Art has the power to transform us into something better, something greater, so long as we don’t merely place it on a pedestal. On my recent trip to Nicaragua, several images revealed the sensitivities of my heart in a way that I did not expect.
The streets in Leon, Nicaragua, were filled with youngsters hawking everything from small trinkets to newspapers to water. As we made our way to the Cathedral, other small children found their way to us, asking for food or money. Even in the Cathedral, there were dozens of people begging. I felt uncomfortable. My friend Ken, remarked that “we’ve learned to ignore the poor at home.” Here it wasn’t so easy.
I decided to focus on prayer which only led to a greater disturbance. For when I noticed the crucifixes in the Cathedral and all the precious paintings of Christ’s suffering that draped the Cathedral in beauty, it only added to my feelings of despair for the Nicaraguan poor.
People come to the Cathedral looking for a savior and instead they find that God too is suffering helplessly. What’s more is that the same people who so desperately need a savior find that the artwork in the Cathedral is regarded more importantly than they are.
I looked again at the cross and realized that I find it difficult to face the suffering of Jesus. I can’t do this because I can’t face suffering that stares me in the face daily either. How often do I lose sight of the poor in my midst? How often do I lose respect for the least among us, not even acknowledging their personhood?
I pretend that it doesn’t matter, that these people are none of my business.
In short, I miss the real presence of the suffering Christ, the Christ that beckons me to stretch myself a bit farther than I’m comfortable doing.
Afflicting the comfortable
The problem I face is that I often become comfortable in my life, safe from the cares and needs of the destitute. In the Cathedral, the art motivated me to take a closer look at those around me. To embrace their suffering as my own and to embrace Christ’s suffering in all that discomfort.
It was the art that changed me. It brought me to frightening realizations about myself and awakened me to both the great beauty that lies beneath the surface and the suffering that I don’t want to see.
What’s important is that I now can place the art in its proper context. Art isn’t simply creative, it also creates anew. I rob myself and others of its power by letting feelings simply brush up against the surface area of a masterpiece, ignoring how it touches my vulnerability.
The broken God of the Cross
I can see the crucified savior and be hopeless, or I can see the God who reflects human suffering in all its brokenness in solidarity (that’s a God that the Nicaraguan people truly understand). I need to see the hurts that others are facing and not allow that to discourage me from reaching out to them because of my own insecurities, just as Jesus radically did during his life by embracing our pain.
I still have a hard time with the fact that the art in the Cathedral is so beautiful when everything around it is so …well, ugly. While art can inspire and uplift us in so many ways, it also can’t provide a warm bed, a hot meal, or loving parents for the children in Nicaragua.
I think about images and works of art that I hold precious, that I consider valuable. While they’re beautiful, and inspiring, I need to place that in perspective. Church art is important, but I can’t allow these things to become objects of idolatry. For when I begin to worship things, I lose sight of the real Jesus, whose presence is sometimes right under our nose.