The late autumn sun casts variegated patterns of light and shadow on the bluestone ramp ahead of us. My daughter asks, “Why did he build this? This is pretty amazing.”
Together we make our way through the labyrinth of stone that leads up to a nine-ton, thirteen-foot-high monolith superimposed against the Catskill Mountains.
From this vantage point we look down on Opus 40, a six-and-a-half-acre sculpture and earth artwork created by the artist Harvey Fite. Over a period of thirty-seven years Fite built this extensive instillation piece by piece, carefully selecting the interlocking stones.
“Outsider art” and creators of visionary environments have long intrigued me; hence our father-daughter excursion. These types of works often explore religion, national welfare, universal brotherhood, personal freedom, and uninhibited creativity. There is much to ponder in the work of these self-taught artists and creators.
As we walk, I also tell my daughter about Leonard Knight, a Korean War Veteran, car mechanic, and handyman from Vermont. In 1970 he found God after repeating the “sinner’s prayer” alone in his van. He emerged that day filled with enthusiasm for telling people about Christ’s love. Eventually he felt inspired to create a homemade hot air balloon with “God is Love” on the side of it, intending to spread the Gospel from the sky. He labored for years, but the balloon never took off, so he finally abandoned it and started what would be his life’s work – the decades-long construction of Salvation Mountain in the south Californian desert.
Built of adobe, Leonard’s joyously colored proclamation of God’s mercy is coated with over one hundred thousand gallons of donated paint. “Love Jesus and keep it simple” was his motto. He lived in the back of a truck and labored on his vision until his death in 2014.
“So artists like Leonard, they sound a bit like prophets,” my daughter responds.
She’s right. With their warnings of judgment for injustice, exhortations to turn away from sin, and strong messages of hope and salvation, there are comparisons in some of these artists’ works to the prophetic method. And like prophets, many of these outside or visionary artists have experienced rejection from mainstream society; people only “got them” later.
“The prophet is human, yet he employs notes one octave too high for our ears. He experiences moments that defy our understanding.”
Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel wonderfully describes how the prophet’s “essential task is to declare the word of God here and now; to disclose the future in order to illuminate what is involved in the present,” yet “we and the prophet have no language in common. To us the moral state of society, for all its stains and spots, seems fair and trim; to the prophet it is dreadful.” Heschel explains, “The prophet is human, yet he employs notes one octave too high for our ears. He experiences moments that defy our understanding. He is neither ‘a singing saint,’ nor a ‘moralizing poet,’ but an assaulter of the mind. Often his words begin to burn where conscience ends.”
Yet what impresses me most about prophets is not their burning words, but that God called them out of ordinary life – and they responded. I love Isaiah’s commission: “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me’” (Isaiah 6:8). That is a question we should all consider. What would we say?
Some people say that they, too, hear God talk to them. I never have experienced that, but I believe if we listen to the stillness, God communicates to us in different ways, through nature, people, and experiences. He still corrects and directs us. Yet we will never hear those notes “one octave too high” if we don’t create periods of stillness. Sitting by a reflecting pool at Opus 40, watching the swirl of koi in the dark waters topped with fallen maple leaves, that seems simple.
As my kids get older, we talk increasingly about their futures and the ideas they have. We discuss what makes for a meaningful life. We tell them that whatever vocation they choose, we hope they work for something that benefits others. True purpose isn’t found in centering on the temporal aspects of life, status, money, popularity – all of that is fleeting. We are only complete when we partake in working for something of eternal value.
The Advent season is upon us, that time of waiting for something entirely new to come to this world. Whatever abilities God gives us in the service of his kingdom – be we artists, prophets, or otherwise – to bring even just a little bit of heaven down to earth in our corner of the desert has to be the greatest employment we could ever hope for.