Over the years I have come to love the work of many great painters such as Caravaggio, Fra Angelico, Van Gogh, Monet, and also many artistic forms such as sculpture and iconography to name a few. This is due in part to the influence of an artist-friend who has taught me how to see what is within a work of art. The result is a better appreciation for all sorts of works from different styles and eras, even those to which I was not initially attracted. My first love, however, was (and remains) music. The arts are all related insofar as they are a way of expressing beauty and therefore revealing something of the glory of God. And just as in a great painting we can learn to ‘hear a symphony’ and in a symphony we can learn to ‘see a great painting,’ we can discover how to discern the glory of God in that which surrounds us. It is all about opening our eyes, ears, and hearts. God’s glory is revealed in a myriad of ways, many of which can inspire and even soothe our souls, such as the ‘silent sound’ experienced by Elijah. The glory of God is His very essence and there is no way to describe this beauty except through a metaphor which might involve that which we see or hear. In short, beauty is God’s glory seeking expression.
The holy ones of the Old Testament were so filled with wonder and awe by their experience of the glory of God that it informed everything they did, transforming them into a reflection of His light to their communities. They were not totally fearless, but they were buoyed by the certainty of what had happened in their various encounters such that they were compelled to share the great love of God with His people. Just as the burning bush could not contain the flame and thus erupted in fire, God’s glory emanated from them through the medium each one knew best: the poetry and ‘music’ of their words or the heroism and generosity of their deeds. Wonder and awe in God’s presence inspired women such as Deborah, Ruth, and Esther, and men such as Abraham, Moses, and David to perform heroic deeds for God’s people. And the prophets were moved to respond to the glory of God in words that could be challenging or healing in order to convey God’s message. In other words, if we open our hearts to God’s glory which He expresses through the beauty of His love, we too will be filled with the inspiration which comes from such an encounter. If music, a painting, or even something quite simple such as a moment in prayer, stirs our hearts, this movement is nothing short of God’s glory.
God came unbidden to many of the great heroes of the Old Testament: Abraham was presumably minding his herds and flocks when God told him to go to a new land. Moses was doing likewise when a burning bush spoke to him, shocking him deeply. Yet both of these men were so filled with wonder and awe at these surprise encounters with God that they were inspired to move forward as God desired. The young David was also minding sheep, stuck out in a field while his entire family was entertaining the prophet Samuel. But then a messenger summoned him into the gathering, something he never dreamed would happen, and he was anointed as the chosen of God. I am not suggesting that we need sheep to have an experience of God, but what I am saying is that God often breaks into our quiet lives by sending some message of beauty to which we are invited to make a response. Abraham did not have to respond affirmatively, but something of God’s glory burned within his soul, moving him to go far from his homeland, thus setting up the beginnings of a nation through his many children. Moses was so moved by witnessing the fire of God that it enlarged his sense of compassion for His people, thereby enabling him to give up his entire life to free them from oppression, delivering the law which he expressed on behalf of God. And David was so filled with God’s anointing (the glory of God) that he dedicated his life to protecting God’s people with the power given him, also providing the music made with his lyre and the gorgeous prose of his Psalms. The love which compelled each of them to serve others found its roots in the glory of God.
Jesus, being God and man, expressed the glory of God through the humility of His birth, the beauty of His teachings (especially in His regard for the poor and oppressed), and the completeness of His self-giving. His transfiguration was a time of glorifying God as His Son, but in everything He did, the beauty of His love shone through. Those who encountered Jesus came away changed, though not all chose to accept what He offered. Some were healed of physical ailments, but the transformation of their hearts was the greater gift, beyond that which eyes could see. Those who were unbound from sin and evil were as new people, not able to contain themselves in expressing the joy of their new lives, giving glory to God in the sharing. The simple fishermen, Peter, Andrew, James, and John became leaders of the Christian Church with such bravery that they literally gave their lives as martyrs. And even a once arrogant man, Paul, became so filled with the light of God’s glory in an encounter with the Risen Jesus that the scales fell from his eyes, and through prayer and study, he preached and wrote so eloquently that it was as a symphony in letters to the various communities of the Church.
Just as in learning to experience the glory of God expressed through a Bach chorale, Michelangelo’s Pieta, or a painting by Caravaggio, we can learn to discern the glory of God by opening our hearts to His presence. We need to learn to see and hear so that we do not miss God’s presence when He comes in something quite ordinary. All bushes burn if we learn to see it; all people transfigure if we perceive them as expressions of God’s glory. The driving motif of a chorale, the riot of colors in a garden, the softness of a Monet: all of these are invitations into the glory of God which can move us to prayer beyond words. The wonder and awe we experience is a gift of the Holy Spirit, not reserved for the holy few but given to all through Confirmation, continues to grow through our prayer. Just as with the holy men and women of the Bible, one experience of wonder and awe can go a long way; it can move us for a lifetime if we allow it to inform everything we do.
This grace will change the way we see others, such that it will help us to love those who are not always easy to love. This is why Jesus could tell us to love our enemies as well as those who we perceive as friends. When our hearts are moved by wonder and awe, the power of that movement is the grace which helps us to rise above that which at first glance may even seem repugnant to us. This grace can help us to get past differences. It is not about warm feelings, although those can and often do follow such grace, but it is about being able to respond with mercy, love, compassion, and graciousness in the presence of those who are not immediately attractive to us. This grace can help us endure our own circumstances which may involve suffering, and in so doing enable us to reach out with compassion to others who are in pain, to feed the hungry, offer hospitality to the poor, widow, or stranger in our land, to bring light to those in darkness, and to help those who are ill, alone, or forgotten. We are called by God in every moment to reach out and bring His glory to those who do not know it.
We do not have to sing like David, have the courage of Ruth, or preach like Paul. That is, if we want to share in the glory of God, we simply need to open our hearts to let God show us what is truly beautiful. We need to let Him transform our eyes and ears, and to stretch our minds and hearts such that we learn to see and hear as He does. The grace given in even simple moments of receptivity enables us to hear the symphony, see the artistry, and appreciate the poetry found in the presence of the other. And it allows beauty, God’s glory seeking expression through us, His people, to bring light into the dark places in the world.
May we desire that our hearts be informed by the glory of God as experienced in beauty! May we seek God’s glory in the presence of others, especially in those quite unlike ourselves! May we pray for the gift of discernment, that we may learn to recognize that which is leads us to God and that which leads us away from Him! May we see all bushes aflame with the glory of God and all people as transfigured in the love which He offers! May we listen intently, give generously, and love openly! And may we turn to the many holy men and women who have gone before us for the inspiration to learn how to see and hear the glory of God! Let us continue to meet in the glorious Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Next entry: February 27.
Notes about music: Taste is subjective, but here are some recommendations: any Bach Fugue, Schubert's 9th Symphony, (in C Major), Requiem, Op. 48 by Gabriel Fauré, (The In Paradisum is sublime!) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UnilUPXmipM, Beethoven's 6th Symphony, (The Pastoral), Samuel Barber's famous and haunting Adagio for Strings. ~
Also beautiful is Andrew Lloyd Webber's Pie Jesu: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j10M6rGKuxA. And I have to mention the Prologue of Arrigo Boito's opera Mefistofele, (in this one Faust is redeemed in the end). In it you will see Mefistofele on stage for a moment, and as he leaves the choir of angels begins to sing the most exquisite chorus I have ever heard in an opera. There are subtitles in this, and though the picture is not great, it is the best rendition I could find. Enjoy! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38E39KBdN1Q
1: The first image is a painting called Snow at Argenteuil, by Claude Monet, (1875) This is one of 18 snow scenes he painted near the Boulevard Saint-Denis. There are many Monet paintings that people are familiar with, but I chose this one because of the beauty in all the tones of white that he used. There is a silence that comes when snow blankets the earth, so this scene seemed almost contemplative. The "silent sound" which Elijah experienced, (mentioned in my previous post), is perhaps being 'spoken' by God in this moment. I also chose it because of the people walking in the snow. They may be observing the glory of God visually as well as in the silence.
2: This painting is called Naomi and Her Daughters-In-Law by Marc Chagall. (1960) It depicts the passage in which Orpah decided to return to her hometown in Moab while Naomi and Ruth made their way into Israel. This painting captures their tearful farewell. (Ruth 1:14) I chose it because it shows the heroism and loyalty of Ruth, both to her mother-in-law, Naomi, and to God. Yet she mourned in leaving her sister-in-law Orpah since she knew they might never see each other again. God's glory is depicted here in the love of these women for each other, but especially in that of Ruth who gave everything up to serve the God of Naomi who she began to trust as her own. I love where this story ends up: Ruth marries the love of her life, Boaz, and together they have a son named Jesse, the father of David. https://www.original-prints.com/Marc-Chagall-Naomi-and-her-daughters-in-law-Original-Lithograph-1960::1244:321.html
3: This painting is called Saul and David, by Rembrandt (1655). I chose this painting precisely because it is from a different time period than the first two, seen above. All three were intentionally chosen from different periods to show different styles, each in their own way a work of beauty. As is typical of Rembrandt, the hues are largely muted and dark. But I also loved that David can be seen playing his gittith (lyre), singing to soothe the madness of King Saul. Even though Saul had tried to kill David multiple times, David still loved him as his king and friend. He loved as his eventual descendant, Jesus our Lord, taught during His ministry, which is to love our enemy; David loved with agapè love which means to love those who are hardest to love. This love gives glory to God more than any other love, and it also allows us to see God's glory because this is how God loves. http://www.wga.hu/html_m/r/rembrand/15oldtes/22oldtes.html
4: This icon is called Nuestro Salvador De Las Sandias, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It shows Jesus gesturing as to bless and heal, bringing life to a lifeless desert. Jesus gives life to us through His love which will be poured out on the Cross and then will remain with us especially through the gift of the Eucharist. Everything Jesus did was 'God's glory given expression' because He is the Son of God. There is no greater beauty. You can find this icon at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/nuestro-salvador-de-las-sandias-012-william-hart-mcnichols.html
5: This is also the work of Fr. William Hart McNichols, an icon called Mother of God of Kosovo, although she goes by many different names, such as 'Mother of God Queen of Pilgrims.' In the book, Mary, Mother of All Nations by Megan McKenna and icons by Fr. William Hart McNichols, McKenna writes about this icon: "She is the woman of Kosovo, of Northern Ireland, of Iraq, of the West Bank of Palestine, of Sierra Leone, of Kibeho...and of so many places." (page 116) I chose this icon because it shows that Mary intercedes for us knowing that God is with all of His people. The flame of fire, a reference to the Shekinah (God's presence in the burning bush) shows that we need to learn to see the alien or stranger in our midst as part of God's glory. That is, they are no less capable of transfiguration than we are, and in fact, we need to let God show them to us as transfigured in His love. You can find the icon at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/mother-of-god-of-kosovo-087-william-hart-mcnichols.html
6: This is one of my photos. I took this in Biloxi, Mississippi during a sunset. I chose to use it here because it shows that sometimes things are not as they appear. It seems like there are multiple suns in this shot, when in reality it was simply taken through two panes of glass, thus the lens caught the sun's reflection. The glass cannot be seen here, so it creates an optical illusion. God's glory is in the sunset, but we also learn that sometimes there are unseen factors at play, and so this teaches us to trust God.
7. Lastly, another work of the artist to whom I referred at the very beginning of this piece, Fr. William Hart McNichols. He has taught me how to truly see and appreciate art and so that is why I have used (always with permission) three of his works in this entry. This one is not an icon, but rather a painting called St. John of the Cross in the Dark Night of the Soul. Even though St. John was thrown into prison by his own religious brothers, he spent the time with God in deep contemplation, penning some of his greatest works. He had great suffering during his imprisonment, but he also gained deeply mystical understanding through the experience. Being a gifted poet, he wrote a series of poems which he then spent many years explaining (after a dramatic escape from the prison), leaving for us works of mystical theology and beauty. He found the glory of God within the prison (perhaps also in the stars outside the window) and in turn shared God's glory with us. You can find this work at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-john-of-the-cross-in-the-dark-night-of-the-soul-290-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Heart Speaks to Heart