To kick off a new lecture topic, my squirrely Dustin Hoffman-esque Religion and the Arts professor once declared, “Art is a vehicle for the numinous.” Anyone else think that phrase is oddly profound? Numinous is defined as “having a strong religious or spiritual quality, indicating the presence of a divinity.” So what my professor advocated is that God or some spiritual entity communicates through us, to us, using art.
Injury and art
In my previous post on supernatural gifts, I left out the most powerful story from the experience of coordinating an art show at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago. The show took place in October 2016. It was the Year of Mercy, a special jubilee year declared by Pope Francis as a time to act with increased awareness and service to people on the fringes of society. To honor this special occasion, our team at Holy Name put out a call to the community for submissions of artistic interpretations of mercy. Participants’ skill levels ranged from professional to hobbyist. There was zero barrier to entry unless the art was obscene (which didn’t happen). The point was to come together and reflect on mercy as a community through art.
One woman submitted a drawing on behalf of her son. “Nathan” (name changed) sustained a brain injury as a preschooler. He was left functioning at a 0-3-month old cognitive level. I met Nathan and his mother the night of the show. He was eighteen at the time. He doesn’t engage with others through the usual modes of communication. I didn’t hear him speak in sentences or notice him looking people in the eye. He communicated with his mother through sounds, not words. Throughout the evening he sat drawing with his colored pencils and paper. The piece his mom chose to exhibit was a drawing of a polar bear. A polar bear isn’t a classic representation of mercy, but Nathan’s mother believes her son’s life is mercy personified. After Nathan’s injury as a little boy, she reached out to the Vicar General at her church for guidance on her son’s devastating new situation. In her own words about the experience:
“Based on the Vicar General’s advice and direction, I pursued specific treatments not available in Chicago at the time and that I wouldn’t have otherwise heard about, resulting in a remarkable medical recovery. The medical interventions almost immediately revealed an incredible artistic sensibility and talent. Although he holds a marker or paintbrush in his left fist due to limited fine motor skills, Nathan has become a skilled artist, exhibiting work at MCA and Midway Airport, and is currently featured as the cover artist of the 2016 Special Olympics calendar. He has also had the opportunity to donate artwork to several local non profits for auctions and fundraisers.
Nathan’s artwork does not generally directly depict acts of mercy; however, the ability and artistic passion that was uncovered via his medical recovery truly represents both God’s mercy and the direct intervention of the Catholic Church in his life. Miraculously, the compassion and intervention of the Vicar General helped Nathan move from what would have been a complete inability to interact with the world to a life rich with the arts and human relationships.”
Since the first art event in 2016 I moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, but I traveled back to Chicago this past December for the 2nd show. The theme this year was “Artistic Impressions of Advent: A journey of hope.” Nathan was there, sitting in the same space he occupied the year before, focused on drawing as guests made their rounds. This year his painting tied directly into theme of Advent / Christmas. He painted deliberate red brushstrokes blended with deliberate green brushstrokes. As a final touch he added explosions of delicate gold glitter that look like stars. Nathan’s mom said his favorite subject to paint is Christmas.
I walked by his piece several times and lingered awkwardly. I wanted the painting, but I wasn’t sure how to ask his mom, or if I should.
We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams
The theology of humans designed to create goes all the way back to Genesis. The original story of creation describes God forming the physical aspects of the earth we know, along with human beings and all other living things. It’s a common misconception that all Christians believe the stories in Genesis are based on historical facts, e.g. Creationism. Roman Catholics actually treat the stories as allegories. Symbolic language forms the truth of what Catholics believe in regards to our relationship to God, each other, and the earth, but we don’t count them as historically accurate. Regardless, they hold a sacred place in our understanding of humans’ relationship to God. The allegories in Genesis teach that God is the ultimate Creator, and since humans are made in the image of God, God wants us to create our own unique brand of beauty in our lives.
A few months after the art show, I was still thinking about Nathan’s advent painting. I finally emailed his mom and made an offer if she’d be willing to sell it. She agreed and I received it in the mail a week later.
I look at it every day and each time wonder, “Why did he add those bursts of gold?”
Raise your hand if you’re jonesing for a quote from C.S. Lewis! There’s a passage from his book, Mere Christianity, I read recently that fits here like the last piece of a puzzle. The text builds towards the last sentence and its one-two punch.
Have a great rest of your week.
“In reality, the difference between Biological life and Spiritual life is so important that I am going to give them two distinct names. The Biological sort which comes to us through Nature, and which (like everything else in Nature) is always tending to run down and decay so that it can only be kept up by incessant subsidies from Nature in the form of air, water, food, etc., is Bios. The Spiritual life which is in God from all eternity, and which made the whole natural universe, is Zoe. Bios has, to be sure, a certain shadowy or symbolic resemblance to Zoe: but only the sort of resemblance there is between a photo and a place, or a statue and a man. A man who changed from having Bios to having Zoe would have gone through as big a change as a statue which changed from being a carved stone to being a real man.
And that is precisely what Christianity is about. This world is a great sculptor’s shop. We are the statues and there is a rumour going round the shop that some of us are some day going to come to life.”