Imagine my surprise when, a few days ago, I looked out my window to see a dappled horse munching on flowers in the field across the street from my house. In the next days I got used to her being there. I would look for her in the mornings and at odd times during the day. Sometimes she was visible and sometimes she was not. When I could see her, I would open the window and call out, “Hello, white horse, you are very beautiful.” Once or twice she turned her head to look at me and seemed to respond, “Thank you for noticing.”
Many hundreds of years ago, Sappho must have had a similar vision in a field near a grove of trees where she and her students waited for the Goddess to appear, for she wrote: “In meadows where horses have grown sleek among spring flowers, dill scents the air.“ These lines are part of a longer poem addressed to Aphrodite that begins: “Leave Crete and come to us.” In this place, “incense smokes on the altar,” there is a stream, there are apple trees and rose bushes and horses in a field of flowers.
Though Sappho has called the Goddess to appear, her human form is not described. Instead, immediately after describing sleek horses in the field of flowers, the poet exclaims, “Queen, Cyprian, fill our gold cups with love.” As I read the poem, there is no need for an anthropomorphic Goddess to descend from the sky, because she is already present in the beauty of nature—if only we open our eyes to see.
In the words of a song inspired by the Navajo Beauty Way, “I walk with beauty all around me, as I walk the Beauty Way.” What does it mean to walk the Beauty Way? It means to live in awareness of the beauty that is before us, behind us, above us, below us, and all around us.
While some of my friends practice prayer or meditation with their eyes closed, I prefer to keep my mine open. For me, sitting quietly in nature and observing the life around me is the best form of meditation. I do not struggle to “empty my mind” of “distractions.” Rather I allow my eyes to wander, appreciating the beauty I see. I am soon in a light trance. Sometimes my vision blurs as I feel myself part of a larger whole. When something catches my interest, my eyes focus as I enter into a relationship with an individual plant or animal.
Yesterday, I noticed a great tit landing on a branch near where I was sitting. I remembered that I had discovered great tits nesting in a hole in the robina pseudoacacia or black locust tree that shades the area where I was sitting. Sure enough, the bird came back with an insect in its beak, dipped into the hole, and I heard the sound of twittering baby birds. Joy! The grace of life.
I believe open-eyed meditation is well-suited to the form of Goddess spirituality I practice. My spirituality is not about escaping to a “another” world. It is about learning to live gracefully in the world into which we are born in our bodies, the world where we grow and age in our bodies, and the world where we will surely die in our bodies. I do not long for a “more perfect” world where there are no bodies, no suffering, no death.
In Western philosophical and theological worldviews, the appreciation of beauty is called the “aesthetic.” The aesthetic is contrasted with the ethical. It is asserted that the appreciation of beauty is a “leisure” activity (for the rich) that has nothing to do with the ethical. From this perspective it is impossible to understand that the Beauty Way of the Navajos and other indigenous peoples informs a profoundly ethical way of life.
The Beauty Way is not primarily about “appreciating” “great works” of art or music, though it includes the appreciation of art and music. The Beauty Way is about appreciating the beauty of nature, the beauty of every living thing, the beauty inherent the processes of birth, death, and regeneration. Art and music are understood to be modeled on the beauty of nature. The goal of art and music is not to improve on nature, but to imprint appreciation of its beauty in our minds and bodies.
In the modern Western version of the aesthetic, contemplation takes place in the mind as the individual gazes at a painting, listens to a piece of music, or watches a dance performance. In more embodied cultures, art inspires us to take part with our bodies in the song and dance of life. If we have heard of her at all, we will “read” or “listen to” Sappho’s “”poetry. But Sappho wrote “lyrics” that were meant to be sung, to be accompanied by the seven-stringed lyre, and to inspire dance.
When we appreciate the beauty of life, it follows that the human task is to participate in the beauty of life. We do not destroy unnecessarily, we do not dominate, and we take only what need in order to leave space for the beauty in all lives to flourish.
It was so not once, but in many cultures. It can be again.
*Sappho’s lyrics quoted from #37 in Sappho: A New Translation by Mary Barnard.
Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator who will soon be moving to Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent books are Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology and A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.
Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.