Why, if you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country.
(The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis)
Last Saturday afternoon, my parents and I walked into the Riffe Center in downtown Columbus, unsure of what to expect from a stage adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ work, The Great Divorce. A basic summary of this piece (a hard one to summarize) is that a number of ghosts from hell are given a “holiday” to the outskirts of heaven, where they are encounter spirits who dwell in heaven and who have come to convince the ghosts to stay and leave behind their ghostliness. As Lewis puts it, rather than working as a prediction of heavenly life, the scenes in The Great Divorce are better viewed as a heavenly perspective on the choices that mold our souls’ directions. The play did an excellent job bringing this to life. As tableau after tableau unfolded in the play, the depictions of individuals’ progression towards or away from the truth and beauty of God elicited at times laughter at foibles brought to clear sight, and at others a thoughtful silence as we the audience saw the end results of our temptations, our decisions, materialize before us, outside of us. Along with these warning images, the confrontations between characters pictured also the grace of choices given to turn away from tiny self-contained lives–some of those choices accepted with fear but leading to joy, some of those rejected with self-righteous pride.
Each time I encounter The Great Divorce, a different element calls to my heart and mind. This time it came as I watched two actors play out the conversation between a ghostly artist and a spirit who had also been an artist on earth. The ghost is miffed by the spirit’s apparent disregard for their occupation in the midst of a heavenly country.
‘How soon do you think I could begin painting?’ it asked.
The Spirit broke into laughter. ‘Don’t you see you’ll never paint at all if that’s what you’re thinking about now?’ he said.
‘What do you mean?’ asked the Ghost.
‘Why, if you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country.’
‘But that’s just how a real artist is interested in the country.’
‘No. You’re forgetting,’ said the Spirit. ‘That was not how you began. Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about the light.’
This last phrase has lingered in my memory for the last several days. What a wondrous thing it is to see beauty and share it with others. To eagerly show them a way of looking that opens their eyes to fresh beauty, that creates community because of shared delight. But what temptations come with that too: to see the subject as an object–a means to the end of getting people’s attention.
On my best days, I catch a glimpse of the purpose of photography: of the joy in slowing down to study and see the shapes, colors, patterns, light, and shadow before–and behind– me, and in so doing, to help others to see the glimpses of another country that they point to. However, even on my best days, I still notice the taint of self-regard, which causes me to long for what’s coming ahead, hinted at in The Great Divorce as part of a later response given by the spirit:
But if there is any of that inflammation [of reputation obsession] left it will be cured when you come to the fountain […] It is up there in the mountains […] Very cold and clear, between two green hills. A little like Lethe. When you have drunk of it you forget forever all proprietorship in your own works. You enjoy them just as if they were someone else’s: without pride and without modesty.
I’m looking forward to that day.