One great delight of having a composer for a brother is the fact that he passes the best of his studies on to me. Joel explores reams of classical music that I could never find on my own, and every time he’s home from school he loads my iPod with a few of his newest-found gems. At Christmas this past year, he gave me hours of music, as glad to pass on his beauties as I was to get them. But the rush of winter and spring swept my listening hours away, and it wasn’t until just a few weeks ago that I finally managed to taste the new songs. I was on a road trip through Texas, adrift amidst endless miles of flatland with my sister driving, so I stuck in my earphones. Night was just coming on as I relaxed to the first song and closed my eyes, expecting to snatch some sleep along with the music.
But the first notes struck me wide awake. Like sunlight on closed eyes, the music glimmered into my sleepy mind, blazed into my ears. First the throaty hum of a cello and its rise into a chorus of violins. Like open hands lifted to catch the sunlight, the instruments formed a cup into which a choir poured its song. A simple choral piece was all it was (I later noted that it was Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna: Introitus), but to me the music was light, it was hope. The song was one of those beauties that arrest you with a clear wordless truth; God is real, grace is a hand that holds you through every change, goodness follows all of your days. I could hear it in the music. A great relief came to my soul, as if I had been holding my breath through the work of months, striving to endure the battle of life. The fear that is always with me, of failure, of pain, fell away before the song just as the night flees, grieved and dark, at the onslaught of dawn. In that odd Texas moment, just for an instant, I was smacked with the full joy of heaven and it was real as the breath in my throat and beat of my heart.
But then I opened my eyes. It was an accident, a reflexive blink, but what should I see but a chain of billboards for a famous outlet mall. Gaudy letters blazing an invitation to get vast amounts of new somethings for nothing. I glanced beyond the boards at the glare of a dozen fast food signs. Cars whizzed by, frantic, red-eyed machines in the brooding dusk with frenzied humans at their wheels. And the hope I knew in the music was shattered. The song seemed actually to fade in my ears as the sight of concrete, commerce, and human striving met my eyes. I thought of the million and one tasks I needed to do, the money to be made, the deadlines to be met. Something like grief grew in my throat and the old fear came back. My brain filled with the incontrovertible fact of daily need, of machines and commercialism and a world that never slows down.
It was a moment of hopeless juxtaposition–the whisper of a transcendent beauty against the pragmatic chorus of survival. My whole life seemed torn between those two realities. I felt again the heat of all my deadlines, and with it the fear that I could not do enough, be enough, make enough. The old doubts I bear about my life as a writer joined swiftly in. The old wrangle my heart carries on with my head, “what good is beauty?” began again. In the face of need and sickness and the demands of a fast-paced society, what good is the making of one little story, the writing of a poem? Why hunger after dreams when money must be made, bodies fed, and futures built? Surely God himself scoffs at the little dream worlds in which I live.
But then, as if my own soul shouted down my brain, a thought came, crisp and commanding to my mind: “None of that craziness is an ounce as real as your music. Grace is the real thing.” I was astounded at the thought. I sat up straighter, ready to consider this claim of my heart. I closed my eyes and the music roared back to life in my ears, filling my brain so that the strife of the outer world seemed, in its turn, flimsy as a child’s dream. Which world was true? I stared ahead into the Texas sunset, thinking hard until I suddenly remembered something I knew as a child and had almost forgotten. Beauty tells the truth.
Since I was a tiny lass, I have called my experiences of beauty “knowings,” because I felt that those encounters communicated something true about the world. I first discovered this in Celtic music; I remember one particular song I heard as a child when I tasted an exultation beyond anything I had ever known. Amidst the rise of a fiddle, the keen of a penny whistle, and a beat like that of many hearts throbbing together, I was filled with an image of all the world in a dance, of many peoples joined in one great movement of joy. And I knew that it was true, that someday just such a dance would happen when all the struggle of earth was ended and the feast of heaven had begun. I am convinced that somehow, in that music, I was able to grasp a picture of the someday world to be.
I think most of us have these “knowings.” C.S. Lewis called them “joy,” the great gladness that startled him into his faith. L.M. Montgomery (author of Anne of Green Gables) called them “the flash.” Tolkien called them “eucatastrophe,” the unexpected grace of a happy ending. But all of them mean the same; the taste, in an instant of beauty, of a joy beyond anything we know in this world. A certainty of some good that dwells beyond the limits of what we can see. We know, bone deep, even if only for the instant of song or sight, that there is a joy to outlast all sorrow, a grace that justifies our fight to overcome the darkness in which we all strive.
Beauty really is truth and that was what my heart was telling my brain in that odd Texas moment. To dwell in an instant of beauty is to stumble into a pocket of eternity as it bubbles up in time. A song like the one I heard exists half here, half in the realm of the eternal. Time is suspended because that one sustained note, or a leaf in a crimson-edged turn, or the happy ending of a story bears a truth that will live beyond the moment in which you taste it. The knowledge that comes to me in a moment of art or song is a truth from outside the circles of time and decay. This is why I hunger for beauty, why I sense it to be a “realer” thing than much of the hurry of modern, daily life.
This is also why I write. To capture even a hint of that sure loveliness, to embody that elusive, certain grace in what I create, this is my work. To present the beauty I have found in a story of my own is to offer my time and people the most precious thing I have ever found. This is no waste, no child’s dream. This is a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven as it invades the world. I suspect most artists sense this as they work; a hint of redemption at their elbow as God speaks into their work from outside the circles of pain, striving, and blindness. My own “knowings,” are just one glimpse of God’s far country. But to tell of that world beyond this earth is the work of God’s own kingdom, because the beauty is his. The joy is his love. The life is his own holy self, throbbing through all of creation, calling us back to the wholeness for which we were made.
I finished my song that night. Savored the last of the notes and opened my eyes. This time I didn’t panic. I looked out on the frenzied twilight world of the Dallas suburbs and knew that the beauty I had tasted both transcended it all, and yet was also the promise of its redemption. The song was not a dream of hope that would fade, it was the promise of a hope that never ends because beauty tells the truth. And I believe it.
Sarah Clarkson is the author of several books including the best-selling The Life-giving Home, which she co-authored with her mother, Sally Clarkson. Sarah is currently studying literature at Oxford University where she's not only a brilliant thinker and writer, but is also the president of the C. S. Lewis Society.