Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Artist-God

Urizen by William  Blake

Jesuit priest, paleontologist and geologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once wrote, "By means of all creating things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, when in fact we live steeped in its burning layers."

"Steeped in its burning layers" is quite an image but what a glorious one! We are steeped in the divine burning layers of God's love that infuses all of His creation. Through "all created things" we encounter the Divine, who also invites us to not only appreciate this creation, to glorify the Creator because of this extravagant expression of love, but that we, too, join in the act of creation. We are, all of us, born creators with a desire to co-create. As Teilhard de Chardin stated, "God is not remote from us. He is at the point of my pen, my (pick) shovel, my paint brush, my (sewing) needle - and my heart and thoughts."

The Creator welcomes us into the creative process, Some do so through painting or singing or composing or writing or playing an instrument. Or their bodies are the artistry through dance or athletics. Still others, like my son Benjamin, find their creative voice in code, in numbers that, when programmed together, form the very programs we use in our computers and technology. There is even a high correlation between coding and music-making. As Vikram Chandra wrote in a piece for The Paris Review: Both practices prize harmonious pattern-making and abhor cacophony, a loss of clarity and structure. A similiar claim can be made about mathematicians and music.

Indeed, there are those who create great beauty through mathematics (I am not one of them) and they can take such complex thoughts as the creation of the universe and express it in such simple, elegant equations like the one for general relativity (pictured below):

That simple equation formulates what space-time is all about. In those letters and numbers, Einstein showed how scientists could understand gravity in describing the force as warping the fabric of space and time. The right side describing energy contents of the universe and the left describing the geometry of space time (to paraphrase astrophysicist Mario Livio). That is transcendent. It is as poetic as the lines of Shakespeare. It is also one of the reasons I now adore science.

Though I never did well in science in school, I love reading the Scientific American or watching documentaries on nature or space, of listening and reading Brian Greene, Michio Kaku, or Neil deGrasse Tyson. But I was first introduced into scientific thinking by a storyteller. Madeleine L'Engle has had a huge impact on my life and faith, beginning withe her novel A Wrinkle in Time, which remains one of my favorites to this day.


It was through her writing that my curiosity was sparked and caused me to become fascinated with Albert Einstein, who was also one of her patron saints. Her allegorical writings dealt with cosmic questions that opened my eyes and my mind to new avenues of thought that I had never considered before reading her. It also expanded what I believed about God. As she said, "Science never threatens God - it opens up more possibilities." Because of her, I encountered the Creator in the beauty and grace of quantum physics. To begin to see that everything, including myself, was made up of math was staggering. It also makes me think of the joke in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy where the answer to life, the universe and everything was "42." We just still needed to figure out what the question was.

The Divine is in the equation. So many scientists speak of the mystery but fail to see the Mystery.

How much differently would many people see the world if they understood that it was created in love and joy? That the Creator delights in our sense of awe and wonder? When we truly view the world this way, all is transfigured, all is to His glory.

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters" (Genesis 1:1-2). The rich beauty articulated in those metaphors and imagery explain a depth that mere statement of fact can never do because fact cannot accurately express truth. Creation. God. The Divine. Creativity is an attempt to express the reality of Divinity through finite forms that offer us a brief glimpse of the Infinite.

The poet William Blake understood the metaphysical side of creation when he wrote:

To see the world in a grain of sand,
and to see heaven in a wild flower,
hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
and eternity in an hour.

When I read those words, it is the illusion that helps me to see reality, which is what art can do, often for the first time. Monet's paintings make us water lilies, Cezanne get us to notice fruit, or Vermeer focuses our attention to light, or Mary Cassatt tenderly draws us to mother and child.

All of these things can draw us closer to our own Creator. Throughout my own life, I have encountered God in the mathematically complex music of Bach or the poetry of Emily Dickinson or the pottery of Akira Satake or the novels of Dostoevsky or the films of Ingmar Bergman or the paintings of Makoto Fujimura. (Fujimura once said, "Artists are often like the shepherds of Bethlehem - the first to see the miracles around us.")

The Butterfly of the Beautiful by Makoto Fujimura

I have gotten glimpses of God in the joyous playing of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Glenn Gould performing the Goldberg Variations or Coltrane on A Love Supreme or the amazing vocal abilities of Bobby McFerrin or the a cappella music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

I have seen traces of Him in the works of Chagall (such as in his gorgeous stained glass):

Seeing them makes me understand what Blake meant when he wrote that, "Colours are the wounds of light." 

Or in the bright bold colors of Matisse. Of course, it is astounding to think that the human eye can distinguish about 10 million variations of color. That we can distinguish colors, shades, hues, tints, textures, and differences of saturation and light.

The underwater photography of Nicholas Samaras.

Or the natural art of British photographer, sculptor and environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy.

In the poetry of Blake, Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, Mary Oliver, Jane Kenyon, Wendell Berry, Christian Wiman, Malcolm Guite and Anne Sexton.

In the transcendental and naturalist writings of Annie Dillard, John Muir, Wendell Berry and Henry David Thoreau.

In the works of master chefs like Magnus Nilsson or Grant Achatz who make cuisine that is as much art as it is delicious and experimental. And, when one thinks of eating a meal, we do not stop to consider the 100 receptor cells on our tongue that give us a sense of taste, so that we can experience sweetness, or sourness, or saltiness, or bitterness. Taste, smell, flavor. Food can even evoke memories and emotions. 

In the poetic and theological films of directors like Andrei Tarkovsky or Terrence Malick who can express more with an image than many novelists can in an entire book. 

Or in the animated films of Pixar and Hayao Miyazaki.

In a graphic novel like Jiro Taniguchi's The Walking Man as it simply follows a man throughout his walk: as he notices birds or climbs a tree or lies down on the grass to look up at the sky.

Great art, science and mathematics can show us the beauty of balance and order and rhythm and harmony.  It can reveal to us the tender fragility in all of creation. At the moment of birth, we are all already, imperfect matter that has begun the process of breaking down. This should not sadden us or make us fearful, but it should make us aware of the limited gift the time we have really is. It should make life more precious and of greater worth. To know that we are made of the elements of the stars and of earth and we will return to that. We are not immutable. 

But the life we are given is a gift of God's grace. We are saved by grace and we exist by grace. Only by Him were we created and only in Him will we find life. It is His grace that holds the delicate balance that keeps us physically together or the Earth in its right orbit or gravity to hold us to this ever spinning globe and not get flung off into the cold, dark recesses of space.  When we begin to grasp, even slightly, the implications of God's grace, then we can truly begin to express our inner life.

Eastonian composer Arvo Part was once asked who his main influences were. His answer stunned the interviewer, "Of course Christ." His music draws on the sacred. "It is written on text of prayers," he has said before. His Adam's Lament has a chorus that goes,"Only the soul that has come to know the Lord and the magnitude of his love for us can understand." His music has been described as "holy mininmalism." Indeed his works explore harmonic simplicity, Gregorian chant and the composer's own spiritual journey, as well as his studying the texts of ancient Desert Fathers like Saint Silouan the Athonite.

That is what has led to some of the greatest minds to create: Dante, Milton, Bach, Handel, Van Gogh, Donne, Herbert, Kierkegaard, Rembrandt, Isaac Newton, Kepler, Pasteur, Faraday, and Teilhard de Chardin. 

Art is a form of incarnation. It is taking that of the spirit and giving it form and substance. All of these mediums (art, music, mathematics, science) convey and formulate on the ordinary and extraordinary, the miraculous and the mundane in life. Scientists, mathematicians and artists all marvel at the mystery, are stimulated by curiosity, and are filled with joyous astonishment at what they discover both in the inner and outer world. Ultimately, they are all (knowingly or unknowingly) embracing the transcendent. 

As someone who loves language, I love how John begins his gospel, "In the beginning was the Word . . ." What writer wouldn't? " . . .and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made" (1:1-3).  The Word became flesh. Just as, when we die, we will be translated into a new creation, an everlasting one. But, like art, it is a process. And processes can be slow. And we must be patient.

Returning to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time . . .
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.

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