Faith and Art

By Guest Blogger Br. Sam Gunn

Enter the Story

Art tells a story. In paint, in melody, in movement or in marble – no matter the media – art invites us to be part of something greater than we are. I’m speaking of good art, of course. So much of what passes for art leaves us either cold or confused. Good art first engages us, then captivates us – often starting with something small that points to something immense. It’s a spark of the eternal, captured skillfully by the artist and cloaked in the disarming disguise of the everyday.

We must admit our displeasure with much of what passes for art. We feel alienated by the high-brow and we prefer, many of us I’d say, the gooey goodness of entertainment media. But like a bag of taffy, its sweetness leaves us wanting more. Much more. Art that is worth the name awakens in us that yearning for something infinite – a hunger for something achingly more than the barrage of glitzy images and “reality” shows can pacify. At best they distract for a while, but their seduction wears out soon enough. “Is this all there is?” we ask – more with a restless finger on the remote than with any thoughtful reflection.

Unlike entertainment, art calls for greater effort on our part. We have to use our own resources – our imagination, our insights, our dreams – to complete the work. Art gives us only part of the story, leaving the rest for us to fill out and apply to our own lives. Entertainment does all this for us. That’s why we like it. But entertainment is somebody else’s story. Art becomes our own – becomes part of who we are.

Artful Faith

Faith tells a story too. And like art, it invites us to become a part of the unfolding drama. Maybe that’s why so much of the world’s greatest art is religious art. Natural compatibility. How can we benefit from this rich connectivity? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Start with what you like. I know this means that we’ll likely opt for Norman Rockwell over Rembrandt but so be it. Personally, I’m a fan of Norman Rockwell. I’m also a fan of Rembrandt.

2. Keep open to the new. This goes for music and dance as well. Experience different styles, but always be willing to admit that something doesn’t grab you. Maybe later it will. Or then again, maybe it never will. Ignore the critics. For the most part, they’re useless.

3. Whenever possible, see art in its native habitat. If it’s painting, especially Christian art, visit the churches where it resides. If you’re in a museum, don’t rush to ‘see it all.’ Best to see a few things well than many things in a rush. Spend more time looking than your restlessness likes. Draw up close. Then stand back a bit. Don’t worry what the other visitors think of you. Let the image say what it wants to you. Try to ‘hear’ the message. With music, attend concerts with people who share your faith. Talk afterwards about what you heard.

4. Finally, talk to God in your heart about what you’re seeing or hearing. Delight with Him in the dappled light of a landscape painting. Grieve with Him in the sober rumble of a requiem. Marvel at the beauty of the human form through sculpture or dance and thank Him for this His greatest wonder. By all means bring your own life experience to what you’re experiencing. Remember, you’re part of the story too.

Beautiful God

On a cold night in a small town in Judea, God came in human flesh. So subtle. So silent. And yet the everyday was suddenly saturated with the divine. The best art mirrors this mysterious emergence. The ordinary holds a promise and a possibility. A few notes, a sculpted figure, a stroke of the brush or a bright stick of pastel in the hands of the skillful artist can be imbued with the eternal and can awaken us to what cannot be seen or heard or touched: the gift of faith.

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4 Responses to Faith and Art

  1. I use Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son in catechism class to teach both the parable and Confession.

  2. Agreed, good art first engages and then captivates. So it is with Our Lord – he also engages us and then as faith permeates the soul the Christian cannot help but be captivated by Him. Occasionally, as with the hemorrhaging woman in the Gospel of Luke, she desired healing so much she reaches out to engage as perhaps at some level she has already been captivated by the man from Galilee. That is the excitement of the gift of faith – for me like music – a person can never know really what to expect. Music continually unfolds as it is listened to by the spirit – while it may be played with the same notes by the same orchestra, it cannot be received or taken into experience the same way twice.

  3. A great read, Brother Sam! It reminded me how very few live musical performances I’ve seen the last few years (that includes pop music, so it’s not all bad), but I’m inspired to make a point of attending more classical and sacred music live since there is much out there at no or low cost. I’d also add that a well-designed and beautiful church is in itself a work of art that properly directs our souls upward, even if there’s no concert.

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