ART AND CHRISTIAN SPIRITUALITY:
COMPANIONS IN THE WAY

By Luci Shaw

 

In the 1870s Jules Verne, possibly the first sci-fi writer of our contemporary age, wrote his novel The Desert of Ice. In the 1970s The Scientific American took note of a device employed by Verne to extract his protagonists, a band of Arctic explorers, from a seemingly inextricable dilemma. Their wooden sailing ship had been crushed to splinters in the grip of polar ice, leaving them stranded in the uninhabited and inhospitable reaches of the polar ice cap. To rescue them and to provide his novel with a more felicitous ending Verne describes how these inventive adventurers carved an ice lens from clear ice, through which they focused the sun's rays on wooden splinters from their ship, kindling a life-saving fire which allowed them heat enough to survive until they were rescued. Implausible? The Scientific American editors thought so until they managed to duplicate the experiment and kindle a flame using a lens of ice.

When I read the account of this paradoxical kindling of fire from ice, my imagination was also kindled; the story cried out to me to be written into a poem. Consider the resulting work, "Saved by optics":

First, they must find a chip
of cold

that has always wanted to see,
to channel the light.
Then, with hands devoid
of electricity

without matches, even,
and with only splinters
of strength left

they must carve it out-the rough
eyeball-from under the brow
of this ice continent

and polish it between
their curved palms' last warmth
into the double convex
of a lens

a gem without frost, or crack,
cleansed by the flow
of its own tears.

Next, they must wait, shivering,
for the slow sun
to reach the zenith
of his readiness

to work with them. Now.
Focused in the eye
of ice

(angled exactly,
though its chill finds each
of their fingers' bones)

a matchless flame collects
until the concentrated scrutiny
of light

reads the dry tinder
into a saving kindling-ice's gift
of heat, and paradox.1

I had felt no compelling theological motivation to write this poem, simply a fascination with an intriguing physical phenomenon. But much later, as I reread the completed poem with a more critical eye (the fires of composition having cooled), I became aware of some correspondences that had until then escaped my attention:

Here was a group of helpless, hopeless human beings in a crisis of existential need, on the verge of extinction in the Arctic freeze, condemned to die by their own inability to create enough warmth to survive. Cold is the antithesis of energy and life, and they were utterly vulnerable to it, their own small internal wicks of flame too easily snuffed, their one source of heat being the remote sun, its energy untapped until a creative mind applied a simple principle of physics to the situation. The link between the helpless humans ("without strength" is the biblical phrase that comes to mind) and God, the source of all light, warmth, life, was "a lens," and spontaneously I made the mental connection with Christ become human, carved, as it were, from the ice continent itself, because he had "always wanted" to be a channel for light. Once again the Incarnation is there to be recognized as the central theological truth for our lives.

Further connections began to show up in my mind. This flawless Christ, "a lens without frost, or crack," his flame "matchless," (the word play also touches on the plight of being without matches in the wilderness), was also fully human, weeping for us and with us. Images of cold and heat, light and seeing, pervade the poem, as does the idea of salvation, and grace, appearing in the "gift" of warmth. "Now"-the moment of truth and transformation when the sun's light becomes a searing pinpoint of heat-reminds us of the scripture's "Now is the accepted time. . . the day of salvation" to be patiently awaited throughout history. In this context, the meaning that emerged for me was that Jesus Christ, God's lens, in whom divine love is uniquely focused, translates the splintered fragmented tinder of our lives into something of life-enhancing value which can perpetuate the flame, just as the crystalline properties of the ice lens turned the very cause of extinction-cold-into something of life-giving value for Verne's heroes.

The Universality of Artistic Expression

It has been said that faith is "a certain widening of the imagination." When Mary asked the angel, "How shall these things be?" she was asking God to widen her imagination.

All my life I have been requesting the same thing-a baptized imagination with a wide enough faith to see the numinous in the ordinary. Without discarding reason or critical analysis, I seek from my Muse, the Holy Spirit, images that will open up reality and pull me in to its center.

Our Christian sacramentalism accepts all of existence as falling under the sovereignty and beneficence of the Creator. The Logos not only spoke the universe into being; he still embraces it, defining and redefining it, assigning it meaning and value at every level. As C.S. Lewis put it: "I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else."

I seldom sit down to write an explicitly "Christian" poem. But again and again I have found that as I allow the created universe and the ingrained scripture to illuminate me, what I deeply believe pushes up through the fabric of words, often in the most surprising and unplanned way. Usually my compulsion to write comes simply from my astonishment at a striking image. (Poetry is, after all, "the language in which we explore our own amazement," as poet Christopher Fry put it.) But again and again the result suggests how the partnership of art and spirituality probes the meanings that lie beneath the surface of all phenomena, waiting to be recognized and acknowledged. And this is, of course, the benison of the sacramental view of life, in which everything points to something, and everything is significant-a sign, a symbol.

I suspect that as we penetrate this thicket of meaning, some definitions are necessary to enable us to see and celebrate the connection of these two related but distinct modes of seeing and expression.

For me art is the impulse that gathers materials from our disparate but rich and compellingly diverse universe and assembles them in a way that brings a kind of order out of their chaos, an order with elements of both conflict and resolution. Art is also the result of our human impulse to find expression for that something within us that responds to the stimuli surrounding us, crying out to be expressed, to find meaning in beauty, or terror, or sex, or something as mundane as food, and to reflect this in a form, a medium which produces a response-awe, excitement, disgust, wonder, even shock or anger, in those around us. I've concluded that there is nothing in the universe about which poetry cannot be written.

This aesthetic impulse seems to be universal. Art finds meaning in all of human experience or endeavor, drawing from it strength and surprise by reminding us of what we know but may never have recognized truly before, transcending our particularity with soaring ease.

There is no society on earth that does not attempt to decorate or embellish or enhance its dwelling places, its garments, its artifacts, its language, or the human body itself, either with graphic design, or fabric, or song, or word, or ritual. Just consider the act of getting dressed for the day-you getting dressed for this day-and realize what delicate and calculated decisions were required for you to present yourself in public. It's not enough for us to be warm and decent. We aim to attract and impress as well!

But art goes beyond attractiveness. It takes off the clothes of the world and revels in the complexity of the body beneath, sooner or later selling tickets to the exhibit. Maybe art and religion are aligned because religion also undresses the world in its attempt to seek and find, knock, and trust that God will open the door to truth, beauty, and the meaning of our living.

Art lays bare our realities, and religion opens our experience up to God. Think of the wonderful iconography of the Greek and Russian Orthodox communities. Think of the way native American art, and animistic African art mirror their belief systems. And Christian church structure, with its cross-shaped nave and transept, its wealth of sign and symbol and story in stained glass, stone and wood carving, and the very design of the church building itself (which was called, in preliterate society, "the poor people's Bible," because it filled the heart and mind with images and colors and shapes that spoke of divine realities). Art was seen in medieval and renaissance painting and sculpture and music as a vehicle for expressing the glory of God. In the Baroque era composers such as Bach made notations on their musical scores: "Soli gloria deo"-"glory to God alone." Art and religion were truly married.

With the Enlightenment, art and religion began to split apart in European and Western culture, so that even a poet as deeply in tune with the natural and supernatural worlds as Gerard Manley Hopkins felt compelled to burn his early work, a sacrifice he labeled "the slaughter of the innocents." For seven years thereafter Hopkins rigorously disciplined himself, attempting in his priestly role to worship and serve God apart from poetry until his religious superior hinted in his hearing that "someone" ought to write a poem about the wreck of the ship the "Deutschland"-which spurred Hopkins's poetry career anew.

"A Leap into the Transcendent"

In our created universe pure functionality might have seemed to be enough to fulfill God's creative purpose. We might ask, "How essential is beauty to the working of the universe?" Philosophers and metaphysicians may disagree about this, though surprisingly "elegance" is something that today's scientists strive for in their theories and equations. For me it seems that the inclusion of the desire and appreciation for the beautiful is gratuitous-and infusion of pure Grace, a reflection of the generous heart of the Creator. When we create something appealing, even in an act as pragmatic as the way we arrange our living rooms and choose the color of the wallpaper, or add a new typeface to our printer fonts, we show our integral relationship with the Creator. God, the first Quilter of prairies, the prime Painter (sunsets, thunderheads, forget-me-nots), the archetypal metal Sculptor (mountain ranges, crystalline structures), the Composer who heard bird songs, and the whales' strange, sonorous clickings and croonings in his head long before there were birds or whales to sing them, the Poet whose Word was "full of grace and truth"-translated his own divine image in our human flesh so that we too are participants in creative intelligence and originality. As Frederick Buechner says: "Beauty is to the spirit what food is to the flesh. It fills an emptiness in you which nothing else can fill."

Art often speaks to us subliminally, sub-liminally, "below the threshold" of our conscious awareness. Limen is Latin for threshold, and is often applied in connection with the kind of knowledge which comes to us in ways which bypass both our cognitive reasoning and our senses. In that regard, art-poetry, music, painting, dance-helps us to see the unseeable and know the unknowable, ushering us into the realm of the transcendent. Imagination, which is spirituality's other half, is the window to the soul/spirit-that capacity programmed into us to see pictures in our heads. As Dorothy Sayers has said, "We see the Creed as a series of pictures." Imagination and metaphor, the making of truth or story into verbal pictures rather than abstract prose statements, is the methodology consistently called upon in the imagery of the scripture-the teaching tool on which God has set the imprint of approval by constant use. One-third of the Bible is vivid poetry. Rather than teach or correct only through abstractions or doctrinal statements, the Bible shows us through myth, story, parable, vision, poetry, illustration, dreams, both analogical and anagogical images, all of which open us to new understanding and meaning. And imagery doesn't need to be explained. Its content is felt and experienced imaginatively, a kind of learning which happens constantly and almost unconsciously. An image prints itself on the mind, and perhaps years later a spiritual connection is made, like a small epiphany. As Emily Dickinson put it, "the truth must dazzle gradually."

The Poet as a Window

Lord, how can man preach thy eternall word?
He is a brittle crazie glasse:
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
This glorious and transcendent place,
To be a window, through thy grace.

Doctrine and life, colours and light, in now
When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe. . . .
-George Herbert

What an incredible process. Aren't you astonished at the way the link between the visible and invisible worlds is made? Faith is not linear. It is, indeed, a widening of the imagination, a leap into the transcendent, a taste of the numinous, the ability to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. And our coach for the leap, the glue in the link, is our Muse, the Spirit of God.

A phenomenal resource, the Spirit. As Christians and artists we are not just followers, plodding imitators, or self-propelled innovators. We are empowered from within our own God-given imaginations by the First Poet, the Primal Artist, the Original Composer. Our own creative spirits, made in the image of Another, are boosted and blessed and set on fire by our union with God in Christ.

There is a radical nature to both art and faith. Both are epiphanic-"manifestations." Both are transformative; we are changed as we enter their gleaming realms. They are full of inexplicable transitions and showings, mysterious both in their origin and mechanism.

Does art impact our spirituality? Does spirituality affect our art? Yes. And yes. The two seem symbiotic, each feeding on and in turn nourishing the other. They work in tandem; it is hard to imagine an artist who is totally unspiritual in the sense of being out of touch with both created and unseen worlds. And it is hard to imagine a person full of Spirit who is not in some way creative, innovative, world-disturbing.

Fullness of life in both arenas of art and spirituality demands that we let go, that we relinquish control-something that goes against the human grain, particularly in a culture obsessed with empowerment. Here we are, trying to bring order and beauty out of chaos, gaining a kind of discipline and control, exercising the authority of experience and hard-won wisdom, and we have to let it go? How seemingly counterproductive! But it is in both the acceptance and use of the gift, and the giving it back that we find the rounding out of the process, the completion, the deepest fulfillment. We must give of ourselves to art, but we must accept that what we have to give is never enough, that for eternal significance any art, literature, music, drama must be Spirit-driven, Spirit-imprinted.

In his book Finally Comes the Poet, Walter Brueggemann tells us that poetry is necessary to "disclose" truths that are "closed" by prose:

Our technical way of thinking (which Brueggemann identifies with prose writing) reduced mystery to problem, transforms assurance to rigid certitude, revises quality into quantity, and so takes the categories of biblical faith and represents them in manageable shapes. . . . There is then no danger, no energy, no possibility, no opening for newness. . . . truth is greatly reduced. To address the issue of a truth greatly reduces requires us to be poets who speak against a prose world.2

So, for Brueggemann, art allows us to oppose the false clarity of over-simplification, and disclose the truth in its diverse richness and complexity, its subtle nuance, which makes it less manageable, but no less true.

Spirituality and the Creative Impulse

In the context of control and manageability, the word "surrender" comes to mind-a word with somewhat negative connotations for me. It speaks too loudly of the sawdust trail, the guilt-charged evangelistic meetings of my youth. My word of choice is "abandon," a wild and crazy word whose noun form is as powerful to me as its verb form. In Walking on Water, Madeleine L'Engle has said that "to be an artist means to approach the light, and that means to let go our control, to allow our whole selves to be placed with absolute faith in that which is greater than we are."3 And when God created us with free wills, he let go his control, relinquishing the glory of heaven, giving his power away. But you know that story. . .

Back to definitions. What do we mean by spirituality? In the conservative British evangelical circles in which I grew up, a fellow Christian might have been described as being "spiritually on fire," or "spiritually keen," a phrase which referred to devout, sold-out commitment to Christ. The crucial question on which one's eternal destiny seemed to hang in those circles was "Is he (or she) interested in spiritual things?"

Today the term has far broader and hazier edges, often without a specifically religious connotation. Someone described as "spiritual" is thought to be in touch with the nonmaterial, transcendent world of ideas and emotions; to be "sensitive," open-minded, as much attuned to the soul as to the body. Under the nomenclature of "spirituality" we have not only the concern of Christians who wish to live out their faith authentically, but also those who seek an eclectic mix of notions that suit their individual religious eccentricities. The massage therapist I sometimes visit describes herself as spiritual; so does a psychotherapist friend and the young man who does my hair. In a recent journal workshop I led at a Presbyterian church, one visiting group member identified herself as a white witch, purring to the circle of curious faces, "I'm deeply spiritual." I have a Siamese cat whose silent, mysterious comings and goings and whose penetrating sapphire gaze might qualify him as spiritual by such contemporary definitions; he goes on retreat, for goodness' sake, spending much of his time holed up behind the Bible commentaries in my office bookcase-a spiritual cat.

This aspect of spirituality partakes more of that characteristic described by the French as spirituelle than what is for me a more central description-that Christian spirituality which is rooted in a relationship with Christ and mediated by Christ's Spirit. We come to the understanding and practice of spirituality mainly by way of revelation-through the primary revelations-the biblical canon and the Christ of Scripture which are often linked, for me with the "second Bible" of the natural universe, with all its clues and hints to God's creatorship.

On the other hand, my spiritual director, a wonderfully fresh, earthy, intuitive, biblically literate Roman Catholic woman, is one of the people with whom the word "spiritual" fits most authentically and appropriately; to be with her is to be in Christ's presence. It also fits my son John, a poet and tropical disease specialist in South Africa who has been a kindred spirit and fellow pilgrim with me most of his life. Today our investigations of the ways of God take place mostly by e-mail and fax; spirituality is not necessarily technophobic.

The trouble with all this defining and redefining is that the word "spirituality" becomes so broadly defined as to be almost emptied of significance. It can mean whatever we want it to mean.

But the persistence of spiritual hunger and thirst-those seasons of drought and rain in poetry, in the weather, and in spiritual vitality-or a sense of connection with God the transcendent Almighty, in the context of an overwhelmingly material universe-is a kind of evidence of spirituality's existence and importance. In C.S. Lewis's words: "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world." Spirituality and spiritual reality do not lend themselves to physical analysis, nor are they susceptible to rational proof. But neither can they be denied. And though invisible and intangible, their very evanescence is a challenge that makes us want them more, and draws us out in the strenuous effort of question and search.

But in this, spirituality is very like the creative impulse towards art-often fickle and unpredictable. We have an untamable, undomesticated God (whom we tend to trivialize and formalize in order to feel safe) and the artistic and spiritual gifts from this Creator's hand are not to be summoned with a flick of the wrist or a pleading tone of voice.

Listen to what Annie Dillard says:

It is the fault of infinity to be too small to find. It is a fault of eternity to be crowded out by time. Before our eyes we see an unbroken sheath of colors. We live over a bulk of things. We walk amid a congeries of colored things which part before our steps to reveal more colored things. Above us hurtle more things, which fill the universe. There is no crack. Where then is the gap through which eternity streams? Materials wrap us seamlessly; time propels us ceaselessly. Muffled and bound we pitch forward from one filled hour to the next, from one filled landscape or house to the next. No rift between one note of the chorus and the next opens on infinity. No spear of eternity interposes itself between work and lunch.

And this is what we love. . . our lives, our times, our generation, our pursuits. And we are called to forsake these vivid and palpable goods for an idea of which we experience not one trace? Am I to believe eternity outranks my child's finger?. . .

She goes on,
The idea of eternity is that it bears time in its side like hole. Let us rest the material view and consider, just consider, that the weft of materials admits of a very few, faint, unlikely gaps. People are, after all, still disappearing, still roping robes on themselves, still braving the work of prayer, insisting they hear something, even fighting and still dying for it. The impulse to a spiritual view persists, and the evidence of that view's power among historical forces and among contemporary ideas persists, and the claim of reasoning mean and women that they know God from experience persists.4

This mystery, this spill of clues to an unseen reality, is very much a part of the artist's as well as the mystic's life. I wait in silence by the sea, or in the woods, or in the silence of two a.m. when I cannot sleep, or more likely, in the press of a desk overburdened with other people's urgencies, for a poem to call me, claim me, write me, much as I wait, in prayer, for my God to speak, to respond, to direct or correct me. I am not in control. I cannot turn on poetry or transcendence like a faucet. My job is to wait and see-literally to wait, and to see. And then, like the aging apostle on Patmos, to heed the injunction to "Fear not," but to "Write what I see." And it is the eyes of the imagination, widened by faith, which see, and which pleased Christ. "Blessed are your eyes, for they see," he said, "and your ears, for they hear."

In this waiting time I must be sure that my antennae are out, combing the air, ready to pull in the messages. Receptivity, yes. Waiting, yes. Awareness, yes. Active readiness, yes. For passivity has no place in the life of art or of Christian spirituality. Art and belief are not conveniences, nor do they call to us at convenient times. A poem will begin in my head as I prepare a dinner for eight, at which point I am likely to turn absent-minded, to break an egg into the garbage disposal or put a pot of hot coffee in the refrigerator and then search for it fruitlessly. God's Spirit will call me to prayer or contemplation as I am paying my bills or shopping for green beans and avocados. Or my mind will seize one idea after another all night long (when I really need the sleep) and I'm grateful for the collection jar of my computer monitor glowing in the dark which catches and holds those unanticipated, uninvited lightning bugs of ideas or phrases for the morning. And when that morning comes I am so energized by all this electric activity that I don't feel the lack of sleep. Like Dorothy Sayers at the completion of one of her novels, "I feel like God on the Seventh Day!"

While I was a student at Wheaton College, studying English Literature under the teacher who later became my mentor and the honorary grandfather to my children, Clyde Kilby, he presented me with a small paperback book titled The Creative Process, edited by Brewster Ghiselin. This was a compilation of essays by phenomenally gifted people in a number of diverse disciplines-astronomy, cosmology, molecular biology, musical composition, philosophy, architecture, theology, and of course, fiction and poetry. What they had all experienced in common, expressed in their letters, lectures, books, or journal entries, was the sense that their seminal ideas, the images and concepts which were foundational to their most important contributions to knowledge were given them from somewhere outside, beyond them. These gifts arrived unannounced-in what has been called the Eureka! syndrome. As poet Stephen Spender admitted in that very anthology, "My alpha-plus ideas arrived from God-knows-where, quite literally." Perhaps you're familiar with C.S. Lewis's account of how the Narnian Chronicles came into being; as Lewis remembered it, "As with the Ransom stories (his Space Trilogy), the Narnian tales began with seeing pictures in my head. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe all began with a picture of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood." Like a dream, this image appeared from nowhere, demanding that Lewis enflesh it in a story. But of course, it didn't come "from nowhere."

The Spirit's role as muse was not always welcome in my life. I can remember back in the 60s and 70s when our lives and our marriage were almost torn apart by wrenching problems with a rebellious adolescent, and in desperation I called to God for help in almost everything I experienced. Everything, that is, except my poetry, in which I felt I was doing quite well on my own, thank you. I was short-sighted enough to be afraid that if I abandoned my art to God he'd either take it away altogether (a nightmarish scenario that plagues most artists-the threat of sterility) or that he'd demand that it be more pious, more holy, more "devotional," less earthy, less me. And since I abhorred the saccharine moralizing and overblown sentimentality of a great deal of the so-called Christian poetry that landed on my editorial desk, writing supposedly inspired by the Holy Spirit (as in "the Holy Spirit gave me this poem last night and told me you are to publish it"), writing so patently bad that I blushed for the Spirit's reputation, I was reluctant to characterize myself as a Christian poet, though I was both a Christian and a poet.

How myopic of me! I have since learned to trust a God who is larger than my restricted notions of either art or spirituality, a God who is an artist and who knows the value of the creative act from experience.

But how does my art impact my spirituality? I find this happening most authentically in my journal, where art and spirituality form almost a single river. Because I am one person, one organic individual, my life and mind join in one stream of consciousness. I write in my journal whatever is going on internally at a given moment-the seed of a poem, its early stages of growth, a prayer for help, a suddenly perceived connection, even a joke or a bumper sticker that I want to remember. It is not all "spiritual." It is not all "art." But it is all a part of my life which works to enlarge me on both fronts.
The Muse moves mysterious as ghost. I conclude with a poem about that mysterious and holy ghost:

Ghostly

I think often about the invisible
God-doubly covert. I mean, now and again
Father and Son made their appearances,
speaking bold in thunder, blood,
or salvation. But the Third Person is a ghost. Sometimes
he silvers for a moment, a moon sliver
between moving leaves. We aren't sure.

What to make of this . . . How
to see breath? As energy
hovering, birdlike, over chaos,
breeding it into ferns and whales;
blessing the scalps of the righteous
with a pungency of oil; bleeding the hard
edge of warning into all those
prophet voices; etching
Ezekiel's view with oddities-
eyes in wheels spinning like astrolabes;
crowding Mary's womb
to seed its dark clay; wising up fools
to improbable truth; filling us like
wine bottles; bursting from our mouths in
Champagne gasps of surprise? This for sure-
he finds enough masks to keep us guessing:
Is it really you? Is this you also?

It's a cracked, crossover world, waiting
for bridges. He escapes our categories,
choosing his own freeforms-fire, dove,
wind, water, oil-closing the breach
in figures that flicker within
the closed eye, tongue the brain, sting
and tutor the soul. Once incarnate
in Judaea, now he is present (in us
in the present tense), occupying our bodies-
shapes to be reshaped-houses
for this holy ghost. In our special flesh
he thrives into something
too frequent to deny, too real to see.5

 

1. Luci Shaw, Polishing the Petoskey Stone, (Wheaton, Ill.: Shaw Publishers, 1990).
2. Walter Brueggemann, Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1988).
3. Madeleine L'Engle, Walking on Water, (Wheaton, Ill.: Shaw Publishers, 1980).
4. Annie Dillard, "The Gospel According to St. Luke," in Incarnation, edited by Alfred Corn, 1990, pp. 225-26.
5. Luci Shaw, Polishing the Petoskey Stone, (Wheaton, Ill.: Shaw Publishers, 1990).