In her latest book, This Beautiful Truth, Sarah Clarkson considers beauty as a means of grace, a gift from the God who loves and pursues broken souls. Specifically, she contemplates this theme as it applies to her own battle with an unusual form of the mental illness Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). With brave vulnerability and beautiful prose, she draws the reader into her journey through brokenness into a measure of healing, through doubt into restored faith. Story, art, music, liturgical worship, and unwavering acceptance from a few people in her life became in her pit of despair like the rags cushioning the ropes Ebed-melech used to draw Jeremiah out of the cistern in Jeremiah 38.
My favorite chapters were the final two.
I was intrigued and challenged by the idea in the penultimate chapter that poetic insight is a gift that carries with it an obligation to help others also see (like prophetic vision). “Every work of art reaches out across the centuries, and each is a vision that casts a flame into the darkness. The wonder is that one great light wakes another. The song of one wakens the story of another. The story she told becomes the poem he made that kindled the painting in yet another’s hands. Each is a work of obedience. No artist can cast their flame of vision without a twinge of fear that it will simply fade or even pass unseen. But each is also a work of generosity: precious, private worlds offered in a self-forgetfulness that pushes aside vanity, insecurity, and perfectionistic pride. [Denise] Levertov is right. The visions set forth in the books (and paintings and songs) we turn to for hope are offerings of love, given in the recognition that we truly are members of one another. We all bear the same hunger for eternity. We all walk forward in the dark of doubt, reaching for something we can’t quite name. We all walk blind and grieved in our suffering. We yearn to discover who we are meant to become, what it is we hunger to find in those midnight hours when our hearts will not be sated. But the artists and storytellers and makers of song offer the inner vision they have known as a sign of hope to the hungering world. They invite us into the sacred, inmost rooms of their minds and let us stand at the windows of their own imaginations where we glimpse, ah, wonders we might never have dreamed alone” (Kindle location 2355).
The story in the final chapter of her Tante Gwen and the life she crafted when a family need brought her home from the mission field moved me deeply. Sarah writes, “She taught me the pleasure of taking the spaces we have (not the ones we wish we had) and making them beautiful, for room by room she made that little old house the work of her artistry. I watched her design a stained-glass window and save for it for weeks. And plan a room of built-in bookshelves and oversee their building for months…. ‘I guess this is beauty enough for me,’ she said. And I think that was the orientation of her heart, to open herself so wholly to receive the goodness of God in whatever place she found herself that there was no such thing as limitation or lack. There was just her willing heart, sated by the beauty God gave. I know there must have been darkness—moments when her burdens must have weighed like lead upon her shoulders—yet those did not define her story” (Kindle location 2462).
The book as a whole showed me my own seasons of grief and depression in a different light and reminded me of how story, music, and photography have been means of grace to me.
The writing and depth of insight into her own harrowing illness and, through that, to other crucible experiences make this a worthwhile read. My one wish, perhaps reflective of my own theological niche, is that she included more about *the* Beautiful Truth of Scripture and the gospel fleshed out therein. Profound suffering can make God seem distant, even absent, to our souls, and that can shackle our ability to engage the Bible directly, soulfully, and personally. That said, all the beauties of art, music, creation, story, liturgy, and human love are but shadows of that truest beauty and most beautiful truth. In my opinion, the book would be even better with explicit consideration of that ultimate end. For me, that is the only aspect falling short of five stars. The craftsmanship is exquisite.
I would recommend this book to those interested in Christianity and the arts, to those touched by mental illness (as patients, family, or friends), to Christians suffering other kinds of "dark nights of the soul" that make the Bible feel like someone else's love letter, and of course to those who already appreciate Sarah's lovely words and photos on her Instagram feed (@sarahwanders) and previous books.
Providentially, similar themes surfaced in the latest episode (the one featuring Curt Thompson) of https://www.sandramccracken.com/podcast. Listening to it was time well-spent, should you want additional discussion of the place of the arts in the Christian's mental health.
NB: These thoughts are based on a free prerelease galley version I received in exchange for an honest review.
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