Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Lent and Isaak Levitan

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.


  1. Thank you Father Stephen for preparing a creative Lenten journey for us. Your thoughtful efforts are already greatly appreciated and my family is looking forward to discussing your thoughts and our own of the paintings you will share with us. I am not familiar with Lyrical painting, but it promises to be inspiring.

    1. I can make Levitan's pictures just so big on the blog, but you can perhaps make them bigger to get a better look at the details, especially if young people (who are so image conscious) will be looking on. Blessed Lent!

  2. Thank you Fr. Stephen, I will be looking deeply.

  3. I like the Church today as it is more tolerant of our needs, flexible and understanding, however I do miss some of the rigidity of days gone by. There was a certain sense of comfort in knowing that most Catholics observed Lenten fasts and traditions before Easter. Most people would scoff at wanting more structure, but it is human nature to want to know what to do as it gives a sense of stability and security. I think you blend the old and the new quite nicely Father.

  4. Sure "it's human nature to want to know what do to do as it gives a sense of stability and security." I found the young people at school who lived rebellious, angry lives were craving structure and order. Often their parents missed providing this for their children, wanting instead to be their "friend." Blending the old and the new: that reminds me of the Gospel verse, Matthew 13:52, Jesus said to them,'Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the Kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old."

  5. I have to say; I did take a look at some of Isaak Levitan's paintings and his history. I am looking forward to this Lenten journey. I am eager to experience, what lyrical painting is and how the Holy Spirit will use these beautiful paintings.

  6. I am so excited to be on board. Thanks Fr. Stephen. Yes, "Earth's crammed with heaven and every common bush's is afire with God".

  7. Just you wait to see how Isaak Levitan understands this mystically.

  8. I hope others are learning as I am to look at the Levitan work before reading your thoughts and trying to discern for myself what he might be conveying. Then your post pulls it together and puts that spiritual twist onto it that I inevitably miss. Maybe by the end of Lent I will finally find my own spiritual eyes.

  9. That's a very good idea - that we would each take our OWN (long) look first - then read on. The only thing I'd say, disagreeing with you a bit, is where you say that I "put the spiritual twist onto it that I (you) inevitably miss." I'd say you already have "spiritual eyes" because you've stopped to look at the painting in the first place sensing: there is something here worth stopping for. Carry on!