The amount of words in the world today is astounding. According to one estimate, there have already been more than half a million books published worldwide in 2020. How many words do you think that adds up to? When you factor in journals, blogs, and social media, how many words pour into the world each day?
This surplus of words easily leads to information overload, especially during our current time, when we are eager for and need updates on situations of national and global importance. To preserve mental health, it’s been recommended to find the information you need and then stop scrolling and go offline.
It has been my experience that too many words can also wreak havoc with matters of faith. My own faith exists in an uneasy truce with words. I love Scripture, both reading it and hearing it recited aloud in church. Yet I find myself getting frustrated with long, wordy prayers and sermons. In fact, it seems that the more I mature, the more trouble I have expressing and experiencing my faith in words.
We find this truth expressed in Scripture. St. Paul said that in prayer, the Holy Spirit “intercedes for us through wordless groans” (Romans 8:26). There are times when, in our weakness, we do not know what to pray for or simply cannot find the words. During these times, the Spirit still moves within us. In all times, both good and bad, there is a richness to faith that goes beyond what can be verbally expressed.
The Spirit can help us to groan wordlessly in many ways. We can weep. Sigh. Sit in silence. Walk in nature. One of the primary ways I wordlessly pray and worship is through works of art. My college and graduate degrees are in art history, yet I’ve found that art ministers to me more as a person of faith than as a scholar. In the art of the Christian past, I find something the modern Church has largely lost—a rich feast of art, beauty, and silence.
To be frank, I don’t recall most of the sermons I’ve heard. But I remember paintings that have preached me a sermon. Some of the most profound spiritual experiences I’ve had have been in art museums. Several years ago, I stood in front of a painting of the Annunciation in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This small panel is attributed to the Flemish painter Petrus Christus, who lived and worked in the mid-fifteenth century.
The subject matter of this painting is probably familiar to us. It depicts the moment that the angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary to announce that she will bear God’s son. We often think about the Annunciation during the seasons of Advent and Christmas. But the Feast of the Annunciation takes place on March 25. In Christus’s painting, the Virgin Mary stands at the threshold of a Romanesque church. An angel, otherworldly yet rendered with the intricate detail afforded to everything else in the painting, stands before her with right hand raised in greeting or blessing. A close look at the angel’s face reveals that he is in the midst of speaking. We know what he says: “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). As he speaks, the Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove, golden rays beginning to descend upon Mary.
In my art-historian mode, I might go on to describe all kinds of things about this Annunciation: how this panel was once part of a larger altarpiece, now lost; the rich symbolism of the architecture; the twelve kinds of identifiable plants that Christus has rendered with painstaking detail. But the day that I first saw this painting in person, I was not looking as an art historian. I had a more elemental encounter.
In many Annunciation paintings of the Northern Renaissance period, Mary is reading when the angel appears. Sometimes, the effect is almost comical, as if she simply refuses to turn away from her book; she is clearly being interrupted by her heavenly interlocutor. But in Christus’s Annunciation, Mary looks up from the open book she is holding and raises her right hand as if in greeting. Her gaze is directed upward, somewhere between the angel and the descending rays of the dove.
Mary stands at the threshold of the church as if she’s been waiting all her life for this moment. For this visitor. For this difficult grace to befall her. Her book is forgotten. Nothing else matters but this moment, suspended between what was, what is, and what will be. Suspended in eternity. Christus’s Mary seems so fully to assent to what is asked of her. Everything in her heart—her ponderings, her wonderings, and her “yes” to God—is visible in her upturned face, her forthright gaze, her forgotten book.
I encountered this vision of Mary during a fraught time in my life. I was facing an ending—and was looking for beginnings. Standing before Christus’s painting, I did not analyze it. I did not pick it apart as I might in a scholarly article. Instead, I let its visual poetry wash over me. In those layers of paint, I received courage to give God my “yes,” even though I did not know exactly to what. To God’s grace, I suppose; to his will for my life and my change of direction. This sermon, along with my assent, was entirely without words.
Every time I see this painting, even in reproduction, I have the same response. My heart thrills. My faith receives a boost. I am moved to believe, to trust, to give God my “yes.” When I am downtrodden and don’t have words, the solace of Christus’s Annunciation is a ministry of the Spirit to me.
Great art can do this. When we encounter a painting or a sculpture that we find moving or provocative, we are invited into an exchange that goes beyond our meager attempts at verbal expression. The Spirit intercedes for us, and we groan wordlessly. Perhaps, sometimes, we outwardly weep.
If you, like me, need to carve out space from the verbiage of modern life, let a work of art minister to you today. Visit an art museum or go to a church or cathedral. During our current time, when many of us are called to self-isolate, find a good reproduction of a painting you love. Sit in silence with it. Let art meet you, as the angel met Mary, and help you say “yes” to God.
Painting: Petrus Christus (attributed), The Annunciation, ca. 1450. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.