No beauty without pain

Drew, Matt and Jeff in St. Pierre, Martinique, June 1998

Drew, Matt and Jeff in St. Pierre, Martinique, June 1998

“If we’re lucky we have a long time to consider what beauty means. One thing I know: there is no beauty without pain. Beauty flourishes on sorrow. It’s enriched by the knowledge that life is fleeting, sometimes cruel, and often ends without resolution.”
Diane Keaton

One of my favorite spots in the Caribbean is the beautiful island of Martinique.  Perhaps it’s the influence of that French aesthetic savoir faire that makes it such an attractive place, but what I remember most about the island is our visit to the volcanic ruins of St. Pierre.

Once the largest town on the island, St. Pierre was called “the Paris of the Caribbean” before its sudden destruction from the eruption of Mount Pelée in 1902.  Though there had been warning signals, the nearly 30,000 people who died that day assumed they would have time to escape if lava flows began.

No one anticipated the pyroclastic juggernaut that traveled, according to estimates, 420 miles per hour to engulf the entire town in less than a minute.  The only person in the heart of the city who survived was a felon imprisoned in an underground cell.  Hundreds on the fringes of the town, and even passengers in ships docked nearby, fell prey to the encompassing disaster.

When we visited St. Pierre less than 100 years later to view the ruins, it was a gorgeous place, hauntingly serene and peaceful.  The mountain in the distance appeared breathtakingly scenic and benign.  Even the charred ruins of the town had a singular appeal, with fresh green plants and vines growing atop many of the remaining walls and structures.

How unspeakably horrifying the infernal destruction must have been.  How beautiful that spot is today, with the ruins preserved as an ongoing memorial of those who perished, and the lush Caribbean foliage and mountain providing a stunning backdrop for a tragic story.

I agree with Keaton; beauty is never without pain, and in fact, often comes as a direct result of some sort of suffering. It’s a paradox never adequately explained by human logic, which is one reason I believe the understanding of it lies hidden in a divine mystery we’re not fully capable of comprehending.  We are, however, capable of treasuring the gifts that come out of tragedy, even as we acknowledge and commemorate those who were injured or lost.

There are some who find no consolation in such thoughts, and some who can see beauty in pain only when time heals some measure of the sorrow.  Yet often, even bitterness can be redeemed as it is transformed into compassion and help for others who face such trials.  When we are called to observe or endure suffering, may we find the means to act in love toward those who need us, becoming part of a slowly emerging landscape of survival, blessing and grace.

One year ago today:

Dear earth

This post was first published seven years ago today. The original post, comments and photo are linked, along with two other related posts, below. These links to related posts, and their thumbnail photos, do not appear in the blog feed; they are only visible when viewing the individual posts by clicking on each one. I have no idea why, nor do I know how they choose the related posts. That’s just the way WordPress does things.


  1. mike c

    Yes- but then there are flowers.
    I had never heard about this event in 1902. I can’t think of a worse way to perish.
    But i guess this is a little like what the coaches say, “no pain- no gain.” However- i dons’t really buy into that.

    • I don’t remember whether I knew about it before we visited the island, but certainly I have not forgotten it since. The adage you mention, as with all such sayings, might not be true 100%, but it certainly can describe many situations in life. I’ll never forget how hard Jeff and our friends had it in dental and medical school– it truly was painful in many ways, at least psychologically– but the dividends to them and to the patients they served were enormous.

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