Broken and Beautiful

December 29 commemorates the assassination of Saint Thomas à Becket at Canterbury cathedral in 1170. Thomas was a political insider (and allegedly something of a scoundrel in his personal life) whom King Henry II named Archbishop to serve as the crown’s reliable yes-man. To Henry’s dismay, Thomas took the new role seriously, a personal and public transformation that ultimately resulted in his politically motivated murder. Whatever else one may take from his biography, Thomas reminds us not only that deeply flawed humans can become saints, but they are the only ones who ever do.

In the northern hemisphere, with winter just getting started and memories of a dark and troubling year weigh heavy, it’s a balm to remember that each successive day from now until June grows imperceptibly longer. The worst of the weather and the pandemic may yet be ahead, but that’s never the whole story. For all that humanity does to mangle our one and only planet, we remain broken and beautiful people in a broken and beautiful world. Focusing too often and too long on the brokenness blinds us to that beauty. Eyes open to beauty are vaccines against apathy and despair.

Here’s a poem by Adam Zagejweski, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh:

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

And here’s a song from Over the Rhine that quotes from the poem and embodies its spirit:

Image: Evening Snow at Kambara, Utagawa Hiroshige, 1833.

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