Of Artists, Freedom, Reticence, and Sanctity

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

Nobel Prize winning novelist, Doris Lessing, once suggested that George Eliot could have been a better writer if she hadn’t been so moral. That highlights a painful and interesting paradox. Sometimes depth and sensitivity are in tension with creativity and freedom.

When I was child, our Catholic catechism told us that after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit "their minds were darkened." But that isn’t exactly what scripture says. It tells us rather that "their eyes were opened." Lessing’s comment highlights what is at stake here. Allow me an example:

Some years ago a friend of mine was dying of cancer. She was a woman, still in her forties, who had both a faith and depth that made her stand out in a spiritual crowd. In the last months before she died she did a remarkable thing. She wrote a long, personal letter to each of her close friends within which she pointed out their gifts and blessed them. I received one of those letters and, beyond blessing me, she asked me to come and visit her before she died. She said simply: "Come and see me, I want to breathe some of my spirit into you before I die!"

I did visit her, but our visit didn’t exactly fit the picture described in scripture when the dying Elijah breathes his spirit into Elisha. Ours was a more mundane and domestic conversation. We reminisced, talked of mutual friends, her family, her illness, her tiredness, and about cooking, one of her great loves. Before I left she served me a cake she’d baked for me. Then, as our conversation was nearly at an end, she spoke of the sadness of dying and ended by saying: "It’s sad to die young and, for me, it’s hard too because sometimes I wonder how fully I’ve really lived. I’ve always lived so safely and was never able to abandon myself in some ways. Sometimes I feel like I have been the most uptight person who ever lived!"

There was a truth in what she said, but not the obvious one. Her reticence wasn’t psychological, but moral. She was a moral artist, with all that brings in terms of being free and being uptight.

Artists are often characterized by their freedom, their willingness to push edges, break taboos, and feel themselves free from the psychological and moral restraints that hold the rest of us. But that is only half of the picture. In another area, aesthetics, where their sensitivities are the most keen, they are anything but free. In their own way, artists are also very uptight. For example, a true artist is incapable of defacing a beautiful artefact and feels hurt when someone else, in callousness, destroys something beautiful. A real artist would be congenitally incapable of drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa, even while someone less sensitive could do this casually, thoughtlessly, and perhaps even as joke. Sensitivity can make you uptight in a healthy way, just as lack of it can make you free in an unhealthy way.

That was the case for my friend. She was a moral artist, congenitally incapable of defacing anything morally beautiful, herself or anyone around her. In the deepest areas of her life she was incapable of drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa, even as she watched others do this casually and thoughtlessly. Her moral sensitivity made her uptight and sometimes this nearly suffocated her.

I thought of her and her struggle a couple of years ago while I was teaching a course at a secular university. The students came from every kind of religious and moral background. As one of their assignments, I made them read a book by Christopher de Vinck: “Only the Heart Knows How to Find Them: Precious Memories for a Faithless Time”. The book is a series of warm essays that tell stories of his own marriage, his home, his children, and his struggle to be faithful so as to carry his solitude at a high level. One of the students in the class came to my office one day with de Vinck’s book in hand and told me: "Father, I come from a non-religious background and my life has been very different from what this man describes. I’ve had a pretty experiential past, I’ve slept my way through a couple of states, and I don’t have a lot of guilt about that. But reading this book made me realize something: What I really want is what this man has, that kind of fidelity, that kind of home!"

She had tears in her eyes when she said this. There was a moral artist inside of her too, and a saint, both just awakening.

There is a moral artist and a saint inside each of us too and, whether we are awake to that or not, sometimes it can make us feel wonderfully free and sometimes it can make us feel like we are the most uptight persons in the whole world.