External Beauty

The value of external beauty?  Well, that’s a twist on the conventional wisdom which prizes inner beauty over the superficial kind. Yet, a member of the so-called “cloud of witnesses” within the Episcopal Church, Phillips Brooks, famously preached on “the sacramental value of external beauty,” and because he was commemorated on the liturgical calendar yesterday I decided to learn more.

Whether or not Phillips Brooks is a familiar name, you know his contribution to hymnody. What follows will read like a sixth grade book report, I’m afraid, but bear with me. Perhaps Brooks has something more to say to us today than an annual rendition of his O Little Town of Bethlehem would lead us to believe.

Briefly Bishop of Massachusetts until his death at 57 in 1893, Brooks is most clearly associated with Trinity Church, Boston, where he is immortalized with no less than five statues, including a particularly cophillips_brooks_by_augustus_saint-gaudens,_trinity_church,_bostonntroversial one by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (known to Washingtonians for his “Grief” statue in Rock Creek Cemetery). During his years of ministry Brooks was known for his opposition to slavery, preaching eloquently upon the death of Abraham Lincoln, and demonstrating a strong lifelong commitment to the cause of African-Americans, with anecdotal evidence of an underground ministry to Boston’s African-American population. He was credited by one biographer of Martin Luther King with having had a major impact on King’s oratory.

Brooks was clearly deeply affected by his travels to the Holy Land, his eyes and heart opened, and so many of his ideas still have resonance in these times:

  1. He inspired the architects and artists who built Trinity Church, Boston to create what one writer called “an American Hagia Sophia”, with a free-standing altar and no choir stalls to detract from the central altar (these things were changed not long after his death), and originally without a pulpit. The purity of the Early Church, real or imagined, was his ideal.
  2. His travels informed not only his architectural ideas, but also his liturgical ones.  He championed congregational singing, together with “thrilling music” and “thrilling incense”.  He believed that worship was more than prayer and praise, and also included preaching, architecture and music. His Puritanical roots were not long behind him and these were radical ideas in 19th century New England.  His first sermon at Trinity was on “the sacramental value of external beauty,” suggesting that God would rather tempt us with beauty than hold us in bondage with fear.
  3. His thinking carried a sense of ecumenism that was emerging in late 19th century America. He was open to the teachings of Catholics, Jews and Muslims, once pointing to similarities between Unitarians and Islam, and writing, “I should dishonor God if I did not believe that Islam has done good”.
  4. His was a voice of reason in the discord between science and religion, saying that “Faith would not suffer, but gain, by every discovery of truth from every science”.  He believed that the “nature of a continually active, formative force is in line with Christianity.”
  5. He was a strong proponent of congregational involvement in liturgy, not to “deny the priesthood of the clergy, but to assert the priesthood of all.”

Dozens of quotes from his writings are easily found at BrainyQuote.com and they are inspirational, words truly to live by. Some of my favorites were:

“Skepticism offers no satisfactory substitute for what it disbelieves.”

Be patient and understanding. Life is too short to be vengeful or malicious.

Christianity helps us face the music, even when we don’t like the tune.

No man or woman can be strong, gentle, pure, and good without the world being better for it, and without someone being helped and comforted by the very existence of that goodness.

More than 100 years after Brooks’ death, with nothing except written words to remind us of his thoughts, someone like me spent hours reading and thinking about a 19th century preacher, and found wisdom in his words. The external beauty he desired in his surroundings was a clear path to the inner beauty our world actually needs. For me, it’s not such a big stretch to Marie Kondo preaching in our current cultural climate about the value of decluttering, teaching the world that to tidy your space is to transform your life.


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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

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