“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.
(This post is adapted from a larger essay on art and spiritual formation)