This talk was originally given for a gathering of members of the Petterson Museum of Intercultural Art in Claremont, California. The museum is located on the campus of Pilgrim Place, an intentional community that is home for Mary Ann and Frederic Brussat, Co-Directors of Spirituality & Practice.
When I was a little girl, we lived a half-block from a museum on the campus of the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. I spent a lot of time in that place. I can still remember the layout. From the entrance, if you turned left, you entered the natural history section. I loved the African wildlife room and also the displays of stuffed birds in replicas of their natural habitats. I was fascinated by all the different kinds of birds' nests and a huge ostrich egg.
But my favorite section of that museum was straight ahead from the entrance. It had a large collection of Sioux Indian artifacts. And there were models of Native American villages – the longhouses of the Northeast, the stilt houses of Florida, the Teepees of the Plains, and, my favorite, the Pueblos of the Southwest. I used to imagine myself climbing around those multi-storied structures. I'd pretend I was going inside one of the apartments to help my mother cook a meal, or I was playing in the central plaza with my friends.
That museum exhibit stimulated my imagination. It broadened my world from my everyday life in a small town and encouraged me to think about how people lived in other places, not only in the past but also in the present. I realize now that what I was doing in that museum was the spiritual practice of imagination.
Years later, when Frederic and I were putting together our book Spiritual Literacy — a collection of short passages from other books that reveal spiritual takes on everyday experiences — we came across a passage from art therapist Shaun McNiff's book Earth Angels. He describes a museum experience that engaged his imagination. Let me read it to you:
"My visits to the Peabody Museum [in Salem, Massachusetts] changed the way I looked at the city. Old houses and streets lived many lives. They were simultaneously in the present and the past. Every day in grammar school I walked by the House of Seven Gables, and the Custom House, where Nathaniel Hawthorne worked, and looked out over Derby Wharf. The spirits of the previous generations were carefully collected in the Peabody Museum, which offered distinctly local and physical reflections of change, continuity, death, preservation. The museum felt like my private temple of the imagination, my treasury of images and soulful things. I traveled back to Federal Salem, rowed in wooden boats with Herman Melville and Queequeg, and threw harpoons from bowsprits. As I looked at the varied and grotesque metal heads and hooks of the harpoons, I imagined myself as a whale, stricken and dying. I bowed and drank tea with Chinese silk traders, canoed and swam with Polynesians, and swung the war clubs in the museum's glass cabinets imagining the killing of a human being."
This is a wonderful example of someone stepping into an exhibit, allowing himself to inhabit a different world and empathize with those who lived there — hunters, silk traders, Polynesians in canoes, and even a whale. We hear from McNiff's experience in the Peabody Museum how our imagination can serve up images, symbols, myths, and stories. It expands our world to people and places we may not have previously known. The world we seek through our imagination provides hints of what is important to us.
But, you might be thinking, is this a spiritual practice?
Let me talk a bit about spiritual practices.
Spiritual practices have always been the heart and soul of the world's religions, and they are also key elements of today's less organized spirituality movements. They help us discover our deepest values, address our longing to connect with the divine, and propel us on the journey to wholeness.
Spiritual practices are specific activities you do to deepen your relationships with the sacred and the world around you in three ways. (1) Practices help you connect to God (or whatever name you use to describe that "something more" beyond yourself). (2) They enable you to become actively engaged with your inner or "true" self — the depth of your being. (3) They expand the breadth of your experiences, encouraging you to relate in a particular way to other people and the whole creation, including animate and inanimate beings.
Museums are great places to engage in spiritual practices. When you walk into a museum, you are invited to connect with that which is larger than you are — often messengers from other times and distant lands. Artists, sculptors, and collectors invite us to look more closely at things. Attention, like imagination, is a spiritual practice in itself.
If you happen to be visiting a museum with someone else, you will find that museums lend themselves to social interactions. People compare interpretations of the art. Seeing a diaroma of a village scene, someone may be prompted to tell a story about being in a similar place. How many times have you moved closer to listen to a conversation between a parent and a child about an exhibit?
The Denver Art Museum had a display of rock music posters and asked visitors to share stories of the first concert they attended. Adding personal questions ("When did you . . .") or speculative questions ("What if . . .") to the signage in an exhibit is becoming more common. Some museums even invite visitors to write their own labels for the art. Museums are recognizing that they are community builders.
Here's how spiritual writer Mark Nepo puts it in his wonderful new book on community called More Together Than Alone:
"Where else can you go and be touched by what others have touched a thousand years ago? Museums open us to the lineage of human effort. These gathering places are living moments of community. Though we try so hard to hide what we feel, every sculpture, whether prehistoric or modern, captures the moment that life pokes us in the heart. They mirror what we carry with us."
Nepo is referring to spiritual practices that help us get us in touch with our true selves. Other practices are about relationships, and, Nepo continues, museums have been "repositories of knowledge and testaments to the history of human relationship. They serve as wellsprings for every generation from which we can renew our understanding of how to relate and persevere. Without their reminders, we're doomed to haul and swing the blunt tools of self-interest forever."
At SpiritualityandPractice.com and in our books, we work with
37 spiritual practices that we consider to be markers of the spiritual life. They are common to all the world's religions. Here are some of them that you can practice in museums:
I have already mentioned how you can practice imagination and attention in a museum. Here are some other ways to practice.
You start with the assumption that beauty is everywhere just waiting for you to notice it. Allow yourself to feel its effect upon your soul. Some encounters with beauty will stop you in your tracks and take your breath away. Others will be more subtle but equally sublime.
For example, I find old, worn, and chipped objects quite beautiful. Museums are full of them, especially in the antiquities departments. There is beauty in imperfection. The Japanese call it wabi-sabi. Andrew Juniper describes this aesthetic: "Wabi sabi is an intuitive appreciation of a transient beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world. It is an understated beauty that exists in the modest, rustic, imperfect, or even decayed, an aesthetic sensibility that finds a melancholic beauty on the impermanence of things." The next time you are in a museum, pause before that marble statue that is missing its head and see its beauty as a reminder of life's transience.
A museum exhibit may also elicit your compassion. I'm thinking here of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D. C., or the new museum and memorial to the victims of lynching in Montgomery, Alabama. Or a painting such as Picasso's Guernica. Or collections of photographs from war zones.
Other less obvious examples of pain and suffering may leap out at you as you are wandering the halls of a museum. I remember being stopped in my tracks in front of a Van Gogh self-portrait; he looked so sad and tormented and under-appreciated. Stumbling upon Grant Wood's American Gothic in an online museum, I found myself thinking about how that stern couple with the pitchfork might feel about what has happened in America's heartland, about the loss of family farms and the suffering of animals in factory farms. That may sound like an imaginative stretch, but that painting evoked my compassion for today's farmers.
A simple practice from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition can be used when you find yourself feeling compassion in a museum. It's a breathing practice called tonglen. You start with a specific instance, whatever has prompted your compassion. You breathe in the pain of the person, animal, or a distress you are personally feeling, and you breathe out something to relieve the pain — a good meal, kindness, confidence.
Then you universalize the suffering. You breathe in the pain of all those suffering like the one you have just cared for — all hungry people, all hurting animals in the world, all those feeling inadequate. You breathe out whatever will lighten their load. Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, who has written a lot about this practice, advises always working both with the immediate suffering of one being and with the universal suffering of all. In this way, your practice is both heartfelt and visionary.
Often experiences of compassion can lead to shadow work, another type of spiritual practice. This work helps us make peace with those parts of ourselves that we find to be despicable, unworthy, and embarrassing — our anger, jealousy, pride, selfishness, violence, and other "evil deeds." Shadow work aims at wholeness by unifying the dark and the light inside and around us.
Start by looking closely at yourself, what triggers you. Perhaps as you wander around a museum, you find yourself repulsed by images of violence, or a collection of weapons, or paintings of angry people. Remember the saying, "What you resist, persists." Do you have a violent side? Do you get angry quickly?
The practice of shadow is a corrective to any tendency to make spirituality into simplistic feelings of sweetness and light. People do terrible things to each other, sometimes because of their beliefs and in the name of their religion. Individuals, even those who are deeply spiritual, go through dark nights of the soul when depression and not-knowing take on terrifying dimensions. Nature, the source of so much inspiration, also has its shadow elements — hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, floods, devastating fires. By honestly acknowledging these aspects of life, we move toward a more rounded view of reality and build the foundation for personal wholeness. By owning your shadow, you embrace your full humanity.
Here's another of my favorite practices. We are practicing hospitality when we welcome guests — including strangers and enemies — into our lives with graciousness. It reveals certain things about us: we are well-disposed toward others, we focus on the positive, and we believe the universe is basically a friendly place. Sometimes hospitality requires that we cross boundaries and welcome the "other." Sometimes it means entertaining ideas that might be alien to us.
So you are in a museum. Let's say it's a modern art museum. And you come across a piece that you just don't get. You say, "What is that doing here? Why is that art?"
Here's when you can practice hospitality and openness, another spiritual practice. Instead of criticizing the piece, find something to like or enjoy about it. See this encounter with the unusual, the exotic, or the bizarre as a learning opportunity. Try to put yourselves in the shoes of the artist or the curator who put it there. Empathize with them, their feelings, their ideas. Empathy is another spiritual practice.
The Museum Experience
Sometimes it's not what you see in a museum, but the experience of being there that becomes a moment of practice. Here is a passage from Sue Bender's book Everyday Sacred. See if you can relate to her description of a visit to the downtown Guggenheim Museum in New York City:
"The uncluttered long white exhibition space floated -- a limitless expanse of calm and stillness. I was not prepared for the beauty of the white walls. And on the walls were white paintings. White walls, white paintings. Placed at intervals were four or five Brancusi sculptures. That was all. My heart was pounding. This was what a temple should feel like: a 'temple of the soul.' . . .
"An 'inner light' radiated from the paintings.
"The space was silent -- with that respectful, muffled silence of a cloister. The word purity came to mind.
"This was the 'immensity within ourselves' I had read about and hadn't understood.
" 'It doesn't always have to be so hard,' I heard myself say -- the judge nowhere present at that moment. There are other ways of 'seeing' -- these paintings seemed to say. Other possibilities, infinite possibilities. Mysteries to be uncovered."
Silence, Wonder, Mystery – those are all spiritual practices. This museum evokes a spiritual state in Sue Bender. She is taken to another sense of herself -- "the judge nowhere present at that moment" -- and discovers a new way of seeing.
In his book Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of Art, John Armstrong asserts that art matters in virtue of the kind of experience it invites the spectator into. He encourages reverie with art in a museum — holding something in your mind — because that kind of engagement brings thoughts, feelings, and associations into play. As a result, the art personally matters to you. Reverie is a spiritual practice when it engages your attention, reflects your enthusiasm, sparks your gratitude, moves you to wonder, and expresses your yearning.
Spiritual Practices with Things in a Museum
"Calling on the Divine: Prayer and Rituals Around the World" is the summer 2018 exhibit at the Petterson Museum of Intercultural Art at Pilgrim Place. It contains mostly objects — statues and tools people have used over the centuries to connect with the Divine.
The first time I visited this exhibition, I found myself caught up in the spiritual practice of connections. I kept wondering who had touched those prayer beads, who had beat on that drum, who had read that Qur'an, who had gazed at that icon of Jesus. I realized that due to my own devotional nature, I was similar to those people I would never meet, and their practice in their time supported my own practice. I was inspired and encouraged by the unknown users of those objects.
The second time I visited I found myself focusing less on who had used the objects and more on the objects themselves. I admit, I have a thing for things. (The first chapter of Spiritual Literacy – before chapters on nature, animals, relationships, and community – is about things.)
That's because there is a long history in the wisdom traditions of respecting inanimate objects. Many Christians see the sacramental value of things as signs of God's presence. Jewish mystics speak of the divine spark that resides in every thing. Hindus take great pleasure in ordinary objects as manifestations of Brahman. Sufis kiss cups and musical instruments as manifestations of the Beloved. Native Americans and Confucians show courtesy for all things as part of their way of living.
Somehow in our contemporary culture where we have so many things, we have lost this reverence for possessions. People complain about consumerism. Yet perhaps what we really need, as Care of the Soul writer Thomas Moore once put it, is a "deeper materialism." We can look for the soul of things. We can cherish objects for their beauty, expressiveness, and utility. Teilhard de Chardin challenged us to reframe our ideas in light of the recognition that "things have their within."
Things are more than resources to be exploited and then discarded. It is possible to have an I-Thou relationship with them. That's where museums provide a valuable service. They honor and respect things.
Religious objects in museums have a special aura. Because, truth be told, no matter how much we think of faith as being a belief or a relationship, we practice it with an awful lot of things: incense, drums, crosses, hymnals, bells, icons, statues. We use things to engage our senses and to catalyze our emotions. They stand in for certain meanings. Some of them are regarded as windows into the divine.
Ritual and worship are material phenomenon. If we want to get in touch with our spirituality, then our practice must involves things.
Visio Divina with Objects
I invite you to do a practice with some objects from the Petterson Museum exhibit. Visio Divina is similar to Lectio Divina or Sacred Reading. Here, instead of working with a text, you work with an image — a photograph or a painting, or with an object directly.
Click here to download a flyer containing pictures of seven objects from the "Calling on the Divine" exhibit at the Petterson Museum. Choose one that interests you and then follow these four steps.
l. Look closely at the object. What do you notice about it? Does some aspect of it stand out for you? A color, a shape, a texture, its design, one part of it, how the parts fit together, its history, its use, what you associate with it?
2. Narrow your gaze to what you noticed. Be attentive to what speaks to your heart as you reflect upon the object. Ask yourself, "Where is God in this object?" or "What is God telling me through this object?" or "Where is meaning in this object?"
3. Respond to the object. What does it call forth from you? A prayer, words on a notepad, a drawing, a commitment to an action?
4. Just sit with the object until you feel you have gotten what you need from your relationship with it.
Spiritual practices do not have to be hard; nor do they have to take a long time. During only a few minutes in a museum, you can create relationships over time and throughout the world. You will find connections to the Divine, to your true self, and to the whole creation. Think of a museum as a training ground for your heart, and enjoy the experiences!