The Beautiful More

To offer praise is to express gratitude for something and to announce its goodness.

There is a grandfather clock in my office at the college – a careful piece of craftsmanship that likely dates from the 18th century and which seems to have crossed the Atlantic from Scotland. Its face features hand-painted thistles and its case has a thin and now delicate mahogany veneer. Alas its mechanisms are seized and the clock does not work. It is true, then, to say the clock is broken, but that is also the least interesting thing to say about it. Its history and craftsmanship and warmth are the characteristics worth mentioning.

This is true of many apparently “broken” things in our lives. Very often, an object’s dents and damage are not what matter most. To praise a broken thing is to see all that is beautiful in it, never mind its failure to fulfill its apparent function.

What is there to praise?

Our modern world makes it difficult to find the beautiful “more” in the objects it produces. Once a smart TV ceases to be smart, for example, it’s hard to describe it as anything other than broken. What is there left to say about that blank black rectangle, except that it should quickly be sent off either to the landfill or for recycling?

The word “broken” does a great deal of work in the English language and in our everyday lives. The meaning of the word can be dramatically different depending on the context. To say that my phone is broken, that she broke a tooth, that the sun broke through the clouds, or that he was a broken man is to use the word in very different ways. In many such cases we simply cannot speak in praise of broken things since it would be straightforwardly nonsensical to do so. How and why would you praise a broken tooth!?

There are other situations in which we rightly hesitate to praise something broken. A broken promise, for example. We might have some sympathy and understanding for someone who breaks their word. They have not been or become the person they wanted to be – a person who could fulfill the promise they made. They may themselves regret this failure on their part. In any case we will not offer praise for their having broken a promise, even if we know that it happens to the best of us and maybe even all of us.

Look to the ‘more’

Even here, however, with our broken promises and broken lives and broken selves, there is perhaps some room for praise. I’m reminded of Adam Zagajewski’s poem, “Try to praise the mutilated world,” which is animated by the awareness that this broken and messed up world is the only one available to us – that we must look for the good and the beautiful in it.

To offer praise is to express gratitude for something and to announce its goodness. To praise our broken selves and lives does not mean that we honour the manipulation or hubris or self-preoccupation in them (forms of brokenness to which the word “sin” may also be appropriately attached). Rather, praise of our broken selves is rooted in the insistence that each one of us is more than our limitations, our brokenness or our sinfulness. By grace, God’s grace, in each of us there is kindness and patience and love; there is, equally, competence for the service of others. In human lives there is always a beautiful “more” that is worthy of praise.


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