On a recent Saturday morning, I was riding through dusty-brown rural Texas with the priest from a neighboring Orthodox parish; we were on our way to look at a piece of land to see if it might be a good spot for an Orthodox eco-village (it turned out not to be). We shared small bits of news with each other along the way: new members, new catechumens, new visitors. He told me about a young man, an avowed athiest, who had started attending Divine Liturgy intermittently. The reason the young man gave was that he loved the beauty of our prayers.
I was quiet for a moment, captured by the simple and powerful testimony of this man I did not know. I responded, halfway meaning the comment as a prayer, that given our cultural milieu in 21st-century America, perhaps that love of the Liturgy would prove to be somehow salvific. Reflecting on the conversation later, I realized that I was drawing on a few key perspectives to inform my hope:
- The content of our prayers in the Eastern Orthodox tradition gives direct insight to our theology; we pray what we believe.
- The certainty expressed by Dostoyevsky in his bold statement, “Beauty will save the world.”
- St. Seraphim of Sarov’s saying that if we acquire peace, thousands around us will be saved.
I was reminded, too, of a statement given by Met. Kallistos Ware in Sobornost and quoted in Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art: “…an abstract composition by Kandinsky or Van Gogh’s landscape of the cornfield with birds…is a real instance of divine transfiguration, in which we see matter rendered spiritual and entering into the ‘glorious liberty of the children of God.’ This remains true, even when the artist does not personally believe in God. Provided he is an artist of integrity, he is a genuine servant of the glory which he does not recognize, and unknown to himself there is ‘something divine’ about his work. We may rest confident that at the last judgment the angels will produce his works of art as testimony on his behalf.”
A link on Facebook last week led me to read Melinda Johnson’s post “Poets and artists…” at St. Lydia’s Book Club, where I found a similar quote from St. Barsanuphius: “Poets and artists who are satisfied only by the delights experienced through art are like people who arrive at the doors of the Royal Palace, but do not go into the bridal feast, although they are invited to do so.”
I wrote to Melinda, thanking her for the post and inviting her to read a blog post I had written recently about my experience working with a group of university students who were exploring the idea of transcendence in art. That interaction led to Melinda’s invitation for this guest blog.
Before anyone else has the opportunity to do so, I should accuse myself of being a dilettante. I have not given enough time or effort to be considered an artist, though I enjoy photography, painting, and singing. Perhaps the athiest asthete mentioned earlier felt a little like I do in engaging these things: that I might apprehend some truth serendipitously by doing what little I can.
As an adult convert to the Eastern Orthodox faith, I’ve discovered that I want a faith perspective that provides a robust and coherent explanatory framework for my subjective experience. The Orthodox emphasis on the coherence of the faith, of engaging all the senses in experiential worship and understanding that theology is something lived, not just contemplated, underscores for me that the feeling of belonging and completeness I feel when moved by a particularly well-written piece of literature or well-composed piece of art may just be part of the Divine plan.
The genius of art, I think, is that it distills a particular person’s perspective and renders it in language accessible to and resonant with others. Following Met. Kallistos and St. Barnasuphius, when this art points toward the source of all beauty it becomes a vector for grace. I think this is true for secular art in the same way (though perhaps not in the same intensity) as it is for icons of Christ and the Saints. These icons which intentionally represent a spiritual and physical reality simultaneously give us some insight to all of our sacraments by demonstrating “matter rendered spiritual.” In this sense, we who have the privilege of worshipping in the Eastern Orthodox tradition are not only surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses when we sing the Divine Liturgy, we are also immersed in a spiritual treasure trove.
I wonder if I don’t sometimes become so habituated to the beauty of Christian worship that I fail to see the treasure in front of me. I read a story recently about the discovery of a $22 billion treasure in a temple vault in India. There are 500 million people living in poverty in India, many of them passing right by this temple, or even adding to the treasure through their offerings. There is some talk of accounting for the treasure, but no apparent plans to use it to alleviate the poverty outside the walls of the temple. Clearly, proximity is not enough for treasure to have an affect. Likewise, the treasure of our faith will not enliven me through osmosis. Every Sunday I have the opportunity (and the obligation) to approach the chalice with fear and trembling, having prepared myself for the most mind-boggling of all transcendent events: the soul-quickening, evil-vanquishing, illuminating, healing, sanctifying entrance of the body and blood of Christ into my person. And I fail, every time.
Christ told Martha, “One thing is needful.” If I took this to heart I would arrange my whole life around this weekly judgment. I would live a coherently Christian faith. I would order my thoughts, my actions, my interactions with others so that I would prepare prayerfully and fully, instead of distractedly and in haste. God, in His grace, grants me to grow a little in this manner every week, every month, every year. The Church is not only a spiritual hospital, it is also a school of repentance. I am learning how to want and need that one thing: communion with God.
I determined last year that I have been working in education too long when I decided I needed learning objectives for parenting my two boys, now aged four and two. I decided that I would feel successful as a parent if they learned to love, to trust, and to wonder. The first, love, seems to me to be the groundwork for all of Christian living: seeing and loving Christ in the face of every person we see. Trust is an exercise of faith: trusting that God will bless that love with a protecting hand. The last, wonder, is an act of living gratitude: as the Psalmist says, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” In this endeavor, I am hoping to establish for my whole family a coherence between the life we live and the faith we profess, despite the daily distractions of television, toys, and video games.
I am an early-adopter of technology and I fear that my boys will have to struggle past their genetics in this respect. I am fond of Arthur C. Clarke’s statement that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” However wonderful technology might be, though, I hope that my children are more often in awe of their direct experience of God’s creation. I hope, too, that they will find ways to share that wonder by developing talents to distill their experience through a lens, or a paintbrush, or a pen and let the love, trust, and wonder they cultivate in church permeate their whole lives.
Jonathan Kotinek is a convert to Orthodoxy, father of two, and constantly in awe of his veterinarian wife. An educator, amateur artist, and writer who likes to ponder the intersection of faith, social issues, and education, Jonathan blogs occasionally at http://jkotinek.blogspot.com.