Robert Ladds encourages us to slow down and look deeper
An article by Jonathan Watts, published in Tate Etc. is entitled ‘Slow Art in an Age of Speed.’ I was struck by it, for among other reasons, because at Mass earlier I had reminded those present that the Paschal Festival and Pentecost were long past, that we are speeding through Ordinary Time and, before we knew it, summer will be done and Advent approaching. All part of an ‘Age of Speed.’
Short months ago, while at the Stations of the Cross, our way was marked by the 14 crosses. But, in addition to these waymarks, there are illustrations, works of art provided to focus attention and, given time, inform meditation and prayers.
Research published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts in 2017 found that visitors to one of the major world art galleries spent an average of only 28.17 seconds looking at each of the artworks they visited during their tour. Less than half a minute looking at some of the greatest works of visual art every created!
This finding caused a considerable shock among curators and artists alike. As a response to this quite shocking statistic, interest came to rest on In Praise of Slow: Challenging the Culture of Speed by Carl Honoré, published in 2004. The theme is to find the right pace to do everything and savour every experience: ‘Savouring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them.’ How perfectly this thought and teaching relates not only to the current world and passing fashion of ‘mindfulness’ and ‘health and wellbeing,’ but also—most significantly, deeply and fundamentally—to our Christian heritage of meditation, contemplation and prayer.
To respond to the rediscovery of ‘slow art’ there have been exhibitions at art galleries and museums across the world, including in London, of just five or so works of art, historic objects and artefacts. Participants have been encouraged to spend ten minutes looking at each item in turn and then to join in a group discussion and reflection with others. Apparently, the outcomes have been significant both in terms of personal fulfilment and growth in art appreciation and participation.
Stations of the Cross conducted and participated in as ‘slow art’ might be deprecated as being the application of a secular concept to the things of the spirit, of devotion, prayer and worship. It might, however, enable us to find a deeper and more intimate participation in those things of the Holy Spirit of God that we celebrate as we move quickly from Eastertide to Pentecost and on into Ordinary Time, stretching out before us with potential and opportunity.
The late Mother Mary Clare SLG brought to the subject of prayer a unique blend of spiritual realism, vision and authority. Among her published works about the nature and practice of prayer, Encountering the Depths (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1981) she reflects on the challenges of living a spiritual life in modern society. While written a generation before the ‘slow art’ movement, Mother Mary Clare calls us to seek exactly that same slowness of mind and heart as we contemplate the things of God. Out of the slowness and stillness of contemplation comes a deeper listening and an apostolate of prayer.
The illustrations that accompany the Stations of the Cross vary wide in quality, style and taste. Those by Eric Gill in Westminster and Bradford cathedrals and those by John E. Crawford, chief assistant to Martin Travers, in the Church of St George, Headstone, are captivating and remarkable works of art. Maybe we shall find high art only rarely in the illustrations that accompany the Stations of the Cross, yet there is room and opportunity to use those in our own churches as a prompt to slow down and look, pass the 28.17-second threshold and begin to ‘encounter the depths.’
As Christians we believe that the work of all true creativity begins and ends with God, and that this truth embraces both art and prayer. In his foreword to Mother Mary Clare’s book, that great soul Michel Ramsey wrote that contemplative prayer: ‘is a liberation from our restless brain-activity into the depth of the love of God in our souls, a love which brings us nearer to the needs of the world around us. Can I achieve this? It is not a matter of our achieving, but of the opening of our heart to receive the gift which God will pour into it. Christian lives which know contemplation will be lives nearer the love of God in its outflowing stream.’
Bishop Robert Ladds SSC is assistant priest at St Peter’s,
London Docks and a former Bishop of Whitby.