I hope this can really be an opening talk in the sense that it opens things up. Remember when we were children and got a big apple sometimes, one of those big shiny red apples? We would say to our mother, “You take the first bite,” because we couldn’t get our teeth into it. Once a little bite was taken out of it, we could manage. And even though the bite I’m able to take out of this large apple may be only a very small bite, it may help us all to begin.

As I looked at this over-awing theme, Art and the Sacred, I realized that art alone would already be too big to get my teeth into. And the sacred would be too big. So I will concentrate, humbly, on the “ and”. If we get a little bite out of this “and” , the connection between the two, it might help us open up our topic. I would like to use words of poets and one picture – Picasso’s Guernica – to illustrate points about the link between art and the sacred. My aim is to actually move to that place where the two are linked, not just talk about it, and to help each one of us take our position there.

There is a passage that Gilbert Kerr, editor of the Harvard Advocate , wrote about W.H. Auden that might be a helpful text with which to start. Auden believed, said Kerr, that “a poet feels the impulse to create a work of art when the passive awe provoked by an event is transformed into a desire to express that awe in a rite of worship.” He doesn’t even say “into a work of art.” He says, “… into a rite of worship.” Art comes in through, the back door, as it were, because “to be fit homage, this rite must be beautiful.” So we start with an awe-inspiring event. What Kerr calls “the passive awe: of this experience is transformed by the artist. That rite of worship, in words, is poetry. In movement, it is dance. In color and line, it is painting. In all these forms there is a rite of worship. That would be one way of looking at it.

Three Phases of an awe-inspiring Event

still pond with mist on the water and fall leaves in the foreground

For our understanding we could separate this awe-inspiring event, or moment, into three phases. The first is stillness. In order to face reality, in whatever form it may be, we have to hold still. What kind of stillness is meant here will become clearer, I hope, when I read a few passages from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets . But at this moment it is important for us not to think about the examples or about artists, but to appeal to our own experience. What is necessary when we want to face reality? Stillness. Let us, right now, each one of us, call to mind the kind of stillness that is absolutely necessary to face reality. Call to mind, in a kind of repentant way, how often we rush around and are not still, and so fail to face reality. Stillness is certainly a precondition for facing anything. When we run we do not have the steadiness to face things, or people, or events, to look at anything face to face.

The next phase of our moment of awe is discovery. Stillness is necessary for discovery, but there is also something else necessary: the letting go of our preconceived notions. This is a deepening of the concept of stillness. I think it deserves to be mentioned specifically. No matter how still you are externally when you look at things, you are not really looking at them unless you disengage yourself from your preconceived notions and allow reality to impress you. But the moment you open yourself to reality, the moment you allow it to do something to you, you discover an order that is not your order. You discover in things an order that existed millions and millions of years before we ever came around; in persons, you discover that mysterious order of the other.

The third phase I would like to single out of that one act of facing reality is what we might call the Yes. It is not enough to be still; it is not enough to open yourself for discovery. To fully face reality you have to say Yes. This is the Yes of blessing. It is not necessarily the “yes” of approval. Approval may not be the appropriate response in a given situation, but blessing is always appropriate. And blessing in this sense is an inner Yes. It is, as I hope you will see, a worshipful Yes, the essence, in fact, of worship.

I will read our initial text once more and hope in the light of this first survey of the act of facing reality that it will sink in a little deeper. “The poet feels the impulse to create a work of art when the passive awe provoked by an event is transformed into a desire to express that awe in a rite of worship. To be fit homage, this rite must be beautiful.” Many of the terms used in this quotation ought to be examined. We ought to be sure we speak the same language.

A Few Points About Art

Perhaps there should be a few points here about art, for instance, just to make sure we are on the same wavelength. Right now, the important thing is that we are talking about a making. Whether it be poetry or painting or architecture or cooking, or anything made with material such as movement and gesture, it is a making. And yet art is distinguished from crafts, which are characterized by making things for a purpose. When I am using “art” now, it is distinguished by an emphasis on meaning rather than purpose, on celebration rather than use of the thing made. This is a celebration, ultimately, of the superfluous. The superfluous is somehow celebrated with the deep intuition that nothing is more important to us humans than the superfluous.

When I speak about the sacred, what matters here is awe, in the sense of a strange and inexplicable fusion of fear and fascination. You see it when a very small child stands at the ocean and the waves are coming in. You see the little child torn between wanting to rush into the ocean and fearfully drawing back. Every time the wave comes, the child gets a little frightened, and every time the wave withdraws, the child runs up and gets closer. And then runs back again.

And beauty—probably we could never finish thinking about it. At this moment I would merely like to insist that we think of beauty as an aspect of everything there is, as an aspect of all reality. Whatever is, is good. Whatever is, is true. What ever is, is beautiful. That is just what truth means: reality as faced by the intellect. And beauty, in turn, is reality faced by the senses. Beautiful is, as St. Thomas said, the splendor of truth, the clarity everything has, if we would only see. If we can do just this: be still, open ourselves, and say that inner Yes, and then that splendor breaks forth without limit. Only our own limitations determine the measure in which we are able to accept it. The facing of reality in this attitude is worship. You do not have to add anything special to it. This facing of reality can only be done on our knees. It brings us to our knees. Kneeling is the position we feel to be most appropriate at that moment. We need only put ourselves in that place and we’ll find ourselves on our knees. That is worship. It is not even necessary at this point in our considerations to introduce that which receives our worship. It could be introduced; it would fit; but what we have said will suffice. The awe-struck kneeling is by itself an act through which meaning flows into our lives.

How can we bless in the midst of disaster? In the midst of the fearfulness that lies at the root of so many terrible things?

Now up to this point everything looks just really nice and smooth. I think not even Reader’s Digest could have too much difficulty with all this. But now comes the real difficulty. And that’s why I’ve brought to show you a print of Picasso’s Guernica which is one of the great pieces of art of our time.


It was provoked forty years ago, on April 29, 1937, when for the first time in history a squad of bombers wiped out a village. The timing for this saturation bombing, as historians have shown, was deliberately set during the busiest hours of the morning when everybody was out of their houses and in the market. The bombers came and a few minutes later this village, unarmed, strategically unimportant, was simply wiped out. A few days later Picasso, under the tremendous shock of this experience, started sketching for Guernica.

“Guernica” by Pablo Picasso

For us here the question this event imposes is decisive. Here was certainly an awe-inspiring event, but a terrible one. Here is something to which you can hardly say Yes. Or can you? What was it the artist said to this event? What was the inner gesture that produced a painting like this? Only when we focus on this most difficult point where the “ and” that stands between art and the sacred becomes almost impossible to deal with will we be able to maintain the link between the two. And I must admit I have no glib answer at all. I am not offering you some easy answer: “Oh, that’s it. Well, that’s fine then.” No. I’m struggling with it and I invite you to struggle with me. Struggle with these questions: How can we bless in the midst of disaster? In the midst of apathy? In the midst of destruction? In the midst of decay? In the midst of stupidity? In the midst of the fearfulness that lies at the root of so many terrible things?

And yet, nobody can look long at this picture and fail to realize that it is a Yes. It is a Yes that includes and surpasses all the horror of the event captured in this imagery. How could Picasso say this Yes? Certainly he did not prettify the event and say, “Well, it wasn’t really that bad. There were some nice things about it.” He simply faced reality. He did nothing else but what we discussed earlier, only he did so in an extreme situation. He held still, but in this context that is a very special kind of holding still. It demands extreme courage. He discovered order, but he didn’t discover a facile order. He had the daring of a discoverer, the truth that there was some order he had not yet discovered, some order beyond what he might ever discover. He had the courage to bless, the courage to say yes in the midst of all this. This Yes, remember, is not necessarily one of approval, but it is an affirmation of reality.

Have the courage to be still. Not just externally quiet, but quiet in the ultimate sense of waiting without hope.

I think the three phases might become clearer when I read three passages from Eliot’s Four Quartets . Obviously, we won’t exhaust these passages now. Don’t focus on what we are missing. We’ll be missing most of it, but we’ll find something in it and that’s the important thing. Here is the holding still, the poet confronting reality:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without
For hope would be hope for the wrong
thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and hope are all
in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not
ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

and a few lines earlier:

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark
come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.

There is the sacred. We can feel it. This first phase is no longer just stillness in general, but it is an explicit command: “Be still.” That means have the courage to be still. “I said to my soul, ‘be still.’” Not just externally quiet, but quiet in the ultimate sense of waiting without hope. “Wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing: wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing: there is yet faith but the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”

Just a very short space after that there is another passage, about discovery.

Shall I say it again? In order to arrive
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is
no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way
of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which
you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing
you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

To arrive at what you do not know, at that order which is not your own, is discovery. But… “In order to arrive at what you do not know, you must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.” The decisive point is to have the courage to go by the way of ignorance, by the way in which we are not. That is real courage. To get from where you are not, “…you must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.” That seems important because, linguistically, “ecstasy” is the opposite of “instant.” You have to be in the present moment. That is how Eliot, in this context, speaks about confronting reality. To be really in the present moment, to immerse yourself in it, to allow it to do something to you, to expose yourself to it and not protect yourself by preconceived notions—all this is the way of ignorance.

Now a final passage from the Four Quartets about that Yes of blessing. (I’ve been really struggling in trying to say something about this final phase.) I think Eliot expresses it powerfully when he speaks about worship in confrontation with reality.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off sense and notions.
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel…

Another clue to what this kneeling means stands at the end of a poem by W. H. Auden called “Precious Five.” It deals, stanza by stanza, with each of our five senses. After treating the five, Auden says in a final stanza:

Be happy, precious five,
So long as I’m alive
Nor try to ask me what
You should be happy for;
Think, if it helps, of love
Or alcohol or gold,
But do as you are told.
I could (which you cannot)
Find reasons fast enough
To face the sky and roar
In anger and despair
At what is going on,
Demanding that it name
Whoever is to blame:
The sky would only wait
Till all my breath was gone
And then reiterate
As if I wasn’t there
That singular command
I do not understand,
Bless what there is for being,
Which has to be obeyed, for
What else am I made for,
Agreeing or disagreeing.

Bless what there is for being with the Yes of blessing. Be happy, precious five. Be happy. But happy in what sense?

Again Eliot has a passage about that happiness:

The moment of happiness — not the sense of well-being,
Fruition, fulfilment, security or affection,
Or even a very good dinner, but the sudden illumination —

All we need to do is hold still, be still, be open, listen. Then even the most shattering event may become transparent in a sudden illumination. The fourth section of “Little Gidding” in the Four Quartets describes a shattering event quite comparable toGuernica. It also deals with the bombing of London and was written during World War II. In these two stanzas Eliot makes the dive bombers transparent to the dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit who sends fire from the sky at Pentecost. The daring imagery is almost a tour de force.

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre —
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

This does something to our concept of God, I hope. It reminds me of what a Hassidic master said: “God is not an uncle. God is an earthquake!” And that earthquake is not something that happened out there in 1937 in Spain or in 1944 in London. It happened the last time we had some soul-shattering experience. It may happen whenever and wherever we hold still. And it will not only destroy but build up, if we can rise to a Yes of blessing.

Blessing is a creative encounter, for it is that basic gesture which, in Biblical tradition, we predicate both of God and of ourselves. God blesses us. We bless God.

I am grateful we chose this place for a conference on art and the sacred. Lindisfarne is right now going through a time of crisis. A time of crisis is a time to kneel, to open ourselves for blessing, and to bless. Thus, the sacred will take shape. May Lindisfarne in every crisis (as Rilke put it), “like the tongue between the teeth, remain, nevertheless, an organ of praise.”

Reprinted from Lindisfarne Letter, #6, 1978.

Excerpts from Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot are reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.; copyright©1943, by T.S. Eliot;
copyright©1971, by Esme Valerie Eliot.

Br. David Steindl-Rast
Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

About the author

Brother David Steindl-Rast — author, scholar, and Benedictine monk — is beloved the world over for his enduring message about gratefulness as the true source of lasting happiness. Known to many as the “grandfather of gratitude,” Br. David has been a source of inspiration and spiritual friendship to countless leaders and luminaries around the world including Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, and more. He has been one of the most important figures in the modern interfaith dialogue movement, and has taught with thought-leaders such as Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, and Roshi Joan Halifax. His wisdom has been featured in recent interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Krista Tippett, and Tami Simon and his TED talk has been viewed almost 10,000,000 times. Learn more about Br. David here.