A scene in the TV series “The Last Kingdom” has stayed with me since I saw it. The series follows King Alfred, a medieval king of Wessex and a devout Christian who sought to convert his subjects to Christianity. He was forced into exile due to the advancement of the brutal pagan Danes. He was protected by the warrior Uhtred. King Alfred is standing alone in a flat featureless marsh where the protective Uhtred finds him and asks:
“Were you worried that I would lose my way?” asks the King.
Uhtred says, “One path looks like another.”
Alfred asks, “What do you notice about this place?”
Alfred says, “There are no horizons. No sense of something beyond. My priests have visited here once or twice to preach. The people are oblivious to God.”
I pondered that a bit – A simple yet profound exchange. Why would a horizonless landscape produce such a faithless mentality in its people?
An open and featureless plain does not give our eyes a place to rest; it provides no quest or goal to yearn for.
Featureless horizons do not direct our attention, or call us to a destination, or produce a beckoning. Our soul looks for beauty; it longs for the hope found on a path leading towards a beautiful destination. The more worthy the destination, the more joy we can hope for in its attainment. Boundless potential and subjectivism produce oblivion. If we are capable of anything and everything, and all roads are of equal worth, we are easily lost in the marshes of life.
For all of human history a woman’s purpose has been tied up in her biological capacity to have children. Now, she has more choices – limitless potential paths.
As King Alfred learned – with no sense of a horizon, it is easy to become lost – and not even know we are lost. Today women are lost. Women are less happy than their grandmothers, despite our freedom and opportunity.*
So how do we follow a path that leads towards something worthwhile when our culture is increasingly unwilling to point us towards such a purpose, and instead actively discourages us from looking to our female progenitors for guidance? Ironically it seems that our path is often found more easily in what we reject than what we choose.
“Creation means rejection…for a man cannot make statues without rejecting stone.” **GK Chesterton
“For in self-giving, if anywhere, we touch a rhythm not only of all creation but of all being.”C.S. Lewis
We all strive to create a beautiful life. And yet, we must understand that in every creation, we are rejecting another potential creation. I remember the difficulty of deciding whether I should attend a prestigious graduate program or work to help my husband finish his undergraduate degree. When I made my decision, mostly out of financial necessity, I pictured my future potential-self, a graduate of Cambridge, blowing away in the wind, like a victim of Thanos.
The act of creation through rejection is evident in many aspects of a woman’s life, and it is a painful process. It is never easy to forgo a passion or to prioritize one thing over another. It is difficult to turn our backs on potential; we are often unsure if the path we have chosen will bear good fruit.
The archetypal feminine is often depicted as Mother Nature. She has the power to destroy and create. The death of plants in Winter will eventually give rise to Spring. Lighting strikes and burns down an old decaying forest – a new one grows in its place. There is suffering in those destructions, and hope.
Women create – often through mysterious and chaotic ways. We create new life; we renew humanity; we produce beauty in the world around us – this is a terrible and beautiful thing.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”Albert Einstein
What Is Beauty?
“Beauty matters. It is not just a subjective thing but a universal need of human beings. If we ignore this need we find ourselves in a spiritual desert.”Sir Roger Scruton
We know beauty when we see it. Encountering a sculpture such as Michalangelo’s David is a truly spiritual experience. Beautiful art is truth revealed to an artist, and each artist produces unique work. We don’t judge Monet for not painting like Van Gogh – both their works are masterpieces.
As we look to our own horizon, we must decide what to discard to create our beautiful life. Some things that might be beautiful must be cut out to reveal what is more beautiful. Smaller truths must be overcome by ultimate truth. Worthy desires must be forgone for greater purposes. As the artist we are the ones with the chisel; we discard these lesser beauties to unveil our creation.
Some would say that art is simply in the eye of the beholder, there is no real beauty or true art. They say that any choice can lead to a beautiful life because all is subjective. These opinions come from those living in the featureless plains spoken of by King Alfred. Those who subscribe to this view of life will find it hard to find a horizon to fix their gaze upon. They will turn this way and that with the ever-changing winds of passion and emotion.
As C.S. Lewis explains in The Abolition of Man, there is objective beauty and truth and we know it when we see it (assuming this perception has not been brainwashed out of us). No one standing before the sublimity of a waterfall can question its awe-inspiring beauty.* No one walking under the dome of St. Peter’s can say it is equal to the local community center. No one seeing a devoted mother hold her precious newborn baby can doubt the goodness in their embrace. So there must be some creations more worthy than others.
A Rejection of Motherhood
Recently an actress was awarded a Golden Globe. She was emotional as she spoke of her gratitude at being able to make the choices necessary to receive such an award. She was referring to her choice to have an abortion. She felt having a child would have blocked her path to this “great” achievement. This is obviously a creative and talented woman. However, she allowed her drive to create and her ambition and desire for recognition to limit her potential. In her desire to be the author of her life, she aimed too low – she settled for less. She made many choices and those choices led to what seemed to her a necessity – if she were to have the life she wanted. She chose to reject the creation of a life and instead to receive a lifeless golden substitute.
The actress wanted to, “Recognize my handwriting all over my life…A life I have carved with my own hands.” She declared, “we should make the world look more like (women) who are…seeking their own self-interest.”
She created and rejected what she desired so her life became what she wanted. This is the mantra of modern life, I want what I want in life, all else be damned. But is the art this produces beautiful? It seems unlikely when its creation is based on wandering desires and self-interest. Beauty comes from truth and virtue – not desires. Many now regret the choices they once yearned to make.
“The idea of beauty is the fundamental idea of everything. In the world we see only distortions of the fundamental idea, but art, by imagination, may lift itself to the height of this idea. Art is therefore akin to creation.”Leo Tolstoy
A great artist attempts to create beauty that can lead to many and varied creations – but they will leave many lesser creations unmade. This actress left a greater beauty unborn.
Every statue Michelangelo chiseled meant another statue was never born. But what if instead of a beautiful statue, he could make a man? What if he could build up a real David, capable of conquering armies and raising a nation? Would that not be more glorious than the man made-substitute we must now be content with? But only Nitzevet, King David’s mother, had the power of bringing David into the world. When comparing the beauty of a statue versus the beauty of a human being, do we want to live in a world that would choose the former?
So when we embark on this journey to create a masterpiece – the carving of our own beautiful life – we should not carve out a statute as imperfect as our own desires, as weak as our own failings, as ugly as our own selfishness. Rather we should be true artists, seeking out beauty and truth to guide our sculpting. Otherwise, we produce narcissistic and disjointed art that is not a reflection of truth but an idol of self-worship.
“Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from the love of the thing he tells, to the love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him.”C.S. Lewis
We are often told, as women, that we can have it all, and in the next moment we are shown we must choose between a child and success – and that the latter choice is the more worthy one. A beautiful life requires no victims to achieve, only the discarding of our own pride and weakness.
I want to make this clear – Not every woman can, wants to, or will have children – and they are no less of a woman and no less capable of creation than a mother of seven. Mother Teresa, John of Arc, Julian of Norwich- these and millions more women never had children and created lives worthy of admiration. They gave up their own “self-interest” and progressed toward a greater hope – one we can all look to. When I write of motherhood this is not limited to the act of raising biological children- all women become mothers-of-humanity as they create beauty in the world.
“It is an ancient view that truth, goodness, and beauty cannot, in the end, conflict.”Sir Roger Scruton
True femininity is not limiting but expansive. Yes we must reject much, but we gain much. Women can’t do it all at the same time, we must put first things first, but life is long. We don’t have to drop passions- we can integrate them into what is most important. What version should we accept – the one that tells us we must end a life to live the one we want? Or the one that tells us that bringing life, bringing love, and sacrificing self for others supersedes any man-made glories?
Michelangelo carved an even greater statue than his David. This other masterpiece is his most acclaimed and admired. This statue has drawn millions of pilgrims to stand before its awesome beauty. It is not like the David; it is not of a man that defeated giants or conquered nations. It has a much more remarkable subject – a mother and her child – a humble and poor woman, deemed inconsequential by most in her time. It is of a woman gloried not for her accomplishments but for her sacrifice – for her rejections: the rejection of her reputation as she carried her child; the rejection of comfort as she journeyed to Bethlehem; the rejection of a safe and simple life as she accepted her role as the Mother of God; the rejection of good for better, of pride for humility, of wickedness for righteousness. It represents the rejection of a “life of self-interest”, to make way for a creation that makes all rejections trivial – the Savior of Mankind. The beauty and majesty produced by these rejections is clear to any standing before this masterpiece – this horizon of stone.
Thrive, Daniel Popper – Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Reflection, Odillion Redon
The David, Michelangelo
The Pieta, Michelangelo
**“Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense, every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else… Every act is an irrevocable selection and exclusion. Just as when you marry one woman you give up all the others, so when you take one course of action you give up all the other courses… Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel from the burden of his hump; you may be freeing him from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end. Somebody wrote a work called “The Loves of the Triangles”; I never read it, but I am sure that if triangles ever were loved, they were loved for being triangular. This is certainly the case with all artistic creation, which is in some ways the most decisive example of pure will. The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the thing he is doing.”
― G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
A great discussion on beauty between Sir Roger Scruton and Jordan Peterson