Reg Naulty, Canberra Regional Meeting.

Reg Naulty2The four ways to God identified by Hinduism are now fairly well known. They are the way of knowledge, eg., the argument  from the orderliness of the world to a designer; the way of devotion or prayer; the way of meditation as practised by yogis, and which finds its way into the Neo-Platonic tradition in the West; and the way of good works.

And there is another, mentioned by two high profile writers in their autobiographies: the way of art. Thus Robert Hughes, author, and for thirty years art critic for Time Magazine:

Art was the symbolic discourse that truly reached into me…It wasn’t a question of confusing art with religion, or trying to make a religion out of art. As some people are tone deaf, I was religion deaf…But I was beginning, at last, to derive from art, from architecture, and even from the beauty of organised landscape, a sense of transcendence that organized religion had offered me – but that I had never received.[1]

The number of religion-deaf people whom we now encounter is immense. It is not easy to know how to help them. For Hughes, however, “hammered gold and gold enamelling ” worked wonders. “Tears would roll down my face, ” he writes. It is probably significant that Hughes uses “transcendent” instead of “God”. He had witnessed a world “higher” than this one, but he wasn’t sure what it was.

And he wasn’t the only one. The late eminent Australian historian, Manning Clark, is another. For him, it was the Madonna in Cologne Cathedral which reached deep within:

The sight of that face worked a great miracle within me. The tempest within subsided, the ghosts from the past stopped tormenting me…I will read of many men and women who have known a moment of grace while contemplating the Madonna in Cologne Cathedral…Many years later when I risked talking about the experience my whole body shook.[2]

There are the “transcendentals”: truth, beauty and goodness. Solzhenitsyn speculated that if truth were too obscure, and goodness too confused by conflicting opinions, then perhaps beauty could do duty for all three. But for Hughes and Clark, what opened the door was more specific than beauty. It was works of art. Note that Clark writes that the door was opened to something from beyond, “grace”, but he doesn’t go any further.

Opening the door is not yet stepping into the room. Something more must be done. Hughes was not interested enough to do any more. But Clark was. He was a deeply religious man, a genuine seeker if ever there was one, but he doesn’t seem to have got into the room either. What happened? I suggest that what prevented him getting any further was a particular concept  of what God is like, and how God stands in relation to humanity. If God is conceived as infinite in power and goodness, and nothing like the sinful, finite, ignorant creatures that we are, then getting closer to God is ruled out. Clark seems to have had that concept.

What is to be done here? More friendly persuasion? That may help, but the best way of persuading people that they can get closer to God, is by them seeing instances of people who have. Unfortunately, such people cannot be produced on demand, but most religious traditions have them in their records . One of the most famous examples is in the Russian tradition, St. Seraphim of Sarov, who, in the nineteenth century, was transfigured, as was George Fox:

And after this I passed to Cambridge that evening, and when I came into the town it was all in uproar, hearing my coming, and the scholars were up, and were exceeding rude. But I kept on my horseback and rid through them in the Lord`s power.”Oh!” said they, “he shines, he glisters.[3]

Of course, to accept such accounts is to rely not on sight, but on testimony.

There is an understandable belief that transfiguration is just a conventional way of representing sanctity – haloes. I shared that belief until I saw it myself, several times. The first two were at the ANU in about 1970. One was a visiting physics professor, another was an Anglican theologian giving a talk about the reliability of the gospels, another was at a yearly meeting in Adelaide, in, I think,2002. She has since died; she was well known among Friends, but it wouldn’t be appropriate to name her.

I have pointed out  that art can give an experience of the transcendent, but to advance further, we need to be convinced that it is possible to do so, and the best way of being convinced is by seeing people who have done it, or, failing that, by reading about them.


[1] Robert Hughes. Things I Didn’t Know. A Memoir. Random House. Sydney. 2006. isbn 978 1 74166 475 1 [pbk] 513p. p.348.

[2]Manning Clark. The Quest For Grace. Penguin Australia.1990. isbn 0 14 014335 1 p.221.P75.

[3] Douglas V. Steere. Quaker Spirituality. SPCK. London. 1984.334p. P.91

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