First Day Sermon: Is Art Better Than Religion?

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” –John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

This past summer, in Rome, I went to the Keats Shelley House near the Spanish steps. It was a museum with pictures, books, and history of the British Romantic poets, but it also held the bedroom where John Keats, the famed young poet, spent his last months dying of tuberculosis. He was only 25 when he died, but he left behind an array of beautiful poems, and was little-known in his lifetime. He anguished over a love with a young woman, Fanny Brawne, who he couldn’t have because of his meager financial situation. He was such a sensitive soul. And yet he wrote and wrote and wrote, and knew how difficult it was to live in the material world, and sought out ways to see into the beyond, and gazed into the root of things.

Those of us who are natural spiritual seekers—people looking for meaning, people with sometimes awkward perspicacity, people naturally inclined to want to connect to the essence that flows everywhere—often find our kindred in artists rather than in places of worship. Religion, unfortunately, has done damage. It is beautiful to be within a community of like-minded people, all coming together for spiritual nourishment. And yet it doesn’t always happen that way. Religion often becomes about rules, and doctrines, and telling people what to do in order to get into heaven. Religious houses often feel like places of rigidity and staleness, a place of conformity rather than uncovering who you truly are.

This is not always the case. I have spent several months stepping into various religious spaces, absorbing the energy of those looking for meaning, for salvation, for understanding. I walked through many Catholic churches in Europe and admired the saints, the sculptures, so much art done in service to something greater. But that’s just what it is that pulls me, oftentimes, closer to God. (Call “God” what you will.) The artistry. The sculpture. The colors. The scents. I love being taken in by beauty, by story, by connection. By the viscerality of the experience. Even though in my regular faith community of Quakers, we worship without much of that. And even though my meditation is about seeking all of that richness within.

God is not a list of rules, beliefs, and doctrines. For some, maybe that works. For me, it never has. I believe we are put here to find our way, to discover our individual destinies, to love other people and work to our fullest potential on this earth. We are not told to bow down before someone who is called a “leader” just because others have called him so. We are meant to listen to ourselves, and learn about ourselves, and help others using the talents and strengths we’re given.

Which is why art is such a sacred, healing practice. Music. Dance. Painting. Poetry. Stories. Within these venues, seekers arise. Those trying to understand love and heartbreak. Those trying to capture the movement of nature. Those acknowledging their bodies are temples. Those recognizing music stirs the chords within us and is divine.

Art, like religion, connects us to people, across time. It does not say—Here, do this at this time, and do that after, and now repeat after me. 

Art says, Here is a soul. Needy and well-formed and a little confused, but also filled with clarity at times. And this soul is capable of envisioning something powerful, something that will stir you and make you new again, help you remember who you are and what you wanted to be and what is possible. Stay in this space together. Find union.  

I have been struggling lately with the knowledge that living life in a state of awareness means we must feel all things. We must live in the highs and the lows of life, and not count either one as better than the other. They all simple are. They are phases like the moon, and we are not flatliners, meant to be stale, dead, or numb. We are meant to live into the many keys of the keyboard. Our lives are great symphonies, but a symphony must employ all the notes, not just some.

I don’t know that I ever set an intention to “live in awareness.” It is just my way. Some things you do because you just cannot help doing them. You keep coming back, over and over again, because it is the essence of who you are, and you know no other way to be. It is likely because these things are part of your destiny, part of you being you.

I always wanted to play the piano as a child. Once, for Christmas, I got a keyboard, and I practiced songs like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Then, in college, I took a class, but everyone else knew more than I did, and my insecurity made it difficult to keep up. Again, I tried to teach myself as an adult after my kids were born, fooling around by making up my own tunes, even though I didn’t know how to read the different notes, or move my fingers fast.

When I go through periods of doubt, or questioning, I think of the notes I would play on the keyboard. I realize that some times, the songs are in higher keys, and sometimes, they steep in the lower ones, the basses of life. But all are needed in order to learn music. All notes are needed in order to play.

And I have not come into this life to stay in one safe little area, carved separately from other people or other places. I have not come into this life to learn only a particular song. I’ve come into this body to know the fullness and depth of human experience, and to put my fingers on all the keys.

Is it possible you have too?

“Old Swan House”by HerryLawford is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Categories: spirituality and faith, writing

Tags: , , , , ,

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