I’ve just returned from Sicily, a poor region of Italy, but a land rich in beauty–beauty enough to leave me speechless and in awe as I stepped inside Monreale’s cathedral and looked into the face of the pantocrator–Christ as the Lord of the Universe–depicted in the shining mosaics filling the central apse. The mosaic is so finely made it seems to be painted. A world heritage site, the cathedral holds the largest Byzantine mosaics outside of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Mosaic art was practiced in the Byzantine empire since the fifth century (according to the Joy of Shards Site.) Thousands of skilled craftsmen had to have worked for centuries to be able to produce the level of skill to create the quality of workmanship presented in Monreale’s cathedral and cloister. (See more images here and here.) The walls depict various Biblical stories–God giving Adam the breath of life, Noah building the ark, Jesus holding out his hand to Peter who has jumped the fishing boat he was on with the other disciples in order to meet Jesus who he sees walking across the water–stories told through images of God interacting with the world and in humans’ lives.
Jungian psychologist Robert A. Johnson, in his book, Inner Work, writes of how the original meaning of fantasy comes from the Greek, phantasía, meaning “to make visible, to reveal.” Johnson explains how it’s our imagination that converts the invisible to the visible, enabling us to contemplate it. Interaction with world in the form of the arts and in writing enables us to understand spiritual truths. For the Greeks, Johnson goes on to say, phantasía was the way the divine spoke to the human mind. Until the Middle Ages, Johnson states, phantasía was thought of as the “organ that receives meanings from spiritual and aesthetic worlds and forms them into an inner image that can be held in memory and made the object of thought and reasoning” (p. 23). Phantasía was also the word Roman writers employed when wanting to “speak of the human faculty by which we express the contents of the soul by using poetic or spiritual energy.” In other words, practicing using our imagination, as artists and writers do, allows us to become conscious again of spirit. Johnson asserts also that when speaking of sensing the spirit, all ancient people understood, “Only our power to make images enables us to see it.” In fact, Johnson explains, “When we experience the images, we also directly experience the inner parts of ourselves that are clothed in the images” (p. 25). As Abigail Tucker reported in The Smithsonian’s article, “How Does the Brain Process Art?”, the brain signals the body to have physical responses to art, mirroring what is viewed.
The cathedral at Monreale, clearly demonstrates Johnson’s assertion of imagination’s power. Stepping from the everyday life of the street and entering the cathedral, I was carried out of myself into a place of wonder so astonishingly beautiful in its glowing color and intricately depicted images it could bring a person to tears—or at least it did me. A thousand years ago in Sicily, people worked the land, even as many do now—a challenging life, dependent on nature and the weather, as much of Sicily uses dry farming methods. Life could be difficult, but then there was the world inside the cathedral—a place of intense beauty, a heaven on earth, that could lift you from the mundane, and transport you into a place of wonder. In doing so, you understood your life was more than mere struggle. You were also part of a greater reality, you were also Spirit, and you participated in the life of that Spirit as revealed in the cathedral’s art.
Recognizing God speaks through nature, the Psalmist wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork.” The Psalmist created music to express the presence of Spirit. Artist Georgia O’Keeffe painted flowers enormous on her canvases as a way to invite viewers to engage with the natural world. “Nobody sees a flower,” she wrote, “- really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” Interacting with nature as an artist, as well as simply viewing paintings and pondering them are ways to touch Spirit. Similar to O’Keefe’s intention for viewers in the paintings she produced, though cathedrals’ construction were normally initiated by kings as expressions of their power, and often with political aims, cathedrals could also be viewed and embraced as embodiments of love—love expressed in and through the hands that made them. To produce works of such beauty, heart had to be invested, not merely the use of skill. A thousand years later, the mosaics in the Monreale’s cathedral beauty draws the world to stand before them in awe.
The Norman ruler, King William, ordered construction to begin on the Monreale’s Cathedral in 1172. The building was completed in 1176, and the mosaics by 1189. That is only 17 years for a work of monolithic and intricate beauty. I think of the difficult times we currently live in, and the tremendous effort needed to rise to the challenges–social, political, economic, and environmental–that we face, not unlike that of building a cathedral. Likely, all times could be identified as difficult depending on where you live and what you’re living through, but a particular area of current concern are the many in the world who have lost their homes. The Guardian’s December 31, 2016 article describes, “War, weather, climate change and terrorism have made millions homeless,” and then goes on to add starvation, and natural disaster to the list of causes. Sixty three million people today are fleeing disaster according to The Guardian. To address the needs of these displaced people so that their fundamental necessity for shelter is met will take the effort of millions. The forces at work to create such displacement are monumental. I’m wondering, though, how we might use our imaginations to create a cathedral of spirit amidst the poverty of our current situation in order to address the human needs of those around us.
While reading Unsettling America, An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry, I came across Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poem “In Memory We Are Walking,” where Gillan describes how as a child, she once went on a picnic with her Italian immigrant family. The poem allows us to go inside the experience of what displaced people likely feel coming to a new land for reasons of necessity, and working to make it home. On a rare excursion, the poem’s speaker–a young girl–and her family left Patterson, New Jersey, walking out of their mill worker’s house “built cheaply and easily,” and past “squat middle-class bungalows” that, to her, appeared to be wealthy abodes. She describes how her father, hoping for a job, walked from Patterson to Passaic, nearly a two hour’s journey, to inquire about an opening. He didn’t have the money to take the train. When he arrived, a worker told him, ‘“You stupid Dago bastard,…/ Go back where you came from./ We don’t want your kind here.” The words from this poem resonate elsewhere in the world and across time. Reading current news stories, though the faces may be different now, one can still see how attitudes prevalent at the turn of last century regarding immigrants persist.
Before leaving to travel to Sicily this past December, I visited downtown London early one evening. When I emerged from the subway tunnel, I heard a loud voice calling out, “Help me. Somebody save me!” A man sat on the street outside the subway exit shouted to those walking by. I didn’t know what kind of help the man needed, or if he possibly might not be in his right mind. Like others, though, I crossed the street to wait for the bus—on my way to elsewhere. Ten minutes later, the man’s desperate voice could be heard shouting, his words echoing across the street. On and on he called, his plea reaching into my thoughts—fixing itself there, and becoming, somehow, the needy voice of us all.
Further up the street, suspended in flight, angels hovered above the roadway in the form of electric lights. Christmas shoppers emerged from the brilliantly lit multilevel department storefronts, windows packed with a plethora of products–leather purses and shoes, sequined dresses, sportswear and down jackets, wool hats and scarves, specialty chocolates and teas. Streets drenched in abundance while at the same time, not far away, a man calls out for help, and none respond. Further down the street, I walked by a man in a grim looking Santa costume. He leaned against a wall above the sleeping bag where he slept, a cup held out for money. Entering another subway station, a second Santa stood by the escalators holding a cup for offerings, a thin woman with a drooping Santa hat, and wearing grubby Santa coat and a plaid skirt. Homeless Santas, and a man pleading to be saved–if not physical poverty, we live amidst a poverty of spirit. Those on the street have the humility to admit their need. The man on the street shouted out the words that we in our social silence, pride, and neglect fail to speak: that in many ways in the places we live, if not our lives and way of living, then in our hearts–connection to each other, is broken. If so many around us live in dire need while others of us live in physical abundance, then somebody help us.
From the crowded streets of our lives, the homeless part of ourselves calls out in our poverty. The somebody that must help us needs to arise from within. What kind of world do we want to live in? What does a beautiful world look like? How would people interact in order to create a world where we could live without fear, where all people’s needs are met? Just like those who built the cathedrals of Sicily, we each have skills we have built up over time. Humbly, and together, we can use these abilities to create the world we want to live in. We can do our art and look for ways to create neighborly acts of kindness and generosity wherever we are. Whatever the work we look for or do, we can make of our work a spiritual effort, a prayer. With our hands and mind, we can create sanctuaries of the spirit, cathedrals of the heart that transform ourselves and those around us. As poet Nancy Wood writes, “Patterns persist,/life goes on, whatever rises will converge./ Do what you will, but strengthen the things that remain.” We can use our imagination to discover ways to transform despair, and to practice the skills that will make a world where, like the cathedral of Monreale, a refuge of beauty and place of peace people a thousand years from now can inherit and inhabit.
Like the work to create the cathedral, creating such a world takes devotion, love, and hard work. Labor doesn’t have to be merely work, as it often becomes when the goal is merely for self interest and personal gain. Just as beauty can open our hearts, labor can also enlarge us as we work together. The two aren’t inseparable when we work with the intention that the labor we do is a way to give something needed for the betterment of the community–for the beauty of the earth and humanity.