THOSE LATIN WORDS, “while I breathe, I hope” are the title of an art exhibition whose opening I recently participated in. David Opheim, a priest I have known since his seminary days, has become, in recent years, a painter and sculptor of consequence. His exhibition, held in a Toronto church in January, consisted of 25 works, almost equally divided between painting and sculpture, all created in the four months between Sept. 9, 2001, and this January.
The volume of work produced in so short a time is breathtaking. Each work of art is accompanied by a meditation, but for me the title is also a rich source of meditation. In the foreword to the booklet accompanying the exhibition, I used these words: “To reflect, in paint and sculpture and word, on the time following Sept. 11 is challenge enough, but to do so under the rubric of ‘hope’ is to challenge radically the received wisdom of our time and of our political masters.
David dares to do so as an echo of St. Paul’s challenge that ‘in hope we were saved. Hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience’ (Romans 8.24,25). “The stark artistry and the simple words make it clear that this hope is not chauvinistic bluster or superficial optimism. It is the hope of which Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke in the worst days of apartheid: ‘I am not optimistic, I am hopeful.’ I rejoice to share in this event, a sign of the power of an artist among us and a gift to an aching world.” The enduring character of the artistic response to life often strikes me as parallel to the enduring character of the hopeful response.
A couple of thoughts, one from an article I recently read, and another from my own experience, encourage me in these reflections. The Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, recently commented gloomily about the state of religious practice in Britain. He said that Christianity “as a backdrop to people’s lives has now almost been vanquished.”
A visual arts journalist responded that if the cardinal looked at exhibition attendance rather than polls, he would see other dynamics at play. By far the most popular exhibits in 2000 in Britain were Seeing Salvation (the figure of Christ portrayed through history) and Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity. (I went to Seeing Salvation and can attest to how crowded it was!) As well, modern religious art in Britain draws large crowds of young people. As long as our faith has the capacity to inspire artists, then the polls may not matter so much.
Art, like spiritual creativity of every sort, carries the aura of the eternal, aims to use the material to suggest, invoke, even dare to represent, that which is eternal. Just as the church does, in word and sacrament. When the world responds to Sept. 11 with reactions ranging from vengeance and bloodlust to despair and powerlessness, a Christian artist invokes hope. Michael Peers is primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.