Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Gully 1898

The strange name for this painting, The Gully, leaves me wondering if it's just a poor translation of the Russian title. A gully is a water-worn ravine, a canyon or gorge. This is a view of lake and sky seen through an opening in the trees. 

Levitan was about 38 years old when he painted this scene. And while his health was deteriorating his palette became increasingly bright. Levitan always instructed his students not to put on the palette any color that was not going to be used in the painting. So here we have shades of green and blue. 

The high grass just in front of us is put down simply as an impression so that we don't linger there, but go beyond. The trees to left and right form a kind of frame for the two layers of blue: water and sky separated or demarcated by a horizontal band of  tilled fields or beach.

We say, "A picture's worth a thousand words." When I first started exploring Isaak Levitan's paintings for the Lenten blog, this painting jumped out, immediately taking me back to the early autumn of 1976 when I was a third theologian in seminary. 

This seminary was situated on the north shore of Long Island bordering on Lloyd Harbor. The seminary itself was a large building which could house over two hundred men, a church-sized chapel, library, classrooms and dining hall. But beyond the seminary itself there was a deep woods with a long, wide path leading down to the water. That forest-y place was a silent refuge where I went often, even in hard rain and deep snow.

This Levitan painting took me back to those truly awesome moments of silent standstill and secret hope. I hadn't formulated the thought at the time, but I often sensed we weren't being formed as holy men, but problem solving, well-informed tradesmen. 

I wasn't unhappy in seminary, I never dreaded or hated the place, but I wish it had been so much more. Blue is the color of divinity. Here, Levitan shows us the trees pulled back like a curtain, revealing that divinity beyond, much as I had wished for seminary to reveal something of God to me. 

"You know, you can see God; you can touch God," my priest spiritual director told me many decades later. I wish I had heard that as a seminarian, because it would have rallied me, healed me, excited me, delighted me and set me on a new course. This isn't a lament, because while that encounter didn't occur inside the building, it surely happened outside, in the kind of moment Levitan has captured here. 


  1. Many times in my life I have been left with that feeling of wanting more from an experience or a situation. I try to learn from them and wonder what I could have done differently to have made it a better time. You seem to have found the grounds of the seminary your sanctuary to escape those empty emotions, filling yourself with some needed joy. A Levitan lesson.

    1. I found it the first day; it kept me on my feet.

  2. This represents a much needed place of refuge for you. I am glad that you shared this memory with us. We forget that everyone has a path to tread and the way is not always easy or clearly marked. We have to cut our way through and create our own opening to the future.

    1. "We forget that everyone has a path to tread and the way is not always easy..." It's sensitive of you to acknowledge the sentence applies to seminarians as well. I wonder if the Catholic people consider much what the experience of seminary is like - do they imagine the young man just pops out all vested and ready to go, or that it is all joyful study and easy prayer? But it wouldn't be their fault if they did think that way - seminary formation and religious novitiates have traditionally been kept out of sight. Now some dioceses give the seminarian time in the parish to see what it's like, and I might add, to see what it's like to live in a rectory. O my!

    2. I think it would be good for men and women in formation to be with the people they will one day serve. Having grown up with a friend who was later ordained a Catholic priest, I know that though the priesthood brings great joy to him, there is also struggle and questioning. I think that a priest gives up so much that we take for granted and I hold a great respect for these men who make sacrifices and walk the path least traveled, alone with God.