Art & Compassion at New York’s Cathedral of St John the Divine

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I interviewed Rev. Tom Miller, Canon for Liturgy and the Arts at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine (wiki), for the ART:21 BLOG about the notion of compassion and how it fits into the Cathedral’s fine arts programming.

Affectionately known as “New York’s Cathedral,” St. John the Divine is the world’s largest Gothic cathedral and has hosted the work of many major visual artists including Bill Viola, Jenny Holzer and Pat Lipsky.

I found Tom very intelligent, engaging and articulate. He explained the larger role of fine art in the mission of the Cathdral and made me wonder why more religious institutions don’t have such obviously healthy relationships with contemporary art.

Here is a snippet from my interview:

HV: What role does the concept of “compassion” have within that mission?

TM: Compassion involves awareness (or consciousness), enquiry, and empathy (or compassion). For us, compassion finds a powerful exemplar in Jesus, who seemed always to be aware, or to be striving to know the reality of peoples’ lives and his own identity, for that matter. He then inquired about what people needed, what was lacking in their lives, when it wasn’t already apparent. And finally, he undertakes his own “passion” and makes it “compassion” by offering his passion for the good of the world and the illumination of human beings then and down through history.

Now, you can take the Jesus bits out and I think my original statement is true and it informs our criteria for art in the Cathedral. Does the work raise our consciousness about the (or a specific) human condition? (And condition can sometimes be simply the beautiful and sublime.) Does it assist us to contemplate the reality of the human condition (or conditions)? And in a way we frequently cannot control, does the awareness and contemplation lead us to the deeper and more profound place of our integrated being in order to offer ourselves to make a difference or at least to be in solidarity with the human reality of the condition?

The formulation the Cathedral often uses is to say we are a place where liturgy and the arts lead us to discourse and on to advocacy. Again, because art can move us beyond the narrow world of dogma and church tradition, it is an invaluable part of our mission. Art can help us go where our set ways might keep us timid.

Photo via Giulia Riccobono, one of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine’s contemporary capitals.