holy Presence in the starkness and the absence. 

We live in a culture in which people are compulsively afraid of being weak and vulnerable. Everybody wants to be counted among the "beautiful people," but "the emperor has no clothes;" and there are no beautiful people - just frail human beings.

The vulnerability of our human condition is what makes us truly beautiful.

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