Many years ago, while fasting in a jail cell in Colorado as a result of sitting on the railroad tracks leading into a nuclear weapons factory, I received a postcard from Dorothy Day. It was an aerial photo of Cape Cod, on which she had written, “I hope this card refreshes you and does not tantalize you.”
Dorothy was an avid collector of picture postcards. Some of them adorned the walls of her room at Maryhouse. They included icons and art, but also images from nature: forests, the ocean, polar bears. Dorothy spent most of her life surrounded by actual images of poverty, including the hungry men and women who waited outside the Catholic Worker each morning for a bowl of soup. But one of Dorothy’s most distinctive qualities was her eye for beauty.
In every circumstance, she could notice something beautiful: the sunlight on a tenement fire escape, or a gingko tree poking through the sidewalk. She enjoyed listening to the opera on the radio. She felt her heart “leap for joy” as she read and suddenly assented “to some great truth enunciated by some great mind and heart.” But she also had an eye for moral beauty: the sight of someone sharing bread with a neighbor (the literal meaning of “companionship”). And hardest of all, she could see beauty where others did not, in the features of Jesus under the disguise of the poor and downtrodden.
Despite all the misery and injustice in the world, she believed we must discipline ourselves to remember the goodness of God’s creation and to catch glimpses of the new heaven and the new earth that were evident if only we had eyes to see. These “samples of heaven” could refresh us and sustain our hope amidst so many frustrations and disappointments.
The life of Sister Wendy Beckett, a consecrated hermit who lived on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery in England, was quite different from Dorothy Day. But in their attention to the saving power of beauty, they had much in common. Sister Wendy for some years achieved surprising celebrity when she was discovered by the BBC and given a television series in which she visited museums and talked about art. When that was over, she was happy to return to her cell, where she spent most of her days in silence and prayer.
In her last years, before her death in 2018, Sister Wendy and I corresponded on an almost daily basis. She told me that she had considered her television work as a kind of apostolate. By means of talking about the beauty of art, she felt she had found a way of talking about God—the source of Beauty—to an audience unfamiliar or put off by religious language. But for Sister Wendy, beauty was not just about what is aesthetically pleasing. Like her forebear, Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth-century anchoress and mystic, Sister Wendy saw all things in relation to the mysteries of faith, and so in that light, like Julian or St. Francis or Dorothy, she could see beauty in the Cross, and even in our own sufferings.
One time, in describing a dream, she provided a deep account of her vocation. The dream had three parts: It began with her looking at magnificent pictures of lakes. Then they were actual lakes and she was walking around them, taking in their beauty. Then the lakes were inside her—she was containing them. But at this point she realized there was something wrong with them; they were poisoned or polluted. Yet she felt that in her sorrow and through her own heart she was somehow able to purify the lakes. “I suppose,” she wrote, “this is an image of what being a Christian means. In Jesus we take the whole wounded world into ourselves and suffer with it, holding it out all the time to His holiness.” That is our reason for being, she said: “God’s lakes need us.”
Dorothy Day often quoted Dostoevsky’s famous line, “The world will be saved by beauty.” I often puzzled over what that meant. But both Dorothy and Sister Wendy showed me that beauty has a moral dimension. To direct our attention to beauty, or even the recollection of it, while sitting in a slum or a jail cell or a hermitage, could inspire us to greater courage, hope and love. And it occurred to me that that is why I have spent so much of my life writing about saints: because the lessons of their beautiful faith and witness can refresh and ennoble us. And God’s lakes, forests, polar bears and all the other suffering creatures need us.
Robert Ellsberg is the Publisher of Orbis Books, the editor of many volumes of writings by Dorothy Day and author of numerous works on saints. His letters with Sister Wendy, This is Heaven, will appear next year.