Grounded in Beauty

September 18, 2022

Rev. Douglas Taylor

Sermon video: https://youtu.be/dDKc_FaeQ7s

My granddaughter turned 6 months old this week. She, like all children, is a delight to behold. She is close to crawling, she really likes solid food, and loves to be outside. Her fine motor skills are steadily improving and she is good at grasping things in her little hands. Occasionally she will just hold her hands up and look at them, (hold up hands) flexing her fingers and pivoting her wrists, just beholding her own hands with wonder.

I was telling my spouse about the reading we had for this morning from Cole Arthur Riley (from This Here Flesh) in which her father describes an experience he had in a dance class. He makes a particular leap and surprises himself when his body does it. And he says the line: It’s not arrogant to wow yourself every once in a while. It’s not arrogance, it’s just paying attention. (p36) And my granddaughter, as I was describing this seen to my spouse, at that exact moment lifts up one hand (hold up hand) to watch herself flex her fingers and pivot her wrist.

Our opening hymn, “O What a Piece of Work Are We” # 313, is not one we sing much. Nowadays if someone says, “Oh, he’s a real piece of work!” it is not mean as a compliment! That is some shade. But an earlier rendering of that phrase was intended to signal awe. “How marvelously wrought” the hymn says. It is not arrogance to wow yourself every once in a while. It’s just paying attention!

Our bodies are locations of wonder and beauty All the world’s wondrousness is not contained in the birds and waterfalls and the sunlight at dawn. We, too, are locations of awe and amazement if we will but pay attention. Do you? … pay attention? … love your body?

I know loving your own body is fraught in our culture. There is so much shame poured out onto us about our bodies – are they thin enough, curvy enough, soft enough, hard enough?  Are they the wrong color, the wrong size, the wrong shape? The shame we are encouraged to have about our bodies is boundless.

James Baldwin once wrote: “It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here.” This can be caught up in racism, sexism, homophobia or fatphobia, or just plain-old run-of-the-mill ‘family of origins’ toxicity.

It can be an act of liberation to love yourself, to love your body. Do you notice now and then how wonderous and beautiful you are? It is a grounding virtue, a root value for living to be able to see your own beauty. Beauty is necessary. Baldwin talked about unlearning the negative so he could “walk on the earth as though [he] had a right to be here.” To belong.

With Baldwin, I say when we are able to belong within our own skin, then we are able to belong anywhere. Do you feel like you belong? Loving our own bodies, being wowed by ourselves now and then, opens us into so much more. It is a grounding virtue to be aware of your own beauty! Are you grounded in beauty?

Early in this pandemic, back when we still thought it might stretch on for months – before we knew it would stretch for years – a few wise souls started talking a lot about somatic practices, embodies spiritual practices. This became a theme in some of my collegial ministers’ retreats. More than once in 2020, I attended a program focused around somatic practices, around grounding and embodied resilience, around getting back into our own bodies.

What a gift it was to be invited into that practice. I am more familiar with spiritual practices that lead me away from my body. I do a regular silent meditation, a practice of emptying my thoughts. While learning to do this kind of silent meditation, thoughts would intrude and my own body would intrude – something would itch or I would feel an ache somewhere or I would feel the urge to fidget. The goal for this form of silent meditation, I learned, was to gently notice this desire to fidget or that itchy body part; notice and then release it.

But these somatic practices I was offered at the beginning of the pandemic were intended to have my focus on my body. When my attention was on this or that part of my body the point was not to gently notice and release. The point was to gently notice and embrace.

Here we all were, isolated and unable to be together in person. Each of us alone at our computer screens trying to connect across the long, lonely distance. And instead of lament or problem solving or minimizing – I was invited to celebrate my own body, to appreciate how my body was surviving and showing up in the hard times, to notice how marvelously wrought.

And here’s the thing: this activity was designed to help us with the isolation. It seems counterintuitive, but it worked. It was intended to help us connect with each other – to support and be supported by each other. Adrienne Maree Brown has said:

“Belonging doesn’t begin with other people accepting us. It begins with our acceptance of ourselves. Of the particular life and skin each of us was born into, and the work that that particular birth entails… From that deep place of belonging to ourselves, we can understand that we are inherently worthy of each other.”

If you are feeling isolated and disconnected, if the pandemic or any other circumstance is causing you to feel cut off – there is a healing way to begin just with yourself. Adrienne Maree Brown has been an important teacher for many Unitarian Universalists lately, leading workshops at General Assembly and for religious professionals. She’s not UU but I think she likes us. She helps me to see the connection between my own ‘deep place of belonging’ within myself where I can, as she puts it, “understand that we are inherently worthy of each other.” I can notice the beauty and wondrousness of my own body. It’s not arrogant to wow yourself every once in a while. It’s not arrogance, it’s just paying attention.

Now, I do know being self-focused has a negative edge. I understand how loving yourself and thinking yourself quite beautiful can show up as a personality flaw. But this spiritual practice of loving your own body, of being wowed by yourself now and then, it is not an exercise in vanity.

In the reading we had this morning, Riley warned against imagining beauty as something out there – only found in art or nature, or only affirmed through the eyes of another – she wrote: “In this state you are not approaching what you are seeking. You are running from your own face.” Vanity is about seeking external proof of our beauty in other’s eyes. What we are talking about now is acknowledging the internal evidence of that wondrous beauty ourselves.

To be truly self-aware of my own beauty does not lead me into vanity. Instead, it leads me deeper into connection with the beauty of others. Riley talked about it as “the capacity to be in awe of humanity, even your own.” Earlier I said this beauty can be a grounding virtue, a root value. Loving our own bodies, being wowed by ourselves now and then, opens us into so much more. I want to talk about the ‘more.’ I want to talk about what grows out of this root of self-beauty.

When we know that we belong to ourselves, when we love our bodies as they are, it opens us to a stance of acceptance for ourselves that will almost automatically be extended to others. The same ‘paying attention’ that allows us to wow ourselves every once in a while, will also allow us to be wowed by others as well.

We are meant to be connected. We are meant to have roots that go down and also runners that travel out! We are meant to be in this together so we all might thrive. This line of reasoning takes us into conversations about the welfare of all those in need, into convictions of liberation and justice, into connections of respect and love without jealousy for the success and joy of others. These conversations and convictions and connections are the ‘more’ I am talking about that can arise from our simple self-awareness of our own beauty and wonder. (Hold up hand)   

I invite you to notice your own hand, really look at it. It is a little easier for babies, I know. My granddaughter is a mere half-a-year old and perhaps easily impressed. It is harder for us adults to release all the layers of negativity we’ve been fed through the years. But notice your hand!  

You are a marvel to behold. It’s not arrogant to wow yourself every once in a while. It’s not arrogance, it’s just paying attention. Our bodies are locations of wonder and beauty All the world’s wondrousness is not contained in the birds and waterfalls and the sunlight at dawn. Look at your hand! We, too, are locations of awe and amazement if we will but pay attention.

And what about all the other hands around us? We are meant to be connected. We are meant to see each other as beautiful. We each carry the image of the divine. What might that mean communally? Arthur Cole Riley raises this point in her book:

“Some theologians say it is not an individual but a collective people who bear the image of God. I quite like this, because it means we need a diversity of people to reflect God more fully. Anything less and the image becomes pixelated and grainy, still beautiful but lacking in clarity.” (p7)

So my message today is not only a message of embracing your own beauty, your own body. It is also a message of liberation and wonder. All of humanity is caught up in this image of God. You, yes – certainly you! But also everyone else, in fact, only with everyone else.

When you feel isolated or disconnected you can reliably turn to your own body for wisdom and wonder. You are a location of the beauty and awe. And from there, do you notice all the other amazing people as well.

When we are grounded in beauty, we will belong in this world.

When we are grounded in beauty, we will see the amazing beauty of others.

When we are grounded in our own beautiful bodies, we will respect and honor the bodies of others – particularly the vulnerable among us.

When we are grounded in beauty we are connected like roots and runners to everything else; and we will bring more justice and care to the world.

When we are grounded in beauty we will belong.

When we belong, we will welcome others to also belong and from there, every good thing can grow.

It is not arrogance to believe this is true. It is just paying attention.

In a world without end,

May it be so.