At the End of Life, the Artist is Necessary

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the word “clinical” may denote “expressing no emotion or feelings” or “showing no character and warmth.” The sentence that is given to illustrate its meaning is this: “We were going to paint our kitchen white, but we decided that would look too clinical.”

Do you ever wonder why hospitals and doctor’s offices are so drab? Why does there seem to be so little attention paid to aesthetics? What impact does this have on doctors, nurses, patients, and visitors?

One day, Cecily Saunders, the British pioneer of modern-day hospice care, was “magnetically drawn” to an oil painting in a gallery window. She was so taken by it that she parked her car and entered the gallery moments before they were closing on the last day of the exhibition. Cecily Saunders moved eagerly from painting to painting. The blue Crucifixion had been the piece to catch her eye from the window, but the piece she impulsively chose to purchase was of ‘Christ Calming the Waters.’

The following day, she wrote the following to the artist, Marian Bohusz-Szyszko:

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Does your education fix your mind on eternal life?

In the chapter on Hope in Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis discusses the paradox that “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”

I certainly observed this during my studies and travels throughout Europe during which I was continually struck that the most beautiful art and architecture was made by people who believed in the immortality of the soul whereas materialists always seemed to produce the most ugly and bland structures and stuff.

There is something about looking forward longingly to the world to come that makes us more effective in this world than we could possibly be otherwise.

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Doing away with superstitions

One of my favourite classical texts is Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. In writing about the lives of noble Greeks and Romans, Plutarch said his intention was not so much to write history as to write edifying moral biographies.

He said, “For I do not write Histories, but Lives; nor do the most conspicuous acts of necessity exhibit a man’s virtue or his vice, but oftentimes some slight circumstance, a word, or a jest, shows a man’s character better than battles with the slaughter of tens of thousands, and the greatest arrays of armies and sieges of cities. Now, as painters produce a likeness by a representation of the countenance and the expression of the eyes, without troubling themselves about the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to look rather into the signs of a man’s character, and thus give a portrait of his life, leaving others to describe great events and battles.”

In introducing the life of Lycurgus, Plutarch even admits, “Concerning Lycurgus the lawgiver, in general, nothing can be said which is not disputed, since indeed there are different accounts of his birth, his travels, his death, and above all, of his work as lawmaker and statesman.”

Nevertheless, he has much to say about Lycurgus and his efforts “to make his people free-minded, self-sufficing, and moderate in all their ways.”

One section that I found particularly interesting is about burial. Here’s what Plutarch tells us:

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What if you embrace the discordant note?

Most people know that Ludwig van Beethoven was one of the world’s most renowned composers, but not many know that, instead of dying on this date in 1827 at age 56, Beethoven almost died before he was born.

Several years ago, this 15-minute short film called Crescendo was released. I saw an early screening of it at the G.K. Chesterton conference hosted by the film’s producer Jason Jones. (For more about that conference, including Jason’s personal story he shared there, click to my post about it here.)

Asked about the extent of creative license he took with the film, Jason told an interviewer, “There’s one piece of fiction. But Beethoven’s father was indeed an alcoholic, he was abusive, he was a philanderer. And Beethoven’s mother had written in her diary that she wanted an abortion and she was suicidal and depressed.”

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Resting in Abraham’s Bosom

Thomas Aquinas died on this date 747 years ago. Accordingly, I decided to see what came up first with a quick search about Aquinas on death. I was led to the Summa Theologiae and, specifically, to Question 69 on “Matters concerning the resurrection, and first of the place where souls are after death.”

During his lifetime, Thomas Aquinas considered many questions that most people would never consider at all. Take, for example, Article 4 of Question 69 in which he asks: “Whether the limbo of hell is the same as Abraham’s bosom?”

I had not heard (or didn’t particularly recall hearing) of “Abraham’s bosom” but a detailed Wikipedia article discusses the concept as it appears in the Bible, Jewish and Christian history, and religious art and literature.

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Sketching Memories

On my iPhone, I have 33,250 photos.

Yesterday, when reading Janusz Korczak’s Ghetto Diary, I came across a section in which Korczak is conversing with a well-known painter who says to him:

“Everyone should know how to sketch in pencil what he wants to retain in memory. Not to be able to do that is to be illiterate.”

I read this sentence over and over again, and thought about it. I have 33,250 photos on my phone and only one of them is, in fact, an image of something I sketched in pencil.

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