Spiritual Living in a Secular World – Open your Hearts and Minds!


Picture Credit: Auguste Renoir from the WallPaperCave.com

On this post-Election Saturday, IAI is reflecting on Henri J.M. Nouwen’s inspired 1992 treatise called “Life of the Beloved.” This spiritual classic was inspired by a simple request from one friend to another for a book explaining the spiritual life in terms that he and his Jewish friends could understand, avoiding theology and technical language. Nouwen’s answer was, “All I want to say to you is, ‘You are the Beloved’ (a video of Nouwen’s first sermon is here). The treatise is one bi-product of Nouwen’s Sabbatical Journey in 1995 after leaving his pastoral community for the mentally and physically handicapped and, “wherever he goes, he is aware of goodness.” Beloved traverses the hard paths of TAKEN, BLESSED, BROKEN and GIVEN.

In BLESSED, Nouwen advises, “my suggestion for claiming your blessedness is the cultivation of presence” (p. 79). That exhortation brought me back to the first time I saw paintings of the great Impressionists like Auguste Renoir’s gem above at five years old in the Phillips Gallery in Washington D.C.  which commanded my presence then and later more Impressionist masterworks at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York which offers a lovely catalog and tribute. The painting above, the Met notes, was executed in summer 1881, where Renoir often returned (bio detailed here) after first painting for two months in 1869 alongside countryman Claude Monet at La Grenouillère, a boating and bathing establishment outside Paris (29.100.112).

The Met explains beautifully how Renoir evolved as an artist: Renoir began to explore other artistic directions. His doubts about the spontaneity and impermanence of the Impressionist aesthetic led him to refuse to participate in the fourth Impressionist exhibition in 1878. Instead, Renoir decided to look back to the old masters for an art of structure, craft, and permanence. His first painting in this vein, Luncheon of the Boating Party (Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., 1637), exhibits a new solidity and clarity in the depiction of the figures and their placement within space, especially when compared to the Moulin de la Galette. Renoir left for Italy  in 1881 to continue his self-education in the “grandeur and simplicity of the ancient painters.” He returned enamored of Raphael and Pompeii and his figures consequently became more crisply drawn and sculptural in character (29.100.125).


Picture Credit: Pinterest in their Mindfulness bloc

When you embrace mindfulness, you realize that Presence is a wonderful compliment to Gratitude. Merriam-Webster reminds us that the former is:

  • the fact of being in a particular place : the state of being present
  • the area that is close to someone
  • someone or something that is seen or noticed in a particular place, area, etc.

The color, vivacity and animation of the Impressionist works demands your presence, even if you have never been to La Grenouillère (go visit there) (or even the famous eponymous wonderful restaurant operating with culinary art in New York since 1962). The painting above, Luncheon of the Boating Party, shows the fete in full force, but the Phillips’ Museum curators point out:

The painting also reflects the changing character of French society in the mid- to late 19th century. The restaurant welcomed customers of many classes, including businessmen, society women, artists, actresses, writers, critics, seamstresses, and shop girls. This diverse group embodied a new, modern Parisian society.

Renoir “composed this complicated scene without advance studies or underdrawing”, returning to perfect it but always retaining the freshness of the his vision.” So, returning to Nouwen, try to remember that there is a spiritual meaning underlying everything you encounter in the secular world and your willingness to be present in the moment will allow you to grasp the significance of the moment. Retain the Freshness Your Vision !

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