When The World is Too Much With Us

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to me.” John 12:32 (NRSV)

Being a carbon-based bipedal organism with a comparatively short life span has its drawbacks. At birth we are helpless, red-faced, squawking bundles of potential—if we can live long enough to gain a foothold on this third rock from the sun.

Most other mammal babies get up and walk within minutes of hitting the ground—we take years. We can’t see as keenly as eagles, trot as fast as horses, climb as good as monkeys, or swim like dolphins. Almost everything we’ve done to overcome these physical deficiencies is through extensions—mechanical devices that give us reach, sharpen our hearing, project our voices, and peel back surfaces to see underneath and beyond. There has to be some payoff for all this vulnerability and there is—we have imaginations.

The imagination lifts us up and out of our reality into another place, even another time. A vibrant imagination is necessary for a child to try out scenarios, play with images and ideas, and stretch the mind in the process. Somewhere I’ve read that day-dreaming is part of mental exercise, as important as toughening the muscles and building endurance.

Our imaginations specialize. Architects can visualize their buildings in three dimensions while most of us can’t “see” the structure until it’s built, a disadvantage that is not trifling. Others spin stories, bring clay to life under their fingers, or uncover the symmetry of equations. I marvel at those who can leap from intuition to concept to theory to image like a ninja at parkour. At times I write like a man trying to thread a needle behind his back: it can be done, but it takes a great deal of time and there will be blood.

Blessedly, one form of expression triggers another. When I was a journalism student struggling for a lead to a story I’d often take a break, get myself down to the college library, and spend some time with Communication Arts, a magazine that features some of the best art and design in the world. Something about absorbing all that visual creativity and the possibility of wonder just over the page usually set me free to write my version of the truth.

So too in my spiritual landscape: I’ve found that seeing through another’s creative vision often gives me new eyes to see what was there all along. Through the years I’ve found artists who give me a place to stand and thus change my understanding. Chagall is one, Roualt is another, Picasso, Rothko, Cezanne, Paul Klee—and Dali. One painting of his in particular has been a kind of talisman for me, the function of which is to bring me to a humbling perception of humanity.

Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross (1951) was based on a drawing by a 16th century monk named St. John of the Cross. Christ hangs suspended on the cross above the world, unbloodied, without nails or wounds. The observer looks down at the top of Christ’s bowed head and simultaneously at a landscape of fisherman and boats. The effect is disconcerting at first as we plunge down vertically past the Christ and immediately level off to a horizontal plane. Dali traced inspiration for the extreme angle back to a dream he had, the vision of which appeared to him in color as the cosmic Christ.

christofsaintjohnofthecrossdali

We see Christ from God’s point of view; His Son, His beloved Son, eternally hanging there above the world, floating in silent and profound dignity, magnificent in death. Down below, the fishermen, oblivious to the Light of the World above them, draw their boat up on the shore. One is standing at the stern in water up to his knees while his companion on the shore drags out the nets to dry. They seem indecisive or perhaps just tired. If they caught any fish we’re not seeing the evidence. They may be heading home, weary from work, wondering how long they can survive without a catch.

The painting was purchased in the early 50s by the Glasgow Corporation for 8,200 pounds sterling, considered quite extravagant at the time. In 1961 a visitor heaved a brick through the canvas, apparently incensed by the angle that looked down upon Christ instead of up. The painting was restored and now hangs in the Kelingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, the curators having stoutly resisted an offer of $127 million by the Spanish government.

When the world is too much with us, when we find ourselves loathing humanity, when we feel, with shame, our complicity in the wickedness and suffering of this age, we can be lifted up, free and clear, to look down through Christ and see our tired world from a new perspective—one that through imagination wounds and heals.

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