“Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes – The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”
— Elizabeth Barrett Browning
In her book, Waiting for God, the French philosopher, Simone Weil, suggests that attention is the chief means by which our souls encounter God. Today is the first day of spring. I can’t imagine a more delightful season in which we can practice paying attention. It’s like the world is a canvas for God and each day she surprises us with another unexpected brushstroke. God, the first artist, interrupts our busy lives with color and new life. God speaks to us through art whether created by nature or people.
As a child reared in the Catholic Church I learned to pay attention to stories of holy interruption by gaping at crucifixes and straining my neck at the larger than life broken body of God suspended from church ceilings. I spent Sunday mornings gazing at the kaleidoscopic light and color of stained glass windows and fixing my eyes on statues of the Virgin Mary. Sometimes the story continued at home as I flipped through the extra large illustrated children’s Bible. These images were the sermons of my childhood, the gospel I could begin to understand and the images that fostered my imagination of what it meant to tread fine lines between heaven and earth, what it meant to embrace a God with shifting boundaries. It’s funny but in a way I think of the Catholic Church as the first art gallery of my childhood. And it seems that I have always experienced the arts as a medium for encountering God. As I’ve grown older the more I have come to believe that the arts are an essential tool for spiritual formation. (Although I appreciate all the creative arts forms and believe that they each offer glimpses of God, for the sake of this post I am thinking specifically of the visual arts.) I think all art, religious themed or not, can have transforming effects on how we understand the human condition and our relationship to God.
The arts not only remind us that we are made in the image of a creator but they invite us to ponder the age-old theological and philosophical understanding that beauty, goodness and truth are inextricably linked with the things of the spirit and the nature of God. And by their very medium the arts instruct us in attentiveness, patience, discipline and the recognition of divine mystery. We are so used to rapid-fire images on our television and computer screens and meaningless cultural icons (like the big golden arch) that we subconsciously numb ourselves to the power that images have on our formation. Even popular renaissance art images lose their transforming power when we only encounter them on coffee mugs, tee-shirts, calendars and key chains. I think one aspect of good art is that it ultimately points beyond itself and helps us recognize the human condition and the divine intrusion. At the same time it calls us to more faithful relationship with the world, relationship that witnesses to the hope and redemption found in the Triune God and offered to us through Christ, the incarnate image that redeems all images grasping for God.
(This post is adapted from a larger essay on art and spiritual formation)