Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...


Names for a "Knowing"

I'm brooding on a book idea today and I need your input. I'm supposed to be organizing my life and packing for the summer, but in my head, I'm composing the opening chapters to a book about the truth that beauty tells us. What does it mean to know what is Real through an experience? What is it that we touch in music, breathe in the atmospheres of some great stories, see, as if suddenly healed from blindness, in some of the world's great paintings? Can we call it truth, even if it comes in a language without words? And what of creation itself, that great masterpiece that ceaselessly breathes, and I believe, means around us every day. What does it mean to know what is true through something that speaks without words?

These are the questions forming the next book I want to write. Of course, I'm pretty much going to college to answer all those questions and answer them in an expert way. But there is still much even now that I want to tell, explore, remember. In some ways, I want to capture the immediacy of what I experienced as a child before study sets it at an analytical distance. I want to trace the presence of Beauty throughout my life, recall the stories, the walks, the songs, the moments that irrevocably shaped my soul and faith. When I was a little girl I called those moments of insight simply "a knowing." I knew that I knew something absolutely true even if the truth came somehow, without language. Those are the moments I want to remember. So this book won't be a work of expertise, rather of exploration. Of memory. But also of discovery.

The movie version of C.S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins in Shadowlands) says that "we read to know we're not alone." And one of the great joys of reading throughout my life has been my discovery that countless other authors experienced those "knowings." I've taken great delight in finding the names that different writers put to those moments of insight via experience. I want to include such passages in the book, present a feast of ideas to my readers. And this is where I need your help.

I'm compiling lots of quotes, poems, and passages to consider in this book, and I'd love to know if you have any favorites that add insight or further naming to the experience of beauty and the insight that it brings. I've included a few of my favorite passages below, but if you have more, please post them in the comments. I'll consider each one a gift indeed. Here's a few to get you thinking:

Lucy Maud Montgomery, beloved author of the Anne series, called her knowings "the flash":

It had always seemed to Emily, ever since she could remember, that she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside--but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond--only a glimpse--and heard a note of unearthly music. This moment came rarely--went swiftly, leaving her breathless with the inexpressible delight of it. She could never recall it--never summon it--never pretend it; but the wonder of it stayed with her for days. It never came twice with the same thing. To-night the dark boughs against that far-off sky had given it. It had come with a high, wild note of wind in the night, with a shadow wave over a ripe field, with a greybird lighting on her window-sill in a storm, with the singing of "Holy, holy, holy" in church, with a glimpse of the kitchen fire when she had come home on a dark autumn night, with the spirit-like blue of ice palms on a twilit pane, with a felicitous new word when she was writing down a "description" of something. And always when the flash came to her Emily felt that life was a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty.

C.S. Lewis called it simply "joy":

“I call it Joy. 'Animal-Land' was not imaginative. But certain other experiences were... The first is itself the memory of a memory. As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult or find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton's 'enormous bliss' of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to 'enormous') comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what?...Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse... withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased... In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else... The quality common to the three experiences... is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again... I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.”

Wordsworth describes it as "a presence that disturbs me with its joy":

And I have felt A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man; A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still A lover of the meadows and the woods, And mountains; and of all that we behold From this green earth; of all the mighty world Of eye, and ear,--both what they half create, And what perceive; well pleased to recognise In nature and the language of the sense, The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul Of all my moral being.

Tennyson (in Ulysses) described it as a world beyond his touch:

Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades For ever and for ever when I move...

And... go!