“This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?” – Romans 8:15 (MSG)
When I was in university, I had a poster of Claude Monet’s famous Impressionist painting “Waterlilies” on my wall. A friend of mine gave it to me when she graduated, no longer having a need for posters since she was an official grown-up at last, and so I hung it up in my room as homage to her influence in my life. Even though Monet wasn’t my personal favourite – I was more of a Van Gogh kind of girl – I thought the poster classed up the bare cinderblock walls place nicely with my stacks of books with USED SAVES stickers on the spine and the gigantic Windows 286 computer taking up my entire side of a shared desk and so I kept it throughout my years at university.
I didn’t grow up in a community context that thought much about art. We were a practical bunch, focused on holding a good job and looking forward to Saturday’s for Hockey Night in Canada. I didn’t know anyone who ever travelled to Europe or who went to museum for fun – that simply wasn’t our world.
So it wasn’t until I was in university and forced to take classes in the humanities – which should be required of every human in my opinion now – that I began to learn about art history and the progression of creativity in our world. The classrooms of higher ed were where I was introduced to Picasso and Rembrandt, Rodin and Da Vinci, Munsch and O’Keefe. I finished my degree with a fairly good liberal arts education (which means a dangerous smattering of familiarity with the art, the history, the literature, the science, and the religions of our world along with my own course of study in communications). The problem with a liberal arts education is that you learn enough just to finally understand just how much you don’t know about many things. It’s a humbling form of education. So I learned about the humanities in the way most of us do these days – by reading, by watching documentaries, by filmstrips (okay, so maybe kids today don’t know what filmstrips are but shout-out to everyone over 40 years of age).
I was content with my poster of the great painting. Others joined it over the years – postcards of Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Renoir’s In the Meadow (which reminded me of my sister and I in the summers) or Klimt’s The Kiss; all typical university student choices. These prints and posters were enough for me: the beauty of a reproduction was enough for me.
Many years later, I found myself in New York City with a day to spend. I had been speaking at a conference in Montreal and then flew straight to New York City to speak again but there was a day between the two events and so I had a full day in that famously strange and busy city to spend just how I wanted. This was unforeseen riches to this mother of many, I hardly knew what to do with myself.
I landed in New York City at 9 a.m. and after dropping my carry-on at the hotel in Chelsea, I took a cab to the Upper West Side. Everything I know about New York is courtesy of Nora Ephron movies and so if Kathleen Kelly from You’ve Got Mail lived on the Upper West Side, well, guess where I am going? I went to Zabar’s for a legit bagel with a coffee. I had one ticket for a matinee of Wicked (alas, the brand-new Hamilton tickets were way above my pay grade) but I had a few hours before curtain so eventually I walked my way to and through Central Park, heading for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Met was so much bigger than I expected. I hardly knew where to look first or where to go first: it’s a disorienting feeling to stand in front of a building you sort of recognize from dozens of movies but have never been to yourself. I headed up the long and wide stairs to the front doors where I paid my admission, took up a map, and walked up the grand staircase in the front hall. I began to wander without ambition, finding myself first in medieval paintings and tapestries, walking through galleries of dark religious icons. I went to the Exhibitions like Turner’s Whaling Pictures and the Manus x Machina about fashion in the age of technology which was stunning even if totally out of my usual wheelhouse. I eventually found the Pergamon the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World exhibit so that I could text my sister from the hall – she’s a historian and even though her specialty is more in Canadian history, one of her secret joys is ancient civilizations. I kept texting her over and over to say, “I wish you were here – you would not BELIEVE this place!” which I’m sure she did not find annoying at all as she cut up grilled cheese sandwiches for her daughters.
Eventually I found myself in a hallway filled with sculptures. I spotted one sculpture and thought, “good gracious, that looks just like Rodin’s work,” and when I read the card beside it, whoops, it was an actual Rodin. I stumbled backwards and stood there with my mouth hanging open.
Rodin was real. Like, really real.
“That’s the guy who did The Thinker!” I whispered to myself and when I turned my head to see if anyone else was as shocked as I was that an art museum had actual real art…there right before me was The Thinker himself.
I clapped my hands together – what was even happening? The Thinker was smaller than I expected but it was so much more powerful, compact and strong, in a way that the textbook pictures or gift shop prints of this work could never have conveyed.
Eventually I staggered through the open doorway into the next gallery. I could have gone home right then and there, satisfied. There were tour groups bunched around certain paintings inspecting them closely, including an elementary school class who were sprawled on the floor with pads of paper and pencil crayons, copying – oh, good gracious – an actual Van Gogh painting.
I began to slowly turn in one spot, taking in everything. They were all here. Renoir. Monet. Manet. Van Gogh. If I kept walking through the Met, I would find works of art from Iran and China, from the ancients to the moderns to the postmoderns. It was here, all here.
I wasn’t prepared how the real thing could be staggering. I walked over to one of Van Gogh’s paintings – Wheat Field with Cypresses, if I remember correctly – and as I looked at the painting, the unmitigated reality of it overwhelmed me.
When I had looked at the pictures in my textbooks or displayed them in calendars (Van Gogh 12-month calendar 1994), I had liked them. I had nodded in agreement when professors or marketers had assured me of their brilliance. I thought I appreciated them as I learned about the artists and their context. I could identify them if I saw them on note cards I used to send dutiful thank-you notes for Christmas presents.
But then I saw the real thing.
The rumours of the real were just that – rumours. The rumours had sufficed for a while, I had been satisfied that I understood. I didn’t think I needed more than that. I knew about art because I had read about it in a book.
All of my knowledge fell away in that instance of knowing: sure, here’s a timeline and here are the influences and here are the patrons and the historical context but somehow those things fell away and rolled to the corners of the room because what really mattered was the soul.
Rumours of the real are a good start. But if this was where my story had ended, I would have missed this moment.
I stood in the Museum and I cried.
No shame: I dropped my bag at my feet and I wept with joy at the sight of it. My smile began to hurt my face and I shook my head in disbelief, opening and closing my teary eyes to keep checking that this was all here and all still real.
Look at it, it’s so beautiful. It’s really-real. These people lived and created and pushed boundaries and prophesied and criticized, they suffered and loved and saw with new eyes, they did this work and here it is and here I am and it’s really real.
It was a submersion into a new world, as if the room was breathing with life.
I wasn’t prepared for it. I thought it would be like looking at the paintings in my textbooks or coffee table books – just up on a wall.
But now I understood: those reproductions are just rumours. They aren’t the real thing. They are a pale copy compared to the reality.
As I stood there, weeping, I had a startling moment of clarity, almost like a voice broke through to me: “You’ve been seeing through a glass darkly.” The phrase was written by the apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians and those words comes after this well-known passage: “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”
After that passage which is often read out loud at weddings, Paul writes that someday all of our important and inspired words will end, our praying in tongues will end, our knowledge will end but love will be what lasts forever. Then he wrote the words which had come to me in all that King James translation glory in the bright daylight of the gallery: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” As Eugene Peterson paraphrased it for the Message, “We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us.”
As I walked back down Fifth Avenue, I was still in the thrall of the Met. My brain was spinning with how far short the rumours had fallen of the reality I had seen with my own two eyes, I felt as thought I would carry it with me forever.
I hadn’t seen the art clearly until that day. And I felt changed by the experience in ways I couldn’t quite articulate yet.
It makes me wonder all over again what it will be like when we see Jesus clearly. We have heard the rumours. We think we know. We read the scriptures. We pray. We worship. We walk often in a very real and substantial relationship with the living person of Jesus Christ. And yet, Paul says we are still only seeing through a fog or into a dim mirror. We aren’t fully experiencing yet the fullness of the resurrected Christ and so there is the promise of someday clarity.
I haven’t been able to shut up about the Met since that visit. I called my husband and my sister and my mother. I texted a few girlfriends. I got on Voxer and cried as I told my girlfriends in another group chat about what I had seen with my own two eyes. I got on Instagram and posted pictures.
I could not shut up about how brilliant reality is in comparison to the rumours of it.
Seeing and experiencing the real thing has given me a whole new perspective on what used to satisfy me. It’s not that I don’t love my little note card reproduction of First Steps, After Millet by Van Gogh – I do. It’s just that now I have seen the real thing and I know that this is only a whisper of it.
It’s a reminder, a placeholder, for the powerful reality I encountered once and hopefully will again.
Someday we may stand before Jesus like I stood before Van Gogh’s paintings in that gallery. We will be overwhelmed with beautiful reality, tears falling down our face, all arguments and timelines and histories and opinions and theologies cast down to roll away to the corners because their insufficiency to fully see and understand and touch the clarity of God; the in-breaking of the light; the sight of the Real is when we fully and finally realize just how insufficient the whispers of this Love have been.
At the end of that letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us that even though we see through the glass darkly, “for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love. Go after a life of love as if your life depended on it because it does.”
Just because we don’t see the fullness doesn’t mean we don’t see the whispers.
We do see the whispers.
The rumours of the real are all around us. And so we have things to do now in our lives as they stand. Or as N.T. Wright wrote, “What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it…). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”
I am practicing resurrection, absolutely, but I’m doing it in a fog, through a dim mirror, through a dark glass. We all are. Sometimes we see things clearly, sometimes the fog clears for a moment and we receive new insight or beauty but still we are here in the fog. Imagine the glory then.
There is a moment of clarity coming. And right now we boldly embody the rumours of the real with trust, hope, and love, with confidence that we will someday see as clearly as God sees us already.