|Kutaniyaki Bowl. |
Photo by Caitlin Meyer 2017
I’ll bet that title caught your attention. Allow me to explain. While sipping tea this morning, I realized that 30 years ago this month, my college roommate and I set out for intensive language studies in Kanazawa Japan. Kanazawa is a small city of about 450,000 people on Japan’s western coast. Among other things, Kanazawa is known for Kutaniyaki, vividly-glazed porcelainware, and Kaga Yūzen, beautifully-painted silk that’s hand washed in the clear waters of Kanazawa’s Asano River. As part of our study program, we visited local craftsmen to watch them create these beautiful works of art. That’s where I learned about wabi sabi.
Wabi sabi (侘寂) is a concept in traditional Japanese aesthetics centered on the wisdom and beauty of imperfection. Artists express wabi sabi through asymmetry, roughness, and simplicity, often intentionally disfiguring their work before completion to emphasize the beauty of life’s imperfections. In a world obsessed with perfection, wabi sabi is a refreshing and humbling reminder that perfection can only be found in God.
God is infinite perfection and blessed in himself. To say that God is perfect means that the attributes that God possesses are held to a degree that’s impossible to exceed. Think about it this way, we understand from our world that there’s a hierarchy of qualities – objects can have qualities to a greater or lesser degree. Water can be hot, hotter or hottest, for example. As we ascend this hierarchy of qualities, we ultimately must come to something that is the greatest – “that than which nothing greater can be conceived,” to borrow Saint Anselm of Canterbury’s words. That “something,” that “that,” is God. So, if we understand God as the supreme being, the pinnacle of all being, then God must be perfect. If God were anything less than perfect, he wouldn’t be God.
Have you ever wondered why human beings understand and strive for perfection when we’ve never actually seen it? It’s because the desire for God is written in the human heart, whether we realize it or not. God never ceases to call us to himself, so we yearn for the perfection that is God. Our problem is that we seek perfection elsewhere. We strive for the perfect body, the perfect spouse, the perfect vacation, and even the perfect martini, but we’re always left dissatisfied because perfection can only be found in God.
In this misplaced quest for perfection, we designate as flaws those characteristics that do not fit our distorted concept of perfection. Perhaps it’s the birthmark on our left knee, a crooked nose, or our spouse’s window-rattling snore; maybe it rained all vacation, or the kids cried for the entire car ride; or maybe even, heaven forfend, the martini was stirred, not shaken. When we strive for perfection outside of God, we disregard the God-given beauty of all things; we fail to understand that perfection itself created us and loves us just as we are; we fail to find wabi sabi – the wisdom and beauty of imperfection.