During a recent talk at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, New York, Bishop Savas Zembillas, chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, read one of my favorite Rilke poems, “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” The talk was about encountering the holy in popular culture, and the poem has to do with the transforming effect art can have on us. Describing the headless statue, Rilke speaks of the power still suffusing it. Without this radiant power (I quote Stephen Mitchell’s translation), this stone
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
Art can bring us to such moments, even, as Bishop Savas suggested, popular art. The potential art has for bringing us into contact with a transformative power was so celebrated during and after the Romantic era that artists and poets were seen as a kind of secular priesthood, often juxtaposed to the older priesthoods of the churches as the possessors of genuine insight and spiritual power. Who, after all, could tell you more about reality’s mysterious depths-Yeats, or the boring vicar next door?
Although the idea that art can move us into becoming better people was...