This past week I was in Washington, DC, where we had lived for over 31 years. I visited friends, attended a lovely retirement party for my former boss, and drove through the old neighborhood. The one thing I did not do was go downtown to the National Gallery of Art (NGA), or more precisely, its East Building. Ever since that building was built in the 1970’s, whenever I was in DC on business or pleasure, I had to stand in the East Wing lobby (lobby does not do the room justice) and look up at the Calder mobile. After we moved to the area, I would take Metro downtown just to be in the presence of the mobile. Watching it move slowly, almost touching one wall, assured me that all was right in God’s world. I can’t tell you why — it just did.
With every slight movement of air, the 920 pound creation of aluminum and steel moves almost imperceptibly. According to NGA website, flower petals, fish fins and bird wings were the inspiration for the shapes making up the mobile. I can’t say that I saw those natural forms — instead, for me, it was the free form shapes that captured my imagination. I would stand or sit and watch the shapes move and form new and larger shapes. After a few minutes, or perhaps after a long time, I would feel a sense of calm and know that I could go about my life in God’s peace.
This time I did not go to the National Gallery. Instead, I went to the Washington National Cathedral to see the art installation, “Les Colombes” (The Doves). Six years ago, the German Government commissioned this art installation; it has been in Jerusalem, London, Munich, Burghausen, and Salisbury. It consists of more than 2,000 paper origami doves that seem to float in a river of air. The light through the stained glass windows can change the color of a dove’s wings in an instant. A special “sound cloud”, created for Les Colombes, is heard softly. It is an immersive experience. There were other people in the Cathedral when I was there, yet I felt like I was alone, wrapped up in the softness of pure white wings. Once again, I experienced a profound sense of calm in watching the doves catch the slightest air movement. I knew I was to meet a girlfriend for dinner, but it was difficult to walk out of the Cathedral. I did not want to leave the beauty and certain experience of God’s blessing made possible through the skill of the artist.
What is it about the arts that can so touch our spirits — take us outside of ourselves and enable us to catch a glimpse of God? It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s aluminum, or steel, or paper, or the sound of a reed instrument, or a statue, or oils skillfully applied to a canvas. There is something that touches each of us, takes us out of our daily lives, and points us to that which is beyond us. In 2 Chronicles 2:14, the skill of a resident of Tyre was praised because he was “trained to work in gold silver, bronze, iron stone, and wood, and in purple, blue and crimson fabrics and fine linen, and to do all sorts of engraving and execute any design that may be assigned him. . .” This individual knew how to use a wide variety of natural and human made materials to transform everyday objects into things of beauty, things that are in service to God.
Music, another creative art, is used throughout Scripture as a way to encounter and praise God. In Psalm 150, we are encouraged to praise God with trumpet, psalter and harp; with timbrel and dance; with stringed instruments and cymbals — in short, with just about anything that makes noise or moves, including our own voices and bodies. St. Augustine is famously attributed as saying “he who sings prays twice”, something that Martin Luther heartily endorsed.
Although some reformers seemed wary of the arts, Luther was not among them:
Although I prefer to see music as a way to encounter God rather than a means to scare the devil away or become “more staid and reasonable”, music is something that is available to each of us whether by playing an instrument, singing, or like a child, banging a spoon on a kettle. We participate in music, or any art form, by listening or participating or observing or simply being in its presence. We are taken out of ourselves and made more able to encounter the Divine.
The next time I go to D.C., I will not be able to see the doves; they are no longer on display at the Cathedral. Yet, each time I look at one of my photographs or see the movement of the doves in my mind’s eye, I am reminded of being in that holy space, surrounded by God’s love brought to me through the fluttering of paper wings.
Oh, God of all creation and all of the creative arts, help us to see your beauty in music, sculpture, words, and whatever form inspires the artist. Enable each of us to use our own talents to praise you and bring peace to our neighbors. Amen