In the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, there is a scene where Rory Neary cries into his mashed potatoes. He, along with several other people, have had an encounter with an extra terrestrial that has implanted a shared vision in their consciousness. The thing is, he’s not sure what the image from the vision is. He’s been trying to replicate it with anything he can find. He sees the shadow of it in pillow cases and shaving cream, but when he tries to form it, it’s just not right. As he shovels mashed potatoes onto his plate and begins to try to sculpt them into the image, his family looks on in horror. He starts crying, and then his son starts crying. Throughout the film he defends his odd behavior, saying “this means something”—even though he doesn’t know what.
I know that feeling all too well, and I suspect you do too. We write songs and make videos and tell stories that seem to say, “I’ve seen this thing, and I’m trying to show you. So I wrote this song, I made this video…and it’s not quite right, but it means something.” It’s almost the thing, but not quite. And sometimes it’s so far off that I want to crumble it up and trash it. In fact I hate it—I hate the thing I made because it’s not even close to the thing I’m trying to show you. But we can’t stop trying. So over and over, we take our brutish hands and try to carve a river rock into a diamond, spin cotton into silk. But it’s never right, never perfect. It can feel disheartening, pointless even.
And there is a certain truth to its pointlessness. We are never going to fashion a perfect replication of the vision. The great artists come close: Beethoven, Shakespeare, Van Gogh. But I have a suspicion that they were frustrated too, for compared to the thing itself, they were closer to our feeble works of art than the goal.
What is the point then? Why even try?
The ultimate goal is not to find the perfect image, but to let them all go in the face of an actual encounter with the one true God. Hetty White
In the practice of Centering Prayer, there are many ways to enter, but one is through images. The monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit instructed me to picture getting in an elevator with the Trinity and riding down, down, down, to where my heart is and where encounter happens. Although starting with an image is helpful if like me you are visual, the ultimate goal is not to find the perfect image, but to let them all go in the face of an actual encounter with the one true God.
What if all our art, songs, stories, and poems were perfectly imperfect image-elevators down to the heart of the one hearing them, to encounter the one true Artist themself?
In a tense scene near the climax of the film, Rory Neary has thrown plants, dirt, chicken wire, and trash cans through the window into his house (much to the horror of his wife and kids) and is working on his biggest recreation of the image yet, when on the television he happens to see the very thing he’s been trying to sculpt: a monument in Wyoming called Devil’s Tower. He knows immediately that’s what he’s been trying to replicate and that’s where he has to go. The vision was a call to a meeting place with the mysterious creatures that implanted the vision in the first place.
Isn’t that our hope? That all our brave attempts would be recognized in the end: “oh, that’s what you were trying to draw!” We would see the shadow of the Father’s face and recognize it from each other’s art and lives. And that we would all see and know the invitation to a meeting place, where everyone is invited.