To Sound the Depths of Love Divine

Last December, Wesley House hosted a free day conference: ‘The Arts, Spirituality and the Christian Imagination’.  It was part of the visit to the East Anglia District of the President of the Conference, the Revd Michaela Youngson: Micky, as many people will know her.  Micky’s own interest in glassmaking prompted us to plan this event while she was with us as the preacher for our commemoration of founders and benefactors, and she led a session entitled ‘Spirituality and the Art of Making’. Wesley House has had an artistic connection with Micky since she made a piece of glass for the college to mark its re-opening and re-dedication in 2017.  Her piece ‘Crown of Thorns’, inspired by the March 2017 terror attack on Westminster, is part of Wesley House’s art collection and can be seen via our website in the ‘visit us’ section.

Hosting the conference with us were our ecumenical partners the Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies, a theological college in the Eastern Orthodox tradition which with Wesley House is one of the eleven institutions in the Cambridge Theological Federation.  Their principal, Father Dragos Herescu, is an Orthodox priest and theologian.  He led us through what for many was the unfamiliar world of Orthodox icons and explored what it means as an Orthodox to speak of icons as ‘Windows onto Heaven’.

Two wonderfully talented musicians offered an opportunity to reflect on and experience the capacity of music to make connections between our bodies, minds and souls – both in hearing and making music – and their session also fed into the worship which closed the day.  Geraldine Allen and Sarah Rodgers are members of the East Anglia District and are both based at Swaffham in the Central Norfolk Circuit.  Geraldine is a professional clarinettist and Sarah is a professional composer and conductor.  Sarah and Geraldine led such a wonderful session on music in worship that we immediately invited them to be with us again for our Easter School for Preachers this Holy Week!

A theme which ran across all three of these very different sessions was the importance of a relationship between us and a piece of art when we’re in the realm of spirituality.  There was a recurring message that art can’t be, and shouldn’t be, kept at arm’s length.  For Micky, at a very basic level, this involved getting past attitudes around art that it’s ‘for experts’, only enjoyed by certain kinds of people, only revealing its mysteries to the initiated – which is not ‘people like me’.  Speaking from her own experience, she showed how many of us assume we’re incapable of really enjoying, engaging with, making or appreciating art because we haven’t had any training, read the right books, had the correct upbringing, or whatever.  So it remains something at arm’s length, unable to engage us because of what William Blake called our ‘mind-forged manacles’.  One of Micky’s aims was to encourage us to believe that art is for people like us.

One of the things that Dragos wanted to convey from an Orthodox perspective was that treating an icon as simply a piece of art misunderstands what it essentially is.  If an icon hangs in an art gallery or on a wall as a simple painting, a piece of artistic production to be admired, it’s also somehow kept at arm’s length, and is no longer what an icon is meant to be.  In the words of the English Orthodox Bishop and theologian Kallistos Ware:

In the tradition of the Orthodox Church, the icon is not merely a piece of decoration or a visual aid. We do more than just look at icons or talk about them; we pray with them.

Recognising that those of us from a Protestant, Reformed tradition carry something of its historical suspicion of the use of images in worship and in churches, Dragos emphasised the distinction between praying with icons and praying to them.  And speaking personally, he told us that he simply couldn’t remember a time that praying with icons wasn’t a part of his Christian journey, from his very early childhood in Romania, and that particular icons have ‘travelled with him’ from then until now, shaping his faith as well as his praying.

Dragos offered one example of how icons both convey and deepen faith, and how they are a theological and not just an artistic expression.  This was the famous icon of Christ from St Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, pictured below.  As well as the icon itself, the picture shows mirror composites of the left and right sides of Christ’s face.  The composites suggest that the maker of the icon was thinking theologically and doctrinally, not just aesthetically or creatively.  Because the composites help us to see how the icon is conveying a mystery of faith: that of Christ’s two natures, divine and human.  It’s also suggested that neither of the composites, but only the original icon ‘works’ as a depiction of Christ: fully human, fully divine – two natures, but one person.  This is the icon as a ‘window’ into mystery that prompts the believer towards the goal of theology, in Orthodox tradition, which is the praise and glorification of God.

The musical session with Sarah and Geraldine also invited participants to engage with music at a level which allowed it to ‘speak’ as we listened to it, or to help us to speak by singing it.  They actually helped us to ‘hear’ a colour in a piece of music, or sense whether it was conveying heat or cold – simply by listening attentively.  We were astonished that most of us ‘heard’ the same colour, or temperature!  The point was that music can communicate without words.  So by the time we came to sing hymns and worship songs as a group, we were aware that it’s not just a question of what you sing (the words), with the tune simply as scaffolding to hang them on.  We were encouraged to recognise the role of how you sing, and allow the tune to live, for discovering how a hymn or song can most fully be an act of worship and move the mind and soul to prayer or praise.

Much of what Micky said about the process of making a piece of art also reflected this capacity of the image or object to have a kind of ‘speaking autonomy’ in its relationship to me, the viewer or the maker.  The artwork can communicate or ‘teach’ something as I allow myself to become engaged and involved with it, and not just remain a detached observer.  Micky talked about this in terms of an element of risk in her own experience of making art.  She gave an example of this risk: the unfathomably mystery of why, in identical circumstances, one piece of glasswork comes out whole and beautiful, while another, made and fired in exactly the same way, comes out brittle, fragile and quickly shatters into pieces.  She reflected on risk as a lack of ultimate control which she has had to learn in glassmaking.  This was an experience clearly shared by other makers in the audience, based on participants’ comments and contributions to the conversation!  This lack of ultimate control, the inexplicable and unaccountable in the artistic process, was also apparent as we reflected with Micky on the way artistic creations don’t always turn out as you plan them.  What takes shape under your hands has a kind of life of its own – how it turns out isn’t a process that you are in control of. Unexpected things happen in the process of making; the glass (or paint or clay or whatever) somehow ‘goes its own way’, and this ends up as part of a beauty in the finished piece which you hadn’t envisaged at all at the outset.  It almost began to sound as if the art of making were a kind of ‘collaboration’ between the artist on the one hand, and the materials, the firing process in the kiln, the weather outside (as even this can affect the end product, apparently!)

The theological insights which came out of this conversation were about how the creative process teaches us profound truths about ourselves.  We live in a culture that tells us that our ‘best selves’ are independent, in control, ‘driving the process’, initiators – and that success is about realising our aims and dreams.  Art and making tell us a different story – about dependence, response, waiting, collaboration – and our own aims and dreams being less than the whole story.  And this holds true more broadly: in our relationship not just with artistic creation, but with other persons, with the whole created order – and in the end, with the one who is our maker.