Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Arts as Soulcraft: Patience

See the introduction to this series:

As we look at the arts as one of the vehicles through which the Holy Spirit can grow the fruit of the spirit within us, we start with Patience (mainly because that's what's bouncing through my mind right now). In many ways, patience is the quality of waiting rather than grasping. However it is not a waiting in lethargy. Patience does not imply that we sit around waiting for something to happen. Patience implies waiting in expectation, but without anxiety. Patience comes in taking action, knowing that your actions will bear fruit in some unidentified way down the road in the future. Patience is the investor who sets aside a little bit of money every month for twenty years until a nest egg is built. Patience is the person who lets go of the dream of looking like a cover model, and begins to exercise every day, knowing that these actions will have a cumulative effect of contributing to good health. Patience is the scholar who collects articles and tidbits and thoughts in her files, knowing that someday down the road, those files may produce a treasure in the form of a book, project, or new insight. Patience is in the parent, who endures unfair anger and frustration from his child because he knows that the discipline he is exerting will pay off in unexpected yet beneficial ways down the road.

For the Christian, patience is ultimately rooted in the sovereignty of God. Our ground for patience is in trusting that no matter how baffling or confusing the situation, no matter how much we are hurt or aching, the Master Architect and Lover of our Souls, the Living God ultimately has all things in his hand. Such knowledge doesn’t dispel our anxieties with waiting with a magic wand. No, it takes the work of the Holy Spirit to apply that knowledge to our hearts. And the arts can be used as a vehicle for such application.

The artist who creates must learn the discipline of patience. Bending the materials of the craft to the will takes patience and diligence and a willingness to surrender. For every theatrical production, there are countless hours of rehearsal. Actors work diligently to build the inner worlds of their characters and then to work out their gestures, mannerisms, vocal patterns, emotional responses, poise. Meanwhile a legion of costume designers, set designers, lighting designers and other technicians work diligently to create a space that supports the vision of the play, rather than distracting from it. The director works long hours tying these various threads together. And all this for a few ephemeral hours to entertain and delight the audience. It takes tremendous patience to endure the weeks and weeks of rehearsal – but it is patience with expectation – there will come a show. The exact outcome of the show is uncertain – will it be a stunning success, will it flop. Will anyone come at all? In the performing arts, there is always the element of the unexpected. Patience is rooted in both expectation and uncertainty. The truly patient must accept the circumstances of the moment. Whether you have an audience of 10 or 1000, they deserve the best show that you can put on. Technical glitches should not derail the performance – for the show must go on.

I suspect it is true in many other art forms. How many hours of practice and training go into the mastery of an instrument. How many nights are spent before the strings of the guitar begin to produce a rush of harmonious music rather than a staccato shotgun of sound. The great puritan preacher William Gurnall, in his funeral oration for Elizabeth Dowager Countess of Clare, uses this image of playing a complex instrument as a way of indicating the spiritual journey for those to whom much has been given:

“The more strings an instrument has, the more art is required to handle it well; the larger the field is, the more labor it will cost him who is to till it. In a word, the greater the servant’s charge is, and the more business which lies upon his hands, the more care is necessary to tend it; and where the care must be great, the labor cannot be little, because care itself is one of the greatest labors.” (6)

Gurnall’s point is that the art, care, and labor involved in learning an artistic craft, maintaining property, or engaging in business is but a training ground for the spiritual labor of the Christian. And he makes the case in this funeral oration, that the labor has its sweetness from the anticipated reward. The patience arises from its roots of expectation. Thus, the title of this oration is “The Christian’s Labor and Reward”

And yet the arts also afford a training ground in patience for the receiver of the arts. Henri Nouwen in his book Return of the Prodigal demonstrates this. He talks of his obsession with Rembrand’s Return of the Prodigal. When He finally was able to take a trip to St. Petersburg, he was able to arrange a visit to the Hermitage to see the great masterwork – but because of the great lines out front he was frustrated in his attempts to draw close to it. Finally, through a friend, he was able to arrange an expedited intrance into the museum and preferential treatment to be able to sit and examine the painting. He spent 8 hours over the course of two days sitting and examining this painting –watching the light play across it at different times of day. Meditating on the faces of the various people depicted. Savoring every nuance like a freshly picked basket of strawberries – sweet and juicy and lush on the lips. He was surrounded by a thousand masterpieces all through the museum, but rather than hurrying through each room to make sure he saw everything – rather than treating the museum as an all you can eat buffet into which he must stuff as much into his intellectual maw as he can – he treated the painting as a gourmet meal to be savored and explored and relished.

And the savoring paid off dividends handsomely in understanding – and ultimately in the production of the book. Art positively invites the receiver to attend to it – and if we’re patient in the attending, then we reap rewards – even if ultimately we decide we don’t like the work, or we decide we like it, but that it’s not a “great” work.

More to come -- I look forward to your thoughts.

Soli Deo Gloria