Art: the secret handshake of the soul

April 18, 2008 | 28 comments

I had a major revelation yesterday morning: I think I might finally get poetry!

Poetry, like all forms of art, is something with which I’ve always had a love/hate relationship. I love few things more than a moving piece of music or painting or writing; yet the whole concept of “art” has often left me frustrated. I was never sure how to define what makes good art, or even what constitutes “art” at all. I knew what I liked when I saw it, and even felt like there was some universal line in the sand between “true art” and “crap that is called ‘art, ‘” but could never quite articulate why I liked what I liked or where to draw that line.

At some point after my conversion, I heard about the concept that true art is beautiful, in some form or another, and that in order to be beautiful it must convey truth. I didn’t get it. How can art be true? Though something sounded vaguely right about it, I had more important concerns to address, so I promptly resumed being ambivalent about art. Until yesterday, when I discovered a poet.

The always-interesting ProBlogger had a great guest post by a man who happened to be a poet. On a whim I clicked through to his website and, long story short, I ended up spending most of my free time yesterday just reading poems — something I have almost never done before (his free e-book is here). It was one of those “ah-hah” moments when it all came together. I think I finally “got” poetry, and art in general. I think I now understand what it is, why we create it, and why it matters, and what it means for it to convey truth.

Let me see if I’ve got this right:

All good art, by definition, conveys truth. That is its purpose. But we’re not talking about truths like “the grass is green” or “the sky is blue.” We’re talking about the truths that lie outside the material world, the truths that you’d have to have a soul to know about. For example:

  • All beauty and goodness has a living Source. In modern parlance, we call this source “God.”
  • The closer we get to God, the closer we get to perfect joy.
  • We have a strong tendency to drift away from God. Yet further away we get, the more unsettled and miserable we are.
  • When other people drift away from God it makes our lives more difficult.
  • The pleasures and comforts of the material world seem like they will make us happy, but don’t.
  • We love other people, but not as much as we should.
  • Acts of evil are shocking offenses to the way things should be.
  • There is evidence of God in the material world, and our hearts soar when we see it.

And so on. All of these conditions are true objectively (they’re not “your truths” or “my truths”), all have been known in some way or another to every person who ever lived, and none can be discerned from the material world alone. It delights us to share our experiences of these truths with our fellow human beings, because it creates a bond that surpasses our animal instincts and connects us at the level of the soul.

And that’s where art comes in.

Art is the secret handshake of the children of God, the inside joke among those with souls. The spark that is ignited within us when we are touched by a work of art is a spark of recognition: the artist has brought us a souvenir from our homeland beyond the material world, the place that none of us should know about, but all of us do. To connect with a piece of art is to connect with the artist as a fellow traveler, to realize that you are both walking the same rocky road, and that he is homesick too. And it matters because true art, art that seeks a connection of souls, makes it harder to devalue and dehumanize one another. It reminds us what it means to be human.

I think I’m finally starting to get Pope Benedict’s Contemplation of Beauty, the Catechism’s statement on Truth, Beauty and Sacred Art. I think I now understand why the Church understands one of its jobs to be to keep art and beauty in the world.

It only took 31 years, but I think I’m starting to get the whole art thing. Am I on the right track?


  1. Meta

    Yes, I think you’re right on track. Art has come up a lot in my world in the past 24 hours. This piece of “art” is going to bring about a lot of truth, but not at all the truth the artist intended.

  2. ashleyrae


    You couldn’t define the essence of art any more beautifully than this post! Reading about your revelation reminds me of a similar revelation in my life (perhaps a future post topic of my own…).

    I used to major in theater in college. And I ended up leaving because I realized that the people in my department didn’t know truth. They all wanted to express “their truth” as “the truth” but I wasn’t fooled. And I decided to go and seek out absolute truth before I tried to portray it on the stage. I still love theater, but with a very critical eye. It has to portray truth and beauty. It has to be good or it’s not worth my time.

    I am so excited you discovered “the secret handshake of the soul”!

  3. Anonymous

    I have 3 words for you Gerard Manley Hopkins. Check him out. He was a convert and a priest and thank you for this blog.

  4. Kelly @ Love Well

    I think you’re on the right track, and that you’re illuminating it for fellow travelers.

    True art is God’s truth (pardon the redundancy) expressed in beauty.

    This is one of those subjects that’s been percolating in the back of my brain now for about 10 years. One resource that gave me lots of fuel to think about is Madeline L’Engle’s “Walking on Water” Reflections on Art and Faith.”

  5. Heather

    As an artist I have had numerous arguments about this very thing (fellow artists especially). I think you captured the essence of it from the Christian standpoint, and beautifully as well.

  6. Patrick O'Hannigan

    This is a lovely post, Jen. Just to add a dollop to the conversation, I don’t remember where I read it, but I love the definition of poetry as “frozen music.”

  7. Louise

    Beautiful! This is an awesome explanation. I think today there is a tendency to consider art to be a form of “self-expression” — when really, it should be “truth-expression” (which ends up being “God-expression”). So it seems that a true artist must also “die to self” in order to partake in this secret handshake.
    Scientism has taken away a lot of our understanding of art. I’m currently in a philosophy of science class and we’ve been discussing the truth that can be found in art — and for most of the students, that idea doesn’t even make any sense. I can completely understand why, because I’m still just on the edge of getting it myself — but this post clarifies a lot, so thank you! 🙂

  8. Amy Jane (Untangling Tales)

    This is such a cool concept, Jen!

    I have grown up loving certain poetry (though not all) and feeling a sense of cognitive dissonance when looking at /listening to the art of an unbeliever.

    I could never understand why I felt grieved looking at a Van Gogh, or reading Walt Whitman, because artistically they have merit– even uninitiated-me could tell that somehow.

    But to frame it in this context helps me see.

    Truth was my “first second-language” if you will. As a result I guess my soul is usually tuned to that “frequency” expecting, hoping, to be built-up. And when the message comes in, I don’t know, garbled, or in a series of sounds that is meaningless…

    Well, the metaphor breaks down, but at least in my mind the topic’s been made more clear. It’s like those lovely children’s choirs from non-English-speaking countries who sing in English.

    I always wonder how much of the lyric the children understand. They still communicate truth and meaning (if those are in the song) but however technically correct they are, they will always miss something.

    (Doubtless like the many secular choirs who sing the old Latin hymns without learning their spiritual significance)

    And I *love* the “secret handshake” imagery. Just perfect.

  9. Abigail

    Yeah! Welcome to the art fan club!!!!

    I had similiar thoughts during this Lent/Easter Season. Since I’m no a confirmed Catholic, what art can I let myself see and what art should I screen out. For example, The New Yorker, which I used to devour with happiness, has lately made me feeling more agitated and depressed after each read.

    I’m still sorting it out but basically I think “art in service of the Truth = Beauty” “Dishonest or Prideful, i.e. art that’s lost in itself for its own glory or its own selfish ends = the opposite of Beauty.

  10. Aliocha

    I cannot remeber the exact quote, but somewhere in “Dr. Jivago”, Boris Pasternak argues that art is a quality.
    That we should not think about whether this or that is art, but about how much art is in this or that piece/music/painting/book.
    And that art is always something expressed by the artist, it is always , in one way or another the communication of a bit of his soul.

    When I read that back then, the difference between good and bad art became easier to pinpoint for me: if you simply put something together, but put nothing of yourself into it, it cannot be good art.

  11. Melanie B

    “To connect with a piece of art is to connect with the artist as a fellow traveler, to realize that you are both walking the same rocky road, and that he is homesick too. And it matters because true art, art that seeks a connection of souls, makes it harder to devalue and dehumanize one another. It reminds us what it means to be human.”

    Jen, that’s a lovely definition. You’re definitely on the right track. Madeleine L’Engle in her book about reflections on faith and art said that all art is religious art, meaning I take it, that all true art points us toward God. I love your image of homesickness, I think it is saying the same thing. C.S. Lewis also said something similar about beauty pointing us toward the heaven we all intuitively know is our true home.

  12. Katherine

    Wonderful reflection!

  13. Melanie B

    In the same vein I would argue that stuff like this is not art precisely because it devalues and dehumanizes the most innocent and weak and defenseless, the unborn.

  14. Karen E.

    Jen, you are indeed on the right track! Beautiful post.

    Interestingly but not surprisingly, the objective beauty of great music had something to do with my husband’s conversion. His recognition that there was an objective beauty in the music of Bach or Mozart led him to ask why there couldn’t also be objective truth.

  15. truthfinder

    So very well said! And, as Amy Jane said, ” a sense of cognitive dissonance” is what I often have when reading poetry written by students at my community college workplace . So many have no hope, and no focus for their lives. I am in a support position at the college library, and when I can, I try to recommend books which are full of light and hope. I pray that I am making a difference.

  16. Thea

    I’d say so! That second to last paragraph summed things up beautifully.

  17. Heather

    I think you nailed it, Jen. This is going to make it so much easier to teach my children what Art is (and is not) with this imagery.

    Thank you.

  18. Tertium Quid

    Pentimento is one of the finest Catholic bloggers on art and aesthetics.

  19. SuburbanCorrespondent

    “…and that he is homesick, too.” Perfect. Exactly.

    I like to make people laugh when they read what I write, and I’ve often wondered why. But maybe it is because the shared laughter “reminds” me (although faintly) of the shared joy in our real home.

  20. Sarahndipity

    Am I on the right track?

    Yes!! I’m a poet and I loved this post. For some reason, most of the other poets and artists I know are secular liberals. There doesn’t seem to be many poets who are serious Catholics like me. But both art and Catholicism, like you said, are concerned with what’s true, which is why I’ve always loved both.

  21. Sarahndipity

    Let me add that I agree with ashleyrae that many artists try to express “their truth” instead of “THE truth.” As a poet, I always try to express THE truth.

  22. Natalie Witcher

    Then we must be shaking hands becuase you write very “art”fully. Thanks for such a good explanation

  23. Susan

    I won’t speak to all art, but a friend of mine describes poetry as expressing truth by allowing words to create images. Sometimes, a single image in a poem can be a wonderful source of prayerful reflection. The poems I’ve posted on my blog, Creo en Dios!, are archived here:


    This lovely post of yours simply blew me away! I used to not give art a second thought…..then my daughter decided to major in art education in college. That was a wake up call for me.

    My Google Reader page led me to this blog post of yours……I’m grateful to Google…..I’m not sure how they make these connections, but its pretty cool.

    I have a blog post, too, about an art epiphany moment. Its not as insightful as yours, though. Thanks for your wonderful post, and I plan to read more.

  25. aselah

    If it weren’t for rabbit trailing through the blogosphere, I shudder to think how many kind folks I’d never have stumbled upon. Such as yourself! May I say that the handshake which you refer to is fast becoming anything but secret! What a grand thing that is!! I am a writer of poetry and would add to all of the voices before me here that art helps the pilgrim sort through and perhaps even make some sense of Mystery. Art gives us a heavenly language (handshake) with which we can name our world.

  26. Accidental Poet

    Stellar post.

    I quoted a bit of it on my own blog, and linked to you. My 6 readers may or may not be by to see what the fuss is about 🙂

  27. Anonymous

    My husband gave me an incredible gift this past concert season; season tickets to our local symphony orchestra. Being in the presence of musicians playing Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, is like sipping from a tall glass of iced sweet tea in the summer. It is possible for human beings to survive without such pleasures, but would there be a reason to?
    I appreciate your link between art and truth; during the concerts I found myself contemplating art(and specifically music) as a medium, itself consubstantial with the very essence of life, through which we all can glimpse, even drink in the Divine Life which is the Light of men! I think that one of the ways we will experience God in the Beatific Vision is as Perfect Music.
    God bless you and thank you for this beautiful blog! You are blessed with a gift of communicating with others the joy and wonder that you have for the Truth you have found in Christ.


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