My 20’s were a turbulent and chaotic era. In my thrill- seeking adventures, I was like an explorer lost in the wilderness. I wandered far away from the faith I was raised in. I suppose I fit into the “spiritual but not reli- gious” category. I was continually searching for deep meaning in my life but had abandoned all thoughts of finding it within the Catholic Church. I turned to art.
I began painting several years ago as an escape from the burdens of my life.
It eventually turned into a disciplined study (and discipline was not – and still is not – a natural trait of mine). I didn’t learn so much how to paint as how to see. It was the study of light. It was the study of beauty. In one relatively dark period in my life, I began making regular pilgrimages to the Art Gallery of Ontario, where for a few short hours I would have no responsibilities except to stand in front of artwork. On one fateful journey to my sanctuary, my art teacher told me there was a new exhibit in town: Mystical Landscapes – Gauguin, van Gogh, Monet, Carr, O’Keefe. I was not one to take lightly the recommendations of the art teacher I revered. So I went.
Enter Mystical Landscapes. “Mystical”: transcending human understanding, concerned with the soul or spirit, directed towards communion with God. Here, I found the paintings of artists who, like me, were “wrestling with angels.” Their landscapes spoke straight to the heart. To realize that I was not alone in my turbulent journey of faith and that I was in good company, came as a relief to me. I was not the only one who had big questions and no answers. But what the artists ultimately sought were not answers but beauty –the mountains and the seas, the rising sun, the dancing trees, brought by the human hand to the canvas with a brush and some paint. How could I not be filled with awe?
“But there was one small room, tucked to the side within the exhibit, that would do more than take my breath away – it would change my entire life.”
In this small room were the lithographs of Charles-Marie Dulac, a young artist who died of lead poisoning caused by his paints. His story intrigued me. Dying, he went to a Franciscan friary where, in the nature around him, he encountered the Divine. He spent the rest of his life creating devotional works of art. While examining Dulac’s delicate style, and his impressive ability to portray light on thin woven paper, I turned on the personal audio headset that was provided with the tour. Instead of a verbal description of the artist and his methods, I found myself listening to a choir of voices singing a hymn by St. Hildegard von Bingen. Tears began to roll down my face as I found myself in the midst of so much beauty. When I left the little room I was in a bit of a daze. I did my very best to act normal while I continued to walk through the exhibit, but something had shifted inside me.
It was in the middle of that art gallery that several of my worlds collided: nature, art, and the Catholic faith I was running from. The Divine was in nature, and the artists were trying with all their might to reveal the beauty they were looking upon. Those illustrations, produced by Dulac for The Canticle of Creatures (by St. Francis of Assisi) were so beautiful that whatever source that young, dying artist was drawing from, I needed to seek out myself. On that day, I did one small thing after I left the art gallery. I turned my eyes back towards the Church of Charles-Marie Dulac, the Church I had once abandoned.
I then took the leap of faith and asked God to reveal to me the beauty that exists within the Catholic Church. And He has, over and over and over again. “It is in one’s soul that one must find the true landscapes” (Maurice Denis).
Kait Benninger is the blood sister of Sr. Cara Marie, SV. She lives, works, and paints in her hometown of Durham, ON.
Originally published in our Spring 2018 issue of Imprint.