Van Gogh Rediscovered

Having seen the film, “Lust for Life,” several years ago, I had some familiarity with the life of Vincent Van Gogh. It’s a compelling story and I confess to knowing only the broad strokes (so to speak), the main events of his life. Otherwise, I’ve had only the most elementary appreciation of his style of painting.

As a young adult and son of a minister, Van Gogh made a few tries at different vocations. For a while, his middle-class family financially supported him in these trials. A significant one was his working as a lay preacher, ministering to the very poor miners and peasants of Belgium. Following literally the Gospel, he chose to live in the same squalid conditions of the people he served, illustrated in this somber painting, “The Potato Eaters.”

Ecclesiastical leaders, however, were not pleased, feeling that this life style demeaned his clerical status.

Vincent was rejected from the program. Even at this early part of his life, his father thought he was a lunatic and wanted to put him in an asylum.

Fast-forward to find online a four-part series on his life. Vincent is telling his brother Théo that he now intends to devote his life to painting. Théo angrily asks why Vincent is living once again in the poorest of conditions. “I can understand why you did this as a minister of the Gospel, but now it’s just absurd!” Vincent tries to explain that painting is truly his vocation.

“God is here,” he shouts. “God is everywhere, except in the church and in my bloody family!”

Théo walks away quite defeated, but nevertheless goes on to support his older brother for many years, both financially and emotionally.

What has drawn me to write about Van Gogh this week is his very Ignatian statement about finding God in all things. For me, this explains the vivid character of his art, especially as created in the famous painting, “Starry Night.”Stars are believed to be so steady, so unchanging, that mariners could set their position and destination by them.  But in Van Gogh’s painting they are full of life, energy, movement. This was how Vincent could paint the unpaintable truth that God is the source of all life — not just on our puny planet, but throughout the whole universe.

Once again we discover the creative intuition of an artist. I’m convinced that such artists are given to us to provide an unending stream of  visions of the divine Creator. We cannot yet see the Creator face-to-face, but as in a glass, darkly, as St. Paul reminds us.  “Just show us the Father,” St. Philip asks Jesus, “that will be enough for us.”

Jesus replies, “Who sees me sees the Father.”

All of us, either through art or prayer, have been given the invitation and ability to show others the Father in ourselves; to see him in the created universe and in one another.

Birth of a Post

Since starting my blog almost three years ago, I now arrive at publishing my 105th post. Several more drafts languish in their dusty, segregated folder. Sometimes I hear the question, “How do you decide on a topic?”
First, “decide.” This implies a process something like going through a smorgasbord, looking and sniffing at the most appealing and fragrant food to put on my plate, then happily relaxing and munching away.
How do I decide what to write? Frankly, I don’t. The title of my blog, Spirit as Muse, really says it all. The Muse at work here is none other than the Holy Spirit who, sometimes gently, sometimes urgently, pricks me into action. That is, if the Spirit has found in me a quiet and secluded space in which to act.
There may be some compelling event in the Church, such as the troubling and persistent news about clerical abuse of the innocent, or situations where legalism wins out over Mercy. Or Pope Francis may have made a statement that strikes me, such as, “The Eucharist . . . is not a prize for the perfect, but medicine and nourishment for the weak.” [The Joy of the Gospel] Or some words of Scripture charm me, pushing me to understand and proclaim their reality. Frequently it’s the beauty of art, poetry, music, or the lure of nature that sparks my imagination. Another tease may be the desire to refresh platitudes or rote prayers that have, alas!, lost their true meaning through mindless repetition.
So I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and let the thoughts come as they may. This is the easy part. The work part is trying to clarify the thoughts, to put them all in an order that will make them as understandable and alluring to others as possible.
It’s like seeing a shiny and precious shard, half buried in a littered landscape. Once a topic takes ahold of me, I allow it to go wherever it wants. Soon I rescue it, uncover it, make it my own, and share it with others.
So, pen glides over page, words jump out of the keyboard as my thoughts dance about, poking here, pinching there, scraping away the moldy stuff that’s been hiding some infinitesimally small but precious nugget.
As the digging continues, the treasure grows and grows,

becoming more luminous (I hope!) with every edit. Rearranging the words is like moving around the props on a stage set. They must be placed just so, so that they will give substance to the reality that had been hidden from the audience. More questions arise, playing the part of the lighting director who points the lamps at different angles until the mystery becomes clear at last.
I so often wish I could be visited by Emily Dickinson’s Muse (in addition to the Holy Spirit, of course), so that everyday words would simply fall together to paint something of beauty; where ordinary expressions would swirl about in all their simplicity until the inspiration that started it all shapes the fluttering words into a transcendent reality that will show, at least in part, the emerging face of God.
For God is in all things, even in words – especially in The Word through which God made all things, and finally us in his image and likeness.

A Touch of Genius

Or, Finding God in Mozart

My new classical music station of choice is WQXR-FM out of New York City. No, this isn’t a paid commercial. I just want to express my appreciation for having this great channel. I even like their style of fundraising and proved it by making a donation! They were playing Mozart at the time, and were offering donors a couple of CDs with the “best of Mozart.” I don’t know how you’d go about selecting M’s best — it’s all so spectacular!

As you may know by now, if you’re a reader of my blogs, sometimes a thought jumps into my head and prompts other ideas to germinate. I consider this a blessing. It keeps my brain from atrophy (I hope) and invites insights and even clarifications  that I might not have had if I had just lolled around with only the one thought.

This time, what popped into my head was the 1984 Oscar winner for best film: Amadeus.

Peter Schaffer, author, capitalized on a rumor that had been floated when Mozart died at the young age of 35. The rumor was that the envious court appointed composer, Antonio Salieri, had caused Mozart’s death. The truth is that Salieri was a highly respected composer and teacher. Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt were among the most famous of his pupils, and they had dedicated compositions to Salieri. Pretty good recommendation, I’d say!

On the other hand, Mozart’s wild manners and foul mouth are well documented. Clearly, Schaffer used this situation as a device to explore the true nature of Genius.

There’s a wonderful scene at the beginning of the movie that shows Mozart horsing around (sorry, no other word for it) with his beloved fiancée Costanza, and using very coarse language. Salieri is disgusted to witness this highly improper behavior when suddenly, from the other room, are heard voices of wind instruments breathing out heavenly strains of music: one of Mozart’s Serenades.

Salieri is baffled. How can this uncouth boy create such glorious music when he, Salieri, who has dedicated his life and talent to God, can produce only hackneyed phrases? Has God no respect for his efforts? How can he favor this unworthy brat over me, a sober hardworking craftsman?

Playwright Schaffer named his play well, using only Mozart’s middle name, Amadeus, which means God loves. Indeed, God loves anyone and everyone for his own reasons, whether or not they’re reasonable to us.

Schaffer made good use of this alleged enmity between the two composers and the unfounded hoax surrounding Mozart’s death. He illustrated an important point about Genius which is this: Genius does not require moral Goodness in those whom Genius chooses to visit. Not all poets and artists, sculptors and musicians were models of virtue. But their lack of virtue or even good manners, never kept the spirit of Genius from entering what we earthlings might consider very foul homes.

I see this same paradox in what Jesus tells Nicodemus about the need to be re-born in the Spirit (John 3). To be born “of the flesh” is merely to follow the dry mandates of the law. Someone like Salieri might be well versed in the rules of harmony and composition, but may lack that special spark, the spark we call “divine inspiration.”

To be born of the Spirit means going beyond our hollow, dry, legalistic approach to God. Our model of divine inspiration is none other than Jesus the Christ. Yes, God has now given us Jesus to rely on; Jesus, The One who has come down from heaven and therefore knows first hand what is heavenly. Jesus taught of being born of the Spirit and even gave his life to prove the authenticity of this teaching.

We are, for now, on the outside looking in, and may not yet be able to know whom the Holy Spirit decides to visit, or why. The Spirit does not require our permission to visit those we consider worthy. Nor does the Spirit need to obey us when we want to exclude those we judge unworthy. The Spirit is like the wind that “blows where it wills. . . you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

That’s why Jesus’ teachings, parables, etc., so often feature  “losers” coming out on top, over the ones we’d consider “worthy.” For example:

  • The Good Samaritan who was a despised foreigner.
  • The laborer who was paid for a full day’s work in the vineyard, though he’d only put in a couple of hours.
  • The Prodigal Son, versus the “faithful” son who stayed home to work the farm.
  • Zacchaeus, who had cheated taxpayers but is now rewarded to have Jesus stay with him, just because he climbed a tree to see him!

Typically, we’re not good judges of character, especially as to who “deserves” to enter the Kingdom of God. On one occasion Jesus bluntly told Peter, “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” (Matthew 16:23).

We don’t get to barter or bargain with the Almighty; there’s no quid pro quo.

Most of us have no idea what humility is, much less Genius or holiness, even though Jesus modeled these for us so thoroughly.

So tell me, when was the last time you heard a composition by Salieri on your radio?Mozart at 6, in court dress.
Link to a scene from the movie Amadeus:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ciFTP_KRy4

I Will Go to the Altar . . .

On the first steps of my spiritual journey, I thought how very nice it would be to live in a monastery. There, I would be officially called to prayer by the ringing of bells for the chanting of the canonical hours. Here at home, on the other hand, I’m constantly interrupted and distracted. The only bells I hear are from the telephone or my oven timer — not to mention the ongoing clanging of tinnitus in my ears!

In response to this situation, my spiritual director reminded me of Thérèse of Lisieux and introduced me to Brother Lawrence and Jean-Pierre de Caussade. These three holy persons taught that, because God is everywhere, prayer can be offered everywhere and any time. With the intention and desire to meet God more frequently, God can be loved in everything we do. With practice, I was given to understand this principle.

Remember  the old Latin prayer recited by the priest as he began Mass? I will go to the altar of God, to God who gives joy to my youth! I adapted this prayer to fit the ordinary practices of my day.

I will go to the altar of my laptop
As I compose this prayer.

I will go to the altar of my piano,
Where I touch the soul of Beethoven.

I will go to the altar of the sidewalk
That leads me to my neighbor.

I will go to the altar of my phone
As I call or respond to a friend.

I will go to the altar in my kitchen,
As I prepare what God provides.

I will go to the altar of my appliances
That make light work of my chores.

I will go to the altar of my books
That bring food to my spirit.

I will go to the altar in my prayer corner
Where I find the grace to surrender …
To love.

 

Space and the Spirit

It’s no big mystery how the name of this blog came to be. Experience has taught me that it’s impossible to say anything about the spiritual life unless the Spirit itself, this wonderful Muse, dictates it.

So for now, I remain spiritually locked up until the now-distant Spirit decides to let me in on a personal secret or two that I can write about.

These days I ask myself: why has my “inspiration” dried up? Surely I must be doing something wrong. I don’t think I’m alone in typically blaming myself first for anything that seems to go wrong in my spiritual life. But then, as soon as I think or write those self-defeating words, the questions start. Why is something “wrong” just because it’s different from what I was feeling and experiencing just a short time ago? Why is change “wrong”? Where is it written that I must be continually overflowing with ideas, sentiments or (heaven forgive me!) insights?

Because I’ve been given the kind of temperament that looks for reasons, I start looking for them. When I first started writing posts, I saw them as a sharing of graces given. Except for the editing, they rolled almost effortlessly out of reflections on scriptural passages, or from situations in my life. Can I blame the dry spell on the season’s imprisoning weather? Not really. Can it be because I’m sharing deeper conversation with friends and am somewhat used up by talking, instead of filled up by silence? I’d like the inspiration to stay strong. I don’t like the sensation of being dropped, as it were – dropped by the Spirit simply because I may have temporarily diverted my attention. That can’t be the reason.

No. I think this “dry spell” has actually become something to write about. There’s a different kind of lesson here. God is not all around me just for my entertainment, or just for handing out goodies that make me feel privileged to share.

Recently, as I was in my living room, pondering this question and attempting what I sometimes think of as prayer, my eyes wandered to the various pieces of art on my walls. Each is different. Each hangs alone, separated from the others by varying degrees of space. They’re not all hung, one right next to the other. What a disturbing and disagreeable effect that would have on anyone in the room! The violent ocean scene would be scrunched up next to the serene French village next to the embroidered sampler next to my parents’ wedding photo, and so forth. Ancient Latin used to be written like that, without spaces or punctuation. The sentence I just wrote would have looked like this:
ancientlatinusedtobewrittenlikethatwithoutspacesorpunctuation

You get the idea. The perceived emptiness of space is necessary and inevitable. The space we perceive as “emptiness” must exist if we are to find meaning in what emerges from within that space. We can’t appreciate what is until we notice and appreciate what isn’t. I suspect that the emptiness I’m experiencing now is not really space or absence or emptiness, but some thing that’s just different, an entity in its own right.

Each of us is separated from one another. And though we often feel that space between us and God is infinite, it is the miracle of love that moves us to bridge that space and, in fact, to ultimately succeed in finding an undreamed-of unity. For God is even in emptiness. All I have to do is keep my eye on that space and continue my spiritual practices with gratitude.