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.

---

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.

---

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.

 

Merry

    I became an Episcopalian in college; only then did I learn that the season of Christmas begins (i.e. doesn’t end) on Christmas Day. Quickly I adapted to my new awareness that “it’s not Christmas until it’s Christmas”: I declined to reply in kind when someone wished me a merry Christmas. My local vicar told me that he would get phone calls from well-meaning Baptist ladies on about, say, January 1, telling him that he may not have noticed but his Christmas decorations were still out on the church lawn. “Yes,” he said of course, “it’s still Christmas.”
     Today I am uncomfortable with my earlier, rather too smug, self.
     For today, in the world we actually live in, there is an allergy even to uttering the word “Christmas.” The school holiday is a winter holiday. The background music is “All I want for Christmas is you” or “The weather outside is dreadful” or “I’m dreaming of a white . . .”  One doesn’t hear about the shepherds or the silent night or the angels we have heard on high. They’re gone, banished to an embarrassed storeroom where we keep things to which we no longer want to admit publicly.
     So I say, bring it on. I’m happy to say Merry Christmas whenever anyone wants to say it to me. Now. Last week. Halloween. Whenever.
---
     Why “merry”? It goes back (it seems) to the 12th century, where it was used to indicate that something gave pleasure. “Merry Christmas” as a wish means: may Christmas give you pleasure.
     And that means, methinks, may you find pleasure in the celebration of the Incarnation. May the Word of God’s taking on our human nature be something that gives you delight. May you in fact find delight in Jesus himself.
     Which is a very good wish indeed. So let us all say: Merry Christmas!
---
     Out & About. My fall theology lecture—on rules and exceptions, with particular attention to euthanasia and assisted suicide—is now up on the Incarnation website. You can find it here: https://incarnation.org/classes/moral-rules-and-personal-exemptions/
     I will be teaching a Christian ethics class in the new year. It meets on five Saturdays (once a month), from 1 to 4 p.m., with the first class on January 19. This is with the Stanton Center, and the classes will be at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas. You can find more information here, including a registration form and a link to the program director: http://www.episcopalcathedral.org/stanton-center/   I can send you a syllabus if you drop me a line.
     The “Good Books & Good Talk” seminars will continue monthly, with the next one on Sunday, January 13, at 6 p.m. The text is C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, and anyone who reads the book is welcome to the discussion at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas.

 

1234Next

The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."