Outside, the streets of Manhattan are black beneath the rolling tonnage of taxicabs, under the clapping soles of pedestrians making their way through the city. The towering high-rises receive the noise from below and send it upward, echoing into the cloudless sky. But inside the Museum of Modern Art, there’s a quietness, despite the chatter of patrons as they shuffle across wood floors.
I watch two teenagers bounce around the room, pausing at each piece just long enough to roll their eyes. The posture of others suggests a range of experiences, from ambivalence to awe. But as for me, I move slowly. In recent years, I’ve become something of a museum junkie: I love the sublimely stark galleries with their white walls, clean lines, and natural light—how these spaces make me feel open and calm. But there’s something else: in the art museum, I encounter God.
It’s that last part that confuses some people. How could works of art, particularly when created by individuals who claim not to believe in God, become a means of grace? The answer to that is predicated upon a mystery: that in order to commune with God, I must first encounter myself.
It’s often the case that my life, with its various commitments—but mostly those to my own ego and will—leads me to a place of disconnection from my true self, which is “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). I get caught up in what I want to accomplish, how I want others to see me, and soon these things overtake my awareness. What’s left is a dullness to the spiritual. How easily I turn my back on the One who lovingly sustains my existence, preferring to live as though He is not there. As Augustine so aptly put it: “Beauty at once so ancient and so new...you were within me, and I was in the world outside myself ” (Confessions, X.27).
In the museum, there’s nothing mystical about the physical properties of a painting. Except in one respect: that a painting, like any work of art, is a testimony of the human soul as it contends with existence, the question of God, in a search for what it means to “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
In this way, art is a means of communion with our fellow man, as we gather close to “listen”—to borrow a term from art critic Daniel A. Siedell—with our eyes and hearts to men and women bearing witness. These artists, in a mysterious way, are our neighbors—who speak to us outside of time, in a language that transcends nationality. Through their work, we meet a person made in the image of God—who once stood in front of a blank canvas, having taken the world into himself and delivered it back as a gift, or a message, or a prayer. As we identify with them, saying, “You are like me, and I am like you,” we begin to connect more deeply with our own questions and desires, our doubts and fears.
Joy, even when mediated through something as fragile as a work of art, is a path back to God through our own hearts.
And sometimes in a work of art we encounter a beauty of such otherness that it causes us to feel something God hard-wired humankind to experience and dwell within—joy. And joy, even when mediated through something as fragile as a work of art, is a path back to God through our own hearts.
On this particular visit to MoMA, I am in one of those states where, for many weeks, I have been living “outside myself,” and beginning to feel the pains of longing for a better way. I have grown weary, my heart’s receptors covered over by a multitude of cares. But through one final entryway, is one of the largest installations I’ve ever seen—one of Monet’s famous water lilies, covering the expanse of wall with energetic brush strokes and bright hues. The overwhelming scale of the work is such that I can’t take it in all at once. It makes me feel small—as if it is taking me into itself.
Suddenly, I am standing there with Monet in his garden, considering not just what his pond looks like, but what this gift of creation means to him. And I am overtaken by an unexpected joy—as if the colors have seeped through my eyes, melting the barrier between my mind and heart. And the joy, as it flows, brings healing, awakening me once again to myself—and to the God who is always near.