One of my favorite discoveries on a contemplative path is how images can be bursting with Spirit, or can touch the soul, or can move my heart. Some images restore my life when I have felt devastated. Some images fill my inner being when I have become depleted. Some images soothe my distressed mind and lead me into a sense of direct connection with the Divine. Images serve as gates of heaven all the time for the one who is awake and blessed enough to have eyes to see.
So maybe a deep purple iris will move me today. Then it will be a beach scene tomorrow. Something about the deep blue sky and contrasting white clouds reflecting in the wet sand reminds me there are forces at work greater than my momentary concerns. And for sure by the following day it will be some unbelievable creature like a peacock, spreading its fan of color to remind me that The Great Artist is at work throughout the universes creating a vast array of colors to delight Her own being. When we are lucky enough to pay attention we can become delighted too.
After the monster hurricane called Katrina passed right over our home and property on August 29, 2005, our amazing trees were blown bare of leaves, branches were on the ground everywhere, nine of our trees came down, and mud from the Pearl River covered our driveway and grass across two and a half acres. Mud was as much as a foot deep in places, so of course every plant in our yard died. The wind sucked our chimney up in the air and smashed it back down in the yard, leaving a six-foot hole in the roof and shingles scattered everywhere. Trash from other people’s yards a mile away ended up on our grounds, and they had been almost manicured like a park the day before the storm.
The next phase of the disaster involved removing the bottom floor of our ruined house and hauling all that mess to the edge of the street, like everyone else did in the region. Maybe you can imagine what it would look like to have 200,000 homes flooded and “gutted” and to see all that trash covering the streets. Or maybe you were here and so you know firsthand.
Being exposed to that devastation every single day for months on end was more than depressing. It was a wound to the soul. I learned something I had never had reason to know before. I had to start practicing beauty to survive that first year. That means I had to look for some small hint of beauty anywhere I could find it to help me face the rest of it. The grasses stayed brown and the trees stayed bare for more than a month before color began to slowly return to the area. I found myself inwardly begging to see color, some kind of beauty, anything to replace the blight for a moment.
And sometimes beauty showed up in weird ways. I would be driving through the broken streets of New Orleans and some little white ibis with an orange curved beak would appear on the median between six lanes of traffic. I would be driving through two miles of roads lined with weeds, heading for the slow interstate trip from Slidell into New Orleans, and some random wildflower would pop his head up with beautiful color amongst the weeds.
I guess I began to learn that something in us human beings is genetically wired for beauty, for images that soothe and heal and comfort and sustain us. And I learned firsthand that, especially in recovering from disasters of any type, we need beauty to nourish us like nothing else can. Somehow beautiful images restore the soul. And even the tiniest flower, the kind we miss every day as we rush around, can help us heal from tough wounds we never asked for.
As the post-Katrina world slowly returned to its former diversity of colors, replacing the drab brown that had filled our psyches for far too long, I vowed to remember the lesson. How could I really forget? Well we all know too well how easily we can become too busy to notice any of the things that really matter.
I must practice beauty, slow down to the pace of life unfolding before me, and watch for each emergence of an image that will open a gate of heaven before me. I need that life. Now I have to have it. That is why I must stop writing here to practice beauty. It is time for the sunset across the skies of New Orleans. Ah, another gate of heaven opens.
For more stories like this see Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture.