Humankind has a need to serve God with beauty

I was asked to sermonize about music as prayer, so here's a sermon about art.

Humankind has a need to serve God with beauty.

There was an artist I interviewed 25 years ago, who survived the Nazi occupation of Holland.
Jack Vanderwal had an exhibition in Kentville, Nova Scotia, and the paintings were stunning: huge, dynamic canvases full of field flowers.
He talked about how he was self-taught, and that he had no faith in the current methods of art instruction because, for him, they no longer reflected a moral universe.
I remember thinking that if I were a painter, I would paint big, like Vanderwal; fearless broad brushstrokes, lots of colour.

Three years ago, I bought a large, blank canvas.
Finally, with my kids away last week and other work done, I sat down on Sunday afternoon to paint it.
Convinced, as I was, that I was making a mess, the time passed very, very quickly. But when I finally stood back to look, it was the right kind of mess. It had a glimpse of the aliveness I remembered in the Vanderwal paintings.
I was immediately struck by the thought that I had to e-mail him and get some lessons. I know what you're thinking. She needs organ lessons. Let me explain.

"Hello Jack," read the e-mail:
"I wrote a newspaper story about an exhibit you had in Kentville about 25 years ago. I've seen a lot of art since, but always, I go back in my mind to those big, dynamic canvases full of field flowers! If I were a painter, and had a style, that would be it. I don't know if it has a name, but it should! Vanderwallian!" It went on:
"I have gone through a few ups and downs since my reporter days, including some major career shifts, but have finally reached the point of realizing that even though I am not a "painter," I need to paint! It is the only 'outlet' that still feels like an outlet! In fact, it feels like an 'inlet,' if one were really to describe what is going on."
And my question for Jack was, do you or did you, ever give lessons?
I signed it and attached a photo of my finished acrylic painting. The e-mail bounced back a couple of times, but then I remembered that Jack lived in Canada Creek, not too far from here, really.

So, I asked around.
His friends said, "He's in the hospital with a broken pelvis and they don't want to operate because of his age." So I went to visit him in the hospital Wednesday night.
Visiting hours closed at 8 pm and it was already 6:30. When I got there, he was napping and I didn't want to wake him up because I knew he wouldn't really know me. But the nurse thought it might be important for him to talk to somebody, so she woke him up.
When I introduced myself and showed him the letter and the photo of my painting, both on my cell phone, he said, "There is very little difference between poetry and painting ...

Man has a need to serve God with beauty."

Just take a minute and consider why that is so, and what it means.
It's not a quote that comes up in a Google search, although the Jewish artist J. Ruth Gendler wrote a wonderful book called, "Notes on the Need for Beauty."

"Man has a need to serve God with beauty."

That's Vanderwal's own religion, and also mine.
All art, all music, is prayer.
Even when the artist does not *think* he or she is praying, that is what they are doing. They are thanking God for the beauty. Whether they think of God as a noun or a verb, it doesn't matter, because praying has little to do with thinking, (much more to do with thanking.) And God hears.

Jack quoted Job:
"When the flesh has fallen away from my bones, then in person, I shall see God."
He said he was very sad that his life was falling apart. I said, if it's true what you said, then even the falling apart is beautiful.

He said he never had a teacher, and that in fact, his greatest teachers were the Jews.
Jack was 20-and-a-half years old when he was arrested at a checkpoint and placed in the custody of a Dutch acquaintance who told him the Germans would shoot him in the morning.

"That will be utterly meaningless," he told his acquaintance. "It would be better if you shot me. *That* would have meaning." He challenged his acquaintance to shoot him in the back as he walked away. And away he walked. Out of Holland, and made his way to North America where he took to painting for therapy.

"I never wanted success," he said, in the hospital bed Wednesday, and wondered out loud about the fate of the 1800 canvases still in storage at his home.

He lost so many friends in his youth, witnessed so much meaningless death, that painting the most alive things he could see was an act of resistance.

But even falling apart is beautiful.
"Do something beautiful for God," Mother Teresa said, and Jack Vanderwal said, "Man has a need to serve God with beauty."

And although math may not seem at all related to this, I add, that this is the closest thing I have seen to a mathematical proof that God exists.
Beauty comes in many forms: art, music, kindness. We are all used to thinking that where there is beauty, there is God.
But beauty creates our gratitude.
And it is not God that demands gratitude, but gratitude that demands God.



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