|Portrait of Isaak Levitan by Valentin Serov 1883|
Lent was a miserable affair when I was a boy in the 1950's and 60's. The Catholic was supposed to suffer as a way of expressing love for the suffering Jesus. It didn't do much of anything to evolve us humanly, as it had mostly to do with external observances. We were to attend daily Mass (if possible), pray the Stations of the Cross, recite the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, go to Confession, strictly observe the laws of fast and abstinence, and above all (the Catholic hallmark and ultimate reduction) "give up" something.
That last bit, giving up something, left the door open for regrettable and silly abuses of the holy season. In my family, which had a fondness for drink, come Lent there were always some men who'd announce they intended to give up alcohol. I never met one who made it to Easter, but by the second week they were all drinking beer. When I once confronted my father about this he said, "Beer doesn't count; it's not real alcohol."
But then, much of Catholicism had to do with counting. How much of a Sunday Mass did you have to be present for it to "count". What sins needed to be confessed for it to "count" as a "good" confession? While saying the rosary one could "lose count". If praying a nine day novena and missing a day were you to press on or start over for it to "count". It's naive to imagine Jesus somehow pleased with this kind of anxious spirituality.
Rather, Lent is the Church's Springtime. This means I've got forty days to somehow become more alive, more human, (what God has made us to be) so to celebrate well the Feast of Jesus' new life. And this holy work is done from the inside out. Lent, it seems to me, requires some introversion.
I'm reading a book these days, titled: Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can't Stop Talking. Without getting into a big psychological discussion about introverts, extroverts and ambiverts, here's author Barry Schwartz giving a light-hearted indication of the book's theme:
"Memo to all you glad-handing, back-slapping, brainstorming masters of the universe out there: Stop networking and talking for a minute and read this book. In Quiet, Susan Cain does an eloquent and powerful job of extolling the virtues of the listeners and the thinkers - the reflective introverts of the world who appreciate that hard problems demand careful thought and who understand that it's a good idea to know what you want to say before you open your mouth."
Maybe each person is somewhat introverted and extroverted. But the American culture doesn't make much space for introversion (which is not the same as shyness), let alone encourage or reward it. We're encouraged more to be thought of as having a great personality with a fabulous white smile, capable of being a top-notch sales person, having celebrity or star power, being a trend-setter, a go-getter, a talker more than a listener, knowing the art of the deal. The King and Queen of the senior prom were never introverts.
I'm laughing now, remembering when my mother, returning from the 6th grade Parent-Teacher night, challenged me: "Sister said: 'Mrs. Morris, sometimes I wonder if Stephen is even in the room'." Well I wasn't, I was a million miles away in a forest, or flying, or sailing, or investigating animals or in my 8'X8' garden, or in church. I had to go to summer school for failing arithmetic, (I hadn't paid attention) but I wouldn't give up the seminal treasure of my inner life for any teacher's idea of what it takes, or who I have to be, so to function well or succeed in the world.
It's hard for a Christian to live in this noisy, aggressive, opinionated, 24 hour-news-cycle, road-raging world. So for this Lent, I'd like to offer us something different - a rest (if even for a few minutes each of the forty days) on our way to Easter.
I've recently been introduced to the 19th century Russian Lyrical Landscape painter, Isaak Levitan. I'd say Levitan doesn't want us to consider nature as scenery, ("Oh, look at the lake," as we zoom by) but to ponder our own inner landscape. Someone might say: "Well, that doesn't sound very religious." I'd disagree, because Jesus said, "I have come that they may have life and have it to the full." John 10:10 How intriguing is that! "Have life to the full?" How wonderfully mysterious! What could Jesus' words mean for me?
Levitan is a Lyrical painter? One art authority says that Lyricism is painting that has a songfulness to it - like a poem, but in paint. A Lyrical painter doesn't want to do what a camera would do, but to call forth from the viewer some emotion or feeling, some inner resonance. It's as if the painting whispers: As you gaze here, do you have some memory? Does this touch some personal experience of yours? Do you hear some inner suggestion? Don't just admire what you see, but allow the scene to speak to you spiritually: the harmony, the tensions, the symbolic images, the movements and colors.
I would suggest that as God speaks to us from the bible page, God might also speak to us from an artist's canvas. Americans are not practiced in this kind of looking. Many of the images we encounter are media commercials speeding along so rapidly, our minds can't keep up. Or the exposure is to violent, materialistic, vulgar, sensuous pictures which drain us of spiritual energies.
I've not studied art, nor been trained as an artist, but I do like to look deeply, believing that the Holy Spirit is alive and active in surprising places. "Earth's crammed with heaven and every common bush's afire with God." Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
So for each of Lent's Forty Days (beginning Ash Wednesday), I'll post one of Levitan's paintings (he left us over 1000!) sharing some thoughts of my own - posts which I hope will help us to see with spiritual eyes. And you will undoubtedly have your own insights and sense of things as you stop to look. I'm thinking of the Christmas Carol: "Star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright..." Religion hasn't achieved its purpose if it's lost wonder.