Every day I forget that my purposes for what I do are only my purposes. God invariably has larger plans. Today I set out to study Spanish, and so I did -- in the morning – more irregular verbs and rules for when to use and when to omit articles. (Those who speak languages are strictly bound to obey the rules; but those who create the rules make up exceptions at will. Where is the justice in that?)
This afternoon, I was supposed to go with the other students on a guided (in Spanish) walking tour of the city. But the tour was cancelled so I walked alone and found myself at the Cathedral – a beautiful old Gothic building. Along with a scattered group of clearly devout people, I spent some time praying in the nave, then went to pray in the Lady Chapel which was crowded with people praying fervently on a Wednesday afternoon. It is a holy thing to be surrounded by so much reverence. As I began to leave, I heard the beginning of mass at the main altar so I stayed for worship. It was an unexpected blessing.
I then walked back to the school for Conversation Club, an informal gathering for casual discourse, the point of which is to practice one’s language. I went to practice Spanish, but found myself at a table of young Mexicans who needed to work on their English. So we spoke English most of the time, as we sat outside on the roof the school, the darkness falling around us.
One of the young men at my table is an artist, a sketch artist who wants to become a “real” artist and his passion is to paint sacred art. He was a bit shy about this since his teachers and fellow students have told him he is in the wrong century for that kind of painting. This issue set me off and I found myself giving a lecture on theology – how religion is a language about the ineffable mystery, it is a set of symbols pointing toward things that cannot be spoken – and art can sometimes suggest the mystery better than words – Caravaggio was the greatest theologian of his day.
Then I rambled on to what we mean by “God” and how for the past few centuries we have identified “God” with dominating power – and if “God” means our highest value and God is defined by such power, then we worship power. The effect on our souls is to make us power mongers and that is the religious root of violence.
But an older view of God as the Supreme Beauty has been reclaimed by contemporary theologians beginning with Hans Urs Von Balthasar. We call to mind the greatest beauty we can imagine. Then we consider that there may be a beauty beyond that, something we cannot touch even with our imaginations, and in that thought we begin to approach God. Such a view of God opens us to pay attention, to apprehend beauty, to be transformed by beauty. The transforming power of spiritual beauty is the meaning of the beatific vision in Dante.
I noticed this group of young people was utterly and completely with me, caught up in my spontaneous sermon on faith and the visual arts. The artist was genuinely inspired. So I said to myself, “And I thought I was just here to study Spanish. Maybe God intended to nurture my soul with the silent reverence of those people praying in the cathedral. And maybe God gave me a message someone needed to hear.” I actually believe God did. Maybe someday someone’s soul will be touched in some blessed way by a painting, and they will be grateful for this work by Rivera (his name, like Diego) but will never know that Rivera’s approach to painting drew in a small way on spiritual guidance he received from a nameless American cleric in Morelia circa 2011 – or that the nameless cleric spoke out of the silence he had just experienced among the nameless faithful gathered to pray on a Wednesday afternoon in the Cathedral, people who prayed for their own purposes, not knowing that God intended their piety to touch a foreigner who would in turn touch a young artist who would someday touch someone not yet born.