In this Year of Mercy, I realize that beauty is an act of mercy and compassion. This finger painting reminds me of the flower arrangements I created from “hand-me-down” flowers in Portland, Oregon. Even though the flowers in this painting neither live or die, they too, lead us to sense the beauty of God’s love and presence in creativity.
When I served at Saint Andre Bessette Church, I would walk over to Geranium Lake Flowers every Saturday morning. Kim, the owner of the business, would hand me a few flowers to take back to the chapel. Sometimes those flowers were left from wedding or party arrangements that she had been working on for the weekend. A few times, I even sorted through the shop’s trashcans for various greens and branches to create a weekly arrangement.
The simple floral arrangement stood in front of the crucifix that hung on the purple wall of the sanctuary. People who were surviving the gloom and darkness of poverty looked forward to seeing something beautiful. I discovered that flowers were a visible act of mercy.
Here is a non-published excerpt from “Bread and Concrete: Connecting Eucharist and Service.” Most of this book was published this past year in Ministry and Liturgy Magazine. In this Lenten season, we see the beauty of dying and rising. The flowers in our sanctuary captured that message in our small chapel in Portland, Oregon. Here, I reflect on the beauty of faith and the simplicity of death and resurrection.
…I learn from many people who suffer that hospitality is also important in our chapel. I create a clean, simple and tidy environment not only because of liturgical norms or rules, but because people need to be welcomed into a safe place to unburden their lives. On the other side of our chapel walls, the streets are brutal, loud and tormenting. I learn from recovering addicts how important it is for them to see the altar cloth that is carefully ironed and to ponder an unfussy bouquet of fresh flowers that highlight the simple crucifix.
People long to see something that is beautiful and alive, something that reveals to them that people care about ritual prayer and the people who pray. People ache to feel that God’s beauty is still for them. They want even for just a moment, to feel that life is safe, loving and calming so they can go out of our building and bear the weight of addictions, mental illness and so much turmoil.
I hear from heroin addicts that their recovery is painful, erratic and frightening. Jean tells me that she aches to see the freshly pressed cloth on the altar because everything else in her life is so chaotic, messy, unpleasant and out of her control. She lives in squalor every day of her life. Jean tells me that she normally treats herself so poorly that she wants to pray in an environment that is intentionally simple and elegant. She spent her life abusing her body and all her relationships.
Jean does not expect that our chapel should be expensive or opulent, she just means clean and simple, the best we have to offer God. Jean expresses that the kind and gentle environment, the simplicity and the elegance of the sanctuary gives her hope that her life could one day become a simple vessel for God.
She told me recently that she understands that the flowers near the cross will die this week. However, for just a moment, for a split-second she wants to absorb the eternal beauty of the living, gorgeous arrangement. Even our weekly flowers are hand-me-downs. My friend Kim owns a flower shop across the street from the parish. Each Saturday she offers me flowers that she would normally throw away at the end of the workweek. I create something with whatever she gives me. Sometimes I even retrieve branches and flowers from her dumpster. No matter what she has available to offer, the flowers create a focus under the light that shines on the wooden crucifix hanging off-center in the sanctuary.
Another woman who suffers from emotional instability speaks to me often of the importance of having a space, a real prayer environment that is emotionally secure and inviting. She tells me that her life is so filled with emotional disarray, that to come and pray in an environment that is pleasing to the eye, simple and direct, honest and innocent is so important for her healing and daily prayer. She tells me nearly every day that these patterns of beauty in our chapel help her feel normal and that her life counts in the community…