The author offers this charitable reflection in response to the financial scandal currently emerging in the life of the Orthodox Church here in Canada.
Wabi-sabi is an ancient and important element in Japanese history, religion, and culture. It is, essentially, a philosophical and religious principle usually introduced and referred to in Western culture as a quality of artistic expression. Wabi is an adjective that describes something as fresh, yet simple, as simple and quiet, yet also unique in its expression and evolution. Sabi, also an adjective, is a quality of beauty that results from age, a beauty that is marked by wisdom and imperfection, and the artful mending of damage.
Together, these two words denote not only an artistic aesthetic of something that has aged beautifully, but, more importantly, wabi-sabi expresses a conception of beauty that can seem foreign to us in our Western culture: that the most beautiful is that which has aged over a long period of time, that has become broken and undone many times over, yet has found healing and fulfilment despite becoming damaged; very simply, wabi-sabi is simple, elegant, quiet, wise, and unapologetically imperfect. Wabi-sabi is a definition of beauty.
The Classical Greeks had a similar understanding of beauty. “Whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth,” is how Jesus described the Pharisees’ hypocrisy. He noted that on the outside they look beautiful, oraios—a word, just like all other words in the New Testament, filled with poetic and philosophical meaning and that was used with great calculation and purpose. This word is used specifically to bring attention to the great rhetorical juxtaposition of hypocrisy being a “beautiful tomb.” Such a wildly brilliant and poetic juxtaposition of words, the nuance is striking. Jesus uses this juxtaposition not as a means of validating the Pharisees’ vacuous spirituality; rather, this word here should be understood in term of Jesus’ cutting sarcasm—a “beautiful tomb,” in fact, lacks in the authentic characteristics of true beauty, and that was Jesus’ point.
Oraios—the normative philosophical expression of beauty during the Koine era of Greek language—is a word that denotes very similar characteristics to the ancient aesthetic of wabi-sabi: something that has come into its own, into maturity, into fulfilment, over time—time has brought beauty. This, to the Classical Greeks, and to the writers of the New Testament, was the view of beauty: a great maturity that manifests over a prolonged period of struggle and torpor, yet manifests quietly, elegantly, and with great simplicity.
Without much discussion, one can see how the early Christians truly believed the person of Jesus Christ to have perfectly encapsulated the entirety of Classical Greek philosophy.
This cross-cultural discussion is not just one about beauty; it is also a discussion about perfection. Perfection is an idea that exists in our culture that brings us great discomfort because of the massively flawed understanding that is connected with the word. More specifically, this word is used without categorization or reference. Perfection is an unflawed fulfilment of a particular category or categories, thus bringing completion (Greek: telos, teleia). Perfection is an idea that is inherently referential, referencing the implied categories requiring fulfilment.
Jesus Christ is often labeled as the only perfect human being without having taken the time to articulate what idea of perfection is being referenced. There is often a common misunderstanding that the idea of perfection—something inherently without flaw—can be applied to a human being, for example, that makes no errors in judgment, no mistakes, is never confused or at fault, is without aberration or blunder, as imperfection automatically qualifies the human being for disgrace.
However, if we are to align our perspective with the perennially univocal expression of beauty within a lineage of wisdom that dates back much, much further than our own superficial Western culture, then both beauty and perfection begin to take on a much more important role without our lives, both individually and collectively.
The idea of perfection, once a perspective that allowed for profound flaw within the human condition, has now become a tool to help shame and disgrace the self and other human beings. Beauty and perfection are synonymous. Jesus Christ was the perfect human being not because He did all things correctly, whatever that even means, not because He never got angry or because He was some stoic pillar of unexpressed emotion; Jesus Christ was perfect because He loved perfectly. There was no flaw to Jesus’ love; it can be seen throughout the Gospel in all His interactions, but most of all in the manner in which He died.
Two millennia later, this simple carpenter with an enigmatic birth still speaks to us through the narrative of His life about what it means to love, and how we so often fall short in the way we love.
Jesus’ passionate and virulent words against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees were words that directly addressed the ongoing scandal that hypocrisy caused in the ancient Near East religious community.
(It turns out that hypocrisy is still the crux of the matter.)
The fiery, almost violent way that Jesus cleansed the Temple by making “a whip of cords, driving them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen” and then “pouring out the coins of the money-changers and overturning their tables” (Jn 2:13-15) displays Jesus’ extraordinary passion for what He believed, as well as puts on display Jesus’ great lack of patience as well as His anger toward injustice. Jesus knew scandal was inevitable.
Jesus did not come to eradicate scandal; Jesus came to deliver a message that despite the innumerable scandals that will arise, we must own our mistakes, take responsibility for their repercussions, and that it is through this process of mending what is damaged that we discover our innate and inherent beauty.
Perfection does not fade with scandal, with damage; rather, damage presents us with an opportunity to exercise our inherent perfection.
John Tzavelas is a husband, father, professional chef, and graduate of both the Toronto Orthodox Theological Academy and St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He is currently enrolled in studies for psychotherapy.
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