by Nancy Forest-Flier
Dostoevsky wrote, “Beauty will save the world.” I used to think of this as a romantic idea, that we will be saved by the beautiful things around us, that the world will be saved if it can be made more attractive. The idea seemed romantic, something expressed by such sentiments as “there’s beauty in everything, if only we would stop and smell the flowers.” This suggests there is a gulf between the world and ourselves — we have to put on the right eyeglasses to see it properly.
Today I realized that what Dostoevsky meant is that beauty must be our principle of life — that beauty is not a perception, an influence, to be found outside us; it is the principle which must characterize the way we do everything. Everything we do must be done in beauty, with grace. The phrase “the beautiful gesture” kept coming back to me. Everything we do, even digging a ditch or scrubbing the floor, must be done in beauty. This does not mean that we are trying to make a beautiful ditch or a beautiful floor. It doesn’t mean that we are trying to become beautiful ditch diggers or floor scrubbers. It doesn’t even mean that we are trying to make a sort of ballet out of our ditch digging or floor scrubbing. It has to do with the way in which we execute the task, the way we live every minute as we do what we do; it has to do with being attentive to the activity at hand, acting without being concerned with how we look as we act. It is an innocent acting, not concerned with appearances or results or rewards; it is not concerned with being treated fairly, with getting even, with showing off, with making an impression, with getting the damn work out of the way, with wallowing in self-pity over one’s misfortune. I would think it is not even concerned with acing out of certainty that this is God’s will. I think it is simply making the beautiful gesture.
But why? Because this is the radical application of being at the center, where God is.
As I was cleaning the bathroom today, I was suddenly overcome with this sense that I must do this work as a beautiful gesture. This is the only free action available to me. If I act out of sense of resentment (because other people in the family are not doing what I’m doing), or anger (because the bathroom has a way of getting very messy very often), or self-pity (poor me!), then I’m a slave to my self and my work will be exhausting. Even if I work out of sense of pride (I’ve got to make this place shine) or some simple ethic of good behavior (God expects me to be a responsible wife and mother; this is how I become a good person), I’m still a slave to my self. The only way to go about it with joy, as a free person, is to work in the presence of God, in prayer. And this, I think, is how beauty will save the world.
I felt this all day long. I started the day making blueberry muffins, I finished the day making soup and pita bread, thinking all the while about the beautiful gesture.
The paradigm for living this way is the Liturgy. Every action that we perform in the Liturgy should be a beautiful gesture, from lighting candles and reverencing icons to receiving Holy Communion. It’s the school where we learn how to live from moment to moment. The climate of continual prayer, the entreaties of the choir washing over us, the attitude of attention all teach us how to be grace-full people.
But cleaning the bathroom as though you were standing at Liturgy? It sounds scandalous, but I think it’s true. A monk once told my husband you should wash the dishes as though you were washing the baby Jesus. Every gesture deliberate, beautiful and free.
Nancy Forest-Flier is a translator and editor as well as treasurer of the St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam.
published in In Communion, issue 6; the journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship