Seeking God’s Splendor: Thoughts on Art and Faith
Can beauty be a way to God? How can art deepen the church’s impact? Is art a neglected topic in today’s congregational world? Is beauty in the life of faith a luxury … or a necessity? Such questions animate this Spring issue of Reflections , and we we invited answers from several Yale Divinity School students who have a commitment to the arts. Their replies suggest approaches that will shape future relationships between religion and art. Most of the YDS students featured here are dually enrolled in the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, an interdisciplinary graduate center that educates leaders to engage the sacred through music, worship, and the arts. Located at Sterling Divinity Quadrangle, the ISM operates in partnership with YDS, the Yale School of Music, and other academic units at Yale. (See ism.yale.edu)
What the World Needs Now
By Megan Mitchell
In a world of immense suffering, is art a luxury, limited to those with the time and resources to spare? Beauty doesn’t feed people, doesn’t stop wars. What does it do?
I have stood in opulently glorious churches, both enraptured by their beauty yet sick with the awareness that histories of hypocrisy and exploitation lurk beneath the glittering surfaces. In less extreme ways, all churches today face the dilemma of how to allocateresources: “Should we tune the organ, commission a sculpture for the altar, or keep upthe foreign missions fund?”
For Christians trying to follow the example of Christ and the early church by caring for the poor and living simply, a focus on art can seem self-serving. The urgent needs of the world force artists of faith to ask what truly matters in each note, paint stroke, or stanza.
Yet my conviction is that art goes beyond luxury. Art and beauty address the human need for hope. For me, hope is functionally inseparable from beauty, for beauty is a reminder that there is, in the words of Abraham Heschel, “meaning beyond absurdity.”
Beauty helps me believe that divine good does prevail. Seeking to bring the Kingdom of God to earth includes restoring the beauty that is present in creation – and adding to it.
Facilitating public murals in the U.S., Africa, and Haiti, I have come to see the process of collaboration itself as art. The effort of people making a mural together involves creative problem-solving and communication. Participants must learn to voice their own opinions but also be willing to make sacrifices for the unity of the whole. Art-making is metaphorically linked to other life-building processes – and helps people tap into the transformative resources already present within themselves.
I saw this happen last summer in neighborhoods of Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens, where I worked with Groundswell, an organization that employs high-school and college-age youth to create murals in their communities that respond to social justice issues they face. I saw these young artists take a new kind of ownership of their neighborhoods and histories and develop new ideas for their futures.
Art is about making space – both physical and mental – for listening, searching, and expressing. Art cultivates the ability to imagine a future and so transcend the present moment. This is inherently hopeful.
In her poem “Upstream,” Mary Oliver writes, “attention is the beginning of devotion.” Art gives us the space for attention, which looks quite a lot like prayer. That’s what the world needs now: space to take notice of each other, our own souls, and the still small voice of the Lord who calls but will not force us to hear if we do not desire to listen.
To give hope to the hurting, the church must be invested in the question of what is truly beautiful – both in the work we create and the way we create.
Megan Mitchell will graduate in May with an M.A.R. in religion and the arts. She earned a B.A. in Community Art and Missions from Wheaton College.
God at the Gallergy
By Jeremy Hamilton-Arnold
If ever I forget art’s capacity for transcendence, I simply return to work. My place of employment is a sacred treasury – the Yale University Art Gallery.
There I can rely upon some giants of Western Modernism: Van Gogh, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko. All have given the world paintings that inspire near-universal adoration, and all have expressed, through both pigment and the written word, spiritual motivations for their art. Knowing their intentions, I am keen to look in their daubs and hues for evidence of divinity.
I find the sacred wading in the art of many other greats at the museum too, regardless of the artist’s “spiritual” stance. To me, the sacred resides in the congress of colors in Helen Frankenthaller’s canvas, in the powerful gaze of Kerry James Marshall’s painted artist, in the dingy soft glow of light in Joseph Stella’s Brooklyn Bridge. The sacred is felt in the serious humor of Duchamp, the hpeful lament of Anselm Kiefer, and the daring of Picasso.
Divinity (of course!) abounds in the devotion and innovation of the early European icon-painters. The sacral motivations of religious individuals and communities beyond the West are abundant in the museum as well – around virtually every corner.
I’m not alone in this experience. Religious groups come into the Gallery all the time. They seek the religiously motivated and motivating – the ancient synagogue tiles from Dura Europos, the Islamic miniature paintings from northern India, the Boddhisatva Guanyin from China, the Baga D’mba mask from Guinea.
Even those who do not come to “see God” still venerate their favorite artists and works. They uplift the art museum space as “sacred,” comporting themselves with religious-like postures. They hush and clasp their hands before dimly lit images. The works seem to elicit awe and reverence.
Ultimately, however, I see the divine most clearly not in the works themselves, but in the budding curiosity and unfurling excitement of young visitors – the people I lead on teaching tours throughout the museum. In their expressed wonder before Bierstadt’s Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail and their imaginative narrations at seeing Hopper’s Sunlight in a Cafeteria, I see the sacred.
For you who seek to bring art to your religious communities, I encourage you to find ways to display art on the walls of your place of worship (reproductions are an option!). Support local artists. Encourage creativity among your own congregants.
I especially urge you to bring your community to the art: Visit (repeatedly) your local art museums and galleries. Once there, find something new; spend more time with fewer works; leave the labels until the very end; converse with one another; ask difficult questions; sketch in silence; linger as long as you are able with a work you find boring, irksome, or downright ugly – and do the same with a work you love. Few spaces can match the power of art museums, those revered storehouses of the sacred.
Jeremy Hamilton-Arnold plans to graduate next year as an M.A.R. in religion and the visual arts and material culture. He has a B.A. from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, TX., and an M.A. from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.
Re-envisioning the Gallery
by Meredith Jane Day
One Saturday last December in New York City, I sat in a circle with an intimate group of 20 souls preparing for Advent. At an early-20th century Episcopal retreat center on the Upper East Side, we spent nearly eight hours together in a wood-carved library, hearing only the faintest of horn honks from the frantic taxi drivers on Park Avenue.
Our curator for the day showed us photographs of famous paintings from the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art while we methodically spent time in silence, wonder, and discussion of the pieces. I still remember the way Caravaggio’s “Holy Family” glowed in the afternoon light. Something about Mary’s penetrating black eyes and young Jesus’ crucifix-like posture engulfed me in empathy for their future pain.
The room was full of brilliant seminarians, clergy, and academics, but it was the art that gave us something we could not have offered on our own. It provided a spiritual avenue for confronting our humanity, at the same time assuring us of a mysterious glory within.
A few weeks later, I found myself in a much different place – near the stage of the candlelit Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, TN. I sat with a table of friends (Jack Daniel included) to watch a round of four local songwriters play some of their most treasured music. When Lori McKenna sang her first song, the air in the room turned electric, and the space was transformed. A few songs went by before Barry Dean gripped the audience with a new tune:
Now my heart is falling apart like a confession
My prayers are making a church out of this room
My tears, salt of the past and sweet redemption
I’ve been standing like a mountain
I was just waiting to be moved.**
I managed to break away from the enchantment long enough to scan the room to see that every eye was salty, but clear. It was grace, I think – the kind that can’t quite be articulated for fear that, in doing so, something might be left behind.
When human beings, as creations of God, create or encounter the creativity of others, something full circle happens. We suddenly occupy a holy space that connects us to our humanity and yet is permeated by God’s glorious and merciful presence.
Whether it takes place in church, a retreat center in NYC, or a bar in Nashville doesn’t seem to matter so much. It is the way the Spirit moves through art that grips me most tightly. No matter the kind of art, it provides a way forward during this often oversaturated, overstated, and unimaginative moment in the American church. Art can serve as a means to re-translate and re-envision the story of faith and redemption for this world.
Thanks be to (this creative) God.
Meredith Jane Day has a background in singing/songwriting, poetry, theatre creative writing, and theology/arts integration. She will graduate this spring with an M.Div. degree and is a member of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. For more information see Meredithjaneday.com or tweet her @mereday.
** Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby, and Sean McConnell, “Waiting to Be Moved,” Creative Nation Publishing, Nashville, 2014.
Glimpsing the Light
By Tyler Gathro
By the time I was six years old I knew I wanted to be an artist. I devoted myself to artmaking with a concentrated ardor, while simultaneously growing in my Mormon Christian faith. My spirituality became the very center of my life, around which art revolved.
In 2009, after serving for two years as a full-time missionary to the people of Los Angeles, I returned to my studies at the Cooper Union School of Art in New York City to continue my passion as an artist.
However, after two years of strengthening families, helping people overcome addictions and get jobs, doing community service, and being a direct influence for good in people’s lives, creating art seemed pointless. A dead Damien Hirst tiger shark in formaldehyde or an Andy Warhol can of soup will not save the soul of anyone today or tomorrow. I struggled to understand the spiritual role of art and how it could be of any real use when millions around the world were suffering and needed peace and a helping hand. I sought guidance from God. I fasted and prayed for weeks, wanting to know what to do and how to proceed as a self-declared artist. Around this time I had profound experiences and received revelation regarding the subject, and yet it would be futile to attempt to explain the unexplainable. However, one thing is for sure – I have learned that the visual impacts the spiritual.
With this knowledge, I began to create work that would visually express and capture the spiritual experiences I had and the revelation I had received. It was both a spiritual process for myself and a hope that this art could bring spiritual experiences for others.
You see … it is as if there is a world of ideal beauty, and between it and me hangs only a veil. Often that veil hangs motionless, until that beautiful moment when the wind blows and the curtain flutters aside. It is then that I catch a glimpse of the celestial world beyond – only a glimpse – but in that moment when all my physical senses seem to be turned off, my hair stands on end while a transcendent feeling flows through me, lifting me off the ground and filling me with light.
These glimpses of light and the creation of this artwork have enriched my Christian faith and brought me closer to God. This is what elevates me in life and drives me to seek the ideal.
Jacksonville native Tyler Gathro will graduate next year with an M.A.R. in religion and the visual arts and material culture. He holds a Bachelors of Fine Art from the Cooper Union School of Art in New York City. A devout Mormon, he is looking forward to marrying his fiancé this summer and working as an artist and photographer post-graduation.
Don’t forget your Cane
by Mark Koyama
Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought. – St. Augustine
Monday morning I’m up and out before daybreak to be sure to beat the Hartford traffic as I head south from western Massachusetts to my weekday abode in Bellamy Hall at YDS. From that moment on, my doings are governed by the myriad imperatives of Prospect Street – the humming precincts of Sterling Quad, with its lectures and worship services, seminars and colloquia, discussion sections, intersections and collisions.
Friday, late, I shove the week’s laundry in the backseat of my ’97 Nissan (along with a capricious assortment of tomes liturgical), and hightail-it north into the Massachusetts hilltowns where, at length, I will turn with a sigh of relief onto Greenfield Road. The boys are asleep, but my wife is still up. She is pleased to see me. In my absence, the compost has been fermenting and the cat boxes have taken a decided turn for the worse.
The word “commute” comes from the Latin commutare, which combines com (“altogether”) and mutare (“to change”). Yes, I commute between two worlds, but I try to mitigate the “altogether” bit. One hundred miles may separate the storied halls of Yale Divinity School from the child-begrimed walls of my circa-1875 farmhouse, and an even greater gulf may divide the ambient discourses of my two sitz im leben. Nevertheless I insist that the two worlds do, and indeed, must inform each other if I am to succeed in my earnest hope to throw a stole over my shoulders and process down the center aisle as an ordained minister of the Christian faith.
Each world is too full of delicate wonder to be deprived of the other.
During the last two years of my mother’s life, I was her healthcare advocate, her caretaker and finally, her nurse. At that time, a phrase often came out of my mouth:
“Don’t forget your cane …”
These words remain with me today, not for their practical application, but for their spiritual frankness – their quiet insistence that love governs. Good theology – the habit of mind behind good Christian ministry – follows from a Don’t Forget Your Cane biblical hermeneutic.
The same principle applies when I write sonnets. I search for language that quietly insists on telling of the twofold love of God and neighbor.
A Sonnet for An Old Farmhouse at Bedtime
And when, at last, the boys begin to snore
I head downstairs, turn off the kitchen light,
Make sure the dog’s been let in for the night
And throw the deadbolt on the mudroom door.
There’s a local squirrel who makes offshore
Deposits in our ceiling, out of sight
Of the cats, who flick their tails left to right
Like irk’d Egyptian goddesses of war.
Shuffling round in my pajama vestments,
I settle all these final farmhouse cares –
These fitful little bedtime sacraments.
And lying down, I hear the closing prayers
Performed by those unwitting penitents –
The dog’s long claws click-clicking up the stairs.
Mark Koyama M.Div. ’15 studied Buddhism at Bates College, has an M.A. from Union Theological Seminary and an M.F.A. in fiction from UMass-Amherst. He plans to become a United Church of Christ minister.
The World’s Collective Spirit
By Yolanda Richard
When I ponder my ancestral material memory, I think of Islamic etchings in the sand of Hispaniola, clay pots fashioned by dark hands dewed with labor’s sweat, cosmic ancestral symbols weaved over and under Catholic crosses, Protestant hymnals drumming to the beat of audible spirit, West African dress that reminds us where we were birthed: In-between cultures.
As a Haitian American woman, my intersectional identity was only obliquely echoed when I navigated the halls of the usual “well-curated” gallery. Leisurely walks through such spaces typically consigned me to African Art collections and modern pieces depicting the black body and traditional renditions of the black experience. My journey to a deeper love for material culture of all traditions had a rough start.
I entered the world of visual art filled with curiosity, seeking models for engaging material culture that resonated with me. Instead, I was met with the many clichés of the art world. I encountered visitors who commodified their gallery experience as intellectual capital, a way to reinforce their own elitism. I witnessed people approach famous works with vague intimidation or over-excitement, stirred by awareness of the work’s monetary value, not the work’s aesthetic beauty or radical message.
I became privy to the dissonance between gallery culture and an authentic engagement with the art. For a while, I simply mimicked the cadences of “gallery goers.” Hands glued behind the back, backs crooked forward, curved necks attempting at angles to see “everything” – the frame, the paint, the cracks in the panel, the exposed fibers of the canvas, the second layer of varnish that makes you cringe, and finally the label.
This experience eerily translated into a monolithic construction of history. It felt flattened, devoid of faith. Sadly, the impression persists that one must know about art before one can engage with it. Or we expect curators and docents to draw interpretive lines for us. And when they don’t, we are left feeling cheated or confused. Overall, gallery spaces felt more like an intellectual exercise than an exercise of the soul.
I needed a new lens.
In my final year at YDS an internship at the Yale Chaplain’s Office allowed me to explore interfaith conversation within the context of art. I began organizing small group interfaith discussions in front of religious pieces at the Yale Art Gallery. These campus dialogues gave me a new intercultural perspective – weaving me into the cloth of the fabric of human history, making my engagement with art an exercise of my mind, my heart, and my soul.
I began listening – to the story of the work encased in its visual presentation, historical setting, and the artist’s intent. I began questioning – the curator, the artist, and myself. I began learning – how to linger with the art for more than a few seconds and challenge my inclination to generalize whole collections unfamiliar to me. I began conversing – through time, culture, and faith.
Art is the human story of how we have connected with God and imagined the world around us. It is the preservation of the world’s collective spirit in all of its complexity. Interfaith dialogue and art have allowed me to stretch my gaze, connecting me to those beyond a society’s ostensible barriers.
Yolanda Richard graduates with an M.Div. in May. She has served as a Wurtele Gallery Teacher at the Yale University Art Gallery for the past three years, teaching K-12 students from original works of art. After graduation, Yolanda will serve as the Earl Hall Chaplaincy Fellow at Columbia University, focusing on interfaith dialogue among undergraduates.
Rejecting the “Beautiful”
By Joshua Sullivan
Step into a gallery or the museum, and a familiar response (at least from my Christian parents) is soon heard: “How is that art?” or “I could do that!” or “Well, that’s just offensive!”
The two worlds of “fine arts” and “church” have loomed large as stout opponents in my life. Both make demands on my intellectual and spiritual outlook.
The artist’s role as “questioner” and “critic,” I thought, would bar me from ever playing a part in a Christian community. Likewise I feared that being a “confessional” Lutheran would strip me of my credentials as an artist. Yet this dichotomy between fine artist and person of faith is a false one. As a Christian and an artist, I am fascinated by the tension between individual and community. I am interested in the range of non-linguistic communication that visual works can achieve.
It would be foolish to attempt to define the entire range of contemporary fine arts, but I venture to say that much of it now has far more to do with critical cultural dialogue and the material qualities and substances of art than any Platonic or Enlightenment- style quest for the “beautiful.” Churches could take a lesson from this modern insight. Churches hastily turn away from contemporary fine art because of a hostility to art that isn’t “beautiful” by some traditional definition.
But a church’s visual culture itself is not outside a working notion of “fine art” – all production of visual materials in any given community is art. It is a Christian community’s responsibility to take ownership of its visual cultures (be it architecture, carpet color, stained glass, or Sunday school crafts). Taking ownership means understanding the reasons it decided on such visual material. It means giving it prominence as a mode of group intelligibility rather than as objects of “beauty.” An “amateur” piece of artwork produced by a church and a nihilistic piece of work hung in a gallery are on equal footing as modes or vehicles of communication.
The plethora of visual matter in the Christian community’s life – the graphic design of Sunday bulletins, the sanctuary’s architecture, that mainstay portrait of Jesus from the 60s in the church lounge, the little cotton ball lambs made by the preschool kids – are not outside the purview of the fine arts, regardless of their “beauty” or “ugliness.” The church is not off the hook!
Philip Guston’s paintings are “ugly” on purpose. Marina Abramovic`’s performance works are antagonisitc and transgressive. Jenny Holtzer’s installations are terse and scathing. What these and other artists have, and what perhaps the church often lacks, is a razor-sharp grasp of the milieus they are communicating in and about.
Christian communities can take heart by rejecting the “beautiful” as an end in itself. Beauty, like God, will show up when and if it chooses. Visual culture, whether in the gallery or the sanctuary, is about a dialectical relationship between a creator and a community of viewers, not the reign of a pre-existing idea of beauty.
As Karl Barth noted in his Church Dogmatics, “God may speak to us through Russian communism, through a flute concerto, through a blossoming shrub or through a dead dog. We shall do well to listen to [God] if [God] really does so.”
A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Joshua Sullivan will receive an M.Div. degree from YDS in 2016. Experienced as a painter, musician, and conceptual artist, he was Visual Arts Minister at Marquand Chapel this year. He is pursuing ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Beauty Begets Beauty
By Jon Seals
I heard it said once that we don’t truly remember an event, place, or person – rather, we only remember the ways in which we remembered them the last time they were recalled. Our memories become copies of copies, and with each recollection comes a loss in clarity and accuracy. As a visual artist, I’ve given a lot of fearful thought to that fragile, degenerative condition: we are only as good as our last memory. Or so I thought.
My recent quest through the literary epic tradition has taught me different. (Important to me was the YDS course “Human Image: Classical and Biblical Traditions,” taught by Peter Hawkins.) From Gilgamesh to Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Augustine’s Confessions, and Dante’s Inferno, epics reveal themselves to be expansive re-imaginings of what it means to be human in relation to others and to a divine being. Through their revelatory example, I’ve learned the truth that all of life is a collage of sorts – an experience of recollection not degenerative but regenerative.
In her 1999 book On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry wrote that “beauty brings copies of itself into being,” so that beauty begets beauty. She quotes Ludwig Wittgenstein, “When the eye sees something beautiful, the hand wants to draw it.” Clearly this finds expression in the evolution of the epic. Instead of eclipsing or deteriorating the layer beneath, new versions of the epic build on one another, through twists and turns in fresh and interesting ways, revealing the vast complexity of human experience. With each new edition, the epic tradition is enlarged.
What of those big themes of the epic journey – sorrow, pain, and death? I know only a bit of suffering, but it is real and I am learning through it. I had my own descent or katabasis when I was brought low by the death of my brother. In my encounter with his death, I have learned some things crucial to being alive – mostly that faith, art, and others are the only things worth living for. Each of these is knit together and eternal. I am beginning to think of my art as less my own and more as an extension of others around me. Somewhere in the transaction of involving myself creatively with the lives of others I learn more of the presence and character of God.
My art is not a distraction or an entertainment. It is my way through. When I relinquish control of the materials I’m using and allow the spirit of creation to channel through me after intense bouts of struggle, the work produces a powerful catharsis. To achieve this outcome, both the inhale of my doing and the exhale of my giving in are necessary. In many of my drawings I leave behind pentimenti – repentances in Italian – as I work, evidence of where I have been on the paper or canvas, so that I can see the process of building up, adjusting, and making both mistakes and corrections as I go along. Pentimenti keep me honest.
One of the alluring qualities of epic literature is that it can be at once local and global, deeply personal and vastly communal. Whether I work with paint, graphite, collaged paper, or other materials, this is my aspiration too.
Jon Seals has an M.F.A. degree in painting from Savannah College of Art and Design, and worked for seven years as chair of the visual art department at a college prep school in Clearwater, FL. His artwork has been widely exhibited. He graduates from YDS in May with an M.A.R. in religion and the visual arts and material culture, with dual enrollment at the ISM.
The Eros Divine
By Timothy D Cahill
Beauty is vain, says Proverbs. Beauty is truth, says Keats. To begin, I make my own list of likenesses: Of beauty as order, as harmony, as clarity. Of beauty as vigor and compassion, justice and faith. Of beauty as mystery. Beauty as grace. But my aim is not to define beauty. I want to stand in its vastness.
To the reasonable mind, my claims are outlandish. The Enlightenment settled the question long ago, drawing a distinction between the tame allure of the “beautiful” and the bracing wildness of the “sublime.” (Yeats undid this when he wrote of “a terrible beauty,” but no matter.) In the middle of the last century, painter Barnett Newman became the voice of our age when he declared, “The impulse of modern art is the desire to destroy beauty.” He was speaking on behalf of the masters who had blazed his trail, from Manet to Picasso, and of his own avant-garde confrères (Pollack, de Kooning, et. al.), and too, for waves of future MFAs. But suspicion of beauty is not restricted to artists alone. We sing of purple mountain majesties, but the churchy sentimentalities of America the Beautiful (the lyrics were first published in a weekly called The Congregationalist) cannot resist modernity’s ironic derision. There is something grandiose about beauty that rubs against the American grain. My working-class relations rarely used the word, preferring the leveling action of the banal: A grand vista was “nice,” a starry night “pretty,” a comely face “good-looking.”
As compensation, from the chromium brightness of Cold War-era cars to the brushed aluminum of the Apple Store, America domesticated beauty to a cash crop of glamor. (What is more unbeautiful than Project Runway?) In 1949, Barnett Newman sought to destroy beauty; by the 1960s, Andy Warhol just laughed at it. Who can speak of beauty today without some frisson of self-consciousness?
So where do I come off with my pretensions? I am not as interested in what beauty is as what it does.
Beauty sparks desire. Observe how everything that debases us is devoid of beauty. Blight in its indifference, greed in its cruelty, vengeance in its blindness – all undercut aspiration and disorder appetite. Yet something of virtue sticks to the beautiful. As
Plato and Dante both knew, even carnal lusts may point toward nobler instincts. Base impulses are unexamined expressions of the soul’s instinct for wholeness. Beauty is the juice of the good – the illuminating desire, the eros divine. It always points in the same direction, toward love-in-action.
Beauty cannot feed the hungry, prevent disease, cure injustice. Cynics rightly observe it does not stop the carnage of war. Yet as modernist critiques become more threadbare, we better understand beauty’s necessity. Destroy the beautiful and our humanity erodes too. Compassion, generosity, praise all atrophy, and by slow degrees a capacity for the suffering of others increases. Our eyes, actions, and ideals affirm one truth. Before we made beauty, beauty made us.
Timothy D. Cahill is a cultural journalist and commentator. He was formerly arts correspondent and photography critic for The Christian Science Monitor, and is a past Fellow with the PEW National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University. In 2008, he founded a non-profit initiative to engage contemporary art with values of compassion ethics. He is enrolled at the ISM and Yale Divinity School (M.A.R. in religion and the arts, 2016).
By Robert Pennoyer
As a native New Yorker from a religious-but-not-spiritual family, I enjoyed an unremarkable religious upbringing. What shattered familiar molds and made God credible was my artistic exposure. As a boy, I spent five years singing in the children’s chorus of the Metropolitan Opera. Most days, after school (and frequently during it), I’d leave my classroom, cross Central Park, and get to work making music with some of the world’s greatest musicians. Onstage at the Met, performing in a production of Cavalleria Rusticana, I experienced the first of those unexpected, overwhelming moments when the world’s capacity for beauty, love, and goodness seemed so ripe and so real that it could only be a sign of the givenness of our existence and a hint of its giver.
But if my musical experience suggested a spiritual dimension to the universe, it was poetry that rescued my faith in it from disillusion, a kind of Death by Church. There seemed an unbridgeable gulf between what I’d experienced at the Met and what I was experiencing in the church of my youth. My church’s vocabulary of faith seemed full of stale words, cheapened by overuse and calcified by overconfidence about what they meant. (I’d blame adolescent obstinacy for my resistance to many formulations of faith expressed in church, but age hasn’t cured me. I remain allergic to certitude and find it, in most forms, morally suspect and aesthetically stifling.)
After leaving home to attend an Episcopal boarding school, I discovered in The Book of Common Prayer words I didn’t quite understand arranged in cadences of stunning musicality, and the combination of sound and sense made for a strange alchemy: The ineffable opacity of God lifted, or seemed to, if only for brief moments. Such was poetry’s effect on me, and it wasn’t long before I was regularly turning to literary accounts of belief and unbelief that matched my experiences and made my halting faith feel less lonely.
W. H. Auden called poetry “the clear expression of mixed feeling.” That ability to hold together dissonant meanings, intuitions, and beliefs has allowed poetry to give expression to my faith – and to enrich it. My time at Yale and in the ISM has affirmed what I’d learned by accident – that music can point us towards God; that poetry can revivify our tired language of faith; and that beauty can express and reveal the wondrous love of God.
Robbie Pennoyer grew up singing in the children’s chorus of the Metropolitan Opera and juggling in Central Park. He has an English degree from Harvard, where he composed musical comedies and co-founded S.T.A.G.E., an after-school theater program for inner-city children. He graduates with an M.Div. next year and is pursuing Episcopal ordination.