Imagine as a cultivated Westerner being invited to attend your first traditional Noh program. As the hours of the long performance go by, you are presented with an extremely colorful progression of masked actors engaged in rigidly traditional portrayals of standardized characters, with dancers in gorgeous dress skillfully engaged in completely regimented movement, with singers vocalizing ancient Japanese poetry to the accompaniment of the single uncanny flute and the three driving drums.
What might you get from the performance?
Provided you are open to it, a certain sort of personal entertainment is quite possible from your time spent watching this extraordinary and uniquely Japanese art form. At the least, you might enjoy the experience of an aesthetic addition to what you normally derive from Western theater. You might appreciate the disciplined athleticism of the dancers. You might marvel at the spare stagecraft, and think of how it must have influenced Samuel Beckett. “Reminds me of ‘Waiting For Godot,’” you might whisper to your neighbor in the audience, also a Westerner.
But if you are honest, you would surely confess a shallowness to your experience, a sense that you were only responding to a few of the program’s most superficial elements – to the color, the movement, the extraordinary physical training involved – while missing out on almost all of what the performance has to offer to the native Japanese in the audience, or at least to those who are sophisticated in the meaning and history of their Noh. Not to mention its language!
The point if pretty straightforward. Our appreciation of an experience depends as much – or rather far more – on what we bring to it than on what the experience itself offers.
I’m often struck by how a painter – of the realistic type – can produce a perfect painting of, say, a bird. The skill is wonderful, of course, but what is prior to the skill is the painter’s eye, which has seen and recorded all the details of the bird that serve, when translated into paint, to yield the perfect image. The painter and I have seen the same bird in the wild – or the same house, or tree, or mountain, or cloud – but the painter’s glimpse is so much richer and fuller than my own. It’s humbling to realize how relatively blind most of us are to the world around us, compared to those who through training have opened their eyes to what the world puts on view.
Without adherence to Christ’s tutelage, heaven for most of us will be like a Noh play, or like the everyday robins that hop about the grass, looking for worms.
Christianity is not a set of beliefs. It is training. Training to appreciate heaven.