The night before my first trip into the little village in Afghanistan that became my home for four years, as I prayed, terrified, my reading contained these words: “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me” (S.S. 2:10). Through the night and into the next day I clung to those words, to that reassurance that I was not going alone, but was following the One who called me, who desired and delighted in me. That was enough to get me on the little plane, not without fear, but at least with a little anticipation in the mix.
Those words from Song of Solomon have reappeared various times since then, always lighting something in me. Hope, maybe, and a sense of being safe.
But, although I’m growing, I still live too many of my moments and days shaped more by anxiety than by this voice that calls me beautiful. Perhaps this is part of why I’m so deeply appreciating psychiatrist Curt Thompson’s latest book, The Soul of Desire. It’s a rich, beautiful book, one to sit with and soak in and let the vision and hope that fill its pages sink deep into your soul. It’s a book that, for me, echoes the call that I heard on my way into that little village, a voice that names me beautiful, declares me desired, and summons me, in response, to come and make my home with Him wherever He may lead.
Thompson’s words reflect what my heart knows, that our deepest desire is to be known, and that out of that desire, we long to make things of beauty (whether relationships, symphonies, or a perfectly sutured incision), revealing who we are to others.
I love that he is realistic, acknowledging that the process of creating beauty, of becoming beauty, is long and sometimes uncomfortable. But it is infinitely worthwhile, for we were created to reflect God’s beauty and to be intimately known in the process. And we are not alone.
Eve and the creation of beauty
In one of my (many!) favorite passages, Thompson reflects on the creation of Eve as the place “where we see the first hints that the creation of beauty might cost us something. God could easily have made the woman out of the earth, just as he did the man. But instead he went the surgical route” (64-65).
God effectively (and kindly!) gave Adam general anesthesia for the procedure (Gen 2:21), he says. “Anyone who has ever had surgery knows this is a very good thing. But you also know that after the procedure the wound is sore for days or even weeks. And it leaves a scar.” He invites us to pay attention and let our imaginations be stretched, being “curious about how our reading of the text creates its own artistic possibility, its own opportunity for our lives to become more beautiful as we ingest, digest, and metabolize the text, being formed into the image of Jesus.”
He continues, “But just as with Adam, this process is not a painless one. It often involves God intimately, surgically transforming or removing parts of us via uncomfortable processes that require our vulnerability (anyone who has lain on an operating table knows what this is like) as part of his creating new life of beauty in others, just as God fashioned woman out of man. You see, in all that God is doing to form us, he is doing it not only for us. He is using us as a means to form new life in others.”
He ends this section reflecting on the beautiful, and perhaps surprising, outcome of his surgical creation of Eve.
“And the end result of all this surgical intervention? Poetry and song:
‘This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
She shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man’ (Gen 2:23).
After God brings the woman to the man, Adam bursts into a flame of creativity, once again mirroring the God who has made him. Adam presumably sees the woman (as God saw in Genesis chapter 1) and responds with a resounding, “Finally! She’s here!” . . . This is celebration in the presence of a wound. Joy resulting from an act of creativity that involved Adam paying a price to which he did not consent. But this is often how beauty emerges, how new creation is wrought, how we are born again. There is always some form of painful experience that accompanies it, but in the biblical narrative, God is never at a distance from that which we suffer. Rather, he is an intimate participant in our suffering on the way to making things new” (65-66).
I keep going back to read those last few sentences again. Celebration in the presence of a wound. Joy resulting from an act of creativity that involved Adam paying a price to which he did not consent. Always some pain in the creation of beauty, but our wise and tender Creator always an intimate participant with us in it, continuing to hold and shape us and create beauty with and in us just as He has been doing since that first creation of man and woman in the garden.
I see this beauty being formed in the lives of those with whom I have the deep honor of sitting each month, a front-line witness to this process in their lives. And I see it in a friend who does the same for me, helping me listen for how Jesus might be speaking into my life. Our times together have always been for me a sort of “thin place,” a Celtic term for a place where God seems closer, more tangible, than in other places. But as she goes through a painful experience of her own and leans hard into God’s grace in the midst of it, I find myself gleaning a deeper understanding of what it can mean, by grace, to be “stretched thin.” What is see in her is not just the painful stretching, the unexpected disruptions to her orderly calendar as she is “stretched thin” in our usual use of the phrase, but the way God’s love and compassion shine even more clearly through her now.