Art As Means Of Religious Conversion
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. — Franz Kafka
Here is a passage from Canto XXIII of Dante’s Purgatorio, the Hollander translation. The poet is nearing the top of the mountain of Purgatory, and is here on the terrace where Gluttony is purged. He and Virgil encounter a flock of shades who look starved, but who are singing joyful praises to God:
I was wondering what makes them so famished,
since what had made them gaunt, with wretched,
scaling skin, was still unknown to me,
when out of the deep-set sockets in his head
a shade fixed me with his eyes and cried aloud:
‘What grace is granted to me now!’
I never would have known him by his features,
but the sound of his voice made plain to me
what from his looks had been erased.
That spark relit the memory
of his changed features
and I knew Forese’s face.
Dante asks his friend Forese why he and the others are so withered. Forese replies:
… ‘From the eternal counsel
a power falls onto the tree and on the water
there behind us. By it am I made so thin.
‘All these people who weep while they are singing
followed their appetites beyond all measure,
and here regain, in thirst and hunger, holiness.
‘The fragrance coming from the fruit
and from the water sprinkled on green boughs
kindles our craving to eat and drink,
‘and not once only, circling in this space,
is our pain renewed.
I speak of pain but should say solace,
‘for the same desire leads us to the trees
that led Christ to utter Eli with such bliss
when with the blood from His own veins He made us free.’
These souls, these gluttons, are now, in Purgatory, using their mouths to sing hosannas as they march toward purification and final redemption. By their hunger they are healed. Seriously, I don’t think I will ever see fasting in the same way again.
I am in the middle of something, and I probably shouldn’t write about it now, because it’s not finished yet. But let me offer a few tentative remarks.
This summer, I was browsing the shelves at a Barnes & Noble, when I picked up Dante’s Inferno. Here are the famous opening lines:
Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood
for the straight way was lost.
And I instantly thought, yes, that’s how it is. I read on, and before long, Dante had set the hook. As regular readers know, I’ve been making my way through Hell and Purgatory with the poet, and will soon be entering Paradise. Along the way, I’ve learned things about life, and about myself, that I did not know. My confessor is by now accustomed to me saying, “So, since we last talked, I read this canto in Dante, and it made me reflect on how I … .” Nothing I’ve ever read has provoked such intense and fruitful self-examination. I’m beginning to see now, and see clearly, that Dante is helping me find the way out of my own personal dark wood. Surely I’m not the only one this has happened to.
I’ve also been writing in this space lately about how the Terrence Malick film To The Wonder has become such a powerful force in my spiritual life since I first watched it a couple of weeks ago. To be honest, I was glad when the film ended. It’s got very little narrative structure, and I was ready for it to end. But that movie has stayed with me like no film in my experience. As you know if you’ve been reading this blog lately, my priest gave me a prayer rule, a daily discipline that is forcing me to pray as I never have before. It is lengthy, and requires a great deal of being very still and praying meditatively. Turns out this is exactly what I needed. Stillness of mind is the most elusive thing for me, but I have no choice now except to embrace it. Well, as I said earlier this week, the film’s imagery, especially of the abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel, has invaded my imagination during these long, great silences each day, and, combined with the prayers, has evoked deep thoughts and emotions I didn’t realize were there. Today, as I was in a quiet, dark room saying my daily office, I reached a point in the meditation in which I had to take out my iPad and watch the final iconic images of To The Wonder several times. I use the word “iconic” intentionally, because Malick’s dazzlingly poetic images served for me the same function as an actual icon: they are a window into the world of the divine.
I wouldn’t normally recommend incorporating watching a short sequence from a film into one’s prayer discipline, but it turns out that whatever is happening within me right now involves film and poetry (the Dante), and I … well, I’m going with it.
To be perfectly clear, the real ice axe here is the prayer discipline. Dante and Malick prepared the way, but the daily prayers — the Jesus Prayer, mostly — is doing the hardest work. Still, I can’t help but marvel at the role art is playing in deepening my religious conversion. Art has helped me to pray, to know myself and my God more intimately, and to illuminate my prayer so that I am finding my way out of the dark woods. After I finished today’s prayer rule, I was thinking that beauty has never had this effect on me. And then I realized no, that’s wrong; the chief reason I am a Christian at all is because I stumbled into the Chartres cathedral and was staggered by the wonder of it all.
In 2002, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, wrote about Beauty and God:
Being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction. Of course we must not underrate the importance of theological reflection, of exact and precise theological thought; it remains absolutely necessary. But to move from here to disdain or to reject the impact produced by the response of the heart in the encounter with beauty as a true form of knowledge would impoverish us and dry up our faith and our theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge; it is a pressing need of our time.
The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgment and can correctly evaluate the arguments. For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said: “Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true.”
The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration. Isn’t the same thing evident when we allow ourselves to be moved by the icon of the Trinity of Rublëv? In the art of the icons, as in the great Western paintings of the Romanesque and Gothic period, the experience described by Cabasilas, starting with interiority, is visibly portrayed and can be shared.
In a rich way Pavel Evdokimov has brought to light the interior pathway that an icon establishes. An icon does not simply reproduce what can be perceived by the senses, but rather it presupposes, as he says, “a fasting of sight.” Inner perception must free itself from the impression of the merely sensible, and in prayer and ascetical effort acquire a new and deeper capacity to see, to perform the passage from what is merely external to the profundity of reality, in such a way that the artist can see what the senses as such do not see, and what actually appears in what can be perceived: the splendor of the glory of God, the “glory of God shining on the face of Christ ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
To admire the icons and the great masterpieces of Christian art in general, leads us on an inner way, a way of overcoming ourselves; thus in this purification of vision that is a purification of the heart, it reveals the beautiful to us, or at least a ray of it. In this way we are brought into contact with the power of the truth. I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.
Just as the I need less thinking and more silent prayer, the world needs less Christian argument, and more Christian art. In the case of the Malick film, it’s images and music worked on me at a level I could not initially perceive. They entered deeply and rested there, until praying in the cool quiet dark of the early morning broke through the ice on the frozen sea, and called them to the surface to do their work.
UPDATE: I’m informed by the Home Office that the Orthodox practice is to refuse images that come to mind during the Jesus Prayer. Good to learn!