Today I saw “The Great Mystery”, and it was beautiful.
The term comes to us via Charles Alexander Eastman (Ohiyesa in Sioux), the first native American to write an account of what it was like to grow up as an aboriginal in North America before the arrival of Europeans. Until the age of sixteen, Charles (Ohiyesa) knew nothing except buffalo hunting and the arts necessary to becoming a successful aboriginal male. His religious instruction involved no doctrine as Christians know it. Rather, he was reminded to pause and make himself aware of “The Great Mystery” at some appropriate juncture during his day. His worship took place on the alter of those magnificent vistas which nature affords. Looking out from the peak of a great height, or by the crash of rushing waters, one took in “the Great Mystery”. Such solitary moments of awe were religion without the need for words.
This week when we camped out in in Algonquin Park to see the fall colours, I saw “The Great Mystery” up close and personal and I understood something of what Charles Eastman was talking about.
We were up at Algonquin because of pandemic fatigue. Tired, cranky, and time to get away from the confines of home. Time to dislodge some of those troubles that plague the back of our minds during such unsettling times. Time to figure out whether the cup is half full, or half empty.
Beauty is something one can be trained for, in theory at least. I know because I went to art school and was trained in those theories. Knowing what looks good, and why is a pedagogical exercise. We learned for example, the theory of the colour wheel. There are primary colours like cyan, magenta and yellow. Secondary colours when you mix them, like red, green, and blue. But you get into subtleties when you start with the tertiary colours, using things like Indigo and yellowy oranges. lt helps to know how and why when you start combining such colours.
And so it was, that we arrived at Algonquin and all the leaves were in full array, I saw the use of tertiary complements, on steroids. Tertiary complements are the use of such colours as red oranges, set against greeny blue. Blue purples against yellow oranges. The genius of such colours is that they are both striking and subtle. They harmonize at the same time that they contrast.
Out on canoe lake, we saw rusty ochres mixed with deep greens, sepias and carmine adorning the hills and peaks all around us. Nature’s palette come to life. We also saw a lot of people taking in the same vistas along the bike routes through the park. Most were surprisingly old and grey-haired. They were almost all smiling brightly too, greeting us as they rode past. It’s pretty hard to be in a bad mood when you are in the midst of such fall splendour. The beauty permeates your senses, and your worries fall away.
Charles Eastman progressed from life as a medicine man, to a man of medicine. He graduated as a doctor from Boston University, and was one of those who provided medical care to the casualties at Wounded Knee. He later on became a man of letters, writing five books in English about his particular Dakota Sioux take on life. He was active as a reformer and influencer in the community, setting up branches of the YMCA and the Boy Scouts of America.
Just like Charles Eastman observed, it is good to take in “The Great Mystery” at least once every single day. It makes us understand that in the balance of things, the cup tends to be more full than empty. Who instructed nature to be so beautiful? Who taught the spectrum of the seasons to adhere to colour theories we learn cerebrally? How did nature get to be so clever?
It seems that “The Great Mystery” finds sufficiency in such beauty. It is free to be taken in by both saint and sinner, pauper and prince. “The Great Mystery” seems to be a display of beneficence. How could one feel pessimistic in the face of splendour?
Saint Paul himself expressed in the first chapter of Romans that what we apprehend in nature is adequate witness. It makes you wonder how much one must know ABOUT God in order to know God. Theologians in a breechcloth may have agreed, for the carnate is inexplicably tied with the incarnate.
I think I understand that phrase in the creation story, where God looked out on the work of his hands, and saw that it was good. It is possible to learn theories of beauty, in your head. But it is not the same thing as seeing beauty. And seeing beauty is not the same thing as STOPPING to drink it in. It changes you.
I don’t know everything, but I do know when something is beautiful and maybe that is enough.