Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

May 19, 2019: “Wabi-Sabi Saves the World”

Back in the days when the purpose of my job was to create beauty in the homes of my clients, I often felt like my job had no meaning.  It didn’t save lives or change the world in any tangible ways.  But six different world religions have something else to say about that.

Reading          Jared Hammond

Our reading this morning is from a commencement speech delivered at Mount Holyoke college in May of 1999 by New York Times columnist, memoirist and novelist Anna Quindlen. 

She said:

I got up every day and tried to be perfect in every possible way. If there was a test to be had, I studied for it; if there was a paper to be written, it was done. … Being perfect was hard work, and the hell of it was, the rules of it changed. So that I while I arrived at college in 1970 with a trunk full of perfect pleated kilts and perfect monogrammed sweaters, by Christmas vacation I had another perfect uniform: overalls, turtlenecks, Doc Martens, and the perfect New York City Barnard College affect – part hyper-intellectual, part ennui.

Eventually being perfect day after day, year after year, became like always carrying a backpack filled with bricks on my back. And oh, how I secretly longed to lay my burden down!”

Sermon “Wabi Sabi Saves the World,” Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul 

Dostoyevsky once let drop the enigmatic phrase: “Beauty will save the world.”

What does that even mean? There are so many different understandings of beauty, that the first thing I have to as is “whose beauty?”  

For those of you who don’t know, I am an artist. For those of you with training — especially from academies of higher education that are labeled as “good” or “exclusive” art schools — you sometimes might feel like you get to decide, on behalf of everyone around your, what is beautiful.  I do sometimes, I admit, feel like I get to decide what is wretched, ugly, or tacky.  

Or maybe those of you with artistic training don’t see yourselves as having gained the right to be the judges and juries of taste.  Maybe for me that occasional sense of entitlement comes from my personality.  

I’m a Virgo.  The virgin.  The purist.  Very judgmental.   

I am also of Generation X, and we take nothing seriously, lest we get criticized for being too precious, or naive or (god forbid) sincere…characteristics which look judgmental. 

And I am a Meyers-Briggs INFJ.  I relate to the outside world by judging it more than perceiving it, though every time I take that test I am more perceiving and less judging.  

Thank goodness when we engage in our environments, we are all changed by them.   But still, I have more tendency to judge, and combined with my other characteristics, according to Meyers and Briggs, that means being empathetic AND liking to have things settled.  In leadership I have to be mindful of my tendency to say things like “there is value in both A and B, but B is more elegant,”  or beautiful, or concise, or whatever quality is a stand-in for “good” in that moment.    

Usually, in a church setting, the quality I’m going for is truth or meaning, our fourth principal feeling to me in many way the most elusive of the seven.  Or maybe truth and meaning are the most attainable.  I guess that also is in the eye of the beholder, and dependent on the situation.

I think though the most important lesson I got from art school — and seminary — didn’t happen in the studio or seminar room.  My learning, it turns out, happened as Anna Quindlen’s learning happened, only after the fact, upon deep reflection over the course of years.

And it was a similar lesson.  Beauty isn’t about perfection.  It’s about something else.  Our transcendental forebear Ralph Waldo Emerson, I think, summed it up the most succinctly: “There is a crack in everything God has made.”  

That’s where the beauty is. Philosopher and journalist Crispin Sartwell, in a book called Six Names of Beauty, looks at this ridiculously abstract concept from these different angles:  

English “beauty” 

Hebrew “yapha” 

Sanskrit “sundara” 

Greek “to kalon

Navajo “hozho

And Japanese “wabisabi” 

The word beauty derives from two similar old French and Latin words with slightly broader definitions,  but the earliest uses of the word in English refer almost exclusively to women.  Which isn’t terribly surprising, when you consider that the authors were exclusively male.  

The thing about beauty though, in the way we understand it in the English language and the Western mindset, is that it’s really hard to define, because, it’s so subjective.  But one thing that can be agreed upon is that, as Sartwell puts it, “beauty is the object of longing.”

I’m sure you can relate to this experience.   Someone or something gives you a pleasant or even transcendent feeling, and you return the favor by ascribing to it the characteristic of beauty. You long for the experience to last, or long to experience it again, even when you know overexposure will make it lose its luster.  

The funny thing is that nostalgia, reminiscing on a happy past, can make anything beautiful.  If beauty is longing, and nostalgia is longing for the past, nostalgia remembers things better than they were.  We look on happy memories with a kind of fuzzy glow, as if our memories are shot through cheesecloth. If if something was bland, banal, or even brutal, it can invoke a wistfulness in us that makes us see it, or remember it, as having a kind of beauty.  Things that remind us of a happy past are beautiful, that’s why more people find beauty in traditional design than in modern design.  

My first apartment was hideous, with low ceilings, low light, stained carpet and gloppy apricot colored walls, but when I think about it, or see pictures of it, I’m filled with a kind of longing for the past, a past in which I could eat anything I wanted, never woke up in pain, and had a whole life ahead of me.

The second word Sartwell looked at was “Yapha,” a Hebrew word meaning glow, or bloom.

A perfect example of yapha is Gold.  Gold is lovely to behold, soft enough to be malleable, and strong enough to be formed into jewelry and ornaments.  It can be made into leaf to cover huge areas.  It can be burnished so that it seems to glow from within.  And when you think about it, all the other materials that were ascribed beauty and value early in the history of mankind had a similar quality of glowing, things like jewels, shells, amber, feathers, ivory and jade.  It’s no wonder these were the things that were used as currency, a stand in for the value of things being traded.  

While beauty is something ascribed by the perceived, yapha is ascribed to the things themselves. They emit light, they exude beauty, as if shedding it without ever being diminished.  

Water is the most common substance on earth, and considered to be beautiful, for its clarity, transparency, and reflectiveness. It lends a sense of peace or drama, both of which humans are attracted to enough that we will pay exorbitant amounts of money to live near water.  

Ice glitters, whether it’s in a landscape or in a glass of bourbon, and both are wonderful to behold.  We just love things that shine. 

Yapha also means bloom, flowers, which remind us that beauty is tied not just to our sense of sight, but also to our sense of smell.  We tend to find flowers more beautiful the better they smell.

Fireworks both glow and blooms, and the Japanese name for them transliterates as fire-flower.  The explosion of skyrockets fills the night sky with mini stars in the shape of flowers in a way that only the most jaded or environmentally sensitive can resist.  

Aurora Borealis has perennial magic, even for those who have lived their whole lives under the northern lights.  

Yapha sums up the way jewels and precious stones have beauty in their permanence and stability, while fire and embers are mesmerizing and dangerous.

Sundara” is a Sanskrit word meaning “holiness.”

Crispin Sartwell writes that “beauty is fundamentally connected to soul in every culture, and every religion expresses its spirituality in some of its most exquisitely made objects, which are offered to God, or to the people as a way to achieve contact with God.”

This is the understanding of aesthetics that makes the most sense to me on a practical level, obviously, considering the two things that I have turned my life upside down to study are beauty and religion.  

Growing up as a Roman Catholic, I experienced from before I could walk the Aspiration to create a sense of power through height, reaching toward the heavens and God, laden with the the richest materials.  

I came into my own spiritual adulthood in a space that was a direct descendant of Unitarian Universalist’s puritan ancestors in New England, designed to express purity of thought and ambition through simplicity of space, absent of  color and ornament.   

Even before I made these religious connections to beauty, I filled my home with furniture of the Shakers, who dedicated their lives to the humble working of god’s finest materials into shapes meant to be useful and not boastful.  

I’ve augmented those furnishings over the years with new craftsman style pieces, descended from men and women whose goal was to express the sacredness of the materials with sympathetic expressions of nature, through handcrafting simple geometries. 

The idea of Sundara is expressed in traditional Hindu ethics, by the four purposes of human life: kama, artha, dharma, and moksha … pleasure, material goods, duty, and enlightenment.   

If you looked at these, especially in the context of the caste system, they would appear to be four very different stations, four different aspects that are either hierarchical or sequential.  But if you look at them all together, in service to one aim, they speak of a religious life, in which mind, body, soul, and relationship to others are in balance.


The fourth idea Sartwell explores is “To Kalon” a Greek word meaning idea or ideal.  He writes, 

“There is great beauty in clarity, rationality, and simplicity, though such clarity is in part a fleeing from or negation of life: rationality, we might say, is inorganic. If you look at organisms such as we are—all messy guts and bristling hair, messy sex and improbable dreams—we seem to be anything but clear and simple. Yet that is precisely why we yearn toward simplicity and clarity, and why we create worlds of simplicity and clarity in which we can dwell, though perhaps only briefly.”

Logic, mathematics and science for the early Greeks were essentially aesthetic.  They needed to impose order onto and make sense of a seemingly chaotic and meaningless world.  

They wanted to have control, to create a grasp of life that would simplify it into something understandable, useful and teachable.  

The Greek words for beautiful (kalos) and beauty (to kalon) are both moral and  aesthetic.   Both about nobility and illumination.  The noble soul is the clearly illuminated soul, and a clearly illuminated soul is beautiful. That’s ancient Greek logic.

In the modern world, though, we have to be careful because logic can go too far.  Patterns can be repeated to the point of meaninglessness.  Systems and boundaries can become constricting, so delving into the illogical and turning those ideas upside down can also be the locus of beauty.  Aesthetic contrarianism runs the risk of defining beauty as novelty, but at its best new ideas of beauty can be freedom from the tyranny of the old and established.  

But the extreme of that is to find beauty in the freakish: impossible monsters made up of the parts of incongruous animals; shockingly huge spaces made from rare materials and adorned with extinct animals; a body covered with tattoos.

Ultimately, though, to kalon points to a world that is ordered and just, easily understood and explained.  It’s the root of all things that we can have faith in, the things that we ultimately want to commit to and belong to.

Next is “hozho”a Navajo word that means health, or harmony. This is the most comprehensive of all the concepts of beauty I’ve talked about so far.  

Hozho isn’t just about what shows on the surface of anything, because it isn’t an expression of appearance, its an expression of health, balance, harmony goodness, and so much more.  Hozho refers to the whole world when the world is flourishing.  

Gary Witherspoon, a professor of Native American Studies  describes Hozho as “the normal pattern of nature and the most desirable form of experience.”

In a world that’s more attuned to Cartesian logic than intuition, that seems hard to comprehend, but in a culture where everyone is a kind of artist, creating beauty in the articles of everyday life in the forms of blankets, baskets, clothing, shelter, rituals and songs, it’s easier to understand.  

Every object is an expression of harmony … and the experience of making it leads to health and balance, especially when created with reverence.   And if Hozho isn’t tended to by an individual or the community, it can be lost.   

That right there is the problem for me with the concept of Hozho….it’s too aspirational, because never in the history of the world have balance and harmony existed for more than a fleeting second.  If ever.  

We human beings — and I’m guessing that includes Navajos of the past — are so flawed, and so attached to our flaws as markers of our identity, that we can’t even begin to be the purveyors of the kind of harmony described by hozho.  It’s a lovely idea.  

It just feels impossible to me.

So, beauty is the object of longing;

Yapha is to glow or bloom, ethereally;

Sundara is holiness in all its diversity;

To kalon is this abstract ideal of logic; 


Hozho is unattainable harmony.

But the concept that resonates most for me, the one I think can save the world, literally, is the idea of wabisabi, a Japanese idea that is two terms put together.

Wabi is usually translated as poverty, which is a negative word, but it means humility, asymmetry and imperfection.  Wabi is the beauty of disintegration, soil, autumn leaves, grass in drought.  

According to Sartwell, “wabi as an aesthetic is a connection to the world in its imperfection, a way of seeing imperfection as itself embodying beauty.”

Sabi is most commonly translated as loneliness, another a negative word, though it can be isolation or depression that can be sweet or meditative. But sabi can also be about the aloneness of a person, either separate from other persons, or in the absence of objects.  Sabi is loneliness as sparseness, without being burdened by negative connotations.  

“Thus, wabi-sabi is an aesthetic of poverty and loneliness, imperfection and austerity, affirmation and melancholy. Wabisabi is the beauty of the withered, weathered, tarnished, scarred, coarse, earthy, evanescent, tentative, ephemeral. As one writer says: 

“The closer things get to nonexistence, the more exquisite and evocative they become. 

Wabi-sabi is a broken earthenware cup in contrast to a Ming vase, 

a branch of autumn leaves in contrast to a dozen roses, 

a lined and bent old woman in contrast to a model, 

a mature love as opposed to an infatuation, 

a bare wall with peeling paint in contrast to a wall hung with” fine art.

Wabi-sabi is the arts of 

Bonsai: making a tiny tree appear vast;

Ikebana: minimalistic flower arranging; or

Suiseki: stacking stones, balanced in the landscape. (I do that in a very minor way each Sunday, when I place the smallest broken stone I can find on top of another stone in our bowl.)

The beauty of wabi-sabi is associated with the tea ceremony and the 16th century tea master Sen no Rickyu, who refined it into what we know today.  Everything about the ritual that the master practiced was wabi-sabi: the roughly made tea house, the little niche inside of it that served as an altar, the calligraphy scroll displayed inside that niche was done by a quick hand on common paper.  And yet they are all considered to this day sacred.  

But the the things that get the most attention as sacred in the practices of Sen no Rickyu are the implements of the actual original tea ceremony, including a simple, irregular tea bowl of brown sandy pottery.  

There’s a philosopher of craft in Japan named Soetsu Yanagi, who got the opportunity to handle the bowl back in 1931.  He said it was made “by a poor man; an article without flavor of personality; used carelessly by its owner; bought without pride; something anyone could have bought anywhere and everywhere. That is the nature of this bowl. The clay has been dug from the hill at the back of the house; the glaze was made with the ash from the hearth; the potter’s wheel was irregular…. The work had been fast; the turning was rough, done with dirty hands; the throwing slipshod; the glaze had run over the foot….but more than anything else, this pot is healthy. Made for a purpose. Made to do work.” 

The thing you have to understand is that a semi-formal Japanese tea ritual had been common there for centuries, but the standard practice was to use the finest porcelain from China in the company of honored guests.  It was kind of show-offy.  But Sen no Rickyu turned that upside down.  

Instead of succumbing to the broadest idea of taste and sophistication, he created his own taste and sophistication, celebrating the beauty of the everyday, and so elevating every day practices into rituals made sacred by the intention of mindfulness.  

He was going for effortless grace, created by humble repetition of everyday details.  But over time, his followers tried to mimic exactly what he did, elevating his practices and preferences to the new standard of elegance.

Of course, this creates a kind of trap, doesn’t it?  

It’s a trap in which there is always a new ordinariness to achieve, and that makes it special.  It’s a paradox. 

But that’s what wabi-sabi is at its core: a way, as Sartwell writes, to transcend paradox by immersion in it.  The goal is to break down the false dichotomy of beautiful and ugly, ordinary and extraordinary, good and evil.  

Where we really see this breaking down, this paradox, is in the very wabisabi art of the rock or gravel garden.  It looks simple.  Just a lot of stone.  

But to attain the desired state requires constant attention, cleaning, raking and removing any small weed.  And ironically the monotone hardness of it has a way of defying you to find its beauty.

The trick of wabi-sabi is that once we start to find the beauty in everything Flowers, sunsets, mandalas AND Organizational structures, stacks of rocks, broken pottery

We overcome dualisms that separate us from others.  Embracing wabi-sabi and overcoming dualisms allows us, ultimately to see how connected we are to one another.  

Breaking down dualisms eliminates the separation between you and me, so that we can do what is ultimately important:  I can meet you where you are, and you can meet me where I am. And thus, we become one.  

The walls of pretense and judgment and separation are broken down.  

Your suffering and your celebrations are my sufferings and celebrations, and mine are yours.   

Wabi-Sabi’s lesson about beauty, it turns out, is that seeking beauty isn’t a way to elevate ourselves above others based on our individual and cultural standards.  It’s a way to connect us, and as Robert McAfee Brown, a Presbyterian theologian and activist asked, how can beauty and the plight of the oppressed “possibly be understood separately? [He] conclude[d] that concern for beauty is not a moral cop-out. It leads us firmly into the midst of all that is going on in our world.

Where beauty is apparent, we are to enjoy it.

Where there is beauty hidden, we are to unveil it.

Where there is beauty defaced, we are to restore it.

Where there is no beauty at all, we are to create it.

All of which places us in the arena where oppression occurs, where the oppressed congregate, and where we too are called to be.

So maybe Dostoyevsky was right.  Maybe beauty, if tended with care, can save the world.  It has nothing to do with aesthetics, or taste, but yes.  Beauty can save the world.  One relationship at a time.

May we, as a congregation that values art and beauty, be called to the places where beauty is hidden and defaced and create it where it doesn’t exist.

May we meet people where they are, in all of their beauty.

May it be so.