Updated: Jun 2, 2019
When I taught English in China, we were in a filthy, rat-infested village, crawling with giant cockroaches and shrouded in a pervasive stench. The classrooms looked like whataburgers, with that horrible triangular architecture, and the unchlorinated, olympic-size swimming pool was full of urine, dead bugs, and frogs (all the kids still swam every day). The buildings were un-airconditioned, despite regular days over a hundred degrees and an oppressive humidity. We slept on pieces of plywood atop cinder blocks with one thin bed sheet per person, and we refrained from opening our windows to cool off because of the vermin that would let themselves in. At the school, we ate in a cafeteria that lay perpetually under a layer of grease and served primarily sticky white rice with eggs, with sticky white rice in excess water (rice porridge) for breakfast. The public restrooms consisted of a long trench in the ground and a gawking audience, most of whom had never seen a white girl in person. Everyday I seemed to commit some cultural faux pas, accidentally offending the Chinese and being duly reprimanded. I had a class of about 30 kids that ranged from 5 years old to 16, all at varying levels of English and varying degrees of anger or ambivalence about being left at this year-round boarding school. At night, the gates around the school compound were locked and a pack of angry German Shepherds were let out to roam the grounds, acting as the school’s security system and preventing us from leaving our building after lock down. I was constantly hot, uncomfortable, and I cried almost every day, but I would never trade my experience there.
In the midst of filth and ugliness, I appreciated and clung to every small instance of beauty - iridescent blue butterflies with a four inch wingspan, the pungent scent of the jasmine as I passed on my way to class, and the peaked straw hats of the women working in the rice paddies. I relished my students bounding up the stairs to bring me butterfly wings they had found, getting plates of fast-fried potatoes and roasted corn in the street, and sitting up on our roof top under a sky full of stars. On the weekends, we took our students to visit other places around the Szechuan province, like the Panda Preserve (where we got to get in and hug the panda bears), the Lantern Museum (very cool) and the Salt History Museum (not as cool). On these trips we climbed the most beautiful mountains I have ever been in, covered in wildflowers, with waterfalls cascading into clear rivers and hidden pagodas emerging out of the mist. We visited quaint tea shops where dried flowers seemed to come alive and blossom in our cups when boiling water was poured from the two-foot spouts of copper kettles. And, as with any place, the most significant beauty was found in the souls of the people we encountered.
Over the years, I have forgotten some of the details of my time in China, but the longing for and experience of beauty amidst the ugliness made a lasting impression. There I saw the heights and the depths, made more brilliant and more hideous by their juxtaposition.
Today is the Feast of the Ascension, and this morning we climbed to the highest point in Dallas County for our annual Ascension Day hike and procession. Walking in the cool of the forest, reaching the summit, and looking out over the lake, I am always surprised that I am still in Dallas. It is really beautiful. At the summit, we throw a rope over a tree branch and elevate our Ascension day icon as we sing the prayers of the feast, remembering the victory of Beauty Himself and His desire to draw us all up to Him.
Every year on this hike I think about hiking Hero Mountain and the intense, even painful, longing to embrace beauty that it occasioned. C. S. Lewis said, “We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” Each of these pangs of longing reminds us that we are created for Heaven, to be united with the source of all beauty. May we be drawn up to Him a little more with each experience of beauty He allows us.