Monday, December 14, 2009

"The Sacred in life and art"

My friend Karen H. and I have never met. Not face to face. We began to correspond on email after we shared points of view on a discussion board of the Image magazine, possibly the leading U.S. faith and art periodical based in Seattle. This was a couple of years ago, and the friendship has endured the vagaries of cyber correspondence. K. doesn't say much about herself, but I glean from her comments and suggested readings that her interests are wide and varied - literature, photography, architecture, aboriginal peoples. She writes and I have seen two of her essays. She has strong political views (I read between her lines) of the conservative kind. I doubt Obama got her vote. She is also a strong Christian woman, with clear views of faith and the place of the Christian in the secular world. She worships with the American Orthodox churches.
I've grown to appreciate this kind-of-invisible, long distance friendship with someone of like mind. While I like to think my politics is slightly left of centre, more on the moderate side, I suspect I'd have to concede to her well-thought out, reasoned (not without passion) conservative opinions. I think she is someone who is courteous and respectful of other views, but will not hesitate to speak her mind forthrightly.
Since I've known her, she has sent me a number of books, most to do with classic Christian theology and literature. She knows my writing and related interests.
Anyway, I mention all this to say that Karen recently sent me "The Sacred in life and art" by Philip Sherrard (Golgonooza Press, 1990.) I had mentioned to her that I had been reading (slowly) Thomas Merton's meditations, The New Man. She was able to find and send me Merton's 1947 essay "Poetry and the contemplative life." This book by Sherrard perfectly complements Merton.
The Sherrard has been a revelation and comes to me at exactly the right time. The right time, as I spend some retreat searching my own faith and art, forms and content, the place of the Christian artist in church and world, the declining, profane world we all inhabit now - and make applications to my own life, faith, experience and work in my island home, Saint Lucia, Eastern Caribbean.
I haven't read a whole heap yet. One takes such a work slowly, chewing the intellectual cud. I suspect (and I may well have read this somewhere) that we respond enthusiastically to works of art and literature because they mirror, they echo, our own perspectives and convictions. So you can imagine how marked already every one of the 18 pages I've already read, are.
So, with thanks to Karen H, who is somewhere in Missouri, I'm sharing some of Sherrard's thoughts on the sacred and art:

"Yet by virtue of the fact that man is created in the image of God, he is also a creator, a maker, an artist. Indeed, this is his distinguishing role, that which is capable of making him holy. 'I will sing to my God so long as I live,' says the Psalmist; and it is this celebration of God, of His perfections and His beauty that constitutes our chief glory.....But if as maker the artist actually makes his artwork, and if that work does possess a more-than-aesthetic quality - does possess a sacred quality - then is not the artist something more than a priest and does he not himself make something that is sacred? Does he not himself make things beautiful, divinize nature, and in the end is he not himself a power that sheds a divine and transforming illumination?.....
Then, to add to the confusion, there is a great similarity between the aesthetic experience and the religious experience. Both can involve an attitude of contemplation, both may involve prayer and supplication. At its highest point, art aspires to a vision of the plenitude of being, to a vision of the world as it should be in its perfection. The true artist - I am speaking here only of the artist who does aspire to make his art a transforming power, to make the language of his art the signs of Paradise - will  not see anything ugly in creation. Nor, bringing his light into the darkness, will he simply try to reproduce or copy what he sees. Rather he will try to see in all things their hidden beauty and to create in his art sensible forms which are receptacles of this ideal content.....Is not the art that achieves this a sacred art? Is not the artist who produces it at least a hierophant, a shower-forth of the sacred, if not in fact a maker of the sacred? Is not aesthetic practice, at this level, equivalent to religious practice?" (pgs 15,16).

(c) John Robert Lee, photograph "School yard" (for Karen H.)