"The world will be saved by beauty," so says Dorothy Day, who borrowed the phrase from Dostoevsky's idiot, an epileptic given to fits and enlightenment. When Day says beauty saves, she is not looking especially at sunsets. She is looking at the sun setting in the poor person in front of her. And such beauty breaks her heart.
It is not an uncommon experience. At the nursing home, a sister holds the hand of her brother the last 20 minutes of his wandering life. Suddenly, he opens his eyes, looks upwards and says, "I see light." His face is beautiful, almost boyish, all the pain and anguish gone. His heart stops. Her heart breaks.
My own brother is tall, lanky and, now, slow of foot. He cannot tie his own shoes, resorting to Velcro. My brother is smoking himself to death. But not this afternoon. Along with two friends, one with a walker, we are in a theater for "Ring of Fire," a show of the life and music of Johnny Cash, courtesy of another friend. We make our slow way to front seats. Arm in arm with my brother, I walk the line because he's mine.
The theater darkens, the stage lights up with Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, and 10 musicians playing guitars, fiddle, piano, trumpet and a tin pail. For two hours, they play through cheers, tears and standing ovations. My brother claps until his hands hurt. Afterwards he takes us all out for supper.
Will I remember this awful beauty the rest of my life? You bet I will.
So, too, will Sr. Helen Prejean remember Patrick Sonnier, a convicted murderer in Louisiana's notorious Angola Prison. What began as a simple exchange of letters ends with a walk to the electric chair despite Helen's best efforts to save Pat's life. She is following behind him when he asks her to touch his arm. She reaches up to his shoulder, then kisses his back and says, "Pat, pray for me."
He turns around and says, "I will, Sister Helen, I will." Then she is ushered by guards into the witness room, a few feet away.
She hears Pat ask forgiveness from the parents whose child he murdered, also watching behind glass. As the prison officials strap him into the chair, he finds Sister Helen's face and mouths, "I love you." She touches the glass and says, "I love you, too." Then 1,900 volts of electricity are shot into the man, followed by 500 volts, and yet another 1,900, until Patrick Sonnier is dead, loved and loving.
Such devastating beauty turns Helen Prejean's life in a new direction. Pat Sonnier is the first of many she will accompany, even as she seeks to eliminate the death penalty.
Consider the ballet, "Swan Lake." In the end, the white swan leaves the arms of love, reluctantly, to be sure, but inevitably, and dances slowly across the stage into the huge, monstrous wings of darkness. A death chamber, for sure. The curtain drops. For some, a flood of tears. For others, a rush to the parking lot.
Consider the monks of Tibhirine, leaving the security of France to live and work among the poor in Algeria*. They are pressured to leave by corrupt government troops on one side and armed Islamic rebels on the other. Each monk makes a heart-rending decision to stay with the poor.
In the film version of their true story, the monks are seated around a table breaking bread and sharing wine, an obvious last supper. The old monk, a physician, turns on a recording of "Swan Lake." Then the camera moves lovingly from one monk's face to the other — first joy and smiles all around, then back to each face, this time filled with horror and dread. Finally, a third view of each face shows acceptance. All the while, the terrible beauty of the white swan plays in the background as she moves into the heart of darkness. And soon, they will, too. Such beauty is heart rending.
So is the final scene when the monks are force-marched into the woods to their death. In single file they stumble up a snowy hill, the head monk supporting his physician brother. No music here. Only silence and heart-breaking beauty as one by one they slowly disappear into the mist.
The poet Richard Wilbur writes:
… the beautiful changes
in such kind ways
Wishing ever to sunder
Things and things' selves for a second finding, to lose
For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.
Perhaps beauty saves only when it sunders, breaks our hearts. Otherwise, all we see is a pretty face, a pretty sunset, a pretty dance across a stage.
[Joan Sauro, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, publishes widely in the Catholic press. Her new book is titled We Were Called Sister. Her essay of the same name was awarded first place for Best Essay 2014 by the Catholic Press Association.]
*This article has been updated to correct the location of the monastery.