The Artist's Way

A service by Rev. Diane Rollert, 28 June 2015

Today is a our last service of the regular church year, before we move to our summer schedule and I say goodbye until September.  This is always a more relaxed service followed by a “picnic” in Phoenix Hall.  Today is also the last day in our exploration of the theme “What does it mean to seek a life of beauty?”  So this seemed like the perfect opportunity to celebrate beauty in its deepest, most creative sense.  To create something together, to let ourselves adopt the mind of the artist for a short time together.

A number of weeks ago, one of our members, Harvey Shepherd, handed me this big package of files from a friend of his who had written a lot about beauty.  “You probably don’t have time to look at this,” he said.  “But maybe you will be mysteriously drawn to one or more of the right pages.”  …And mysteriously drawn I was…

Florence Perrella was a Montreal writer and lecturer on Jungian psychology who focused much of her writing on the soteriology of beauty (her phrase).  She was a good friend of Harvey’s.  She died in 1996 of Lou Gehrig’s disease.

In case it just isn’t part of your regular vocabulary, soteriology is the study of religious doctrines of salvation.  What is it that we think saves us?  God? Jesus? Man?

Can beauty save us?  Florence writes that Freud explained religion as having developed out of the murder of the primal father.  You could say that his explanation fits well into the current view of those who argue that all religion is really about violence.  But Florence always felt that Freud had gotten it wrong.  From a very young age she had this intuitive sense that religion developed out of the experience of beauty. 

Reading a book about the Greeks and their Gods, she was struck by words from Johann Gottfried von Herder, an 18th century poet and philosopher who had influenced the young Goethe.  Von Herder said that religion sprang from the poetic, or more generally from the artistic instinct… Religion arose from the awareness of beauty, and the earliest revelation of the divine through poetry.  It was a response to the beautiful in nature…

So today, as we share in a communal experience of contemplating beauty and the artist’s way, I invite you to consider some thoughts from Florence Perrella, taken from an essay she wrote entitled Polytheistic Primer: The Subversive Soteriology of Beauty.  

Quotes (read by different members of the congregation):

Storm sky in August.  Gusts of hot wind.  Black clouds.  Yet in the East, a delicate transparent band of blue sky.  Its presence is a torture for the eyes and for the soul because beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we would like to stretch out over the whole of time.
                                               —Journal entry written by Albert Camus in 1935-37

The religion of the poet is perhaps to witness and to pay tribute to what is.  But of course, there is the desire to capture and hold near what is transient, to possess the ephemeral with its living breath.  It is the despair of the poet…that the perfect poem is never written.
                                                —Florence Perrella

One day, I got on the bus, pondering whether the pain of one’s encounter with beauty was due to envy or to love?  I recognized Ed Egan, a professor of Aesthetics in the philosophy department of Concordia University.  I sat down next to him and asked, “Is beauty supposed to hurt?”  He answered, “Of course.  It is like when you look at your children.  You are pierced.  When you have the stigmata, you feel pain.
                                                —Florence Perrella

I wonder if the visual artist has any more success than the poet communicating that moment in fleeting time, that place that cannot be touched, where beauty of the beloved, pierces the lover?  This is the place where time and eternity intersect, the human moment.
                                                —Florence Perrella

What is it that we experience when we experience the love of beauty?  One expands, with a sharp edge of joy, while at the same time, one is sad and solitary.  The encounter is at the same time, transcendent and limiting.  It is the human moment, the realization of both union and isolation, connectedness and otherness, the triumph and failure of communication.
                                                —Florence Perrella

We are returned to the religion of the ancients, the dionysian ecstasy, that border state where life pushes at the boundaries of death.  We realize at one and the same time, life’s value and its vulnerability.
                                                —Florence Perrella

When the psyche participates in an encounter with beauty, it is transformed, deepened.
                                                —Florence Perrella

The religion of the Greeks, ritualized in the tragic theatre, was a communal celebration of life and death, the beautiful and the sad.  And the people who participated experienced catharsis, that is, a transformation through art.  The power and value of life was affirmed, and they felt cheerful.                                              
                                                —Florence Perrella

If beauty is really about the eternal, and the artist and the poet are the first theologians, could this really be the source of the original impulse to be religious and to create rituals that express awe and gratitude for the vastness that surrounds us, as well as the small things we encounter?  What Florence contemplated in her life really intrigues me. 

Can beauty save us and transform us this morning?

The congregation is invited to create a wreath of beauty made from different images, papers and feathers.  Everyone is invited to share the image they have chosen from a collection of magazine clippings, and to explain why they were drawn to that image.

The wreath is created…

Thoughts are shared.

We complete our creation with these words from Florence Perella:

Beauty will disarm you
with a guileless smile.
Impose no conditions,
Entertain no expectations,
beauty is simply passing through…
Beauty is a gift.

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