The Role of Arts in Spiritual Formation: A Reflection on Attentiveness and Love

By Caroline Adams

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to attend a round table panel discussion at Vanderbilt University on the role of arts in theological education. Represented on the panel were professors of art and religion from most of the local institutions of higher education—Lipscomb University, Belmont University, Vanderbilt Divinity School, Trevecca Nazarene University, Sewanee, and Union University. As each distinguished scholar and artist told their own stories of a time when art played an important role in their spiritual formation, I was inspired to consider what story I would tell had I been asked the same question.

When I was a student in Divinity School, I was placed at Scarritt Bennett Center for my field education requirement. My academic emphasis was art, theology, and culture, and my internship supervisor knew that Scarritt Bennett Center would be the perfect place for me explore each of those topics at a more practice-based level.  As I became familiar with the spiritual formation programming offered at the center over the first few weeks, I sheepishly entered into my first task as theology and the arts intern—writing my very own Vespers and All That Jazz Service.

The nature of the Vespers and All That Jazz service is such that it is centered on the creative movement of jazz music with pieces of poetry, creative writing, theological reflections and cultural narratives as the thematic force holding it all together.  We were in the midst of planning our Advent services and the lectionary scripture that was to inspire my reading selections was the arrival of the Angel to the Shepherds in Luke. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among humanity,” the angel announces.

As I read over and over the scripture, searching for a thematic direction, I found myself humming a familiar tune. “…And mild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth goodwill to men…” The last line from the first verse of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was ringing in my ears—I had no choice but to listen. That song and those lyrics went on to inform all of the readings that I gathered for the service which encouraged listeners to hear the bells in our lives that are calling us to a greater understanding of attentiveness, waiting, and preparation.

One of the most important questions asked by the moderator at the arts and education panel discussion at Vanderbilt was a simple one—why do arts matter? Dr. Steven Guthrie from Belmont University responded, “The arts disciple us into attentiveness, and attention is a prerequisite to love. In paying attention to that which engages us at the level of our senses, we can better learn to be attentive to those around us. We learn to love.”

Maybe art isn’t so much about what we do but rather about how we do. In this way, both creating art and experiencing art is another way of knowing. A song pulled deep from my memory is how I read that piece of scripture. Music, poetry, painting, dancing, theatre—it all calls us to pay attention to ourselves, to one another, and to God. With this attentive listening, we learn to know and love each in a deeper way.

When we stop to view a painting, we pay attention to what moves us. When a familiar song causes us to pause, we pay attention to how it makes us feel. When we write, we listen to what is inside us that needs to be expressed. When we experience art, we are paying attention to the way God speaks to us in the world. When we take time to listen to one another, listen to ourselves, and listen to God, we are taking time to love.

Come practice attentiveness and love with us through our Spiritual Formation and the Arts programming at Scarritt-Bennett Center:

Vespers and All that Jazz is a weekly service from 6:30pm-7:15pm at Whiteman Chapel.

Poet’s Corner is a monthly poetry reading from local writes on the 3rd Thursday of the month from 6:00pm-8:00pm in the Fondren Building.

Laskey Gallery is an exhibit space on the 2nd floor of the Laskey Building and is open daily—current exhibit is Marla Faith’s “Abundance”.

Caroline Pic

Caroline Adams is an Assistant Director of Education, Programming and Connections at Scarritt Bennett Center. She works primarily with Spiritual Formation programming which includes programs such as Tuesdays in the Chapel, Vespers and All That Jazz, Poet’s Corner, and the Laskey Gallery. She holds a Masters of Divinity and a Certificate in Religion and the Arts in Contemporary Culture from Vanderbilt Divinity School.

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