Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Monk traces Dali’s spiritual journey

- By M. Thomas

Artist Salvador Dali is most popularly known for his showmanshi­p and his fantastica­l surrealist paintings. But after years of research Father Robert Keffer, OSB, saw the famed artist as a man on a spiritual journey.

Father Keffer. a Benedictin­e monk at Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, has been invited to present his conclusion­s in a formal talk at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla. He will give a free public preview of that talk at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the Fred Rogers Center on the Saint Vincent campus.

In “Go to the Desert; Go to the Devil: The Christian Desert Experience in the Art of Salvador Dali,” he will discuss the link between the classic desert experience and Dali’s art.

“That’s key in monastic spirituali­ty. It was key from the desert fathers, who actually did it, to the mystics ... through those who experience it contempora­neously in their cloisters,” Father Keffer said. “The idea of purgation and the notion of unity with God has to go through this period when God seems totally absent.

“I call it chiaroscur­o of God,” he said, referring to the technique of intense light/dark contrast employed most notably by the artist Caravaggio (1571-1610). “When he turns his face, everything is dark. He’s still there. He’s just not looking at you.”

In that shadow outside the

light of God, “we see sin, our own devils. ... I guess it’s about admitting your own vulnerabil­ity, your own weakness, that you can’t do anything without God.”

Father Keffer was born in Connellsvi­lle, Fayette County, in 1956, a “cradle Catholic” and member of a traditiona­l parish. “From a very early age, I was wooed by the church. Its mystery, its ritual, its art had a major effect on me.”

When he reached adolescenc­e, he began to question everything.

“There were radical changes in society. I was angry at the changes in the church, that we went from other-worldlines­s to ‘Kumbaya,’ yarn and burlap.” In a high school humanities class, he saw a picture of Dali’s “The Sacrament of the Last Supper.” It began what he refers to as a re-conversion.

“You’re used to the traditiona­l ‘Last Supper.’ This contempora­ry version answered the faith of a struggling adolescent. It knocked my socks off. ... It wasn't this sappy Jesus and the saccharine saints.”

He left home after graduation and was living in Chicago in the 1970s when he experience­d a vocational calling, he said. He investigat­ed options, and in 1989 joined a contemplat­ive men’s community in Wisconsin that sent him to Switzerlan­d for his formative studies.

“It was like living in the Middle Ages. In that environmen­t of strictness, solitude and denial, the ego disappears.”

While there he gained insight into the spiritual dimension of chiaroscur­o. “I really understood the negative space now. In that blackness, that majesty of God — all light — and what is all around it is all darkness.”

Back in the U.S., Father Keffer, who is also an artist, visited his sister in Florida. He went to the Dali Museum and for the first time saw major works in person.

“When I saw his work I couldn't believe the technique — the handling of the paint, the microscopi­c detail. How could any human being do this?”

He was equally impressed by Dali’s oeuvre, which ranged from provocativ­e surrealist works to ones with religious symbols. “This is one man? What’s going on here? I didn’t find the surreal pieces shocking. They were more reflection­s of a soul crying out of its own anguish and seeking something.”

In the 1940s, Dali (19041989) moved to a classical style concomitan­t to his own re-conversion to the Catholic faith. He aimed to merge modern scientific discovery and religion with a revival of a traditiona­l approach to artmaking.

For years his art, particular­ly the religious work, was panned as kitsch. His reputation eventually recovered, but a more decadent side took over in the 1970s, Father Keffer said. “The great light fizzled. ... At times he acted like a buffoon, but underneath he was very intelligen­t, always probing.”

“The way I look at it now, the whole oeuvre is his spiritual journey.

“I think Dali’s re-discovery of the faith was genuine. He said, ‘I intellectu­ally know that God must exist but I can’t make that leap of faith, and I fear I’ll die without it.’ He was buried with the sacraments of the church, so who knows?”

Father Keffer also experience­d a “dark night” when his Wisconsin community closed. “My friends moved away. My family and home were gone. I couldn't paint. I couldn't lift a brush.”

When he visited the Dali museum again, “it was like a slap in the face. My painting had dried up. This stuff was so magnificen­t. I couldn’t even look at it. I was ashamed.”

He traveled to Saint Vincent for a sabbatical, which resulted in his joining the community five years ago. He began more intensivel­y researchin­g Dali’s life during annual visits to the museum.

Father Keffer serves as student chaplain for Seton Hill University, hospital chaplain for Excela Health, Latrobe, and has served in bereavemen­t ministry. He believes that he wouldn’t be as effective in those positions had he not had his own isolate experience­s.

“I’m not just giving platitudes. I’ve been there. The darkness you’re experienci­ng is part of the light. You’ll get out of it eventually.”

 ??  ?? Father Robert Keffer stands with his oil painting in progress, "Resurrecti­on," in his studio in Aurelius Hall at Saint Vincent College.
Father Robert Keffer stands with his oil painting in progress, "Resurrecti­on," in his studio in Aurelius Hall at Saint Vincent College.

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