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Renewing a friendship between art and spirituality

Renewing a friendship between art and spirituality At the recent Arts and Spirituality seminar in Manresa, Michael Paul Gallagher drew attention to our need to re-negotiate our self-understanding constantly, and to the role of narrative, of story-telling, in this endeavour.


‘Renewing a Friendship Between Art and Spirituality’ is an urgent theme in recent years, and has a particular relevance to our contemporary culture. I will attempt to revisit what art and spirituality have to offer, and to identify what they have in common.

However, it is important to start with something experiencial, a poem by James Tate that deals with metaphor or analogy.

When I think no thing is like any other thing,
I become speechless, cold, my body turns silver
and water runs off me. There I am,
ten feet from myself, possessor of nothing,
Uncomprehending of even the smallest particle of dust.
But when I say you are like
a swamp animal during an eclipse,
I am happy, full of wisdom, loved by children
and old men alike. I am sorry if this confuses you.
During an eclipse the swamp animal
acts as though day were night,
drinking when he should be sleeping etc.
This is why men stay up all night
writing to you.

When we can’t have this ‘spark of connecting’, we are speechless and cold, and our bodies turn to silver. Paradoxically, both art and spirituality invite us beyond speechlessness in a strange, different type of speech. It is almost like a different language or a perception that is analogical. In fact, one of the solemn statements of the First Vatican Council is: “our most fruitful understanding of mysteries comes through analogy”. It means that we can only understand God indirectly, through our comparisons or analogies. That is why Jesus only ever spoke to the crowds in parables. The point here is that it is difficult to approach this topic directly, and it is often our “programming” that prevents us from getting access.

Often the first temptation we have in facing art, spirituality, or prayer is that we want to figure things out in our head. As Flannery O’Connor put it: “Some people have the notion if you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning. But for the writer the story, the whole story is the meaning because it is an experience not an abstraction”. The key is that its about the experience not the abstraction. It is our “addiction” to mastery, control, and to instant interpretation that causes problems for us. Instead, both art and spirituality are inviting us into a place of freedom from all that. It is very much about our disposition. Or to echo the words of Hamlet, “the readiness is all”. We have to let go of this obsession with control and enter in with a certain emptiness or readiness to a different kind of experience.

W.H. Auden wrote in one of his notebooks once: “to pray is to pay attention to someone or something other than myself”. It is focussing on a person, a work of art, an icon, or God, that makes you completely forget yourself and your desires. It was Simone Weil who said that the quality of our attention is the quality of who we are, of our praying, of our receiving, everything – including art. What poetry and prayer have in common is that they connect us with our hopes, depths, possibilities, and with our self transcendence. We are invited into a certain quality of presence in both art and spirituality. It is because of this capacity of self transcendence that art and spirituality exist.

The cultural context in which we find ourselves, not just in Ireland but in most of the western world, has a crucial bearing at this moment. It is a time of ‘fragile belonging’, especially institutional belonging as it relates to church. Many people have found their initial securities and roots have been shaken, and people sense an urgent hunger for some anchors of identity, for the languages of art or spirituality. In our contemporary society, identity is much more mobile, we are different people, and have multiple sources of who we are. We are continually negotiating our self-meaning in a very changed context. Some great philosophers of today tell us that we will find that meaning through the power of narrative in this fluid context. This narrative, as opposed to reason, is the way we make sense of ourselves. This highlights the importance of autobiography and its interpretation. It needs to be reinterpreted in time so that certain moments stand out as symbolic. In the thread of the narrative, in a person’s story, we hear of liminal moments of powerlessness where we encounter something beyond. It can be the death of someone close, an addiction, illness or crisis. We try to make sense of ourselves through stories, in the midst of so-called postmodernism when older forms of institutional belonging don’t seem to be credible any more.

Dorothy Soelle has said that real secularisation is not simply that less people go to church or feel themselves belonging there but it is when people are deprived of a language for what is deepest in themselves. It is often our contemporary lifestyle that keeps people on the surface. Essentially, we are a mystery to ourselves, and art and spirituality give us the key to explore these.

Of course there are risks in this, and difficulties with a spirituality that doesn’t have roots in a tradition. However, in the context of Ireland today, there is relative abundance materially but it leaves the heart unsatisfied. And so there is a new quest for interiority for a spiritual exploration that seeks to put is into contact with our hidden depths. Both art and spirituality invite us in different ways in that direction.

One contemporary French philosopher, Jean Luc Marion, talks about the difference between an idol and an icon. According to him, an ‘idol’ is at work when I am in control. As he says: “before a profane image I remain the viewer unseen by the image. I look at it.” It is like a person in an art gallery: whereas the viewer is unseen by the image, the image is reduced to an object constituted by the person’s gaze. However, when looking at an icon, in looking, I feel myself seen, I stop being a judging observer and am taken out of my self-sufficiency. There’s a conversion in this.

Today, many thinkers in philosophy and theology are escaping from the narrow cage of rationalism and rediscovering the drama of the whole person, and of the imagination. The rediscovery of poetry, drama and art is seen as essential for theology in great thinkers like Tillich, Rahner and Balthazar. Put very simplistically, Balthazar claimed that theology had become moralistic and utilitarian, and had forgotten for centuries the third part of the great trilogy: truth, goodness and beauty. It forgot about the experience of the beauty of God and of Christ. Balthazar’s favourite line in scripture is: “The glory of God in the face of Christ”. These thinkers give a context and a background to our theme here today.

In the often quoted words of Muishkin in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot, “Beauty will save the world”. I think this has to do with giving us the key to our depths, to liberating our consciousness from what our culture can suppress or neglect. We have often been unduly influenced by advertising or ideas about lifestyle. Fresh thoughts will only come from our cultural liberation from these, with the help of the arts and spirituality as ‘advanced warning systems’.

The arts especially can warn us of the sickness of a civilisation, where things are going sour; it can be brutally honest. Both art and spirituality have a vocation of liberation; taking us from mastery to receiving, from control to contemplation. They offer an exodus from prisms, a healing of our smallness, and a flow of our sympathetic consciousness towards something larger. As Kafka put it, “A book must be like an axe in order to break the ice of the soul”.

Really, this friendship between art and spirituality is ancient, deep and very necessary. It is a dialogue between them both. Both are essential and we need a strong sense of the spiritual and of the artistic. Bringing these two worlds together is possible through narrative. It is a mixing of earthiness and the world of imagination. To live in either world entirely and resolutely is risky, we don’t merely live in one world. For our wholeness we need to inhabit both: the ordinary and the extraordinary, the everyday and the mysterious. Art and spirituality can be seen as encounters or invitations to perception beyond the ordinary. They call us, in the words of Seamus Heaney, “standing in a sunlit doorway, beyond our usual hold upon ourselves”.