A thing of beauty, part 1
I’m back in Houston for a short stop-over on my way to a two week long vacation adventure. This morning, I dragged my groggy and sleep-deprived body through security check points, gates, walkways, and finally, the exit of Houston’s Hobby Airport. Two weeks of life changes and the associated stress left me feeling like I’d been hit by a truck. At least, I certainly wasn’t the angel my mom was eagerly anticipating as she picked me up from the airport. After having to endure a car ride home with me sulking and moping in the front seat, my mom made me take a nap. What a wonder 3 hours of sound sleep will do! I woke up refreshed and ready to tackle the last minute errands of the day.
I tell you all of this to give you some context to the amazing little story that punctuated my afternoon. I had driven down to the Rice/West University area to take a nostalgic walk around campus. It’s truly the most beautiful place in Houston (I can say that – a lot of my family’s money went into the school!!). Driving by on the 59 Freeway, I can literally feel the near-magnetic pull of my alma mater. Anyway, after a nice drive, I decided that I had enough time to visit the other beautiful place in Houston.
I should explain what I mean by “beautiful”. Daily, I ‘m surrounded by work, duties, deadlines – in a word, “stress”. I find that it’s the most natural thing in the world to become wrapped up and absorbed in myself. My life, my worries, my drama. However, sometimes I’m fairly hit in the face by a thing of beauty and wonder that forces me to slow way down. As the wheels stop spinning, I’m often overwhelmed by the reality of my being and existence. It’s those times, when I’ve stopped shouting, that the clear channel of communication with God seems to open up. Beauty, in my life, is God’s signature on a divine letter. The beauty can be wrapped up in a fantastic scenic overlook, a kind and generous person, or the most delicate and unusual flower. Sometimes shocking but marvelously persistent, beauty is a steady voice in a world that sometimes goes hoarse from screaming.
Sometimes I seek out “things of beauty” because near them, I feel at peace. This isn’t surprising, since truly beautiful things are of God. “Honour and majesty are before him: strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.” Psalm 96:6 It makes sense, then, that a the most beautiful place would be where God dwells. I think of the various sanctuaries that I’ve visited. Belonging to different faiths, these sacred areas reflected all parts of the spectrum, from simple to decadent, minuscule to vast, and traditional to ultra-modern. However, it’s the Spirit of God that shrouds any place in glory, and therefore, beauty. This is why, in the midst of worry and madness, a calm spirit in a closet, an elevator, or a park can feel the beauty of being in God’s presence. His sanctuary is where He abides.
I left Rice and headed to the Menil Collection, a museum situated in a gorgeous sleepy neighborhood off of Montrose boulevard. I had only a few minutes to spare before rush hour heated up, but I knew exactly where I wanted to be. I parked my car under a tree and headed for the double doors of the Byzantine Chapel. The building is stark in contrast to the greenery and trees of the park surrounding it. Its concrete walls seem to rise from the dark surface of the pool in the court yard. It’s silent. Strange. Big. It’s also one of my favorite places in town because it contains a thing of beauty. In that sense, the whole space fits within me somehow. I went inside and, walking past two visitors, entered the dim chapel. The chapel itself is a large room with black walls and a high ceiling. Simple black benches lead up to the most breathtaking sight. Huge panels of frosted green glass float above the floor in the shape of the inside of a cathedral. The structure is in miniature, of course, as it has to fit inside of a room. However, the illusion is completed by the restored Byzantine frescoes that tile the ceiling of the glass dome and adorn the walls. The artistry is amazing – simple, but very elaborate at the same time.
It’s cool in there, so I sit. I bow my head and feel my cares woosh out of me. I begin to pray, timidly at first, my thoughts spinning wildly to and fro. But then, with my eyes squeezed shut to block out everything around me, I focus on … myself. I found myself praying for all the needs that have been swelling against the dam in my soul. I found myself just talking to God, rushing along breathlessly and laying things out in front of Him. I asked Him for things that I typically don’t allow myself to consider. I pressed on, at one point even verbalizing in my head, “This prayer is for me!” Selfishness aside, I knew that this prayer was long overdue. Finally, gasping, I prayed that God reveal Himself to me. I had gone so long in the past year running on spiritual fumes that I knew it was time for a refill.
“God, bless me and use me, but show me who you are so that I can copy you.”
I stopped. I waited. I listened as the security guard shuffled papers in the back. I don’t think I expected to hear anything specific right then, but I wanted to give the Lord a chance. Finally, I stood up, and headed for the exit. The cool of the building lingered around me like the spiderwebs that stick to my face when I crash through the woods on a hike. The building was silent but I knew I had been in the center of beauty. Hand on the door, I pushed through the silence and took my first step out into the world again. However, my few minutes of quiet did not prepare me for what happened next.