I’m not one for using random words for no reason, but there’s one word I’ve been thinking about a bunch lately: sublime. Percey Shelley and Lord Byron and Keats and all the other sad poets in the early 1800s wrote about this word all the time.
To them, sublime was the way of life. It was the ultimate quest for beauty; it dominated their poetry and hovered over their nights. It was a never-ending search for true beauty; for writers who didn’t believe in a God, it represented the highest order in life.
For them, the Sublime was the fine line between beauty and terror, usually found in nature. It was a lightning bolt and the crash of a wave and the way wind whipped the branches of a tree at night. It was these huge moments of sheer agony and bliss congealing into some sort of literary fruitcake.
It looked a lot like this:
For a long time I ascribed to the idea of the “Sublime.” I thought life was a process of discovering this great, terrifying Beauty (I thought I was making it Christian by capitalizing the “B”). I thought I had to pursue the part of life that made me feel alive and sell everything I had to find it again.
About two weeks ago I drove behind a car that had a sticker on its backside which said “Sublime.” As I drove, I began to think about the lives of the poets who chased that allusive word. Many of them died young and lived hard, sad lives. They chased their intellect to experience the phenomenal and somehow missed all the beauty entirely.
As I continued driving, the sun continued to set. The glowing light of that golden hour splayed over the road in front of me and bounced off the leaves to each side. Gray shingles glittered with gold and the telephone poles were draped in golden necklaces, carrying messages and words to the homes beside me.
I began to wonder if the dead poets didn’t miss the whole point of it. I began to think that the true beauty of this world isn’t momentary and fleeting but lasting and eternal.
I began to think the whole world is bright, holy, and radiating with light. The trick is to be taught how to see it as such.
In that moment I began to think it wasn’t an ascension to some undisclosed higher echelon of existence but merely an attentiveness to the ordinary that counted. An attentiveness to the sunset. To laughter. To existence.
Another poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, wrote these words:
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”
I think earth is bursting at the seams with burning bushes, and we simply need to learn how to see them. I think our eyes have faded, the mirror has become dim, and we must be healed to receive the brightness around us once more. I think it is a process of being taught by the Teacher and healed by the great Physician.
Jesus told his disciples to be alert looking for his return (Matthew 24:33). He taught his disciples to learn from children and see through their eyes (Matthew 19:14). Paul writes that the culmination of love is seeing face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Clearly, We are being trained how to see clearly.
Or, as Marillynne Robinson puts it:
“Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”
Only, who could have the courage to see it?
How do we learn to see? How do we learn to have eyes like Peter and John?