Silence, the Arts, and Spiritual Discipline: Thoughts after R. S. Thomas [and Mark Rothko], an ITIA seminar presentation by Dr Richard McLauchlan

EDITOR’S NOTE:  As a preview to the format for Transpositions’ Friday posts in the coming Martinmas semester 2018, this ‘review’ summarises and further reflects on a meaningful seminar presentation in the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) during the Candlemas 2018 semester that is just ending.  Future Friday ‘review’ posts will include not only book reviews, but also reviews and commentary on seminars, other media, and events relevant to ITIA.

At the penultimate seminar in the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) this semester, Dr Richard McLauchlan discussed a paper on ‘Silence, the Arts, and Spiritual Discipline: Thoughts after R.S. Thomas’.   He raised for examination poetry and the arts through the lens of Holy Saturday – the oft-neglected portion of the Triduum which connects the culmination of Holy Week with the celebration of Easter. Focusing on not just the silence, but the watchfulnessof Holy Saturday, McLauchlan observed that Thomas’ poems enter into the struggle of waiting, as can other art forms. He specifically addressed Thomas’ poem In a Country Church, and the Seagram Murals of Mark Rothko currently displayed at the Tate Modern gallery in London.  It is Rothko’s works that will provide the primary focus for this review, as I had the opportunity of visiting this exhibit just a week ago.

 In the ‘struggle of waiting’ that McLauchlan illuminated, he identified four opportunities that the arts and an observance of the silence of Holy Saturday can offer for our spiritual development:
  1. Purification of language for and about God.
  2. Refining an understanding of suffering.
  3. Developing a less triumphal sense of hope.
  4. Deepening of prayer.

While the idea of ‘purification’ came across quite vaguely in McLauchlan’s presentation, that seemed to be the point he was making.  Art does not have to be precise in its ‘language’ in conveying the divine.  In fact, that sort of imprecision may in fact be its charter, as is so often pointed out.  Its purpose seems to be to go beyond language about the transcendent – to express the inexpressible.   A ‘purification’ of sorts, then, results in defying explanation via language.  And not only in its conveyance of the transcendent, but also of the depths of existence.  In their artforms, Thomas and Rothko, among other artists, dare to venture below the surface, in the depths of human experience and cut right through into human suffering, pain, emptiness. Where others may fear to tread, Thomas and Rothko choose to ‘linger’.  Wait.  And the payoff for them and those who choose to linger with them is his second point: the refinement of our understanding of suffering.

Indeed, the payoff can be any or all of the four outcomes he described. His argument, like that of Thomas and Rothko, is to give suffering a ‘place’, more than simply a ‘condition’ to be overcome.  Their poems and paintings contain ‘no yearnings for divination’, as McLauchlan pointed out, but rather an acknowledgement, or even a ‘dignification’, of the pain, emptiness, darkness, apathy or other shadows we encounter within. This disposition also supports his third claim that through it we can develop a less triumphal sense of hope, and a greater humility in which to acknowledge, dignify and reconcile our own suffering.

Holy Saturday itself is a ‘waiting’ in loss that refuses any rush of words that might domesticate silence or mediate anything that dwells in the shadows of that loss, that absence of the transcendent.  Similarly, the poems of Thomas and the paintings of Rothko draw us into the paschal process unapologetically, and McLauchlan reminds us that the ‘waiting’ of their artforms, like the ‘waiting’ of Holy Saturday, is not static.  The silence within a poem or a painting is interrogative.  They invite encounter with God who can meet us in those depths, even if that God seems hidden to us.  This hiddenness invites prayer, a stepping out in faith ‘at the fringes of Christian existence’, said McLauchlan, making his fourth point that such an encounter with art provides opportunity to deepen our prayer.

During my visit to the Rothko exhibit at the Tate Modern, I was struck by the invitation I felt upon entering the room to sit and stay a while.  Intentionally hung quite low to the floor with minimal lighting, the murals felt accessible, and the room itself seemed a part of the display. I found the paintings welcoming, even in their starkness.

Upon initial encounter, they felt somewhat flat, but soon layer upon layer emerged. Drawn to one of them, Black on Maroon(1958), I sat in front of it, taking in its thick swaths of purple in the center which initially conjured in my imagination the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. . . and its absence now.  But as I gazed, I ‘saw’ and felt more things emerging, until the sense of me ‘observing’ it faded and eventually merged into a sense of peering out from within it.

I could not decide if this was an image of hope or the first shadows of a deepening darkness, but reconciled it as both, as though, to McLauchlan’s point, it is not an either/or proposition but a wholeness of the human experience.  Forty minutes passed as though they were five.  The initial invitation to ‘wait’ with the murals indeed did become an invitation to prayer.  Initial contemplation ‘descended’ into deepening prayer as I waited and struggled with the painting, at times feeling its emptiness and at times appreciating its simple, humble honesty.

It is this kind of encounter that I find I also long for at the culmination of the Triduum each year, on Holy Saturday – to wait and struggle with the emptiness and profound loss felt throughout the cosmos from the absence of God.  By entering into these depths, we can meet God there, dignify our experience, and encounter the depths of God’s presence and love.  Art, like no other medium, gives us the hope for that kind of encounter.

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