“Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.” – E. E. Cummings
This quote from E. E. Cummings is one of my favorites. E. E. Cummings was a master of using the “wrong” parts of speech in both his poems and prose. He often used nouns as verbs, verbs as nouns, adverbs as nouns, etc. His punctuation at times seemed random, but often in the midst of reading one of his poems suddenly it becomes clear why he used a certain piece of punctuation in his “incorrect” way.
If you’ve never read the quote before, stop and read it again, and answer this question:
Who is the “who” referred to in the quote?
The “who” is “the beautiful answer”, right? — thus this quote is saying that the person who asks a beautiful question somehow is or becomes the beautiful answer. The beautiful answer is a person, not an idea, a plan, a concept, or a strategy. My big search in the larger community of faith today is not for those who are offering all the answers, not for those who have the most powerful strategies or ideas, but for those who are asking beautiful questions.
By “beautiful question” I wish to make it clear that I don’t mean using beautiful or flowery language in the formation of the question (and judging by E. E. Cummings poems, I don’t think that’s what he meant either). Rather “beautiful” here means something that deeply resonates and touches the center of human existence. For instance, when I see a homeless person begging on the street, his very existence can be a beautiful question I ask of myself or God or both. If I do not ask the question, I never materialize as the beautiful answer.
The beautiful questions are the hard questions that many are afraid to ask. They are the questions for which many are ready with pat answers, but the really beautiful questions do not have easy answers. Instead, the answers often lead us to other hard questions. For instance, at times when I have experienced the greatest and most profound suffering, those who comforted me the most were not those who quoted scriptures to me, or said “read your Bible more” or “pray more” or “Just trust God”, but rather those who let my hard question ring in the air unanswered, and even entered the question with me, and let themselves feel the full weight of what the question was asking. In this way, they themselves became a beautiful answer for me that somehow enabled me to make sense of my pain, perhaps not intellectually, but in my depths.
Another example? The book of Job in the Bible is God’s answer to Job’s profound and very beautiful question: “Why am I suffering?” But what is the Book of Job but 42 chapters of questions? Does God ever answer Job’s question? I believe He does, but not with the pat answers that Job’s friends had offered. Instead God answers Job’s questions with questions. And the result is some of the most profoundly beautiful passages in the entire Bible.
Many of us, sincere and well-meaning, want to be the beautiful answer, but are we willing to ask beautiful questions? Are we willing to ask the questions that are resonating with the world around us? Are we willing to let the beggar, the hungry, the homeless be the question we ask ourselves?
Note 1/16/2015: For more information on the source of this e.e. cummings quote see my post: Beautiful Answer Quote. There are also comments below about the the source of the quote that are not in the above-linked post. This post was not meant to be about cummings, but about the concept in the quote and what it means in my own life, but I do welcome comments about cummings as well.