This year for Lent I gave up beauty.
I’m a vegan, so giving up meat or dairy or chocolate is a non-event for me.
About 10 years ago, I took a vow of simplicity in regards to my wardrobe and personal grooming, so wearing black and no makeup are also my regular disciplines.
Reichert, Crucifixion vii, 1991
The straight-forward obvious Lenten fasts don’t make much impact. While I was puzzling over what to give up for Lent, one cheeky fellow traveller suggested I might give up discipline and self denial.
But this year I gave up beauty. Not being beautiful, but observing and paying attention to beauty.
Of course, it is impossible to remove all beauty from the environment. But I have closed my eyes and my heart to it as an intentional focus for this season. And I have taken up a text book on ugliness, and studied it throughout this season, forcing my eyes upon and filling my mind with the images of the grotesque, the unseemly, the plain and unbecoming,the tragic, the macabre and the repulsive.
I took Umberto Eco’s book ‘On Ugliness’ as my study guide, and meditated on the art and literature it offers as examples. It hasn’t been pleasant.
Grunewald’s Christ covered in thorns has mesmerised me – almost to the point of a strange comfort. The ugliness of extreme pain, of every nerve pinched and every node pressured and every surface of skin scoured and scourged raw, the soul stretched to snapping point and the rising floods of acid poison that turn a tide of torture.
Grunewald, The Crucifixion (detail), 1515
I have drunk in not only many of the ugly images of the crucifixion, but also the repulsive gallery of our nation’s injustices and the appalling panorama of global poverty and power. An acrid stomach-churning view.
And I have taken up that other text book of the grotesque and terrifying – the Bible; reading its texts of despair, lamentation, depravity. It gilds no lily, but tells it like it is. Don’t try to follow it as a self improvement manual or a better homes and gardens guide.
Those who know me well realise that this is no shallow ‘toe in the water; simulation game for me. I have known plenty of life’s ugliness both from within and without. A gruelling pilgrimage lined with mysteriously placed gifts, choosing life, choosing love, choosing beauty has come in the form of a dare to stop and open a gift in the dark chasms of pain.
So this ‘ugliness fast’ is a retracing of a path. The path of following Jesus. The path to redemption. The path of grace and courage to look at people and landscapes and actions that are unpalatable, unattractive, ugly with the scars, ugly with hate, ugly with fear, ugly with pain, ugly with threats. The call to ugliness starts us on a path of looking at evil and not making excuses. If I can’t do that, I can’t self examine. If I can’t look at evil without papering over or flinching a concession, I can’t repent. And I can’t forgive. Just like Jesus I have to be able to look at evil and recognise it. To say ‘Forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing…but I do; and I ask forgiveness on their behalf.’
About 10 years ago I walked a similar path in looking at my own face. In my early 30s I was still a compulsive self-harmer, drawing blood almost as often as I caught my reflection in the mirror, the urge to deface my own visage overwhelming any rational logic. I shaved my head. And I set about the task of actually being able to look myself in the face. In our selfie-obsessed culture, some might find this hard to believe. Or perhaps we realise that selfies are a way of not really looking ourselves in the eye, but filtering ourselves through the ‘safety’ of a lens – a digital shield between us and reality.
It took two years of this spiritual discipline of shaving my head for me to really find it comfortable to look at my own face. And then one day I realised I had stopped harming myself. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d pointed the blade at myself. After five years (I know, five years; miracle healing doesn’t mean ‘quick-fix’) I had come to love my bumps and wrinkles, my enormous teeth and wonky eyebrows, and also my fiery eyes and the smile that I can’t stop monopolising my jaw. I stopped shaving my head, and I have let my hair grow out wildly however it wants, as a symbol of the freedom I found in accepting what was in the mirror as neither ugly nor beautiful, but good. Along this path of staring at ugliness, I looked squarely at a lot of ugly characters lurking behind my eyes. I learned not to look away, not to flinch, but to fix their gaze and say ‘Forgive them: they don’t know what they’re doing’ as well. This Lent has retraced those steps, and now the discipline of eyes filled with ugliness comes soon to an end.
Close to the end of Lent a friend sent me an image which heralded the impending end of my ugliness fast. It was a beautiful image, and yet it embodied the seam of beauty through the contours of brokenness.’Full of gold that radiates through only because of the brokenness’ was the tag line that accompanied it.
Beauty – even as I whole heartedly embrace it again – will always be this kind of beauty. A beauty framed in flaws. A beauty that can only be viewed by those willing to look at broken things.
Let it start tomorrow with looking at a grave stone cracked open, golden gleaming light pouring forth.
Let my eyes flicker open again and see beauty anew.