The word “sublime” came across the Facebook news feed this morning. I fell in love with “the sublime” in an old treatise, either 1st or 3rd century CE, attributed to a Greek tradition calls Longinus. On the Sublime lifted me into the ether of literary contemplation back in graduate school, and I’ve been on the lookout for it ever since.
This morning I read that it even has a verb form: “to sublime.” Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary says to sublime something is “to cause to pass from the solid to the vapor state by heating and to condense back to solid. To pass directly from the solid to the vapor state. (Emphasis mine.)
Funny, that’s what happens when you run into the sublime; something of the solidity of this world drops away and the spirit, in all its vaporous glory, ascends, and our beings are blown and shimmered by the moment, by Beauty, by the Sublime.
Inevitably, we return to earth, passing back into our more solid form, and get on with the business of mucking through.
But encounters with the sublime, the serious encounters, are transforming. In my experience, the sublime is bound up with beauty, neither of which has anything to do with prettiness or shine. “The Sublime” and “The Beautiful” are as likely to be found in Haiti this morning, where my friend Milton Jones is installing water purification systems, as they are on the stage of the Seattle Opera, where my friend Beth found sublimity in a recent visit. Transcendence is no doubt dropping onto the planet like scattered sheets of rain…whether today is a day for you to experience it depends on where you’re standing, and whether you’re willing to get wet.
Encounters with the sublime I rank as encounters with God. Some are small; the shafting light of a Seattle morning in May streaking into the kitchen to make newly clean knifes and forks glitter, grace in the mundane. Some are never to be forgotten; a single moment of theatre–the sounds of satins and sheens creating the illusion of wind as a dozen men rush the stage, leaping and turning and fighting for kingdoms like unseen spirits and devils, all to the maddened pounding of drums. Some are shared; the crowning head of a birthing first child under intense light, intense pressure, intense glory and joy. Some are lonely; the early morning poem, written seventy years ago, the hand of God guiding the pen of the unknown brother so that the words drift in time and space like an aroma, landing in your breath and in your chest at just the right “now” decades later, in the quiet daily office. But each time I meet the sublime, in all its major and minor incarnations, I’m reminded that we’re not alone, that somewhere beyond that shadowy unknown on the other side of physical, rational experience is another reality that reveals itself everyday. We chase it sometimes, like kids after rabbits in the woods, and get little for our efforts, except the occasional brief glimpse of the scooting tail. Other times we sit quietly, expectantly, and pray that it comes, that God comes, maybe bringing just the healing we need, or at least hope of it, and sadly, God and sublimity doesn’t bother that day. Absence comes instead and walks us back home, often without saying a word. Time passes, and you’ve almost forgotten the whole thing, when you turn the corner, and Heaven opens up; a flower, a light, a song, a voice, a touch, a child, a redemption.
If there’s an art to be learned, perhaps it’s the art of creating “an ethos of inspiration” or, as I’m thinking this morning, “an ethos of the Sublime.” (I first ran into this “ethos-making” idea years ago in a wonderful book called “The Grace of Great Things” by Robert Grudin.) The idea is that inspiration, and by extension, the sublime, cannot be coerced, controlled, or called to appear by fiat or command. The best we can hope for is to create a world where they would be welcome, were they to choose to come on any given day. Fidelity, trust, love, sacrifice, hope, goodness, creativity, rigor, discipline, hospitality, openness to innovation, generosity, perseverance…all of these are conditions of the ground that invites inspiration and sublimity on a regular basis. Who would not want to walk where these are practiced?
Can you count on the sublime?
It is precious and rare, but it’s always on its way.
Hoping you catch a glimpse today…