Frederick Buechner is a novelist, spiritual writer, and former minister who has wonderful gifts of insight into life, art, and other matters of ultimate importance. While perusing a collection of Buechner's writings last night, I came across a discussion of the role that art plays in our lives. I share it with you today because I believe it will resonate with those who read this blog on a fairly regular basis. As you read this excerpt, you will discover the relevance of the paintings I have chosen to accompany this post. Enjoy.
Portrait of the Artist's Mother (ca. 1629)
Excerpt from Meditation for February 20
Listening to Your Life, by Frederick Buechner
From the simplest lyric to the most complex novel and densest drama, literature is asking us to pay attention. Pay attention to the frog. Pay attention to the west wind. Pay attention to the boy on the raft, the lady in the tower, the old man on the train. In sum, pay attention to the world and all that dwells therein and thereby learn at last to pay attention to yourself and all that dwells therein.
The painter does the same thing, of course. Rembrandt puts a frame around and old woman's face. It is seamed with wrinkles. The upper lip is sunken in, the skin waxy and pale. It is not a remarkable face. You would not look twice at the old woman if you found her sitting across the aisle from you on a bus. But it is a face so remarkably seen that it forces you to see it remarkably just as Cezanne makes you see a bowl of apples or Andrew Wyeth a muslin curtain blowing in at an open window. It is a face unlike any other face in all the world. All the faces in the world are in this one old face.
Unlike painters, who work with space, musicians work with time, with note following note as second follows second. Listen! says Vivaldi, Brahms, Stravinsky. Listen to this time that I have framed between the first note and the last and to these sounds in time. Listen to the way the silence is broken into uneven lengths between the sounds and the silences themselves. Listen to the scrape of the bow against the gut, the rap of stick against the drumhead, the rush of breath through reed and wood. The sounds of the earth are like music, the old song goes, and the sounds of the music are also the sounds of the earth, which of course is where the music comes from. Listen to the voices outside the window, the rumble of the furnace, the creak of your chair, the water running in the kitchen sink. Learn to listen to the music of your own lengths of time, your own silences.
Literature, painting, music — the most basic lesson that all art teaches us is to stop, look, and listen to life on this planet, including our own lives, as a vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of the time it ever occurs to us to suspect as we bumble along from day to day on automatic pilot. In a world that for the most part steers clear of the whole idea of holiness, art is one of the few places left where we can speak to each other of holy things.
Wind from the Sea (1948)