The Role of Art in Spirituality

ertEven though he passed away in 1968 at the young age of 53, the pioneering ideas that Trappist monk and social justice activist Thomas Merton shared throughout his lifetime are still very much alive. So much so that Pope Francis recently declared him one of four exemplary Americans who provide wisdom for us today — along with Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr, and Dorothy Day.

Pope Francis is not alone in his deep regard for the contributions Merton made to the history of spirituality. In his new book A Way to God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey (New World Library, May 12, 2016), bestselling author and theologian Matthew Fox celebrates Merton’s work and explains how thirteenth century mystic Meister Eckhart profoundly influenced both Merton and Creation Spirituality, which Fox has long espoused and written about.

We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from the book about Merton’s perspective on the role of art in spirituality.

Art was to Thomas Merton as water is to fish. He swam in it from the first, since both of his parents were artists. Having settled in southern France, the family no doubt enjoyed artistic acceptance as their daily bread, for it was in the air in France especially at the turn of the twentieth century. Why were his parents — his father was from New Zealand and his mother from America — in Paris in the first place, except that both were artists and both felt at home there? Merton as a child drank this same nectar of artistic wonder and beauty, and might we say spirituality, that fed his parents, and he never forgot it. He wrote:

All that has been said…of Christian mysticism about “dark contemplation” and “the night of sense” must not be misinterpreted to mean that the normal culture of the senses, of artistic taste, of imagination, and of intelligence should be formally renounced by anyone interested in a life of meditation and prayer. On the contrary, such culture is presupposed. One cannot go beyond what one has not yet attained, and normally the realization that God is “beyond images, symbols and ideas” dawns only on one who has previously made a good use of all these things.

This is strong language — that culture is presupposed for the contemplative journey, along with intelligence, imagination, artistic taste, and so forth. Merton makes a parallel point in his book Contemplative Prayer:

The function of image, symbol, poetry, music, change, and of ritual (remotely related to sacred dance) is to open up the inner self to the contemplative to incorporate the senses and the body in the totality of the self-orientation to God that is necessary for worship and for meditation.

Thus ritual itself can come alive, and ought to, by way of “the senses and the body,” and this is part of meditation as well as worship.

Merton responded very favorably to a tape he heard of an African liturgy:

Yesterday Fr. Chrysogamus played in chapter a tape recording of a Mass sung in Africa with native drums and music. Some of it was very impressive, especially a rather complex and sophisticated Agnus Dei. The drums were splendid, and the voices were full of power and life, raw, fresh, and wonderful. It was not all first class African music, but very authentic, very moving.

Merton’s attitudes here could be taken as a great endorsement of our Cosmic Mass, which I have been developing for twenty years, ever since I became an Episcopal priest. In a Cosmic Mass, multiple generations of worshippers, but especially young adults, come together and dance their prayers, using their whole bodies in worship. The experience incorporates postmodern art forms and requires the work of many people, from VJs and DJs to rappers and computer experts and altar builders and more. Above all, this kind of worship is profoundly participatory, since “the posse is the priest,” and everyone, by the energy they put into their dancing and prayer and meditation on the visuals offered, is a “midwife of grace” (my definition of the archetypal meaning of priesthood). A Cosmic Mass is not about one ordained person but about the community at work, “the work of the people” (which is the etymological meaning of the word liturgy).

This intersects with something else that Merton called for: a complete overhaul of the priesthood and its meaning. Here was his candid assessment:

I think the whole thing needs to be changed; the whole idea of the priesthood needs to be changed. I think we need to develop a whole new style of worship in which there is no need for one hierarchical person to have a big central place, a form of worship in which everyone is involved.

Indeed, a Cosmic Mass is worship in which “everyone is involved.” We need a lot more of such rituals that are also very interfaith and ecumenical and welcoming to persons of diverse spiritual tribes.

|An excerpt from A Way to God by Matthew Fox|