In the year 987 Grand Duke Vladimir of Kiev, seeking a religion that could unite his people, sent envoys to study the beliefs of his neighbors. They reported back that "there is no gladness" among the Moslem Bulgarians; "no beauty" in the temples of the Germans. But they found such beauty and awesomeness in the Orthodox Church of Byzantium that "we know not how to tell it." Which is how the Russians became Orthodox.
I first heard this story many years ago and have always thought it an intriguing way to choose a religion—though the need to choose still escapes me. Still, using beauty and gladness as decision points says a good deal about the power of those qualities. The envoys had attended services in Constantinople's Hagia Sofia, a structure designed to impress when consecrated in 537, and still does. I can easily imagine them awestruck as they stood looking up and up into the vast dome.
The most beautiful thing I ever saw—and I am lucky to have seen much—is Michelangelo's Pietà, in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. It wasn't the religious symbology that captivated me. It was the soul of the artist exposed in marble. And while the image of Mary holding Christ's crucified body is one of sorrow, what I felt when I stood in front of it was tremendous awe and joy; a kind of affirmation. If a flawed human could create this otherworldly masterpiece, I thought, there is goodness in us all.
It strikes me as wise of Vladimir's envoys to suggest beauty and gladness as vital aspects of religion, and I find it sad that so often today religion buries joy in strident ritual. But we can’t give up on gladness. During this season of celebration and light and busyness it's even more important to know—despite the evening news and a sinking stock market—that we create our own joy. It's inside us always, waiting to be called on. We just have to pause, and remember.
Wishing You All the Gladness and Beauty of the Season.