By Cameron Bellm
“You’re studying Russian literature? Isn’t that depressing?”
This was the most common question I heard as I was working on my Ph.D. I’m not sure anyone believed me when I told them, “No, definitely not! I actually find it really hopeful and uplifting.”
I can see how people would draw that grim conclusion; after all, the most famous of Russian novels aren’t exactly a springtime stroll through a pleasant garden. They usher us into an affair that ends in tragedy (“Anna Karenina”), the moral and psychological crisis of a murderer (“Crime and Punishment”), and a family self-destructing after, you guessed it, another grisly murder (“The Brothers Karamazov”).
But in my experience, the more these novelists descend unflinchingly into the dark underbelly of human experience, the more I can see the light, one single match struck in the most profound darkness. The greater the honesty about the depths to which humans can sink, the more I can sense a grace unafraid to make its stubborn, persistent home there. Christ himself, our creed teaches us, descended into hell. What this doctrine tells us, theologian Michael Downey argues in his book “The Depth of God’s Reach: A Spirituality of Christ’s Descent,” is that there is no dark place that Jesus cannot or will not go, lighting it with mercy.
Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that my very favorite tv shows are, well, on the disturbing side: “Breaking Bad,” “Squid Game,” “Stranger Things.” I can’t resist any show that offers such honest respect for the depth and richness of human emotion and experience. What’s at the root of my response to art in all its forms, though, is something that began to take shape in a cave 500 years ago: Ignatian spirituality.
St. Ignatius teaches us, famously, that we find God in all things. And our emotions are one of them, those floods that wash over us hundreds of times a day. I like to imagine those moments when we experience joy, pain, confusion, even disgust, as doorways through which God walks to speak to us.
Sometimes it’s easy to recognize something holy in art and in our emotional response. Who hasn’t been moved by the gentle colors of Monet’s “Water Lilies” or the swooping swirls of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” the majestic grandeur of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or the expressive strings of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”?
But what about art that leaves us more cold? I read about Damian Hirst’s famous piece “Mother and Child Divided” years before I saw photos of it. A sensation when it was unveiled in 1993, the work consists of a cow and a calf, both bisected and preserved in four separate vitrines filled with formaldehyde, so that the viewer can walk between the two halves of both mother and child. My first response was visceral revulsion. Who on earth would want to see this?! How was this considered art? By the same token, I can’t say that listening to the composer Arthur Schoenberg’s dissonant or atonal works produces in me anything but a rush of discomfort and anxiety.
But what Ignatius reminds me is that all feelings are valid as entry points to conversation with God. For me, this is tied to the incarnation, to Christ’s sanctification of all human experience by becoming human himself. And since there is no emotion that is foreign to Jesus, I like to think that each one we experience can be a reminder of our connection to the Divine, a little ringing of a chime, a little whisper of the Holy Spirit, saying, “I am here, too.”
Because we encounter God in our physical bodies — through our hearts and minds and senses — and because we know that every person bears the image of God, I like to think that there are not, in fact, eight billion humans on the planet, but eight billion beautifully unique homes for God. Our emotions, I imagine, are the quietly humming hymns of each cathedral, the music that draws our hearts to God. All of our emotions. Not just the pleasant ones.
When viewing or listening to art that makes me uncomfortable, I try to start with the Ignatian awareness that we know so well from the examen: making space for my emotions, noticing them without judging them. I ask myself what God might be trying to say to me through them. I ask myself with what part of Jesus’ humanity this emotion, this experience, might resonate, how it might draw me deeper into contemplation or understanding of the life of Christ. I remind myself that being human sometimes does mean feeling disgust, confusion, or despair.
And once I’ve made space for that response, usually a new door of understanding opens up for me. I can see and reflect on the brutality that Hirst’s piece displays, pick up on his meditation on mortality, catch his reference to the Madonna and child, an image which graces so much of our sacred art. I can even begin to see a strange beauty in these startling cross sections of cows, pause to appreciate the wild and improbable intricacy of a body, whether bovine or human.
Even though I still might not choose Schoenberg’s chamber symphonies when I’m looking for a relaxing soundtrack to my day, my anxiety and confusion pave the way for awe to tiptoe in. A glance at Schoenberg’s sheet music instills wonder in me at the way humans can stretch far beyond what we previously considered the boundaries of a form, such as music.
But above all, what I try to remember is this: All art is an expression of human emotion, a response to a fantastically singular human experience, a channeling of an unrepeatable human vision. To go to a museum, to pick up a book, to listen to a piece of music is to heed a sacred and universal call to bear witness. Behind every work of art is a human being. And human beings are holy.
Reflection Questions for Encountering Difficult Art
- Start by acknowledging the hallowed ground of human experience before you and let go of any expectations you might have for yourself or your emotional response.
- What do you notice? Where are your senses most engaged? What surprises you?
- What do you feel God might be speaking to you or drawing you to contemplate through this art? What might you learn about yourself or about God through this experience?
- Take a moment to ponder what you might carry with you from this experience, whether it’s a question or an assurance, a revelation or a sense of unease. Give thanks for your encounter with God.
Cameron Bellm is a Seattle-based writer of prayers, poems, and devotionals. After completing her Ph.D. in Russian literature at the University of California, Berkeley, she traded the academic life for the contemplative life, informed by Ignatian spirituality and Catholic social teaching. She is the author of “A Consoling Embrace: Prayers for a Time of Pandemic” (23rd Publications, 2020). Cameron and her husband have two young sons, and, blessedly, playing with Legos often nurtures her spiritual life as much as reading the lectionary. You can find her at cameronbellm.com and on Instagram, @cameronbellm.