One of the rich experiences in a Jesuit school is when a former student drops by to catch up, to share something that is going on in his life, or to talk about the bigger questions of life.
Last Friday one such student came by. He left our school, St Aloysius’ College in Sydney, not too long ago to begin a university course which he at first found appealing. After a couple of years, though, he felt a deep-down desire to pursue art which he had enjoyed and found so fulfilling whilst at school. So he took a risk. He went with his dream. He followed what was life-giving. And this week he graduated from art school.
This was a conversation about what Ignatius would have called ‘dreams and desires’ – so central to Ignatian spirituality. This is to listen to the heart, where God’s Spirit prompts, where we ask ourselves and imagine the kind of person we want to become, what we really want in life, what our heart’s desire is. Sifting the true, authentic voices from those false spirits which also chatter to us and lure us off course. Such discernment is a movement out of the head, not to despise reason and logic, but to complement it.
He went on to tell me that he found portrait painting appealing because it ran counter to so much social media – people connecting through the ether, simply an image on a screen, or a truncated text. But to paint someone’s portrait is an engagement of persons. It runs counter to the increasingly dehumanising or depersonalising of relationships today.
As our conversation progressed, he said to me, ‘Art is my vocation. It’s like being a priest.’ An interesting metaphor. It reminded me of Jean Cocteau, the 20th century French writer, poet, artist and film maker, who once suggested that, ‘Art is not a pastime but a priesthood.’ Here we are talking about something spiritual, something that takes a day-to-day experience and plumbs the depths, or carries it to something transcendent.
I have spoken here before of what the Irish call ‘thin places’. These are moments of grace where barriers dissolve and we are open to something greater. The experience might be called ecstatic, that is, drawing us beyond the static, the stationary. The result could be a perceived harmony, a deep contentment, a stillness, perhaps something totally ‘Other’, where matter and spirit now become somewhat porous.
A school like ours strives to create such opportunities, such ‘thin places’. The regular prayer of the Examen has us look for something deeper in the mundane, in the ordinary day-to-dayness in the routine. Moments of grace and gratitude. In a good liturgy, words, song, music, sacred space, can all work to opening such a door. Reflection time on immersions can certainly take us to new understandings, perhaps a new possibility of where one might be called.
And the ‘thin place’ is where the artist takes us. That is why we have a home for art in our schools. Aloysius’ abounds in ‘thin places’. Portals, they might be called these days. Doorways into the world of the imagination and of beauty. And, as we would expect in a school like ours, doorways into the world of the Spirit. I hope our young artist draws people to those ‘thin places’ in his vocation.
An American protestant writer, Frederich Buechner, once wrote about vocation and defined it as that place ‘where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet’. Notice his definition says nothing about status, family expectations, salary or social cachet. No. Not superficialities – only depth. A matter of the heart.
So perhaps for our young man, this will mean meeting the hunger that the world has for joy and delight in art and beauty. The hunger for stretching their imaginations. The hunger for a sense of worth or dignity in having their portrait painted. Or a hunger to explore meaning as they might do when looking upon one of his creations.
The Filipino Jesuit scholastic, Richie Fernando SJ (after whom the Faith & Justice centre at St Aloysius’ College is named), who was killed aged only 26 whilst working for victims of landmines in Cambodia, wrote a letter to one of his friends a short time before his death. He spoke about his work, which was hard, far from home, and without a great many resources. But he was so content. He wrote, ‘I know where my heart is.’ That’s what Buechner means by vocation. It is what our budding artist feels. To feel one’s passions. To find life. To follow the heart.
Our conversation made me recall something that Pope John Paul II said in a Letter to Artists some thirty years ago:
‘In a society marked by a sometimes dehumanising technology and by consumerist hedonism, you, dear friends and artists, are called to witness to a profound love for the truth of the world, and of humanity. By creating works that bring out the high vocation of human beings, make yourselves masterly and sincere interpreters of transcendence.’
Let us be grateful for such ‘interpreters of transcendence’, whether masters or novices. May they regularly take us to ‘thin places’.
Fr Ross Jones is Rector at St Aloysius’ College in Sydney. This article first appeared in the Gonzagan newsletter.