The Soul Will Out
Religion as the ultimate art form
This magazine’s readers and a claque of the cognoscenti to whom I drew attention in “A Letter to Our Great-Grandchildren” in the March issue prompted a cascade of emails to me, including a valuable gloss from Rowan Williams, quondam Archbishop and now in the Master’s chair at Magdalene College, Cambridge.
Thank you so much for sending this: it resonates deeply with me. I’m currently reviewing a new biography of David Jones, who says in an essay you’ll know, I’m sure, that religion is empty unless we understand that man is instinctively and naturally a “sign-maker”, a being who recognises and works with the assumption of a world in which meanings are concealed and connected at every level, far beyond our conceptual framework — and that Jesus is indeed, as you suggest, the supreme sign-maker; for DJ, in his institution of the Eucharist above all. In a culture in which we reduce language at every turn to flat description or manipulative stimulus, we miss the depth of this understanding, and so end living in less than the real world (to live in the real world you must live in an imagined one!).
David Jones survived nearly four years in the trenches in the Great War as a Royal Welch Fusilier to emerge in time as the poet of genius recognised by T.S. Eliot alongside his eminence as a painter.
Jones’s essay “Art and Sacrament” surely echoes my Letter’s thesis of “religion as the ultimate art form” — that ultimacy being the engagement of art with the divine wherever the familiar creative terms gift and inspiration are present in the self-loss in the act of creation and the response to the creative work, be it music or painting or whatever else. Jones’s key essay endorses that perception by showing Jesus’s “divine” truth through symbol, through lived metaphor.
What snagged my younger readers was my relegation of “art for art’s sake” to an inferior category. They were unwilling, or unable, to grasp the soul factor. To a treasured niece thus bunkered, protesting that she loved “art for art sake as much as for God’s sake”, I tried to lift her out to the plane of soul by suggesting that “what you will never get from Dada you will always get from Beethoven.”
A daughter (already herself a grandmother) ended a paragraph of her email dissent from the Letter, from her defiantly individual stance of Sufic-tinted Quakerism, with “Unlike you, Dad, I have hope.”
To which I at once tenderly protested: “My lifelong adage is, The soul will out. I want it on my gravestone. That certainty is my ground-base. The soul is never not at work. What I expressed in my family Letter was Fear: a fear of the suffering to be entailed, and already being entailed, by meaninglessness [of living in Rowan Williams’s “less than the real world”] through the essential impediment to the working of the soul. Coming generations, bereft of doctrine, ritual, the discipline of worship, the familiarity of praise, may not know where to turn, how to conduct the inner self, sans rigour, routine, scriptural loyalty, precision of allegiance, coherent structure. Freelance spirituality,” I risked adding, “is Cheshire Cat.”
And I reminded her of how my generation has had to learn what ground we stand on: we grew up in a war, under monstrous physical and ideological threat, succeeded by the spectre of a globally expanding Communism whose leader Khrushchev (whom I was to interview in the Kremlin in 1963) had boasted “We will bury you”, and by, I daresay (in my personal experience), post-colonial mayhem and destitution.
These realities were countered most deeply by certain figures inestimably valued by my contemporaries, all saintly devotees of a still enshrined Judaeo-Christianity and exemplified by such rootedly Christ-committed figures as Bonhoeffer, Maximilian Kolbe, Solzhenitsyn, Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa.
We fear, we hope; we watch, we pray.