Yesterday, I perused an art book that presented a series of oil paintings on folding wooden screens. Each side of the screens – recto and verso, or front and back – depicted a different view of the same scenario. For instance, one recto showed a crowd departing from a funeral, while the verso depicted the barren stillness of a snowy cemetery in winter. Both suggest loss and departure, yet the images are strikingly different, and each, on its own, is incomplete. Together, the two images painted a fuller portrait of human experience than that conveyed by a single perspective.
The images moved me deeply, as did the use of medium to convey the “both/and” quality of much of human experience. Good art points beyond itself, and in this case, the medium did as well.
As I sat with these images, the recto and verso quality of monastic life came readily to mind. It’s easy to connect it with the monastic virtue of balance, but it is far more than that. The balance for which we strive – solitude and community, silence and speech, work and prayer – is merely a practice in service to a larger whole. It is a technique, or medium, like the use of recto and verso, front and back, both/and, to portray a broader and complementary perspective.
Just as a single perspective cannot convey the fullness of human experience, a singular mode of religious practice cannot express or contain the whole of our desire for God, and of God’s desire for us. Silence and speech both suggest communion with God, yet – as with the painting – the two are strikingly different, and each, on its own, is incomplete. They are complementary aspects of a singular whole, and together they offer a fuller and deeper entry into communion.
Sitting with these paintings reminded me that the balance that we seek in monastic life is not simply about monastic practice, or ‘technique.’ The balance, the both/and, the recto and verso, are about entering into the fullness of God.
Postscript: For anyone unfamiliar with the terms, recto and verso are printing terms that refer to the front and back sides of a printed page or manuscript.