Descent as an Opening to Greater Beauty

Brothers KaramazovThe Opening of Alyosha Karamazov

My favorite novel of all time is the Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky. One of the world’s greatest pieces of literature, it penetrates the mysteries and complexities of the human heart with a depth, scope and passionate vision that I have never quite encountered in another work. Each of the brothers represents certain aspects of the human spirit; the “hero” of the story is Alyosha, the youngest brother who is simple, spiritual, pure hearted, idealistic and pragmatic. One of the most poignant scenes in all of literature involves Alyosha’s moment of inner transformation after a powerful crisis of meaning, a loss of faith.


In a nutshell, here is what happens to the young idealistic novice monk: His most loved and admired spiritual elder and mentor, the saintly Father Zossima, dies and his corpse starts to “stink”. This unleashes a fury of petty rivalries and squabbling and back-biting among the other monks and brothers, many of whom all along nursed resentments against the kindly and well-loved elder. Since it was accepted doctrine that a saint’s body would not putrify after death, but would remain “uncorrupted,” all of Father Zossima’s supporters and close students assumed this natural proof of his spiritual stature would come. Father Zossima’s corpse eventually begins to “corrupt,” not just normally, but “in excess of nature,” before the sneers and righteous satisfaction of his enemies.

Alyosha struggles and suffers, intensely, out of his love for his elder. He cannot handle the injustice of it—that such a good and loving being as his beloved spiritual father should be maligned and ridiculed, and even accused,  in death  like this. Why would a just God allow this to happen? It leads to a total crisis of meaning for the pure-hearted young man. He becomes lost. His orderly spiritual universe and faith is challenged.  In pain and desperation, he almost breaks his vows as a monk and willingly puts himself into the “clutches” of the complex woman character Grushenka. Yet when she perceives the spiritual nature of his suffering, she suddenly acts with mercy and compassion—and renews his faith in love and goodness. It is a beautiful scene of love’s redemptive powers. After this renewal, Alyosha finds himself wandering in the night, and the climax of his spiritual opening comes in the following lines:

“Alyosha stood, gazed, and suddenly threw himself down on the earth. He did not know why he embraced it. He could not have told why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss it all. But he kissed it weeping, sobbing and watering it with his own tears, and vowed passionately to love it, to love it forever and ever.”


There is something in these lines that gives me chills when I read them. I recognize something ineffable and luminous about this moment. After his descent into darkness, he does not fall on his knees in prayer to the Heavenly Father above, he falls upon the earth, as into a mother’s arm. After he is made naked and vulnerable through anguish, his heart opens and he is simply overcome with love for creation, for this earthly existence. His mission from this moment on will be to love– without conditions–all of life.  This surrender marks his spiritual re-birth, as an initiated lover of this earth, of existence, with its limitations, suffering and apparent “injustices.” His vows now are to be a lover, no longer a monk limited by religious conventions and ideas—but to follow love wherever it takes him.

He had to descend, to lose faith and become naked  in order to attain this deeper heart opening. His predicament was one many of us have faced some version of: Your holy of holies, your pure ideal, whatever you thought was good and true in the world, is apparently desecrated, destroyed, thrown down and trampled. Where is the justice? What is the meaning?

The loss of that thing of greatest value is often what causes the heart to open to greater Love. We are hollowed out by loss; ironically, suffering, in destroying our rigid ideas and ego structures, creates a greater capacity for Love and beauty.


Seeing with the Eyes of the Heart: The Tale of Beauty and the Beast

“The moment when all her resistance to ugliness vanished,

was the moment when ugliness became absolute Beauty.”

–John O’Donohue

Illustration by Anne Anderson

Illustration by Anne Anderson

I once taught a writing course at the University of New Mexico on the theme of “What Is Beauty?”  We read many interesting contemporary essays and philosophical treatises, as well as myths and stories, exploring this question from a variety of perspectives and angles. One of the texts we studied was the classic tale of “Beauty and the Beast.” This well-known tale offers much insight into the nature of true beauty, how we can reveal in our hearts, and ultimately how we become it.

While there have been many interpretations of this tale, a deep and mythic-psychological reading of it reveals many layers of meaning. The Beast represents that which is seemingly “ugly” and repulsive, that we instinctively judge and reject as threatening.  Beauty’s acceptance of what is apparently “ugly” or gruesome, liberates a great transfiguration.  The late Irish poet/ writer John O’Donohue, who was true priest of beauty,  used to share this tale with people, telling it in his lovely lilting brogue.  I’ll never forget what he said about it in a workshop. It is one of the most ravishing and profound statements of what beauty is: “The moment when all [Beauty’s] resistance to ugliness vanished, was the moment when ugliness became absolute Beauty.”

Whenever I share this quote of O’Donohue’s with people, the result is the same—There is a quiet in-take of breath, as the depths of what this means sinks in. It brings tears to my eyes… because in this statement, and indeed in this tale, if one looks deeply, is instruction in how to create a paradise of love–how to accept ourselves and love whatever is “beastly” in us, and in others.  The character of Beauty could not truly see the beautiful being of the beast, until she saw him through the eyes of her heart.

Illustration by Walter Crane

Illustration by Walter Crane

Why is the female character in the tale named Beauty? Because she has the ability to perceive the essence, the soul, beyond appearances. She knows what is of true eternal value. When her father, at the beginning of the tale, asks each of his daughters what he should bring each of them back from his travels, her cunning and superficial sisters ask for expensive fineries and jewels. She asks for only a rose. This tale illuminates the nature of beauty as that which is most soulful, loving, soft-hearted , and true to the soul  in us.  A loving and open heart both creates and reveals the beauty in what is seen. Because it exists in opposition to shallow judgment based on cultural values, it is a radical force. Beauty, who cares little for worldly things, risks everything, and says “yes” to the unknown out of love–and in the end receives everything.

Why is the character of Beauty a female? There is a subtle truth here. Something in the feminine heart has always been especially gifted in love, perceiving essence and feeling  compassion for that which is suffering and “rejected.” The latent compassion and unconditional  love of the feminine heart has been seen as a weakness and a liability in our culture, which rewards competitiveness, ambition and self-interest–but it is the greatest force we have on the planet to now change what has been fragmented, wounded and damaged—into  the “beauty”  that is latently there.



The Sophia Retreat: Embodying Wisdom through Belly Dance and Poetry

As a poet and writer who also has practiced belly dance for over fifteen years, I have always been keenly aware of the schism that exists in Western culture between spirit/mind and body/Eros. Women pay the highest price for this false separation, and experience the legacy of it in all aspects of our lives. How do we reclaim belly dance as the exalted sacred feminine art that it is—expressing not only our qualities of grace, fluidity, sensuality and strength—but also our wisdom, vision, and discrimination?

One of the challenges artists of the dance face is that belly dance is often separated from any kind of ideological or spiritual context in which it is exalted. Even though many women attest to its personally transformative value for them, it is still often viewed as another version of women’s erotic dance or as glitzy eye-candy for the “male gaze”. So how do we, as dancers, performers and artists expand the vision of what women are and can be —so that we can fully embody the Spirit and the richness of the soul in our dancing? How do we infuse the dance with the full power of our depth and wisdom? The key may be in bringing more of ourselves and our actual voices into our performance. Interweaving spoken word poetry, storytelling, and song with the dance can make it a more powerful and full expression of the feminine wisdom- of Sophia.


Jennifer Ferraro

As a poet, writer and artist my work has always been driven by soul and the sacred. One of the greatest honors I’ve had as a poet was to translate the unknown voices of the ancient Sufi poets of Turkey. For five years I toured with a Turkish Sufi music ensemble performing dance and reciting mystical poetry. One of the fruits of this was my book Quarreling with God: Mystic Rebel Poems of the Dervishes of Turkey (translated with Latif Bolat, White Cloud Press, 2007). Whenever possible, I have tried to present sacred poetry with dance and music—because in truth these pathways of beauty cannot be separated.

Through combining the sister arts of poetry and dance, we can more fully embody wisdom, as well as     beauty, in our dancing and performances.  Through a conscious marriage of Eros and Logos—the body and the word– we radically expand the perception of belly dance (and of women as performers/ presenters!). We create a powerful vehicle for expression of our wholeness as women.

Rather than being just a performer, the dancer is actually a conduit of the sacred, a mouthpiece of the divine. Our culture needs to remember this. Many of us have been deeply moved by the mystical love poetry of the ancient Middle East, by the ecstatic poetry of Rumi, Hafiz and others. Yet we too are poets of the soul and have sweet hidden words that are awaiting us… wanting to be birthed and spoken, wanting to be embodied in our voices and bodies. Can we fully embody the soul’s beauty—not just through the dance but in our heart-felt words, in our voices as well?

My dear friend and collaborator Myra Krien is Artistic Director of Mosaic Dance Company in Santa Fe, and founder of Pomegranate Studios and the transformative and nationally recognized Pomegranate SEEDs program for teen girls. She also is the granddaughter of legendary 1960s icon and writer Alan Watts, who vastly impacted American culture through his books on East-West mysticism and philosophy. She has been immersed in performing, teaching, and choreographing for over twenty years, and brings a deep artistry and soulfulness to her work, which I have always admired.  We both are passionate about uniting the sacred and the mystical with the sensual— and with expanding the perception of belly dance as a truly sacred art form. Our collaborations over the years have been extremely fruitful and provocative— combining spoken word poetry, dance and music in ways that challenge the audience and channel an ecstatic energy.

We have teamed up this year to offer a very special retreat for seasoned dancers who want to take their artistry to the next level, and explore their work as performers and dancers from a more spiritual level. The Sophia Retreat: Seeds of Transformation will help dancers discover and embody their own voices and inner gifts. Poetry has the capacity to gently guide us back to our most authentic selves, our most intimate questions, concerns, and longings. Both belly dance and poetry offer us potent tools for our healing, greater authenticity, and spiritual empowerment as women.

Jennifer Ferraro and Myra Krien


Over four playful, rich days in Santa Fe we will work with belly dance, and spoken word poetry/prayers/ invocations as the deeply connected arts they are. We will attune to our own voices and “embody” our words through our movements, expressing more fully the passion and purpose of the soul. Each participant will come away with a sense of greater mission, and with tools to more fully manifest her vision in the world.  We hope you will join us for this transformative, magical experience!

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