So here is one of my weak points, as we begin a year of travel: I’m a terrible sightseer. I’m secretly relieved our journey won’t include tons of that. I think I bring a few strengths to the table for our journey, on the ministry side of things. I’m not bad at connecting with people; I’m willing to suffer a reasonable amount for the chance to teach and mentor others; and I’m pretty flexible in the realms of food put in front of me and new modes of transportation or accommodation. I can put the toilet paper in the bin instead of the toilet every time if you ask me to. What’s harder for me is the day that is supposed to be fun because it is so, so epic. Like, say, The Hermitage, in St. Petersburg, a sight many Americans would love to see and which, embarrassingly, was nearly a bust for me. What exactly is it that makes sightseeing, particularly in art museums, so challenging for me?
For starters, body parts: I have a downright miniscule bladder. The Hermitage is outfitted with approximately three jillion paintings, and yet it boasts stunningly few bathrooms, indeed none at all on the floors where most of the art is. In July, the lines of women ooze like sludge out the doors of said few bathrooms. It was crushingly crowded and our cell phones were non-operational, so to avoid estrangement my poor husband, endowed though he is with a bladder the size of a gas tank, had to trudge more than once back to the restroom, away from the art, and wait for me.
More body parts: my feet become tired and sore more quickly than those of more stalwart travelers. Long periods of walking and standing cause my back to ache and my feet to beg for a long soak. I knew we were in for a tougher time at the museum when our nearest subway stop’s entrance was inexplicably closed. We looked at the map and found another stop, Baltiskaya, and since on the map it was just, oh, an inch or two away, we thought, “No problem!” As the blocks stretched on with no signs indicating we were nearing it, I decided to ask a local. I made exaggerated shrugging gestures with my shoulders and upturned hands, and said, “Baltiskaya?” She launched into a lengthy Russian dissertation on (I’m guessing here but pretty sure) the glories of the hero Baltisky and the whereabouts of the subway stop that immortalized his exploits. Then shook her head as if to say, “But what a pity that my erudition is wasted on a complete idiot.” Not a single directional gesture peppered her impassioned speech. From my limited observation, the Russians are at the far end of the scale from the Italians in the gesticulation department. We walked on, and did eventually find it, but I groaned at the fact that my feet were already tired with the whole Hermitage ahead of us….
Even more distressingly, I suffer from gaze-inferiority complex. I’ve always wished for a greater appetite for art, for the capacity and the desire to stare at paintings at length, turning away at last only wistfully, as if being ripped from one’s lover at the airport. This was only accentuated by getting a Ph.D. in Fuller’s Practical Theology department, which at the time was heavily populated with doctoral students focusing on theology and the arts. This sexier branch of the department was heavily endowed, which meant that my peers whose dissertations expounded the transformative, generative vision that emerges as the gazer becomes enveloped in the act of gazing got ever so slightly more generous fellowships than those of us who plunked away at workman-like tasks such as helping preachers preach better. I’m not bitter, really—I adore my gazer friends. I wish I could be like them. Or even just more like my husband, who can stare down a painting with the best of them. Instead, I limp into a room, wince at the misogyny I see in Picasso, wonder what makes Matisse so all that, and say, “Yep, Monet and Seurat’s paintings really are beautiful. Now, where’s a bench? And a bathroom, please? And would it be so hard to air-condition this jam-packed building, even if just for breezeless, steamy days like today?”
So, the timing was all off for a transformative encounter with the jewel of the Hermitage—certainly for a Christian at least--The Return of the Prodigal, by Rembrandt. I knew it was there from reading Henri Nouwen’s book by the same name. Nouwen recounts spending hours gazing at the painting. He must have gone in February. In July, massive tour groups are herded up to the painting, commanded to notice the finery of the elder brother’s garments, and herded on. In the crush of the crowds, and given my transformative-gaze-impairment, I despaired of even a fraction of what Nouwen experienced.
And yet, there they were, luminous, impossible to miss, even for me. Those massive hands. Everything about Rembrandt’s lighting and placement begs us to notice the hands of the father—those huge, all out of proportion hands embracing that wayward boy. Offering him not only grace--as magnificent as grace is--but a love that wants to touch, indeed that must touch his beloved. Hands that say, “You are not only welcomed home, you are deeply desired.” It’s a gesture, in a land not big on them in my experience.
In general, I’m more of a word person than an art gazer. Beauty in nature draws me to worship its creator, and some art genuinely pleases me and speaks to me. I hope that heaven will include lots of gorgeous art, minus bladder and foot challenges, stifling heat, and crushing crowds. Even there, I’ll probably be found lingering longer in the wordy rooms, camped out with the poets and storytellers and exquisite preachers expressing their praise of our God through those media. But words alone don’t quite do it--a gesture can truly mean a lot to me. The absence of any left me frustrated as we groped our way to the metro. The father’s gesture with his massive hands encompassing his sin-splattered son—even I caught that one. This prodigal sightseer got a glimpse of home; a vision of mercy refreshed a weary wanderer.