Yesterday, I had a few spare hours between giving a morning Adult Ed program at a Birmingham parish and then attending an afternoon event at another parish in Birmingham. The rare, unscheduled block of time allowed for a trip to the Birmingham Museum of Art where I spent a couple of happy, leisurely hours getting lost amongst and within a Monet, a Pissarro, a Courbet, a Carot…along with a nice selection from the Italian Renaissance. Yes, I was happy indeed to lose myself amongst and within these works, if only for a couple of hours.
I felt somewhat mixed, though, about the Contemplation Station that greeted those entering the galleries. There on the wall was a large poster inviting museum-goers to a deeper look at the artwork, to look beyond the glance, to contemplate. A stack of laminate cards with instructions on how to contemplate a work of art stood at the ready to accompany museum-goers through their tour. Portable stools were also stacked for borrowing and carrying.
I didn’t know whether to rejoice over the invitation and encouragement to contemplate, or to feel sorrow that we have so lost our capacity to behold that we require laminate cards with step by step instructions. Perhaps in our rush to be both here and there, we have forgotten how to simply be here, and how to behold that which is before us.
Perhaps we could learn from the artists the art of beholding, of turning trusting eyes to the landscape or still life or saintly profile, and letting that which is there change us so that what we return is not representation, but comprehension, not depiction, but understanding.
And the saints – artists of a different sort – can teach us to behold He who is beyond sight, and how to let our beholding transform us into the likeness of the One so lovingly and trustingly beheld.