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Issue Date:  February 11, 2005

Seeking the spirit of art
By Karen Stone
Augsburg Books, 171 pages, $16.99


Karen Stone addresses her book Image and Spirit to those who are frustrated at their first (or hundredth) encounter with a work of visual art that seems “inscrutable or even meaningless, but who want … to open up art’s meaning and even to find in it the Spirit’s voice.” She also hopes that it might serve artists in their spiritual quest.

Ms. Stone begins with the notion that nothing intrinsic to any work of art precludes a spiritual interpretation because its meaning is not merely encoded by the artist, an objective truth waiting to be deciphered. Rather, what a work of art means is derived from the viewer actively engaging with it. That is why subject matter alone cannot determine a work’s spiritual significance.

Ms. Stone, who is both an artist and an art educator, puts her skills to effective use in this book, guiding her readers to disciplined looking in order to experience a work of art as an “embodied communication of immaterial reality.” Because Ms. Stone is also a person of faith, she understands clearly that this communication of immaterial reality -- that is to say, spiritual truth -- taps directly into a soul’s hunger for enlightenment and, ultimately, speaks to its longing for union with God.

The text of Image and Spirit is organized into three parts. Part I provides a theological and aesthetic foundation for Ms. Stone’s understanding of art as “visible Word,” as an embodiment of the transcendent that not only points to mystery but participates in it by reenacting some fragment of its truth.

Part II provides specific tools for looking at art and thinking critically about what one sees. This section gives solid, basic information about the elements of visual language. It also talks about how to evaluate related information about a work of art or its maker: for example, historical and social contexts, the artist’s biography, influences and oeuvre.

Part III moves the discussion from individual to communal experience of visual art. Following the very fine section on viewing art, this section seems somewhat weak and generalized. This is disappointing because there is a great need in faith communities, in church-renovating and building committees, in seminaries and schools that train lay ministers for guidance about the critically formative (or deformative) role art plays. Ms. Stone has successfully argued that the potency of art is not to be dismissed but does not really tackle how to invest the worshiping church with theologically astute receptivity to the visible Word.

Ms. Stone includes a wealth of helpful apparatus at the end of the book: notes, bibliography, questions and activities for discussion. There is also an insert of 14 color reproductions. While the book does not focus on explicitly religious art, Ms. Stone writes especially for “people of faith from all walks of life, both lay and clergy, who share an active interest in art and a desire for help in interpreting it.” The book’s clarity, sound grounding in the disciplines of both art and theology and its abundance of ideas make this text highly useful and a uniquely worthwhile resource.

By John O’Donohue
HarperCollins Publishers, 261 pages, $23.95


In our anxious and uncertain times when social structures we thought secure totter, the habit of gentleness dies out, says author John O’Donohue. “We become blind: Nature is rifled, politics eschews vision and becomes the obsessive servant of economics, and religion opts for the mathematics of system and forgets its mystical flame.” To this world, broken and jaded, Mr. O’Donohue suggests a surprising remedy: People need desperately to reawaken their perceptions and surrender to beauty.

This central assertion in Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (published in Great Britain under the title Divine Beauty in 2003) might be traced in the range of Mr. O’Donohue’s written work to date. His doctoral dissertation at Tübingen, Germany, was a groundbreaking study of Hegel’s philosophy, offering a new concept of Person. His books of poetry perpetuate the mystical heritage of his beloved Ireland. In his widely acclaimed book Anam Cara, he brings ancient Celtic wisdom to bear on the contemporary hunger for meaningful relationship by exploring being and longing, two essential components of human existence.

Beauty draws on all these explorations but formulates them differently. Erudite with the philosophical wisdom of the past, poetic, fluent in the traditions of Celtic spirituality and passionate about Ireland’s powerful land and seascapes, Mr. O’Donohue intends Beauty “as a series of encounters with various forms of the Beautiful” that will mirror in its form beauty’s capacity to unify feeling, thought and dream.

The author quickly distinguishes beauty from glamour and other superficial pretenders to the title. Rather than defining beauty, he characterizes its elusive behavior and evocative consequences: “To behold beauty dignifies your life, it heals you and calls you out beyond the smallness of your own self-limitation to experience new horizons. To experience beauty is to have your life enlarged.” An experience of beauty, Mr. O’Donohue reminds us, gives us a sense of homecoming and makes us feel most alive by filling the needs of our souls. Still, he cautions, “beauty never satisfies though she intensifies our longing and refines it. … It calls us to feel, think and act beautifully in the world: to create and live a life that awakens the Beautiful.”

Mr. O’Donohue gently evokes the reader’s own memories of beauty by recounting little stories from his life and reflecting on things he has seen or heard. That is why at first read the book may seem nearly as casual and disjointed as collected notes from a theme book on beauty. But if the work is read contemplatively, it becomes apparent that by this slow coaxing the author widens the realm that beauty inhabits in the reader’s imagination -- from the expected to the startling, from music and color and dance to imperfection and illness, even to death.

Mr. O’Donohue has indeed managed to fashion a mirror of beauty, holding feeling, thought and dream in unity, thereby demonstrating his premise that beauty holds the real and ideal in connection and conversation. He persuasively argues his claim that beauty has the power to transform this bleak world by rekindling the reader’s desire to seek out beauty, to be nourished by beauty and to do what it takes to live beautifully.

Mary Schaffer works with Arca Artium, a collection of religious artwork at St. John’s University in Minnesota, and serves as arts assistant to the university’s School of Theology.

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2005

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