The Power of Beauty

      Comments Off on The Power of Beauty

To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote, “Beauty will save the world.”
He seems to have meant that when people struggle to find common ground – when reason and logic fail to unite people who can’t stand the sight of each other – there’s always a chance that beautiful things will build bridges over seemingly unbridgeable gaps. 
Few recent events have been as painful as the implosion of the former Yugoslavia shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. 
From 1992 to 1995, the Balkan states of Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia (respectively populated by Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim majorities) descended into a devastating regional war.  The hostilities were fueled by ancient religious and ethnic hatreds.  Over 100,000 people were killed.  Another 2.2 million were displaced from their communities. 
Observers noted that there were no good guys, no bad guys.  All three groups contributed to the ugliness and the suffering.
Early in the war, a mortar shell was lobbed into the open square of a Sarajevo marketplace where hungry people had gathered in the hope of finding food.  Twenty-two of them died. 
Not long afterwards, Vedran Smailovic, a member of the Sarajevo symphony orchestra, responded the only way he knew how.  Dressed in full formal attire, he sat in the ruins of the marketplace for 22 days and played his cello.  Chiefly he performed Tomaso Albinoni’s “Adagio in G Minor,” one of the most exquisitely beautiful compositions for stringed instruments ever written.
Smailovic, who had personally lost family members and friends to the war, began showing up in other venues.  Even though snipers were shooting at people on the streets of Sarajevo, he continued to play in full view.    
No one knew when or where he would appear.  When people heard the sonorous tones of his cello, they emerged from hiding and stood nearby, captivated by an experience of sheer beauty in the midst of a horror story. 
Residents began to find hope during the city’s 44-month siege.  American folk singer Joan Baez came to Sarajevo and sat in solidarity alongside Smailovic.  Composer David Wilde wrote a piece called “The Cellist of Sarajevo” which was subsequently performed by Yo-Yo Ma.  If you’re a fan of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, you might remember that number on their first Christmas album called “Christmas Eve / Sarajevo 12/24.”  It was inspired by Smailovic. 
War leads people to do their worst.  Beauty leads people to embrace the best. 
There’s something about paintings and sculpture that please the eye, songs and sonnets that delight the ear, and ballet and electric boogie that make us want to move our bodies.  If words fail us – if we cannot understand someone else’s language or comprehend their values – there’s something about the shared experience of a sunset or a waterfall or a starlit night that opens up a vast terrain of common ground. 
Why is this so?
We all bear the image of our creator (Genesis 1:26-27).  We mutually resonate with beautiful things because we are the creations of a good and beautiful God. 
As one of the Old Testament poets put it, “He has made everything beautiful in its time.  Also, he has put eternity into every human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).  No one really knows the depths of the meaning of that second phrase.  But perhaps it signifies that when a cello plays in the midst of heaps of rubble, we are reminded that our lives have infinitely greater meaning than any war that rages around us.   
And the recognition of that common ground, that common yearning for God’s peace and wholeness on earth, may help us find a way to go forward side by side.
Here’s a link where you can listen to the heartbreaking but hopeful piece that Vedran Smailovic played for the people of Sarajevo, as well as take in the images chosen to accompany it:  Adagio in G Minor (Albinoni) – YouTube
Perhaps such God-provided beauty will help save your day.