Collateral Beauty

She says something like, “Don’t forget to notice the collateral beauty.” She is a stranger who has come up to a grieving mother in a hospital corridor. The mother’s daughter is dying. It’s deeply tragic, but this stranger (a messenger? an angel? one doesn’t know) does not in any way deny the awfulness of it. Nonetheless, she says we should be sure to see, even in the midst of tragedy, the beauty that’s there.

The film came out a few years ago; I was watching it on DVD, thanks to my public library. Despite having a great cast (Smith, Murrin, et al.), the film did poorly in the theaters. It came out at Christmastime, and is itself set at Christmas—perhaps people didn’t want to think about dying children at Christmas? (On the other hand, when you think about Jesus in the manger, are you not thinking about a child who will die? Father Mead used to say, with concise wisdom: “no Easter, no Christmas.”)

The critics panned it. Indeed, I don’t know what to think about its ending. It wasn’t sappy or sentimental, it didn’t fail that way; neither was it brutal or despairing. It was a surprise to me, a big surprise, but not clearly a fitting surprise. Good plots, Aristotle says, develop surprisingly yet fittingly.

Still I recommend it, “Collateral Beauty,” the film. You’ll love the actors playing actors. You’ll love the winter snow and the city lights at night. You’ll appreciate the hard honesty of much of the dialogue. You’ll marvel at the despair and dysfunction of the bereaved father—marvel and sympathize: that’s not me, but I can imagine, if certain things had happened in my life, that could have been me. And you won’t forget to look for the collateral beauty around us.

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This, I think, is rather like the book of Job. Talk about tragedy! Talk about catastrophe! Talk about a situation where there is nothing good that might come out of it to make it all right! Job could well say with scorn that God did not look down from heaven and say, “Job’s children, they’re wonderful people; I’ll send a tornado to kill them so that they can be with me.”

No: Job says it’s awful and God is responsible. He seems to be saying something true, but he doesn’t know the whole of it. So God invites him to some (shall we say) “reality therapy,” a walk on the wild side of things. Job sees how dangerous the cosmos is, and how tiny he is. He is only dust and ashes. But still, he sees, dust and ashes can be precious. That’s beautiful. That’s the collateral beauty.

And what we don’t want to miss is the final scene: human communion, people helping people, the meal at his home, his friends, the gifts, the comfort with which they strengthen each other. We speak sometimes of collateral damage, bad things and evil things in the world. Without denying their reality, the book of Job and perhaps this film suggest a different focus. There is something else to be seen, something of love, something of the author of love.

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Out & About. Sunday, Feb. 10, I’ll lead a discussion on Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. If you haven’t read this, it is at once powerful and simple, full of frontier American faith and questions of morals and tradition and family and friends. The seminar, part of the Good Books & Good Talk series, meets from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Incarnation in Dallas; anyone who reads the book is welcome to the conversation.

 

Beside You?

I am out running on the Katy trail—I sometimes think “running” should be written thus, in scare quotes; I don’t want you to think of it as serious running. The other runners always pass me: I never pass them. Anyway, it is early in the morning, the sun is not quite up, a few birds are singing, occasionally a plane flies overhead; it is rather quiet. Scarce are the runners on the trail.

I am alone and I hear someone coming up behind me. That’s not unusual: as I said, other runners often catch up to me and pass. But this person just stays there, slightly behind me. I turn to look at him or her.

There is no one there.

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It’s happened before—in Denver at Christmas, for instance. I think it’s an illusion of sound slightly muffled by my hooded sweatshirt; maybe it’s my own footfalls that I hear, maybe the rattle of my keys. Whatever it is, I first think that someone has come up behind me, and then that that someone is about to pass me but never does. Then I look, and I’m alone.

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  1. S. Eliot has these lines in “The Waste Land”: Who is the third who walks always beside you? / When I count, there are only you and I together / But when I look ahead up the white road / There is always another one walking beside you / Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded / I do not know whether a man or a woman / -But who is that on the other side of you?

In a note, Eliot remarks upon reading accounts of Antarctic explorers who kept over-counting how many there were in their party. We might also think of the two disciples in Luke 24: it’s after the resurrection, but they don’t know of the resurrection yet. They’re walking home, saddened by the tragic events in Jerusalem, when Jesus comes up beside them. They do not know it is Jesus.

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You might be walking with me, or with someone else. You’re going along, and suddenly the Other One is with you. Where did he come from? How is it that he’s beside you? I don’t know, but I do know that I’m glad he’s there.

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Out & About. Wed., Jan. 30, is the first session of a three-credit Nashotah House course that I’m teaching in Dallas. Any one interested in a seminary-level course in “Christian Theological Anthropology” (Christian teaching about the human being) is welcome to join. You have to sign up through Nashotah; I will be glad to provide a syllabus and a link with instructions. We’ll meet on Wednesdays from 6:30 to 9 p.m. through early May.

The weekend of Feb. 2 and 3 I will be preaching at All Souls’ Church in Oklahoma City. Their Eucharists are Saturday at 5:30, and Sunday at 8 and 10 a.m.

Sunday, Feb. 10, I’ll lead a discussion on Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. If you haven’t read this, it is at once powerful and simple, full of frontier American faith and questions of morals and tradition and family and friends. The seminar, part of the Good Books & Good Talk series, meets at 6 p.m. at Incarnation in Dallas.

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The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin. Ph.D., is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Friendship: The Heart of Being Human" and "A Post-Covid Catechesis.: