It was Jennifer O. She gets the credit. And it wasn’t because she was trying to convince me. She was not armed with arguments for men engaging in female beauty the Church. It was her embodied presence. It was her prayers for me and with me. I was drawn to her desire to share her life with me through the intimacy of desired and authentic prayer. Her fierce love of life. She stirred my curiosity. I became more aware of her particular and unique embodied beauty.
Her beauty provoked me to reconsider the longstanding dichotomy between goodness and women’s beauty. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was a conservative evangelical baby boomer white male who had given little thought to this abiding dichotomy. Attracted to another woman other your wife was always considered playing with fire and therefore dangerous.
My attraction to Jennifer provoked a hunger for more.
“Beauty is a deeply spiritual experience.
It shouts to us always, ‘More. There is yet more.’"
It wasn’t too long before I began thirsting to know the beauty of God, feminine beauty, masculine beauty, human beauty that we all share as image-bearers of divine beauty, the connection between beauty and friendship, and the possibilities of an ethic of beauty. Do we dare desire an ethic of beauty for men and women in the Church?
Is it possible for Beauty to dwell in deep friendships between men and women? Is s there a difference between lust and healthy delight toward the other? Is there a difference between objectification and deep delight in women’s beauty? Could there be an attractive goodness to close friendships between the sexes? Is it possible that God’s ever-present beauty could attend to some of the deep wounds between men and women through friendship? What would happen if men and women began to see that Beauty was the path for healing the wounds between the sexes?
Let’s face it. In Christianity, these questions are provocative!! Answers to the above are highly contested. Many have clear-cut answers. Others are deeply cynical. Still there are others who would remain suspicious. Yet others invite us into the mystery of God’s beauty with no gendered or cookie-cutter responses.
My attraction to Jennifer also opened the door for me to become open to other women’s beauty. Natural beauty has a way of inviting depth. I think that’s true in women’s beauty, too. Is beauty calling men to explore God’s image dwelling in men and women?
“Attraction to certain persons can be a powerful
way God acts in ordinary human life.”
Terence McGoldrick, Sweet and Gentle Struggle
Within the world of patriarchy, women’s physical presence and beauty is to be avoided. Women’s beauty viewed within patriarchal lens detracts men from the presence of God. “The feminine body, especially, has been viewed as dragging the soul down, obscuring truth, inner reality, and any notion of the Divine” (Embodied Prayer, Celeste Snowber).
I’ve been thinking about the attractive power of reflective friendships in response to the recent blog post at the Junia Project, When Women are Invisible in the Church. There are a number of women who connect the invisibility of women with men’s fear of female beauty.
I would argue that this regulation against women's presence, voice, or even their handling altar linens is also a fear of men being distracted, or, at worst, seduced, by the physical presence of women, which would then prevent men from being in the presence of God. Women's physical presence and their beauty detracts from or even obscures the beauty of God.
Susan A, Ross, For the Beauty of the Earth
My attraction toward Jennifer and my desire to nurture a healthy friendship with her compelled me to see women’s beauty in a different light than dominant fear and avoidance. Using the grammar of beauty, one could say that beauty called me to engage female beauty in unchartered waters—the beauty of deep friendship with women.
I now enjoy friendships with women. I’m especially drawn to women (and men) who intentionally want to share beauty with me; women who want to join me in co-creating beauty in reflecting the image of God’s beauty in male-female friendship and community. One of my closest friends in the past several years is Susanne Osborne. This deep meaning of beauty in our friendship is not merely an added ornament to the “real” beauty of romantic love and marriage.
Women and men can reflect the beauty of each other in safe conversations.
When Susanne and I started to become intentional in our friendship we began by simply reflecting the other’s beauty in safe conversations. We made eye contact with each other. We listened to each other. We were attentive to the other in safe respectful conversation. “Awareness,” John O’Donohue states, “is one of the greatest gifts you can bring to your friendship.”
I think of Susanne especially in this connection because she was from a school of thought that said it was wise for a single woman to guard and protect her heart for her future spouse. So in the very beginning Susanne and I had weeks of safe conversations about boundaries in friendship and marriage. In the process of these conversations we reflected back to each other what we saw, heard, and experienced.
“The Christian vision of beauty attains its full meaning, however,
only in light of the final manifestation of the eschatological beauty
of the reign of God, the accomplishment of God’s love for humanity.
Thus, the pursuit of beauty should not be taken as a vehicle of
escapism or hedonism, distracting us from the love of neighbor.
Rather, it is our participation in God’s
work of reversing the evil that mars creation.
Patricia Lamoureux, Seeking Goodness and Beauty
Women and men can reflect the beauty of each other in flourishing friendship.
These safe conversations of mirroring paved the way to a flourishing friendship. After each safe conversation we would close our time in prayer praying for each other. Susanne was single at the time longing to be married. In our prayers for each other we would reflect back the other’s particular beauty we had become aware of in our conversation that night and we would pray with and for each other. I would pray for her longings and gently, prayerfully affirm those longings as beautiful and authentic.
I have come to passionately believe that men and women are to reflect the image of God’s beauty in friendship. We must learn to mirror our friend’s particular richness and beauty. How else are we going to be co-creators of beauty and justice in the midst of chaos?
Women long to be noticed. They long for their specific uniqueness, their specific beauty, their specific personality, their specific gifts, their specific presence to be seen. Of course, men long for this, too. We all long to be known. As John O’Donohue puts it, “One of the greatest desires of every human being is the longing to be seen.” This is where there has been so much wounding of beauty between men and women.
How do we restore a sense of beauty between men and women? One way is through the act of mirroring. There are other ways to attend to imago dei dwelling in men and women but this is certainly an important one. Mirroring presumes the capacity to see what is good and beautiful in the other and reflect it back to them with a healthy cherishing and empathy.
In personal friendship this is a healing practice for both men and women. Mirroring is a particular response to a specific person. It is not a blind response to an undifferentiated gender abstraction. We gain insight into this specific person. What makes them tick? What are their passions? What are their gifts? What are their special interests? What are their desires, fears, and needs?
Reflecting back means we are seeing what is particularly unique in this image-bearer of God’s beauty. Mirroring as an act of love, “is a form of respect that involves admiration and cherishing” (Marilyn Friedman).
No wonder then, Richard Rohr states: “We really do find ourselves through one another's eyes, and only when that has been done truthfully can we mirror others with freedom, truth, and compassion.” Reflective friendship is not some shallow, “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” It is heartfelt reflection of a friend’s unique presence in this world. It’s not mired in gendered abstractions, restraints, or sexist stereotypes. In this sense with particular richness and mutual cherishing men and women can be co-creators of beauty and friendship.
Women and men can reflect the beauty of each other in deep friendship.
It is a time of deep, deep, revelation of the self through the mirror of the other.” Joan Chittister
This is where the wounding of beauty between men and women has been so deep. In many Christian communities men fear a deep revelation of a woman’s self. Some women are considered too attractive and a real threat. Other women’s selves are simply invisible to men.
Susanne has been a deep gift for me. She has opened up her heart wide to me in trust and beauty. She has welcomed me to see deep into her female beauty. Her reflection back to me has been filled with deep admiration and cherishing. We made the journey of a flourishing friendship to a deep reflective friendship. Mirroring in this sense is not about finding your identical twin as it were, with your identical traits. Mirroring is an ongoing mutual reflection of the embodied and holistic beauty we see in each other.
As friendship deepens, so does the insightful love of the beauty deep within the self. I’ve seen a strength to Susanne which I didn’t know existed when were having just safe conversations. Our depth has also revealed her intellectual gifts. I encouraged Susanne to pursue her PhD as I saw her processing the possibility. Also her kindness back when we had safe conversations is now intensified in the form of deep admiration and cherishing.
Recently, in a very intimate conversation of tender vulnerability with Susanne, in tears I revealed something of my tender heart about an issue and she responded with such cherished tenderness and beauty toward me. She admires me and cherishes me. And at this point in our friendship it is a deep cherishing which is so evident in her expressive affection to me.
There is also in redemptive beauty an extravagant generosity toward the other in deep friendship. Susanne has poured her generous heart into me. Later on, as I reflected back to Sheila the tender conversation and how Susanne responded back to me, Sheila’s response was that Susanne has such a beautiful heart.
It is seen in the small things and large things. Just recently my book passed it’s publication date. It turned four years old. Susanne texted me: “Congrats on FOUR years today Dan! What a ride J I’m so proud to have walked this journey with you.” Gulp. Breathe in. Receive the beauty of that, Dan.
Deep within us is the longing to see ourselves and be seen as we really are. This is the miracle of love and friendship.
John O’Donohue (Four Elements)
Intimacy is mutual mirroring.
The most beautiful about our deep friendship is our freedom to not hold back, to love each other wholeheartedly, and to reveal the eternal beauty we see in each other. Susanne is now married and both of our spouses can see the deep beauty in our reflective friendship. This is truly the miracle of love and friendship. It began with the act of mirroring in safe conversations between us.
Beauty stands first and foremost on its own…it is a gift. But what do we do with this gift? We can ignore it, abuse it, cheapen it, throw it away. Or we can allow it to open up otherwise hidden dimensions of our lives. My suggestion is that beauty ties into our deepest desires and, along with our desires for truth and goodness, can help us to know, love, and appreciate the Mystery who calls all of us.