Bishop Martin rediscovers the beauty of Suffolk
Last week my wife and I attended a live in-person concert at Snape Maltings, for the first time for 18 months.
Before the pandemic we were fairly frequent visitors to Snape Maltings, to enjoy the extraordinary array of musical offerings from visiting orchestras and performers.
More often, we were there because our rather musical children were performing there, as part of the Suffolk Youth Orchestra, their school orchestra, or Aldeburgh Young Musicians.
I should make it clear, the children get their musical ability from their mother.
Going back to Snape after such a long break, to hear the London Symphony Orchestra, was remarkable.
It was remarkable simply to make the very familiar car journey from Ipswich to Snape, a route we have travelled many times often accompanied by children and instruments – hers, a bassoon, and his, less conveniently, a drum kit.
It was remarkable to see and hear the orchestra perform – something that they of course had not been able to do together through much of this past year and more.
But as I have thought about the visit I have realised that the reason it was so remarkable was essentially because we had experienced beauty.
We are all grateful, of course, that we live in a beautiful county. So in one sense, beauty is never far away.
But the constraints of the pandemic have meant that our access to that beauty, in its many forms, has been constrained.
And there is something important about variety in beauty. We may be living in a beautiful village, or have a beautiful park nearby, but it is then the special experiences of beauty, of the places that we make an effort to go to, the experiences we have to make plans to enjoy, that enhance and enrich our experience of beauty.
Human beings are made to perceive and enjoy beauty. It is part of what makes us alive. Lives without beauty are impoverished.
And beauty is not just, of course, about visual experiences, or about musical performance, though they are vital sources of beauty for all of us.
Beauty is in people, and while we may have been starved of beautiful sights and sounds, we have indeed through this pandemic been uplifted again and again by the beauty of other people.
That may be very close to home, in the beauty of those closest to us, beauty revealed in love and friendship, in care and mutual support through these difficult months.
And we have seen it too in extraordinary acts of care and self-sacrifice, of determination and commitment, of loving kindness and generosity – we have seen and been moved by this beauty in others over and over again.
We know these actions are beautiful because of the ways they move us. Just like a spectacular sunset, or a soothing symphony, the selfless sacrifices of others touch us deeply, because they are beautiful.
We have seen and experienced countless examples these past months, locally, nationally and globally, of such beautiful acts of selfless sacrifice.
And we have also seen, or seen more sharply, something of the opposite, of the diminishment or absence of beauty, revealed to us by the ravages of the pandemic.
We acknowledge it, the absence of beauty, in our language. We speak of ‘dismal squalor’ or ‘ugly violence’, meaning both are the opposite of beautiful.
And we have seen the diminishment of beauty in the realities of poverty in which so many people have to live, including here in Suffolk, or in lives of isolation and loneliness, or in the dehumanisation of racism.
All of these ways, and others, in which beauty is reduced or marred have become sharply apparent during this past year.
We have seen how goodness, justice and beauty are bound up together in what we long for and seek for each other.
For Christians, beauty is essential for human life, something we seek along with goodness and justice, because beauty is in the heart and being of God, with goodness and justice.
Which is why it resonates so deeply in us, whether in a landscape, a piece of music, or the love in our family, or the selfless actions of others, all of which flow from, and draw us back to, the beauty of God.
And equally, we experience dissonance when we see the opposite, in wanton desecration of the environment, or in unloving and fractured relationships, or in acts of violence or prejudice.
We are made for beauty, and so long to seek it for ourselves and for each other, and most especially for those who have had to live in circumstances that are far from beautiful.
As we begin to step forwards into whatever the next stage of this pandemic holds, I am grateful for those opportunities to experience beauty that have been denied us for so long.
And I am grateful for the opportunities that have been shown to us to seek beauty for the lives of others, for a better and more beautiful future for all.
- The Right Rev Martin Seeley is the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich