- Color. Silence. God.
Several years ago I had the privilege of participating in and helping to plan a conference at Loyola Marymount University, entitled “The Color of God.” Standing by itself, this phrase could mean many things. What did we mean? The subtitle of the conference, “Culture, Spirituality, and Justice” provides a hint. It was designed as a sustained, critical exploration of the myriad ways that race, ethnicity, and culture contribute to our understanding and experience of God and how privilege and power often serve to reduce or obscure the rich palette of colors through which we imagine and experience God. Color in this context was a way of getting at the irreducible diversity of human experience, mediated and represented by the seemingly endless racial, ethnic, cultural, sexual and social differences that characterize our experience. And not simply as an abstract intellectual exercise; but also as a fully engaged moral and spiritual work oriented toward understanding how such a reimagining of the divine might contribute a more just society. In short, we hoped to understand better why the palette of colors used to imagine and experience God has become so narrow and constrained, and how this palette might be opened up again.
Color (to paraphrase Levi-Strauss) is “good to think with.” And not only in the context described above, but also in a range of other ways. Including, perhaps, in relation to something as fundamental and mysterious as thought itself. Or feeling. Or, in the world of the religious imagination, the life of prayer; of mystical experience. For me, one of the places where this is most palpable is in the encounter with art. How can you even begin to comprehend what it is to feel yourself moved and provoked to thought and reflection from the experience of standing in front of Vincent van Gogh’s blazing wheat fields? Or as you behold the pulsing red of one of Mark Rothko giant canvases? Or as you struggle to fathom the strange power of Yves Klein’s radiant blue? Or feel yourself drawn into the faded, silvery gray of one of Whistler’s late works? Itis almost impossible to say with any certainty why and how color affects us so. Although we also respond to art through form, dimension, scale and texture, there is something about color. Its power to affect the emotions, to ignite the imagination, to provoke thought. And perhaps to open up the space of prayer. [End Page ix]
I have been thinking about this matter for some time in relation to the strange, wondrous image Evagrius of Pontus gives us for understanding what it feels like to enter the deepest reaches of prayer. “When the mind has put off the old self,” says Evagrius, “and shall put on the one born of grace, then it will see its own state in the time of prayer resembling sapphire or the color of heaven; this state scripture calls the place of God that was seen by the elders on Mount Sinai” (On Thoughts, 39) The proximate source of this image is an obscure passage in Exodus (24:10–11) that describes a vision of the God of Israel, “under [whose] feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.” How and why Evagrius transposes this image onto the life of prayer is not easy to say. But we receive a hint from one of the only other places where he employs this image: “If someone would want to behold the state of the mind, let him deprive himself of all mental representations, and then he shall behold himself resembling sapphire or the color of heaven. It is impossible to accomplish this without impassibility, for he will need God to collaborate with him and breathe into him connatural light” (Reflections 2). One senses here that it is Evagrius’ well known preoccupation with “imageless prayer” (accessible only to those who have reached a stage of apatheia or “impassibility”) that shapes his use and understanding of the sapphire image. Prayer, we are given to understand is (like sapphire), pure, luminous and transparent. It is no thing and cannot be represented. It...