“Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight.’” (Ex. 3)
It is a truism nowadays that the art museum has become a surrogate for religious institutions. Rather than finding the sacred in overtly religious buildings such as churches, mosques, or synagogues—many people now retreat to the art museum in search of an experience of peace, of beauty, and of repose.
I was reminded of this phenomenon last weekend when I took the train up to Santa Fe to spend the day. Going into the Georgia O’Keefe museum, I was immediately aware of the museum’s implied intention to offer the visitor a kind of spiritual retreat. The gallery space is hushed, and speaks of a great reverence for the artist’s aesthetic vision: pictures are hung with a kind of iconic reverence; plaques offer biographical details to express the artist’s inspiringly creative approach to painting; and quotations posted around the walls offer a kind of sacral message for the visitor to ponder—quotations such as:
“If you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it's your world for a moment.” Or, “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing—and keeping the unknown always beyond you.”
As most of the other museum visitors seemed to do, I enjoyed myself thoroughly, and came away stimulated and with a renewed spirit. Turning aside from the normal routines of life to appreciate something of beauty had, as advertised, been a positive spiritual experience.
In today’s reading from Exodus, Moses himself turns aside from his daily routine when his eye catches something of wonder and beauty. This is the Moses who was born a Hebrew slave in Egypt; adopted as one of pharaoh’s own; sent into exile for killing a slave-driving Egyptian; and now earns his way in life as a quiet sheepherder in the land of Midian. While tending his flocks, he comes upon a strange sight indeed: a bush that is blazing with fire, yet is not consumed. Seeing such a wonder, he stops to gaze—and it is then that the voice of God speaks to him out of the fire, calling him to become the liberator of the Hebrew slaves of Egypt.
Now, perhaps it is the frame of mind into which I was put by my visit to the O’Keefe museum, but what struck me in returning to this passage today is that the call Moses receives comes to him not just out of the blue, but from a very particular experience of something wonderful. There is nothing threatening about this theophany, nothing foreboding or overpowering—but rather a wondrous sight that attracts Moses to it for its sheer beauty.
In the last two weeks, we have—as part of this preaching series on “Livin’ in these (troubled) times”—focused first on avoiding the temptation to sell ourselves short, and then in the second week on the importance of reaching beyond the cynicism of a cynical age. Today, I want to point toward a rather different type of response to these troubled times, which is to seek out and cleave to experiences of beauty, like Moses at the burning bush.
Our psalmist suggests why this might be important: invoking the image of a barren, dry desert, he compares the thirst of his soul for God to the physical thirst one feels under the hot dry sun where there is no water. One symptom of these troubled times may be that like the psalmist, our spirits become dry and cracked by the day in and day out experience of such things as the shrillness of public discourse, or the aesthetic void of having to shop in the placelessness of big box stores, or the barrage of violence in our streets and corruption in our institutions. We need something that can water our souls—and like my visit to the museum suggests, perhaps it is beauty and wonder.
Now of all people, we New Mexicans ought to be keenly aware of the important place beauty has in daily life, surrounded as we are by cultural treasures such as the traditional Spanish colonial arts; the dances, pottery, and weavings of the Indian pueblos and other tribes; and even the drama of the landscape itself. These magnificent reminders of the place that beauty has in ordinary life should encourage each of us to seek out, in our own way, encounters with beauty that draw us into closer proximity with the experience of wonder. It was Abraham Heschel who once said, “We will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation.”1 How prescient he was, back in the 1960s (the “Dark Ages,” as my teenage son calls them), to perceive even before the advent of the computer and smartphone that our human spirit can simply be overcome by an unrelenting deluge of information and images—losing in the process the sense of wonder and amazement that waters our souls.
The trouble is, not only are our spirits overwhelmed by the objects and images that are constantly pressed upon us—we also seem to be hardwired with an instinct toward the negative that only reinforces the effects of this barrage. Several of us were at a retreat this weekend with the Brotherhood of St. Andrew, where we heard Fr. Richard Rohr speak. One thing he talked about is the fact that our psyche seems to be put together in such a way that negative thoughts, images and sensations are like Velcro: we are immediately attracted to them, and they stick. Think about how eagerly we gawk at accidents on the freeway, or how much we have been fascinated by the shouting and name-calling of the recent so-called presidential debates (face it—don’t you find it all rather entertaining, at some level?). Positive thoughts, images, and sensations, on the other hand, are like Teflon: they slide quickly aware from our awareness, if we make room for them at all.
Perhaps we need, in these troubled times, to cultivate a renewed desire to savor the good and the beautiful—and to turn away from the ugly and demeaning. Like our bodies need water, our souls need beauty. We need to irrigate and nurture, for example, the sense of wonder and amazement that comes from taking time just to consider that there is life, rather than nothing at all. We need to give enough attention to the present moment, to savor the sheer existence of something as simple as a bush, a tree, or a spring flower—and to see intimations therein of transcendence that beckon to us. Maybe, we even need to go to an art museum—or concert hall, or nature center, or honky-tonk … wherever you find beauty for yourself.
And then like Moses gazing at the burning bush, we need to sense that something—or someone—calls to us by name out of that sense of wonder, inviting us to become something more than we are, to be more confident and courageous, and to be more present in the present moment. Moses, having turned aside to contemplate what he saw, was called through that awareness to become nothing less than the liberator of his people. What might we each hear out of the fire of our own wonder, if when we too take time to turn aside, we truly contemplate the wonder that is before us? Amen.
© Joseph Britton, 2016
1 Abraham Heschel, Man is Not Alone (1951), 37.