I came across a statement by Mark Van Doren that I hope will shed light on what I am trying to emphasize in this series of columns on art and its relation to religious faith. Van Doren was a professor at Columbia University and was something of a legend as a professor.
Apparently his classes were very special. A priest friend of mine took a course with Van Doren many years ago and found it an exceptional educational experience.
Thomas Merton’s studies under Van Doren led to a close friendship. The following is the quotation from Van Doren’s “The Noble Voice”: “What is a given poem about? What happens in it? What exists in it? If too little of the world is in it, why is that? If all of the world is there, by what miracle has this been done? Is tragedy or comedy at work, and what is the difference between the two, and what the resemblance? Are the facts of life accounted for in the unique way that poetry accounts for them, and is this poem something therefore that any man should read? Does its author know more, not less, than most men know? Such seem to me the great questions, though they are not regularly asked by criticism.”
I think that we could substitute the word “novel” wherever Van Doren uses the word “poem” and much of what Van Doren suggests about the questions we should ask about poems would help us understand and appreciate a novel more deeply.
In fact, I think we could substitute the word “film” or the word “play” or the words “short story,” and I think that could lead to a deeper appreciation of a film or a play or a short story.
It may seem as though I am taking works of art too seriously, but I don’t think I am. If it is true that all of creation mirrors God, and if it is true that the artist may see more deeply into reality than many of us, then what the artist creates may mirror God’s creative act.
This is what Pope St. John Paul suggested in his wonderful “Letter to Artists.” What I am stressing is that there may be treasures in excellent works of art that can greatly enrich our experience.
God is everywhere inviting us and waiting to be encountered. There are several reasons why I think that some works of art can greatly enrich our lives. If we believe that the five transcendentals — being, unity, beauty, good, and true — are characteristics of all that God creates, then our lives are surrounded by signs of God.
If artists can help us experience those transcendentals, then their contribution to society seems unique and crucial. The experience of great art can humanize us and perhaps even play a role in helping us grow closer to God.
When I think of great art I spontaneously think of the first line of one of Father Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poems: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
If we believe that all of reality is sacramental, that because of Christ’s death and resurrection grace is everywhere, that our experience of ourselves and other people, indeed of any reality, can be a moment of grace, then art takes on, at least potentially, the role of being a channel of God’s love.
As I write these words, novels, films, plays, and poems that I have experienced several times take on a special importance. In various ways they speak to me of God and Christ’s revelation.
In an earlier column I mentioned that in Graham Greene’s novels, God seems to leap off the page at me. Author-publisher-lay theologian Frank Sheed claimed that Greene wrote as though the headline on the morning paper was
“Son of God died on a cross for me.” I just thought of a scene from Evelyn Waugh’s extraordinary novel, “Brideshead Revisited.” The scene is done beautifully in the television version of the novel.
It is the scene in which Lord Marchmain, portrayed by Laurence Olivier, is on his deathbed and his daughter, his mistress, and the unbelieving narrator of the story, Charles Ryder, wonderfully portrayed by Jeremy Irons, are praying that he accept the absolution offered to him by the parish priest.
Marchmain has been living outside the Church for more than 20 years. Slowly Marchmain, barely conscious, makes the sign of the cross. The first time I read that scene, written beautifully as perhaps only Waugh could write it, I was almost moved to tears.
Each time I viewed the scene with a class of students, I had to work to control my emotions. I think that scene provided a moment of grace for me. I am wondering if readers of this column have had similar experiences.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.