Are Works our Salvation? A Lesson in Beauty

The kingdom of heaven is like the piano lesson of an undeaf man.

Outside the kingdom of heaven, it’s like being someone who’s listened to his music too loud too long. For years, whenever the music ate at his hearing, he would turn it louder, again and again, until he was all but deaf. He gets so nearly deaf and plays the music so loud that, taking a sharp turn at a yellow light, he doesn’t hear the other car honk its warning, but careens solid into the passenger door, shattering his sedan and pummeling his forehead against the steering wheel.

His car with its loud radio comes up against something too sturdy, something that, by its nature, couldn’t be misshapen, but could only reshape what tried to clash against it. Amid the odor of sweltered rubber and aluminum, the sturdy car’s door swings out and the sturdy driver plunges out into the unwieldy wreckage to revived the concussed young man who sees and hears nothing as darkness swallows his field of vision.

A foreign student in a foreign country, the young man wakes in a four-poster bed in a strange room without a sound in his ears. Wriggling his jaw to unpop them, turning his head to relieve the emptiness, he sits up and tries to form words, but produces only silence and sweat.

Entering the kingdom of heaven is like being that stranger walking out of the guest room into the other driver’s home and finding it a mansion. It’s like him feeling in his toes and his heels the vibration of a terrifyingly unheard music, whose vibrations heightening as he descends the stairs into the great front hall and wanders through it. Turning the corner, the Steinway comes into view, with the pencils and pen in a “World’s Greatest Dad” mug atop, neighbored by a stack of freshly writing pages. Hearing the approach, the other driver shoots from the piano bench to grasp the bandaged hand and place in it a solid handshake, a drink, and a seatback.

So, the convalescence begins. The composer from the other car drives the young man to the doctor by day and houses him in the guest room by night, and the young man relies on that composer for every dignified and undignified necessity until the morning comes, and the composer pays the cost of the ear surgery that will restore all the young man’s hearing potential.

The young man goes under for the surgery. Eyelids fluttering in sudden consciousness, our young man hears whispered some words about deposits and accounting among numbers of something. Each word is as crisp and clear as the smacking kiss of a shameless child, and just as beautiful.

The story is familiar: fault and injury, payment and restoration. If he was in a smaller story, that would be enough. If he hadn’t embanked on Beauty’s threshold, then having hearing restored might have been enough. However, the kingdom of heaven isn’t home to enough, but to the complete and the holy and the extravagant. Breathing in the kingdom of heaven is like when the young undeaf man goes to the composer’s concert the next evening. The concert sounds nice. Some parts stir him, and he gets a little bored in some sections, but he stays attentive most of the time (until they neared the end, anyway).

Then, rolling his attention in a long stretch of whining strings, he stumbles into a glimpse of the tears clustered in the eyelashes of the enraptured woman beside him.

Startled, he glances to his left to see another guest whose lips hang parted by an unaffected smile. Our young man fumbles at his brochure to find the concert billed as being from the hand of The Greatest Composer of All Time. Bewildered and humbled, the undeaf rubs his eyelids and realizes with shock:

Even hearing, he doesn’t know how to use his ears.

The kingdom of heaven is like the young man strapped in the passenger seatbelt on the way home beside the Greatest Composer of All Time as the raindrops tap notes on the windshield, while he admits with helpless but calm sadness, “When I was deaf, I couldn’t hear sounds. But, now, I still can’t really hear music. Little bits here and there thrill me, and hint at something I can’t access, but most of it I just don’t care about. I’m just not good enough at hearing to listen to your music.”

One hand on the wheel, the Greatest Composer of All Time presses the undeaf man’s shoulder, saying, “Listening takes more than hearing. But, if you’ll learn, there’s nothing I’d rather teach.”

The kingdom of heaven is like the following morning, when the young man rises early at the composer’s suggestion, and slides into place behind the dawn-kissed piano keys. And the Greatest Composer of All Time gently guides his undeaf student through the C scale, which he plunks out again and again, awkwardly or too quiet or too stiff, until the motion settles into part of his nature.

Then, another scale and another. Slowly and precisely. Even when the ears can tell poor from good, to know good from great takes a lesson of the fingertips. Because to understand greatness – in music or in painting or in life – is to understand the process of creation. To fully enjoy a masterpiece means knowing the difference between a master’s work and a master con’s, and the only way to know that is from so close you’re almost within, almost of the same mind as the artist by sincere imitation. (And what artist practices his craft as beautifully as the King of heaven practices goodness? And the ability to mirror this goodness forms the greatest gift of salvation. Are works our salvation? Yes: by our salvation, we are finally and delighted capable of good and saved from doing bad.)

In our sanctification, the world expands as the concerts expand for the undeaf student. He begins to hear what’s there, instead of missing everything. The Greatest Composer of All Time even writes him his own melodies to play. With practice, his ears and his fingers learn to reach for the depth of the beauty in every tone and harmony and trill. With familiarity, he discovers the thrilling gap between his abilities and those of the Composer. It troubles him until he discovers that the difference is too severe to permit an inkling of competition. Then, the gap becomes freedom and pursuit.

He sinks himself as far into that gap as he can go, increasingly enjoying the vast expanse of untrodden beauty into which he can fling himself further every day without fear of running out of room. The joy of ceaseless pursuit finds home in the unbounded possibility of beauty.

The learning takes his lifetime and makes his lifetime worth every minute he pays to the piano keys and the concert hall. It’s years and hours and, with gray tufts over his ears, he still slides into place beside the Greatest Composer of All Time.

“Before you began teaching me,” the undeaf, unyoung man sits upright on the bench beside his still teacher. “I thought you and I were two degrees removed from each other’s musical abilities; you could play and I couldn’t, and those were the two options. When I started the scales, I began to think we might be a hundred degrees removed, and when I started melodies, I realized that hundreds was far too small.”

The kingdom of heaven is like when the composer reaches in front of that upright student and places a hand-penned song on the music stand. That evening, even from the corner by the lamppost outside, wayfarers can hear the Steinway’s melody swell as the unyoung, undeaf man pours his fingers and his joy into the masterpiece gifted to the undeaf by the Greatest Composer of All Time.