Thursday 22 June 2017

The Canvas of the Soul: an Art Retreat

On retreat: “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”  (Thomas Merton)

The Irish, who are always adept at coining curious phrases, speak of “thin places”.  Not surprisingly, it is a spiritual term, because the Irish are a very spiritual people.  Thin places are moments in time when boundaries break down and we are aware of something greater – ‘the all’, or a harmony, or something quite ‘Other’.  Where spirit and matter meet, perhaps.  Those transcendent or transporting moments in time.

In a Jesuit school, “a thin place” is what the prayer of the Examen strives for.  It is what happens at Kairos retreats (that is, in fact, what kairos means – a time pregnant with possibility).  Prayer takes us to a “thin place”, as does good liturgy.  And the thin place is where the artist takes us.  That is why we have a home for art in our schools.  Riverview abounds in “thin places”.  Portals, they might be called these days.  Doorways into the world of the imagination and of beauty.  And, as we would expect in a school like ours, doorways into the world of the Spirit.

Jesuits have a long history with art and artists.  Bernini made the Spiritual Exercises.  Ignatius’ friend, Michelangelo, offered to design our first church in Rome.  Jesuit artist Br Andrea Pozzo was encouraged in his talents, and perfected the art of three-dimensional representation.  His book was the standard reference for Hollywood set designers until relatively recent times.  It is rumoured that the “flat dome” Pozzo painted in the ceiling of St Ignatius’ Church in Rome, producing an extraordinary optical illusion, was because the Dominican neighbours objected to a real dome casting a shadow in their library next door!  The more likely reason was pecuniary limitations during the building.

Jesuits on mission to the edges of the then-known world used art to enter foreign cultures and then to teach the Christian culture.  Rubens (an old boy of the Jesuit College in Cologne and a staunch member of the Jesuit Sodality) painted thirty-nine panels for the Jesuit church in Antwerp, alas destroyed by fire in 1818.  In 1583, Jesuit missionaries in Japan directed an academy of painters, influencing even non-Christian artists.  By the late sixteenth century the Jesuits in Antwerp commissioned the most expensive and technically brilliant volumes of Gospel illustrations for use on the missions.  These would have been the equivalent of DVDs and plasma screens today.  In the China mission of the eighteenth century there were also Jesuit missionaries who practiced the fine arts – painting, engraving and marble sculpting – in the service of the emperor.  The young Italian Jesuit, Br Giuseppe Castiglione became famous for his work at the Emperor’s court in Beijing at that time.  He introduced the Chinese to perspectives and vanishing points.

All good reasons to hold an Art Retreat at the NSW Art Gallery.  This week twenty-five Year 12 parents gathered for a morning to consider six art works representing some Ignatian themes: cura personalis, gratitude, “my brother’s keeper”, “holy conversations”, the gift of creation, and “finding God in all things”.

Taking our Ignatian paradigm, Experience-Reflection-Action, the process was simple.  The Gallery Coordinator took us before each work, where we sat and observed, and then she invited us to share what we saw.  We reflected on what we had seen and heard from others.  Reflection is the place where meaning surfaces from experience.  With a thematic question and a linked piece of verse, a quote or a Gospel text, we plumbed the depths of the reflection with a companion Journal.  Our “retreatants” moved quietly from one work to another, mulling it over.  Much conversation ensued over coffee and cake at the end – and certainly matter to take away for later contemplation.

Years ago, Pope John Paul II spoke to an international gathering of artists.  He praised them saying, “By creating works that bring out the high vocation of the human person, you make yourselves masterly and sincere interpreters of transcendence.”

Today we were grateful for such “interpreters of transcendence”.  They took us to thin places.

Fr Ross Jones SJ