Raising the Mind and Heart to God
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines prayer as ‘raising the mind and heart to God’. For centuries, the Church realized that the arts were one of the best ways of achieving this. Any list of the greatest artistic achievements of all time will be dominated by religious works: in sculpture, Michelangelo’s Pietà; in painting, Leonardo’s Last Supper; in music, Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus; in architecture, the mediaeval cathedrals. The best examples of dance, drama and poetry similarly are often religious.
The arts at their most powerful enable us to look beyond our day-to-day concerns. They instead draw us up to something higher, or inwards to something deeper, or outwards to something bigger. Theologians have fancy terms for this – the transcendent or the numinous or ‘the other’; in other words the recognition that there is more to reality than what lies on the surface. One of the defining characteristics of humans is our ability to use artistic skills to help us to reach out to these higher, deeper, bigger realities.
Sometimes we risk forgetting this wonderful link between religion and art. Our prayer becomes too bogged down in long, ponderous phrases that make our brains ache. Prayer feels more like the kind of English comprehension test we had to sit at school than an experience of ‘raising the heart and mind to God’. As a writer I have nothing against words. After all, they allow me to communicate to all of you across time and across space. But there are also older, more powerful, more deep-seated ways of praying.
So let me encourage you to put away your prayer books (and your dictionaries) and take out a piece of music or art or film that inspires you. One of the wonders of the Internet is that almost the whole of human artistic endeavour is now available – via Google or YouTube or iTunes – only a few clicks away. Choose something that will help you to move beyond the everyday and connect with that sense of the transcendent.
You might choose something that is traditionally religious, a work that others have used for centuries as a way of getting closer to God: perhaps a religious image or some Church music or a stained glass window. But you might also feel drawn to a work that is not traditionally religious but which has meaning for you: a pop song, or a clip from a favorite film, or an image that does not feature a saint or a Scripture. Don’t be afraid to explore this as well. God is present in all things which means that God can speak to us through all forms of art: an image of the Madonna or a song by Madonna.
Whatever you choose, allow yourself to sit quietly and be open to the image or the music or the video – and then invite God to raise up your heart and your mind to Him.
(The Jesuit Institute will be present this week at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown to help performers and audience members towards ‘Finding God in the Arts’: call 0765 702 497 for more details).