Last week while I was on vacation I did something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I visited Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Georgetown. Owned by Harvard University, the museum has a small but significant collection of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art, reflecting the eclectic interests of its founders Robert and Mildred Bliss. I know almost nothing about Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art, so I thought I wouldn’t recognize anything in the collection. But as I passed the Italian Renaissance-style music room on my way to the Philip Johnson Pavilion where the Pre-Columbian exhibit is housed, a smallish painting caught my eye. Even before I recognized the subject matter, I knew the artist: El Greco (1541-1614). Upon closer inspection I saw that it was a painting of the Bible story known as The Visitation (Luke 1:39-45). Mary, having just been told by an angel that she would miraculously conceive the Son of God, visits her older cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant with a miracle baby, John the Baptist, conceived beyond the mother’s childbearing years.
The expressionistic style of the painting makes it look remarkably modern, as if from the twentieth century, even though it was painted sometime between 1610 and 1614. One commentator praised the work for embodying “all the mysticism and eerie brilliance typical of the best phase of [El Greco’s] style.” In it, two nondescript figures, robed in identical silver-blue hooded garments, embrace in a corniced doorway with a white, fluted casing. There are no halos, no religious symbols. The scene is strikingly ordinary, considering the miracle it depicts.
When Mary greets her cousin, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb “leaped for joy” and she was filled with the Holy Spirit. That experience prompted her to utter one of the most famous lines of the Bible: “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus,” part of the Hail Mary prayer Catholics around the world pray every day. Still, as important as the story is, it hasn’t done a lot for me in the past. I guess it’s difficult for me, a modern American male, to relate to pre-modern Eastern women both of whom are carrying miracle babies in their respective wombs. Besides the fantastic-sounding conception stories, I don’t understand why Elizabeth saw the baby moving in her womb as a miraculous sign. Don’t all babies do that? Was being filled with the Holy Spirit what enabled Elizabeth to see the ordinary event of a fetal motion as a divine sign?
I’m not sure why it’s difficult for me to see God’s hand in the ordinary. Perhaps it’s because I’m not looking for it, or at least not looking carefully enough. Both my religious training and my personality have made me hesitant to acknowledge the fact that God speaks to us outside of Scripture. Too many people get caught up in Charismatic kookiness or plain old superstition, so (I reason) it’s much safer to stick with the Bible. Yet even in Scripture God speaks to his people in a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s miraculous like Moses at the burning bush. At other times the means of divine communication is surprisingly ordinary like an unborn baby moving. Jesus himself drew his greatest lessons from everyday life: a farmer sowing seed, a shepherd tending a flock, a fisherman catching fish, a woman searching for a lost coin.
I am trying to learn how to find God in ordinary things, even a trip to a museum.