"The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men." attributed to Plato

"Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing." attributed to Edmund Burke

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Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The Healing Power of Art

How much art can you take?

Rachel Campbell-Johnston asked this in The Times 2 yesterday under the heading: “Poussin, I’ve had my fill thanks.”
The art historian T J Clark, she tells us, spent six months in front of two Poussin paintings and recorded his experiences in The Sight of Death.
This reminded me of the spiritual best selling writer and Roman Catholic priest Henri Nouwen who had his own reasons for spending many hours and days and months in front of a painting, in his case Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. Nouwen also wrote a book about his experiences but from a healing and spiritual perspective rather than from the artistic perspective of Clark.

In his book Henri Nouwen described the effect on him of viewing for the first time a poster of Rembrandt’s painting. He had recently returned to France to spend time as a pastor for people with development or learning disabilities at L’Arche (1) community in Trosly-Breuil. Nouwen had spent a grueling lecture tour in the USA, which had left him exhausted physically and emotionally. The sight of this poster, he says, made his heart leap, and ‘set in motion a long spiritual adventure that brought me to a new understanding of my vocation and new strength to live it.’(2) Nouwen was later given the opportunity to study the original painting in depth, where it hangs in the Hermitage in St Petersburg. He described how moved he was by the depth of compassion in the father’s hands on the shoulders of the repentant son kneeling before him in worn out cloak and sandals. Over the months and years that followed, ‘Rembrandt’s embrace remained imprinted on my soul far more profoundly than any temporary expression of emotional support,’ he writes. ‘It had brought me into touch with something within me that lies far beyond the ups and downs of a busy life, something that represents the ongoing yearning of the human spirit, the yearning for a final return, an unambiguous sense of safety, a lasting home.’(3) Nouwen had experienced the capacity of art to heal.
It is interesting that Rembrandt was close to his death when he completed this painting in 1669, after a life of some success and wealth but also personal tragedies and grief. By this time he was a poor and lonely man. Nouwen senses in the painting an expression of the deep understanding that Rembrandt held of his own spiritual homecoming. Nouwen struggled throughout his own life with much mental anguish, with anxiety and with insecurity, but his pastoral abilities were undoubted. He gave spiritual support to many through his priestly ministry and through his books, many of which, including this book on Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, are still bestsellers today. Something beautiful and life affirming was speaking to Nouwen from the picture and his ability to convey that on to his reader is very powerful indeed.

Two quotes spring to mind:

"Through Art we can see deep truths that are otherwise invisible. In great works of art we feel the deepest yearnings of our Heart and glimpse the shimmering revelations of our Spirit."
Dana Lynne Andersen (4)

"Creating a work of art is not a harmless thing. It always is a powerful medium. Art is extraordinarily powerful and important. It challenges people’s lives."
Chögyam Trungpa (5)

There is indeed nothing neutral about creative force. We can use it as a source of inspiration and healing for ourselves and for those around us. Or it has the power to hurt or corrupt, to disturb or destroy. We cannot escape its impact; creativity is an integral part of our lives. We surely have a responsibility to be mindful of this as we go about our daily lives.

1. L’Arche International Communities ,L’Arche USA and L’Arche UK

2. Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1994, Darton, Longman and Todd, p. 3.
3. Ibid., p. 5.
4. Dana Lynne Andersen, Californian spiritual artist who founded Awakening Arts Network, a global resource nexus connecting artists throughout the world who are engaged in creating art that is ‘evolutionary’ and ‘transformative’.
5. Trungpa, C., 1996, Dharma Art, Shambala Publications, Boston, Mass. In Wild Heart Journal

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