Oh, Jo! Your one beauty!" That was Amy's reaction to Jo in Little Women when Jo sold her hair to fund a trip to rescue their sick father. In the book I could believe Amy's response-in my teenage imagination, Jo was lively, intelligent, and fun, but not very attractive. In the movie Amy's exclamation was ludicrous because Jo was played by Winona Ryder, who is so lovely she could look good with a shaved head.
I, too, have striking hair. A woman said so just the other day. And I didn't even know her. She said, "Your hair is so beautiful, is it real?" The trouble is, I have less and less to go with my one beauty. Take my eyes for instance. My husband, who is remarkably oblivious to what I wear, always notices if I forget to apply eye make-up. I walk into the room and he will say, "You look a little pale today." This from a man who did not notice the day I sat beside him without a stitch of clothing for an entire quarter of a Vikings game. From then on I could say with authority: "Dearest, you're just not observant enough for me to take seriously."
Recently, I looked into the mirror to assess the damage of allergies and aging. My face was taking a wallop, and I had to remind myself that at one time I had exorcised all vain desires for beauty and youth. Like Jo, I had a higher calling. My model was Sarah, Abraham's wife, who cultivated the inner beauty of a quiet and gentle spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. I would learn to be serene. To age with grace.
But now my vanity, which I erroneously thought was dead, was seriously aroused as I examined the growing itchy red patches in the hollow of my eye sockets and on my cheeks. No chance of wearing even small amounts of color. My eyes were red and swollen. My lids were hugely wrinkled and puffy. I had enough flesh to make shades for six eyeballs. If I were severely burned I'd know where to go for skin grafts. Rhino, I thought.
It surprises me that I should be bothered by my appearance when I know there is no way to recapture youth or a beauty I never had. My vanity seems shriveled and small-minded given our world's present suffering. But to be honest? It's there, a small part of my very ordinary life.
To knock back these demons I review our Christian perspective and heritage. First, I must remember our culture worships youth and beauty-both are gifts from God to be appreciated for what they are, but not to be idolized. The cultural air we breathe constantly tempts us to join in this worship and to live in denial of aging and death. Aiming for health is okay. But even that can become an idol as we spend money and energy buying every remedy that promises to retain or restore our youth. We are destined for physical death unless the Lord returns first.
Then, I remind myself of the older women I admire. Age and suffering has taken its toll on their bodies, and yet they wear those effects in a lovely relaxed manner: Elisabeth Elliot; Nein Cheng, author of Life and Death in Shanghai; the poet Lucy Shaw; my local friend Joan Vagt. Their beauty is not fleeting; it is settled, eternal, grace-filled.
Which leads me to reflect on the nature of Christ's beauty. It wasn't at all apparent to the physical eye: "He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him" (Isaiah 53:2). I ask myself, who is the Rose of Sharon, the Lily of the Valley, the Desire of all nations? Isn't it our dearest Shepherd and Lord, the Word of God in flesh? He is the one who has promised to one day bestow upon us a crown of beauty instead of ashes. I know He is not talking about hair or eyes.
"Am I becoming like Sarah, Abraham's wife?" I quiz my husband.
He begins to laugh, knowing very well where I will take him. "I sense a trap here," he says. Then taking me in his arms, he says, "Yes. Much, much more so than when we first married. You are beautiful."
I'm not all the way there yet, but it's where I want to go.