God saw the need for beauty and created no two birds alike, no two flowers the same color, no two blades of grass identical. And so God created us, no two alike.
Imagine, if you can, a world devoid of art. Creating, collecting, and admiring art is as old as humankind. We are intrigued by ancient drawings in caves and ornamentation found in buried cities. We see empty spaces and we want to fill them. If we cannot afford originals, we frame copies of the masters. Art (the imitation of nature, as Seneca calls it) is a must for people.
Ignatius says in the Spiritual Exercises, "Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God and by this means to save his soul. And everything else is to help mankind to save his soul." If God's first act was creation, what a noble work it is to imitate this act and to save our souls by re-creating, turning back to God, all he has given us!
This is what artists do. They may or may not be conscious of God's creation, but they are aware of their need to try to capture the realities of life. Creation is a manifestation of God's passion to share himself. Artists can hold nature only for a fleeting moment, but they try to freeze that moment to evoke a reaction in the viewer. The response to God's role as the creator is a vital response by the artist. What artists put into works of art is fixed; what we put into our response to God as artists of our souls is an alive work of art.
I have always loved art and nature. I remember stories my mother told me about her home and her father, who sold art and bought many works for their home, some of which ended up in ours. When I joined the Jesuits I went to the novitiate in Milford, Ohio; it was right on the aviary thruway for annual bird migrations, and being there added to my love of nature. Imagine seeing the varied and beautiful coloring of twenty different types of warblers!
For a number of years I worked at Cleveland's John Carroll University in the admissions office; recruiting trips took me to New England every October. What a feast of color the Berkshires are! Trips to Florida and southern coastal areas, where I witnessed the Atlantic and its colors and power, occupied my Novembers. Similar jaunts to the Midwest opened my eyes to the vistas of rolling fields dotted with farms. And at day's end, I would often go to a gallery or art show.
This interest in art and nature came with me when I became director of Manresa Retreat House in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., in 1978. It showed me a way to awaken retreatants both to the creative action of God and also to the responsibility each of us has to create himself or herself into the beautiful work of art we are.
Manresa's wonderful 40 acres of rolling terrain, with a river wandering through it, benefited over the years as we planted trees and shrubs to beautify the outside. Our first piece of outdoor art was a gift from someone who wanted to bless the memory of his wife. I asked him if he wanted a large blessing or a small blessing. In Boston, I had seen a larger-than-life cast aluminum figure of Our Lady. Today we have this magnificent shrine, and many retreatants have added to their devotion through it.
The inside needed awakening as well. Its corridors and rooms had the usual copies of holy cards, crucifixes, and photos of early events at Manresa. We had a start: one large oil painting, Cardinal Wolsey seeking sanctuary from King Henry VIII in a monastery, hung in the front lobby. But that was just the start. Suzanne Young, a Michigan artist, cast a life-size bronze of the Sacred Heart of Jesus at the behest of one generous benefactor. Over the years, other benefactors have donated paintings as memorials for their loved ones as well.
But the spark that really ignited the warmth of beauty inside Manresa was an annual art show. We started these in 1983 at the suggestion of a Massachusetts artist that Manresa host an art show that would allow it to sell art and, with the profits, purchase additional works of art.
We made choices as to what artists and art were to appear at the show based on what appealed to purchasers and retreatants alike. The consensus was mostly for realism or impressionism. Two artists were selected by committee for the first show, which went on over eight days in May 1983. Everyone was satisfied: the artists were pleased, the viewers enjoyed the show, and Manresa started adding to its collection.
Ten of these shows have been held over the years, and the result is that more than 300 original paintings now decorate the homes of purchasers. At Manresa itself there are now more than 100 other original works of art, inside and out, a growing and eclectic collection. I have met every artist whose art is at Manresa; they like the idea that their work is in a place of prayer and reflection, and they believe the presence of their creations makes people's lives more beautiful.
Retreatants agree; the first thing many of them do after walking through our doors and putting down bags is to ask me the whereabouts of our latest addition. They are a bit more aware of God's grandeur. May God be pleased with the re-creation of his presence in our lives!
Fr. Gene Simon, SJ, a Jesuit for 52 years and a priest for 38,
spent 15 years at John Carroll University and 17 at Manresa
Retreat House. He is presently director of the Detroit Province's
Jesuit Seminary Association.
Fr. Gene Simon, SJ, a Jesuit for 52 years and a priest for 38, spent 15 years at John Carroll University and 17 at Manresa Retreat House. He is presently director of the Detroit Province's Jesuit Seminary Association.