Thursday, 15 September 2011

Benedict and beautiful art as a doorway to God.

Pope Benedict reminds us once again of the importance of art as a way of experiencing God.   I think we can understand this when we look at the icon of the lamenting Virgin above. An article in the Catholic Herald (9th September, 2011) reports  his observations at a recent general audience. Here are a few extracts..
‘A sculpture, a painting, a poem or a piece of music can arouse a feeling of joy when it becomes apparent it is something more than just a chunk of marble, a canvas covered with colours, or words or notes on a page, he said. “It’s something bigger, something that speaks and touches your heart; it carries a message and lifts the spirit,” he said as he held his weekly general audience in the town square at Castel Gandolfo.“Art is like an open doorway to the infinite, toward a beauty and truth that go beyond everyday reality,” he told 3,000 visitors and pilgrims present for the audience. The Pope continued a series of talks on the importance of prayer and the need to set aside some time in one’s busy day for God. One way people can sense God’s presence or strengthen their relationship with him is through beautiful art, he said. An artist is often trying to discover the true or deeper meaning of reality through “a language of forms, colours and sounds,” he said.“Art can express and render visible humanity’s need to go beyond what one sees, revealing a thirst and quest for the infinitive. “Art can open the mind’s eye and one’s heart, pushing us upward” toward the heavens, he said. The “true paths toward God” that inspire prayer and strengthen one’s relationship with God, the Pope said, are works of art that express the faith and spring from the artist’s own faith in God.’ Here for full text. 
With these words in mind, have been thinking this week about my reasons for commissioning an icon.  I think it was because I felt that only art could help me to see more deeply – and art can enable us to see beyond what we see.  Art  - qua beautiful art - is about what Teilhard called the ‘within’ of things.  And thus I am so grateful to Ian for writing this icon.  It has indeed ‘opened my minds eye’ and opened my heart.    Although Teilhard was very much the scientist, he saw the world with an artist’s eye and so much of what he writes is an attempt to convey his way of SEEING.  He wants us to see Christ in all things: a world and a cosmos on fire and glowing with God’s love.   At the close of his life he reflects on his apparent failure to get others – especially his superiors – to SEE what he saw so vividly.

How is it, then, that as I look around me, still dazzled by what I have seen, I find that I am almost the only person of my kind, the only one to have seen ? And so I cannot, when asked, quote a  single writer, a single work, that gives a clearly expressed description of the wonderful 'Diaphany' that has transfigured everything for me?

How, most of all, can it be that 'when I come down from the mountain’ and in spite of the glorious vision I still retain, I find that I am so little a better man, so little at peace, so incapable of  expressing in my actions, and thus adequately communicating to  others, the wonderful unity that I feel encompassing me?
Is there, in fact, a Universal Christ, is there a Divine Milieu ?
Or am I, after all, simply the dupe of a mirage in my own mind?

I often ask myself that question. (‘The Christic’ Heart of the Matter, p100)

Teilhard looked at the world in  a very penetrating way.  He looked deeply into the core of his beliefs and into the most powerful symbols of his faith – The Sacred Heart and the Cross.  I understand that.  One thing I learnt from my own study of geology is that you have to look very carefully.  You have to look at the big picture of folds and mountains and layers of rock, but you also have to look very carefully to see life in rocks.  A good fossil hunter has a good eye for detail.  Teilhard saw the world glowing with God’s light and energy.  He saw it in all things.  He could look at the most awful image of the Sacred Heart and see through it.  It was not the most promising door way – indeed his biographer, Speaight, called it a ‘repellent’ doorway.  But Teilhard saw this image as a profound point of entry into the deepest mysteries of God’s creation. 

For Teilhard – as for Benedict  - art can help us to see beyond what we see.  The artist can help us to see the world differently.   Art can help us to see the within of things.  In his essay ‘ The Function of Art as an Expression of Human Energy’ (1939) he discusses this role of art.  Because art can enable human beings to SEE deeper, it had, he argues,  an evolutionary role.  Art was a vitally important aspect of human  mental and spiritual evolution.  It was not a waste of energy or a luxury  or a  ‘parasitical activity’. (p 89) No,  art was important.  Art had to be understood as contributing to the spiritual evolution of our species.  In art human beings can develop their capacity to go beyond rational analysis and utilize their capacities for intuition and imagination.  In this way art can liberate us from the over-dominance of reason.  It can energize us.

if the work does truly issue from the depths of his being, with the richness of musical harmony, then we need have no fear: it will be refracted in the minds of those upon whom it falls, to form a rainbow of light. More primordial than any idea, beauty will be manifest as the herald and generator of ideas.' ( in Towards the Future, p 90)

Art can be a ‘herald and generator of ideas’.  This has a particular resonance for me in relation to this icon.  The icon has indeed served to ‘herald and generate ideas’: in Teilhard’s sense, that is its  function in evolutionary terms.   Human beings who have access to art which can do this will be more creative and productive members of society.  Heralding and generating ideas brings with it evolutionary advantages.   
I think that was Teilhard is saying here is immensely significant.  Art must be seen in terms of its evolutionary role, or its function.  Man cannot live by reason alone.  Human development – both in individual and collective terms – is a function of its capacity to harness the evolutionary potentials of ART. 

Through its power of symbolic expression, art thus gives the  [the earth its] spiritual energy..[and above all] It communicates to that energy, and preserves for it, its specifically human characteristic, by personalizing it.

Art can serve to personalize and humanize  through symbolic expression.  Hence symbols are central to what human evolution is all about.  We progress symbolically`: by ‘preserving’ or storing what we learn, experience and feel through the symbols we evolve.  The artist contributes to the evolution of our symbolic life through her or his intuitive capacities.

Although science and reason are powerful factors shaping human development, humanity also needs art as away of capturing, expressing and clarifying what science and reason discover.  Science needs art.

Science and thought, it is true, call for an incommunicable originality in those who excel in them; but the thinker's originality, or the scientist's, may well be swallowed up in the universality of the conclusions he expresses. The scientist is comparatively soon swamped in the collective creation to which he devotes himself The artist, precisely because he lives by his imagination, can ignore and counterbalance this cancelling-out of the human worker by his work.

Furthermore, he adds, we also have to consider the wider economy in terms of art and science in a technologically dominated world.  The more technological and scientific we become, the more artists we need!

The more the world is rationalized and mechanized, the more it needs poets' as the ferment within its personality and its preservative.

In evolutionary terms,therefore, it is not to our advantage to see ‘progress’ simply as a matter increasing the demand and supply of rationalists and mechanics.  If we are to be creative and imaginative we need artists to serve as the yeast and the preservative.  

In short, art represents the area of furthest advance around man's growing energy, the area in which nascent truths condense, take on their first form, and become animate, before they are definitively formulated and assimilated. This is the effective function and role of art in the general economy of evolution.

So,  if we are to see deeper we need artists to help us to help us explore our symbols.   In terms of our spiritual lives, therefore, we also need to be aware of the central place of art  in our faith and  the evolution of  our symbols.  Hence, for Teilhard, his exploration of the symbols of our Catholic faith were essential for the evolution of Christianity itself.   There could be no progress without  exploring the key symbols of the Sacred Heart and the Cross.  And I think that is how we have to understand what he was doing.   Teilhard was NOT in any sense a theologian.  Indeed, his theology was pretty weak, and his superiors knew that. He knew it.  What he WAS, however,   was an explorer.   In his life-time he explored thousands upon thousands of miles of our planet.   And as a priest he was an explorer too: and his great expedition was to journey deep into the symbol of divine love, the Sacred Heart.  He is not rewriting the theology of the Church in doing this: he is saying 'see Christ from a different (an evolutionary and cosmic)  perspective' .  He is inviting us to join him on that challenging expedition.  Look again at the Sacred Heart. Look deeper.  Come here, look at it from this perspective. See the Sacred Heart!

There is a marvellous passage in the the Divine Milieu which nicely expresses what Teilhard's exploration was all about.  He tells us that: 

God is as pervasive and perceptible as the atmosphere in which we are bathed.  He encompasses us on all sides, like the world itself.  What prevents you, then, from enfolding him in your arms? Only one thing: your inability to see him. (The Divine Milieu, p 46) 

Art  - like this beautiful icon - can help us on our exploration to  see him.  

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