Preface: Painting as a Pastime
Written for the Trinity Forum edition of Winston Churchill’s Painting as a Pastime, released in August, 2012.
Battered and torn by disastrous turns of events in government service, Churchill sought relief from the pain of dashed hopes and public humiliation through experimentation with the art of painting. This opened to him an unsuspected world of vitality, order, and beauty. He discovered that the medium of line, shape, contrast, and color on canvas had a life of its own, which he could work with to make available an invisible dwelling place and refuge for his soul. Here, quite within ordinary surroundings and the reach of unexceptional human abilities, he found a dynamic but placid domain of restful nourishment and joy, impervious to the failures and attacks of public life. He remarked: “There is close at hand a wonderful new world of thought and craft.” He had unintentionally verified Keats’ discovery that “things of beauty” will always keep “A bower quiet for us, and a sleep, Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.”
One of the greatest gifts of immersion in art is liberation from the burdens of expectations and demands from others, and even the burdens of our own hopes, fears, and regrets. Certainly art—or perhaps just its ‘products’—can be degraded through commerce into merely another domain of contest, criticism, competition, and financial gain. Then it is no longer a “place to dwell” with peace and strength. But that does not have to happen. And the living richness of art to the individual participant comes from its power to open up the beauty and depth of both simple and profound things, events and experiences.
But there is a good deal more to this story, which usually escapes notice. Much of the beneficence that falls upon us from the creation and appreciation of art as a human practice comes from its essential involvement with solitude and silence. Art is not noisy, and it does not tolerate chatter—even in the cases where its medium involves sounds or language. And the type of engagement it requires from the individual does not permit distraction. Artistic engagement enforces a unique kind of “being alone.” It unmistakably calls us to “come away.” That call is present in all the forms art takes, and explains how insufferable those are who try to “talk us into” appreciation—or even more so into creation. We want them to go away or at least shut up.
Art can lead us into a conscious enjoyment of solitude and silence, if we know what we are looking for; and that is a fine thing. But solitude and silence also can bring a renewal of life to us without engaging art, and can even lead to the restoration of art itself. This has long been known to those who have pursued a spiritual life. Solitude and silence, with or without art, have both a negative and a positive contribution to make. Negatively, they free us up from the multitude of claims which, in the moment, present themselves as important, but really have no abiding significance. They allow us to lay down the burden of sustaining a “false self” that we are apt to project in order to cope “successfully” with demands from others or ourselves. In their embrace trivialities drop away. Positively, we begin—slowly, no doubt—to see and accept what we really are, and to step out of pretense and manipulation. We learn to live simply before God, “the audience of One.” Successes and failures alike no longer oppress us or impress us. We become hopeful because we now are coming to see God and our world better, and to see ourselves and our life as He sees us: “in the light of eternity.” In the light of His greatness and goodness we begin to appreciate the magnitude of our own soul and to cease striving.
Churchill found in painting a world of good that stood free and accessible, no matter what else had happened or would happen to him. I cannot doubt that his own faith in God provided a context for his discovery, but what faith he had proved to be incapable on its own to pull him through his grief and loss. The grace of painting gave him the open door, not just to the richness of painting and of the world made present though it, but to the solitude and silence that heals the soul.
Not long ago, solitude and silence were provided to many people—perhaps to most—by the normal conditions of life. No longer! Now we have to choose to be alone and to be quiet, for extensive periods of time. We have to seek ways to achieve solitude and quietness. We are hammered by endless streams of people and thousands of “messages” daily. For spiritual wholeness, if not our very health and sanity, we must make solitude and silence a regular part of an integrated plan for living. In the light of what is to be gained thereby, life is too short not to do that. We must join Churchill in his world of solitude and silence—and beauty. God has made provision for us to live together in his great Trinitarian community of love, joy, and peace.