In her wonderful spiritual memoir Virgin Time: In Search of the Contemplative Life, Patricia Hampl revealed an amazing ability to reflect on her experiences and to open her mind, body, and heart to the manifold mysteries of life. In this collection of essays, she continues this spiritual process of long looking.
One day while visiting the Chicago Art Institute, Hampl is "hammered" by Woman Before an Aquarium by Henri Matisse. The painting casts a spell on her, and she circles around it again and again as if it holds the key to her future or a passport into a country of the spirit not yet visited. Hampl explores the life and work of Matisse and the portraits of women known as his "odalisques." She intuits that Woman Before an Aquarium holds within her gaze "the paradox of passion and detachment, intimacy and distance."
This painting for Hampl becomes an opening into a search for the sublime in other arenas of life as well. She asks a cloistered nun what the core of contemplative life is, and the response surprises her. "Leisure." In these times, speed is king and doing trumps being:
"The contemporary shock is more insidious, the low-grade Sturm and Drang of what is now called stress. Gone, the birthright of the uninterrupted gaze. Gone, perception's voluptuous stretch. But the body, apparently, never accustoms itself to time's stampede. It gets the jitters, the mind cracks experience into jagged pieces."
Hampl writes like an angel (keep in mind that she has written two collections of poetry), and she has mastered the art of making connections. We marvel as the author ponders the exotic and sometimes erotic women in the paintings of Matisse and Eugene Delacroix. And then suddenly we understand that Hampl is practicing her true vocation: "To gaze at this world and make sentences from its passing images." The author's quest takes her to Jerusalem and to Konya where she watches a sema service with the whirling dervishes. Both traveling and pilgrimage offer fresh views of the world and all its complexities.
Hampl also ponders the lives of people who have tutored her in the art of seeing deeply: the writer Katherine Mansfield and F. Scott Fitzgerald; Jerome Hill, a free artist from St. Paul; and Doris Derman, a teacher and "tantalizing bohemian big sister" to the author. After gazing into their lives, Hampl provides us with further intimations of the grace of divine nonchalance that abounds in both art and creativity.