With the Fourth of July upon us, we think anew about America when it was new and ask about its renewal.
I had the privilege of being in New York City in May, the same month two new sites opened with the intent of raising our sights on America. The new Whitney Museum of American Art, designed by the renowned architect Renzo Piano (who also designed Dallas’ Nasher Sculpture Center) sits stunningly along the Hudson River. It houses an inaugural exhibit titled “America Is Hard to See,” based on a line from a Robert Frost poem. It traces key works of art from the 20th century that attempt to give insight into the character of our country.
Frost’s poem includes this stanza (the “he” is Columbus): “America is hard to see./ Less partial witnesses than he/ In book on book have testified/ They could not see it from outside—/ Or inside either for that matter./ We know the literary chatter.”
The Whitney wants to move us from literary chatter to artistic matter. It hopes to show that painting and sculpture have an eye for America that gets to its heart more than words can.
The next day I visited the new observation deck of 1 World Trade Center. The 104-story building tells its own story about America’s rising again from the terror and tragedy of the 9/11 attacks that brought down the twin towers and our sense of invulnerability. The edifice is a triumph in many ways, defensively steeled against future attack by inner steel reinforcements, and adorned by outer glass glamor. Its spire aspires, reaching heavenward along with the hopes of a nation. One only hopes that it doesn’t portend to fly too close to the sun and suffer again the Icarus ignominy of coming down hard.
From above the city, you sense you are looking down on the world. America may be hard to see, but it is easier to get an overview from that height. In doing so, though, we risk overlooking things that make America up close.
We tend to see only what we are looking for. And even then, seeing depends also on our vantage point and on the looking glasses we use to magnify our vision.
Which turns us to the spiritual. The spiritual mind looks for enduring things: goodness, truth and beauty; faith, hope and love; peace, justice and mercy. It isn’t moved by material or commercial achievement; it seeks that meeting place of the divine and human where we become more of what we are all meant to be — living likenesses of the eternal God in time.
To see that invisible realm in this visible world requires a stance of faith to begin with. Faith is the faculty that allows us to see evidence of things not seen. We all see as through a glass darkly, St. Paul said. But faith turns a light on, if ever so dimly.
When we live the faith ourselves, we put on spectacles of the spirit that give us clearer vision of what is otherwise hard to see. And yet, because it is faith that helps us see, we are always also reminded of what we yet do not see.
Both the seeing and the not seeing keep us looking all the harder.
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