In May, 1944, Captain Deane Keller, portrait painter and Professor Art at Yale University, was driving along the west coast of the Italian peninsula in his army-issued jeep. As a Monuments Officer attached to the U.S. Fifth Army Allied Military Government, Keller’s job was to evaluate and report on the condition of the monuments of every conquered town between Naples and Rome, and beyond.
As Keller passed the Pontine marshes and headed toward the little town of Priverno, he thought about the nearby Abbey of Fossanova, dating to around 1135. With its magnificent rose window and finely carved capitals, the Abbey was an outstanding example of Burgundian Gothic architecture and one of the most beautiful churches in all of Italy. It was also the place where St. Thomas Aquinas had died on March 7, 1274, on his way to the Second Council of Lyon.
Keller was disturbed by reports that the German army had occupied the Abbey for the duration of their stay in the area, and had even held an elaborate Christmas party in the refectory. After the looting and vandalism that Keller had witnessed in other towns, he was worried about what he might find behind the old stone walls.
Much to Keller’s relief, the Abbey was undamaged. However, it was far from empty. The priest, Don Pietro, had turned it into an accommodation facility for Allied servicemen and refugees. Noticing an organ behind the High Altar, Keller asked the priest to play Schubert’s Ave Maria.
The fifty plus Allied soldiers that were in the sanctuary listened attentively, captivated by the haunting melody. As the last notes reverberated, they stomped and cheered for more.
Historian Robert Edsel observed, “After months of artillery fire, gunshots, trucks, planes, engines, and radios, music offered otherworldly grace. That sublime moment would sustain Keller in the months ahead.”
Stepping from the natural into the spiritual
We have probably all experienced ‘sublime moments of other-worldly grace’ in which we felt as though we were standing on holy ground and angels were all around. It often seems to happen without any instigation on our part. However, the Scriptures indicate that the Spirit is just waiting to fall, if we will only open our hearts to his grace; Heaven is longing to bend low and kiss the Earth, if we will only accede to the divine embrace.
The apostle Peter said to the crowds gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Shavuot, “It shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams” (Acts 2.17). ‘All flesh’ means people from all nations — not just Jews, but Gentiles as well.
The Spirit is depicted as something that is ‘poured out’, like water, oil or wine. Continuing with this imagery, the New Testament describes the Spirit as ‘falling’ upon Cornelius’ friends and relatives (Acts 10.44), and ‘descending’ upon the disciples at Ephesus (Acts 19.6). In other words, the disposition of the Spirit is to ‘come’. There is no reluctance on his part. He is moving toward you right now as you read this article.
All we have to do is receive him, or in Jesus’ words, ‘drink of the water’ (John 4.14). But how do we position ourselves to experience those ‘sublime moments of other-worldly grace’, those manifestations of the Spirit of which the Scriptures speak? I believe the answer is found in Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae, in what might be called, ‘An exercise in spiritual mindfulness’.
"If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3.1-3)
Paul is encouraging his readers to develop a Christ-centred and eternity-conscious mindset — a mindset that is responsive to the movements and manifestations of the Holy Spirit. Or as he describes it in another letter, “a mind that is controlled or dominated by the Spirit” (Rom 8.5).
It is relatively simple to move one’s attention from the natural to the spiritual, from earth to heaven, from time to eternity. Consider, for example, the following five step process:
1. Notice your thoughts, and feelings, and memories, and desires, and physical body, and surrounding environment.
2. There are your thoughts, and feelings, and physical body, and surrounding environment, and there you are noticing your thoughts, and feelings, and physical body, and surrounding environment.
3. If you can notice your thoughts, and feelings, and physical body, and surrounding environment, you cannot be your thoughts, and feelings, and physical body, and surrounding environment.
4. Your thoughts, and feelings, and physical body, and surrounding environment change continually; but the part of you that notices your thoughts, and feelings, and physical body, and surrounding environment does not change. It is eternal. It is your spirit, created in the image of God.
5. Now that you are aware of your spiritual nature, think about who you are connected with and what you are drawn to: God the Father, and Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit; the angels that have been sent to assist you; the family of God, some of whom are in heaven and others who are still here on earth; the holy city, the New Jerusalem, where there is no death, or sorrow, or crying, or pain; that place ‘somewhere over the rainbow’ where God makes all things new.
And if necessary, listen to Schubert’s Ave Maria.You might just find yourself engulfed in a sublime moment of other-worldly grace