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Art As Means Of Religious Conversion

images [1]

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 [2]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 [3]:

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!

31 Comments (Open | Close)

31 Comments To "Art As Means Of Religious Conversion"

#1 Comment By Sam M On October 19, 2013 @ 9:19 pm

Great post. I’m curious now. We’re you just open to anything when you had these experiences? Had you stumbled into the Taj Mahal, do you think you’d have become a Muslim? It’s certainly beautiful. Had you read the Bhagavad Gita, would you have become Hindu? Or does beautiful art inspire agnosticly? Can someone become a better Buddhist by reading the Inferno? Or only a better Christian?

In short, does content matter?

[NFR: I don’t really know. All I know is what happened to me. — RD]

#2 Comment By Jane On October 19, 2013 @ 9:33 pm

Best wishes on your spiritual journey, and lots of love to Christians around the world.


#3 Comment By John F On October 19, 2013 @ 9:38 pm

Albert Einstein, that scientific titan who transformed our cosmic worldview and who also happened to have profoundly religious sensibilities (coincidence, I’m sure), had twin passions growing up: physics and Mozart. In 1929 he attended a concert by the Berlin Philharmonic, and was so affected that afterwards he rushed into the room of the star violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, and exclaimed: “Jetz weiss ich, dass es einen Gott im Himmel gibt!” Now I know that there is a God in Heaven!

Later on, at Princeton, he heard of a meeting of Christians where prayer would be offered for the Jews in Germany. He attended– and participated– with his violin.

#4 Comment By Douglas C. On October 19, 2013 @ 9:57 pm

“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”

Rod, no wonder I enjoy your writing, and feel akin to your path. Substitute “Chartres cathedral” with “Hagia Sophia”, and you’ve got a kernel of my spiritual path.

On what you might consider a too-whimsical note, I’ve been replaying a computer game called Baldur’s Gate. Don’t tune me out yet. It’s a re-release of what was considered at its time the pinnacle of role-playing computer games in the late 90s, and is based on the Dungeons and Dragons game I grew up with in the 70s and 80s. It’s led me to reflect deeply on immersive storytelling, the art of the video game, and the archetype of the mythological hero’s journey as described by Joseph Campbell. And it’s all become integrated with my prayer life, and my ability to summon courage to face the demons of my own day.

Don’t disparage Dante; don’t disparage the romantic mythic journey of your own imagination. Don’t disparage being in Louisiana, or of feeling the call to adventure.

I’ve always been moved by this early quote from Kallistos Ware’s “The Orthodox Way”:

“One of the best known of the Desert Fathers of fourth-century Egypt, St Sarapion the Sindonite, travelled once on pilgrimage to Rome. Here he was told of a celebrated recluse, a woman who lived always in one small room, never going out. Skeptical about her way of life – for he was himself a great wanderer – Sarapion called on her and asked: ‘Why are you sitting here?’ To this she replied: ‘I am not sitting, I am on a journey.'”

Venture in to your woods, wherever you may find them.

#5 Comment By Louis On October 19, 2013 @ 10:00 pm

Anyone interested in Art should read the article BOUGUEREAU AND THE REAL 19th century on the Art Renewal Center website. Real painting and sculpture largely went in the dumper because of WWI and the fall of the monarchies. Monarchies being Christian paid for the Art Academies which had continued the ideas of the renaissance. The Left of course brought all this to a screeching halt. Rod, you should check out Bouguereau’s PIETA which is on the website. Perhaps TAC can do a piece on this history. I am sure conservatives can bring more to light on this topic. Conservatives should be the ones explaining this stuff, but are often to busy squabbling about party politics. As a result the Left continues to dominate the arts.

#6 Comment By Charles Weaver On October 19, 2013 @ 10:19 pm

The current pope spoke eloquently on the same topic today:


“In every age the Church has called upon the arts to give expression to the beauty of her faith and to proclaim the Gospel message of the grandeur of God’s creation, the dignity of human beings made in his image and likeness, and the power of Christ’s death and resurrection to bring redemption and rebirth to a world touched by the tragedy of sin and death.”

#7 Comment By Bernie On October 19, 2013 @ 10:45 pm

“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.”

Art is not my portal to God. The observation of holiness in others is my magic doorway to God. Andrew Greeley in the 9/22/97 issue of “Newsweek” said:”Saints, real saints, are magical. They are luminous, transparent, irresistible. They enchant us, enthrall us, captivate us. They seem to be qualitatively different from the rest of humankind. They attract us not by preaching, much less by screeching, but by radiant goodness, irrepressible cheerfulness and devastating love. We are compelled to follow them, not because of what they say but because of who they are. Our aim is not necessarily to do what they do, but, rather, to try to be what they are”. They are the greatest lovers of God, both living and dead, and they are found in all religions. They reflect the beauty of God and point us to Him.

#8 Comment By Chris 1 On October 19, 2013 @ 11:10 pm

Apologetics will save the world. wrote no-one, ever.

Beauty, on the other hand…Chartres! Rublev! Bach! (As Charles Emerson Winchester III taught Radar O’Reilly: “Ah, Bach!”)

Theophan the Recluse taught us this:

You’ve got to get out of your head and into your heart. Right now your thoughts are in your head, and God seems to be outside you. Your prayer and all your spiritual exercises also remain exterior.

As long as you are in your head, you will never master your thoughts, which continue to whirl around your head like snow in a winter’s storm or like mosquitoes in the summer’s heat. If you descend into your heart, you will have no more difficulty.

Your mind will empty out and your thoughts will dissipate. Thoughts are always in your mind chasing one another about, and you will never manage to get them under control.

But if you enter into your heart and can remain there, then every time your thoughts invade, you will only have to descend into your heart and your thoughts will vanish into thin air. This will be your safe haven. Don’t be lazy. Descend. You will find life in your heart. There you must live.

Beauty is the path from the head to the heart.

[NFR: Yes! What a fantastic quote! — RD]

#9 Comment By MikeS On October 19, 2013 @ 11:43 pm

This is a great post and describes my own experience. After some years away from the church, I was re-invigorated in my faith by attending worship at a mainline Presbyterian Church that featured beautiful music, liturgy, and architecture. Later I drifted into a segment of evangelicalism of the type where the spoken word was all people thought was important (as did I, at the time). Eventually I found it arid and devoid of aesthetic, and I returned to a church where the aesthetic experience was valued. Music, art, beauty — these matter, to me at least. I get the sense from the writing on this blog, that the Catholic and the Orthodox accept this more than many Protestants.

#10 Comment By Charles Cosimano On October 20, 2013 @ 12:13 am

Hmm, not so sure. I started my interest in art when I was 14, buying books on the subject. I’ve dabbled in it myself, even was a silent partner in the ownership of a gallery at one point. In that milieu, it is impossible to escape the profound aesthetic experience. But no such experience touched a religious chord in me.

I think maybe my low-church Protestant upbringing immunized me.

#11 Comment By Frances in Tokyo On October 20, 2013 @ 12:52 am

My faith was initially nourished by the Narnia Chronicles and much later deeply influenced by the stunning artistic work of the contemporary Dutch artist Rien Poortvliet’s book He Was One of Us (a portrayal of the life of Jesus). I urge you to peruse the latter online for a sample.

If my memory serves me, Lewis wrote the Chronicles as an attempt to reach children’s hearts as opposed to his previous apologetics.

Finally, read Lewis’s ‘Til We Have Faces. Almost no one refers to it, but it is surely his most insightful and brilliant work.

#12 Comment By Darth Thulhu On October 20, 2013 @ 1:15 am

This series of posts has been really beautiful. It’s a pleasure seeing you have a steady stream of small epiphanies and then eagerly rush here to tell us all about them. “Boyish” in the best sense of that term : )

#13 Comment By Rombald On October 20, 2013 @ 3:01 am

As Sam asked, I wonder whether art from other relgions has the same effect.

I also wonder whether religious ugliness has the reverse effect. Modern churches are almost universally ugly; brutalist concrete cathedrals, or tacky suburban brick, surrounded by car parks, almost consciously trying to look like shopping malls. In Japan, churches seem to be ugly deliberately, to distance Christianity from Shinto and Japanese Buddhism, which place a lot of value on aesthetics.

Even old religious art often seems ugly to me. For every beautiful English mediaeval village church there’s a grotesquely ornate Spanish one, with saints’ bones loaded down with gold. Cosimano once mentioned about the ugliness of the Cistine Chapel painting, and, although I’ve never seen it, I do find Italian Renaissance art almost uniquely ugly in pre-20th European artistic history.

I think if you wanted to make a case for theism on the basis of beauty, it would be better based on nature. Perception of some types of beauty – a woman, or a fertile landscape – offer evolutinary advantage, but that does not apply to finding beauty in dangerous or neutral things – mountain ranges, the sea, the night sky, etc. I have never actually seen an apologetic Argument from Beauty, but I think there is one to be made.

[NFR: You’re on to something. I find ugly churches make me feel alien to God. I don’t know that one could make a case for God’s existence based on Beauty, but I think it’s fairly common to become more aware of the divine presence when contemplating Beauty, whether in nature or in the built environment. In our little Orthodox mission out in the country, you know when you walk into that church that you are in a place unlike any other you will be in all week, and that this place is reserved for God. You know this without having to be told, given the aesthetics of the place. And we are poor. Still, you know. — RD]

#14 Comment By James C. On October 20, 2013 @ 5:19 am

So much feasting for thought and heart here.

I read Dante a few years before I was a Christian. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t have a powerful effect on me. But then, again, perhaps it did! Not all seeds planted are perceptible later. I would very much like to read it again now that I’ve been a Catholic for 7 years; perhaps I’ll have a shock of recognition.

One powerful seed that I did notice at the time, and it has remained with me since: Notre-Dame-de-Chartres. I was literally awestruck by her. And awe is the beginning of faith.

#15 Comment By James C. On October 20, 2013 @ 5:27 am

Regarding Bach, I recall a lecture I attended given by the philosopher Peter Kreeft on the various arguments for the existence of God. After going over the classic and contemporary arguments, he concluded by expressing to us what he called the most effective argument:

Given: Johan Sebastian Bach

Therefore: God exists.

#16 Comment By Alison On October 20, 2013 @ 7:09 am

This is a great post with lots to ponder.

#17 Comment By Beth On October 20, 2013 @ 2:45 pm

Physical ugliness in churches can certainly be off putting, but so can musical ugliness. I have found myself reduced to a depressed spiritual state by the odd, atonal musical settings of the sung prayers of the Mass, in my former Catholic days. I once remarked to a female cantor ( who had a lovely voice), how the dissonant music for that day’s psalm thoroughly contradicted the beauty of the words. She seemed disinterested, and dashed away. Sad, because beautiful music can be a very joyful part of worship.

#18 Comment By Michael Guarino On October 20, 2013 @ 5:14 pm

Rod, you really need to read Dostoevsky. The interplay between beauty, art, and religion is a major theme in The Brothers Karamazov and the Idiot. They were a huge influence in my spiritual development.

They also are placed in a thematic context of deep doubt (Ivan Karamazov’s doubt is most prominent, but it is also baked into Dostoevsky as well), which adds to the power of the works. The way aesthetics plays with our epistemics, especially in the political, spiritual, philosophical realm is something that is really interesting to dwell on. And Dostoevsky does so masterfully.

From what I understand from your blog, these are themes that interest you greatly.

#19 Comment By Ben From Ireland On October 20, 2013 @ 5:41 pm

Regarding that update: That was such a beautiful, profound post… are you just going to ignore those images because you should have refused them? I mean, is it possible that the Orthodox Church common practice might be wrong here?

#20 Comment By Bernie On October 20, 2013 @ 5:43 pm

Beth, I’m sorry you had unpleasant music in your church, especially the psalm refrain, which is the loveliest part of the Mass to my ears. For decades our cantors have sung the refrain so beautifully, and the congregation along with the choir have sung the verses so well, that I’m sorry when that part of the Mass ends. The chanting of the psalms should do credit to their rich content.

#21 Comment By Peter On October 20, 2013 @ 7:50 pm

As a fellow Orthodox who has also tried to practice the Jesus Prayer in various contexts and at various times in my life, I feel that the many admonitions and warnings that are often given about the Jesus Prayer (don’t have images in your mind, don’t use breathing techniques if you’re a beginner, etc.) are often not very helpful. In my experience, obsession with proper technique usually itself becomes a distraction and it’s better to just do the best I can and trust that God’s grace and regular participation in the sacramental life of the Church will cover any faults in “technique”.

I’ve always appreciated the imminently practical advice from our parish priest:

“How should you pray? Any way you can.”

As someone who struggles to consistently do ANY sort of regular prayer, I find that advice pretty refreshing.

#22 Comment By Robert On October 20, 2013 @ 8:22 pm

Okay, in any discussion of saints, there should be (even if, in the post-JP2 Vatican, there no longer is) a devil’s advocate. Cue Evelyn Waugh:

“I cannot think of a single saint who attached much importance to art … The Church and the world need monks and nuns more than they need writers. These merely decorate. The Church can get along very well without them.”


(And – to cite Waugh again – perhaps a monetary prize should be awarded to the longest answer, irrespective of merit.)

#23 Comment By Virgil T. Morant On October 20, 2013 @ 9:04 pm

In response to the update and the couple of comments about it, let me quote this from the post and make an observation or two:

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.

Perhaps it has done those things. Perhaps a beautiful image or sequence from a movie or a glorious cathedral did help you to know God more intimately: or perhaps it did not. We are, after all, talking about the particular kinds of Orthodox prayer that involve hesychia (inner stillness) and kenosis (self-emptying), and yet being profoundly moved by a glorious work of man-made art or architecture is inherently material and even introduces the mediation of man’s work or earthly works into an effort that is supposed to be a still and self-emptying communion with God.

Among the many warnings in the Church Fathers and ascetics of Orthodoxy, a prominent theme is the spiritual peril of it by way of human arrogance. One can be readily fooled by one’s imagination. Did you commune with God by experiencing a work of art during prayer? If you did, then all is well, but if you did not–if it is only or mostly your imagination–then you have committed yourself to a vain conclusion. As in, “A-ha! I have found a way and gotten to know my Lord better through this!” We don’t pray in order to accomplish in this manner, and the danger of it in certain forms of prayer is great: the spiritual danger (or an arrogant or egoistic attitude) should be clear.

So, yeah, I think the counsel against relying on imagination during this kind of prayer is very good to heed. And, mind you, none of this is censure against anyone here, not our columnist or anyone else. Just a comment to note that there are good reasons for the advice given to Mr. Dreher that led to the post update.

#24 Comment By Bernie On October 20, 2013 @ 9:46 pm


I guess it depends on how one defines *art*, as to whether or not the saints attached importance to it. If the word *beauty*, instead of *art*, were used in the title of the post, it would read *Beauty as a Means of Religious Conversion.” This would include love, truth, art, music, writing, nature, and holiness. All of these have the power of transcendence to free us from our normal life to a place we find our truest self. This is where we find God, and ourselves, in the most authentic and intimate way.

The saints have all experienced some form(s)of beauty and have been influenced by it, as it reflected God to them. Two *saints of poverty*, who owned nothing, Francis and Clare of Assisi, allowed themselves the beauty of nature, Clare with her flower garden, and Francis will all of nature. So if *art* is not narrowly defined, all the saints, both living and dead, in all religions, have been drawn to God by beauty, one form of which is art.

#25 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 20, 2013 @ 10:27 pm

Now that was well said Bernie. May there always be beauty to retire to, after debating the mundane minutiae of life.

#26 Comment By Robert On October 21, 2013 @ 12:11 am

Well, Bernie, Waugh makes it quite clear from the contexts of his sentences that by “art” he meant what most people would call “the arts” – figurative, literary, and musical – or perhaps “the humanities”. (Incidentally, I did rather naughtily conflate sentences from two different Waugh sources. The sentence starting “I cannot think” comes from a 1949 letter to the non-Catholic biographer and critic Lord David Cecil; the other sentences, also written in 1949, come from Waugh’s famous Life magazine essay “The American Epoch in the Catholic Church.”)

#27 Comment By BillWAF On October 21, 2013 @ 3:08 am

Despite Ratzinger’s proclamation, Leonard Bernstein, who experienced the music with more knowledge than Ratzinger, never converted.

#28 Comment By Ann Olivier On October 21, 2013 @ 4:06 am

I cannot help but think that Plato himself was a saint, a mystic who loved The Good above all else. And certainly he valued appreciation of beauty as an important step toward The Good. And, in fact, he identified The Good and The Beautiful which, I do not doubt, accounts for much of his tremendous influence on Western mysticism.

#29 Comment By Sam M On October 21, 2013 @ 7:42 am

The question is interesting because while Dante might not be engaged in direct apologetics, it’s not like the Inferno is “beauty” devoid of content, like you might see with a statue or a beautiful piece of music. It’s an direct allegory, and the religious content and intent is obvious.

Also, there is the question of the beauty. Yes, the translation matters, but I don’t think anyone is ever going to be able to fully grasp the aesthetics as they were received by Dante’s intended audience. Rather than the high art we view it as today, it was written in the vernacular. Snobby art types looked down their noses at it. It was kind of the early version of great TV, no? Accessible! Not forcing the rabble to work! It’s not even a proper epic poem!

The fact that the modern reader does need to work a bit to understand it means something. Like I said, a truly modern translation would probably be a sitcom, no? A reality TV version?

That’s who it’s trying to reach, right?

#30 Comment By Bernie On October 21, 2013 @ 9:12 am

Thanks, Siarlys…may it be so for all of us!

#31 Comment By Ann Olivier On October 21, 2013 @ 4:10 pm

The basic question here is, I think, whether or not the appreciation of material beauty/art can lead us to know and love God better. A secondary question is: can we find God *in* the material world?

Some contemplatives speak of seeking God in what transcends this physical world, and surely the mystics have shown that, yes, turning consciousness inward towards the depths of the soul sometimes does lead to an experience of the presence of God within the soul. But it seems to me that it is perfectly orthodox to believe that God is present in, immanent in not only the limited spiritual world of man and angels, but He is also immanent in all the material things of His creation. Yes, He transcends this world, but He is also here.

I’ve read mystics of many sorts of traditions, and one thing that has struck me is that the usual Catholic mystic is of the sort who turns inward to seek awareness of God’s presence. But I’ve run across a few quite orthodox Protestants who describe being aware of God’s presence in nature, the most conspicuous one being the great Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards. Unlike the usual so-called “nature mystics” who identify themselves with nature and with God as well, there is no such confusion in Edwards’ ecstatic realization of the presence of God in His creation. He does not confuse the two!

I strongly recommend R. C. Zaehner’s “Mysticism: Sacred and Profane” for a Christian (Catholic’s) consideration of three basically different sorts of ecstatic experience usually call “mystical”. In one type (typical of the mystics in the Abrahamic religions) the mystic turns his attention inwards. Sometimes God reveals Himself to such mystics. See Teresa of Avila or Ruysbroeck. Zaehner says these are genuine religious experiences of God, Himself. Another sort of mystic who turns inward finds only the depths/heights of her amazingly beautiful soul and she mistakes her soul for God. The third type of mystic expands her attention to the outside world and experiences herself as identical with everything, and all things as identical with each otter. (Zaehner himself had this type of experience, but says that the mental structure of the experience is very like schizophrenic thinking and is not true knowledge, though affectively it is ecstatic.)

It also seems to me that the experiences such as Edwards’ is a fourth type — of God within nature. If one believes that God is immanent in the world, then why not?

Further, images of the imagination, including memories, are also part of God’s creation. Why wouldn’t they also be places to look for and even find Him?

People vary greatly. It is always, it seems to me, dangerous to make absolutely universal statements about any group of us. (And I just made such a statement 🙂