Bruce Herman, Wenham, MA– Painter and professor
We all see through a lens. A filter. It is inescapable, and no one sees directly into reality without interpretation. As a painter, my perception of the world has always been through the lens of wonder. Like everyone else I have my ups and downs—and sometimes I despair of the world of human systems (political, economic, religious)—but my main way of being in the world is through the sense of surprise and wonder at the sheer mystery and beauty and complexity of things. As the poet William Carlos Williams says, “No ideas…but in things!” And by this, I believe, he meant precisely the same thing I am saying.
Things are full of wonder. The night sky. Waves on the oceans. The beasts of the air and field and sea and savannah. As the Psalmist repeats again and again, we live in a world of wonders. How is it that we’ve shrunken our vision to such an extent that we have become cynical and hard-hearted toward one another…jaded…looking away from this surprising world? As an artist I cannot look away. This includes, of course, looking at times into darkness. As anyone even minimally versed in Art History knows, artists make images of beautiful things and of horrible, scary things too. We cannot help ourselves because our eyes are open to the wonder.
But you need not become a Pollyanna in order to be awake to wonder. You simply need to keep your eyes open. How does a sense of wonder relate to the season of Advent? This is a time of year when all the traditional Scripture readings point toward the end of days: prophesies of cataclysmic events and the coming of the Messiah. And when He did come, there were indeed terrible events happening. But those events have continued for twenty centuries. They are still happening, seemingly at an even greater scale and with greater intensity.
We await his coming again, but we grow weary. Yet as an artist I say, “Remain open.” Stay awake. Cultivate responsiveness to this world of wonders and to the face of those whose needs are greater than your own. The face of need is the face of Jesus. Christianity is not the religion of optimism but of truth––and the truth is beautiful and scary and comforting and terrifying. It is wonder-full.
But wonders are sometimes seemingly more than we can bear, especially when those wonders include tsunamis, earthquakes, terrible violence, storms, mass migration and war. Jesus is as much in the cataclysm as he is in the “still, small voice”. Listen. Stay awake.
Keep your eyes open. He speaks in this world of wonders both fiery and serene. He waits as we wait, and He calls in many voices—perhaps most clearly in the voice of the one asking for help. Stay awake.
(Painting by Bruce Herman, “Virgin Mary.”)