Art And Religion
( Originally Published 1912 )
"Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
"How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Lord of Hosts." —Hebrew Poetry.
One of the marvelous qualities of the world and the life of man is that of the beautiful. Difficult to define in exact terms, it may be partly described as something pertaining to nature and the soul. In the external world it exists in a thousand forms, sounds, and colors; in the inner realm it exists as a universal and powerful sentiment. Thus it is a meeting place of things and thoughts; a union of the material and spiritual. Among all the wants and passions that, in turn, command mankind it is one of the most imperious. In his course through time man has sought food, shelter, education, laws, and institutions; but all the columns and statues and decorated walls exhumed from the accumulated dust of many centuries, all the ancient poetry and all myths and legends celebrating the power of music eloquently declare that he has no less diligently sought for beauty than for utility. When man hunts or plants or builds a house he is ministering to the wants of his body; when he plucks a flower or paints a picture or carves a statute or makes a harp he is ministering to his soul.
Although the sentiment is an organic part in the structure of human nature and is universal, it varies with changing degrees of culture. The Indian loves a string of small shells; the pale face prefers a string of pearls. In Africa a woman is proud of a ring of iron. The civilized woman prefers one of gold. One age delights in marble; another in brass; another in porcelains; another in tapestry; another in laces. Among persons of equal culture and sensibility, temperament becomes a factor in the selection of objects that minister to pleasure. One may reach out most quickly for a flower; another for a diamond; another for pictures; another for rich embroidery: another may care most for music; and still another for poetry; but the sentiment is the same. In this, as in every human product, there is an ascending scale running from the lowest to the highest. Like the stairway leading to the Acropolis in Athens, its base may rest in the market place and among life's lowest pleasures, but it reaches upward until it ends at the snow-white Parthenon and the great outspread scenery of sea and valley and mountain overarched by the pure azure sky. How great the difference between the heart attracted by feathers and paint and tatooing and the pomp of external trappings and that one which, with pure thought alone, can clothe chaff and dust with a garment of beauty and beholds the ineffable splendor of intellect and the moral law! But the latter is only the former refined. Every step shows the way man ascends from the savage to the saint.
To see how deeply planted is the instinct of the beautiful, and how it keeps equal pace with utility, one need only consult human actions in the past and present. For a few hundred dollars a house may be built that would be a sufficient shelter. But more than a shelter is needed; and the money expended in making it beautiful is not considered wasted. Decoration is only limited by the income or the good taste of those who are to live in the house. The floors, the ceilings, the walls, the stairs, the doors, the fireplaces are all made ornamental, not to make them more useful, but more attractive. Even the homes which cannot command much money are something more than mere places of shelter. The pictures may be cheap, but they show the bent of the heart. The modest drapery, the arrangement of the furniture, the vase of flowers. the climbing vine in thousands of humble homes in city and village all show that a house, primarily intended to keep suffering away from the body, also wards off suffering from the soul.
But there is something in the beautiful, both in nature and art, that does more than minister to mere sensuous delight. The sentiments it awakens are profoundly religious and sacred. Under its influence the soul may be in a mood no less high and holy than when it is breathing a prayer or voicing a psalm of praise to the Infinite. So much beauty in the universe argues for a corresponding quality in its Creator. Thus not to love the beautiful is a kind of irreligion and atheism.
By suggestion the materially beautiful serves a spiritual use. The external fair is the standing admonition to the internal fair. A beautiful world demands a beautiful soul as its complement. Every curve of nature suggests similar lines and motions to the spirit in its work and worship. The exuberant growth of grass and grain and the rich colors of flowers and sun-set clouds hint that human life may be as fruitful and attractive if, like them, it would freely lie open to upper influences. What lessons of constancy and integrity do mountains convey to the soul! They never stoop to meanness nor bend from their stable uprightness to gain an unworthy end. Can one think of the punctual sunrise and not be reminded that a similar promptness should attend life in keeping all its appointments with duty? In its swift, silent flow to the sea, a river suggests that we and all things are being borne on a greater river to a mightier sea. The seasons teach that the moods of the soul are natural and necessary and for each one there is a becoming activity. Starlight hints of intellectual clearness, — thought, uncolored and unheated by passion. The lily is an evangelist of purity. Infancy, birds, grasses, the crocus of March, the golden rod of September and all the flowers lying between them are heralds of Providence sent hither to teach us the lessons of trust, reminding us that if we were as innocent as they we might unload our solicitude and forebodings and resign our lives and our destinies to the outworking of the beneficent laws. Indeed everything in nature declares that virtue is the ultimate beauty. The forms of loveliness seen by the eye, are symbols of that which the eye seeks in vain. By transient emblems the soul passes to the enduring substance. God is the cause of the beautiful.
It Ç°follows that all high art is religious. It is transcendent and ideal in its meaning. In every picture and statue and poem there is something more import-ant than color and form and rhythm. In every landscape there should be the suggestion of That which makes the landscape,—of the mysterious Power which antedates and is the cause of the artist and his art. Those painters and poets who have most recognized and most obeyed this Power are they who have become prophets to their own times and of whom a score of generations have become disciples and copyists. In painting the Madonna the true artist deals with some-thing deeper than form and color, the curve of lip or brow belonging to the actual woman face. He is portraying, not any actual woman or mother, but ideal womanhood and motherhood. The Apollo of the Vatican is a marvel of physical, virile strength and symmetry, but it is more than that. It is a perfect expression of a manly soul in which strength and tenderness, bravery and gentleness, power and serenity meet and balance each other, such as never occurs in any mortal man but only in idealized manhood. The same thing is true of music. Its first appeal is to the senses, but its final message is to the soul. At the close of a piece of music one may recall a part of the experiences through which the soul passed while it was being played. If it was worthy the name of music one finds that he was carried above all small and base things; he was pervaded by a sweet and gracious influence; he saw how sacred life may become: that all its motives may become exalted; all its passions purified; and all the amazing possibilities of life here and hereafter are revealed. Music is the soul's most splendid chariot carrying it into the realm of the ideal.
Both dealing with the measureless and unattained, art and worship bear many points of resemblance. It is difficult to mark the boundaries of each of them. An almanac may tell the very day and hour when spring ends and summer begins. Birds and flowers make no such sharp distinction between them. Their boundaries overlap or fade into each other by imperceptible degrees. Thus, in a technical way, books of theology may find clearly defined lines running between art and worship; but the sensitive and devout heart makes no such separation. All forms of beauty are parts of the one Perfect, as all colors meeting form the rainbow. The ideally beautiful is the aim of art, the ideally good is the aim of religion. They both see always in advance of them the unattained; and to artist and worshipper alike there can be no rest in present achievement, For each there must be an eternal pursuit. The only fatal calamity that can befall either is satisfaction with what has been attained. The high ministry of art is, not to lull the soul into content and inaction, but to stir and awaken it to attempt greater things. Poetry pleases, but it also inspires the reader. That music is best which opens doors upon the unrealized and infinite. The true ministry o religion is similar. When Jesus said: "Be ye perfect, even as your Father in heaven." did he not mean that there is ever before life an inviting, but unattained goal? To the true artist, poet, musician, philosopher and saint alike God is always coming bidding him up and away from his camping place and pursue the ideal that now hovers on the horizon and now bends flight beyond it. Thus art and religion are flowers growing on the same stem.
Once in history an austere spirit swept through Christianity and attempted to banish all beautiful forms and colors and sounds from human life. All ornament was to be stripped from human speech and only the severest and most uncouth forms were to be used. Dress must be of the plainest material and most unbecoming fashion and the home was deprived of all decoration. Music was driven out of the churches; pictures were taken from the walls and altars; statues were taken from their pedestals and destroyed. In Holland and Scotland the breaking of images and the destruction of cathedrals became a mania. At this time many of the doctrines of Protestanism were as devoid of beauty as were the speech and dress and homes and churches. God was a dreaded judge who had condemned a guilty world to eternal death. The natural condition of every mortal was one of total depravity. All of life became as bare and cheerless as a forest swept by a winter tempest. There can be no doubt as to the sincerity and zeal of those destroyers of beauty. That which they most lacked was wisdom. The age itself was in part to blame for their mistake. Religion had become corrupted. Instead of seeking a God who was the author of goodness and beauty, one was sought who was the author of cruelty and deformity. Instead of finding a God revealing himself in star and flower, in harvests and sunsets, in motherhood and fatherhood, in kindness and pity, one was found in those dark pages of human history, where cities were destroyed; where Waldenses and Huguenots were slain; where Servetus and Cranmer and Ridley perished in the flames; where earth's fair fields were trampled by ambition's armies and stained with the blood of brothers. It was a great mistake. Instead of revealing Him, the true God was eclipsed.
That a reaction should come was inevitable. Beauty began to creep back into the Protestant churches. The buildings themselves became more artistic. The music was refined. Decorations covered the walls. The windows were filled with richly colored glass in which were outlined the forms of angels and idealized mortals. Thus the chasm between art and worship has been filled up.
It may be that the return of the beautiful to the places of worship is a part of a greater movement. There can be no doubt that in our day there is a great awakening in this department of life. Not only has the internal sentiment grown, but the external objects have greatly increased in number. Statues, columns, vases, jewels, that have slept unseen for twenty centuries, have been brought to light. From Greece through central and western Europe and onward across America to the Pacific, humanity has asked for all beautiful things; has asked that all the splendor of former ages be brought forward and that to it shall be added a vast volume of rich creations wrought out by modern hands. Thus it may be that the flowers and music and richly colored pictures found in the places of worship are an overflow from a stream that has risen high in our time. From whatever cause it may have come, man now wishes to have his church no less beautiful than his home.
This revival of beauty in the places of worship is powerfully affecting religious doctrines. The untrue can never be beautiful. Asking for harmony in music the soul does not like discords in its religion. A church that decorates its altar with flowers, cannot admit much deformity in its worship nor much cruelty in its doctrines. If it places the forms of angels of mercy or of innocent children or of noble and generous men in its windows, it will not tolerate a God of vengeance and wrath. Amid beautiful music, beautiful flowers, beautiful works of art the hearts of the worshippers will be refined and made sensitive. They cannot picture earth as alien and outcast from God nor think of destiny as anything but divine.
Thus beauty and religion are inseparable. Art and worship are one language of the human spirit. Therefore as the spirit becomes refined its art and worship will more and more approach perfection, But it is also a law of our world that that which is done reacts upon the doer. Thought creates literature, but literature in turn influences thought. Thus art and worship help refine the soul which produces them. They never end in themselves, but are always promise and forerunner of that which is to come. They lead the soul upward to greater heights than their own and suggest that man, as lover of beauty and lover of goodness, is on his way to a world in which the imperfect becomes the perfect; where the symbol gives way to the reality; where the mortal fades in the splendor of the immortal; a world of imperishable beauty, of eternal goodness.
Those friends of this church, who have enriched it by placing memorial windows in its walls, have per-formed a two-fold service. On the one side it is a tender act of piety toward those whose beloved forms have disappeared from earth. It certifies that their influence still survives and that, as a sacred memory, their spiritual presence is always amongst the familiar scenes where, in departed days, their bodily forms were beheld by mortal eyes. They are eloquent declaration of the nobler truth: The good that men do lives after them. On the other side it is an act of kindness toward the living. These
' `Storied windows richly dight,"
cannot fail to impress all who meet for worship within these walls. Even those who were strangers to the noble man whose virtues this new window commemorates will feel its exalting and refining power. Along with its beautiful companions it is a voice direct from the ideal; and, in many a heart in these and in future years, it will awaken holy emotions and aspirations for goodness which, through prayer and sermon, might have slumbered undisturbed. Thus, in honoring those who have gone, the generous hearts who place these rich memorials where all may behold them and be impressed by their beauty, perform a valuable service for those of us who are still here and those who will be here when we are gone.
Seeing its power to refine and spiritualize the heart, we express the hope that this church may gather to itself more and more of beauty as, with noiseless tread, the years come and go. May its art and its worship be alike sincere and spiritual and thus minister to man's high and enduring welfare. May all who come within its doors find here a Beauty that is religious and a Religion that is beautiful; and, having placed themselves under their divine guidance, may they find that they are being led, as by two angels, along those paths in which are found the greatest good and the greatest felicity.