It has become a commonplace of spirituality that we are meant to live in the present. Thoreau, whose spirituality is so widely revered today, aspired to “toe that line,” and found support for his aspiration in the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most ancient spiritual classics. Today, countless spiritual writers echo this sentiment. But a much beloved painting completed by Vermeer around 1662 and now hanging in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art suggests that this is only a partial truth. “Young Woman With a Water Pitcher” is a meditation on what is not present in it.
We cannot say with any assurance what the young woman pictured in this painting is doing. We may surmise that she is completing her morning ablutions, since the linen mantle she is wearing was used for these. But whatever she is doing, it is unlikely that even the most detailed diary would mention it. What is it, then, that draws Vermeer to this passing moment, and us to his painting of it?
I, for one, am fascinated by the incongruity between the apparent unimportance of this woman’s action and her contemplative absorption in it. There is a quiet deliberateness to her small deed, as if it is governed by some unscripted etiquette of patience. The painter has not produced this woman’s stillness by staying her movement. The stillness comes from the attuned attentiveness, the meditative heeding, given to her act by her way of performing it. In her eyes, what she is doing is not servile or inconsequential. She is not doing it to be done with it. Her manner gives it a kind of a liturgical import.
Our culture inclines us to think that the worth of a deed depends on the results it produces. Hence, we tend to keep one eye on the act we are doing and the other on the goal we are intending to achieve. But spiritual sages from a wide variety of traditions insist that focusing our lives on getting results is a sure way of wasting them. Fixated on a goal, one hurries to get past the present to the future one wants. This may seem innocuous. But if one treats everypresent as a means to the future, one is continuously postponing one’s life instead of living it.
Vermeer finds in this woman, young as she is, a profound practical wisdom. She has freed her action from a menial relationship to a goal beyond it. This has allowed it to become a tactile exercise in contemplation. Her act is informed by the elusive influence of grace and the tactful ardor of appreciative love. This ardor is wholly intent on, entirely attentive to, the singularity of the present. It lives this always passing tense without the tension it ordinarily induces. The passing moment, in its very inconsequence, becomes a sacrament. Its importance is not announced by a thunderclap but by an unaffected etiquette of moving stillness. From where does this stillness come?
The Contemplative Touch
This painting is not a still-life. But the action it portrays—the touch of the woman’s hands—brings quietude to the scene. Her tactile sensitivity is both irenic and enlivening.
According to most spiritual traditions, touch is the least aesthetic, most carnal of the senses and hardly receptive to temperance. The young woman in this painting helps us see that it can be otherwise. Here, touch is contemplation reaching out to what it loves. In so doing, it brings temperance into the world. Temperance, as Vermeer portrays it, is not achieved through coercion; it is not an exercise of willpower that makes flesh obey the dictates of reason. It is something like a radiating gentleness that flows into the world from the depths of appreciative ardor. Temperance makes the tactile a careful, irenic etiquette. Looking at this painting, we see how touch can be the handmaiden of the discerning eye. The young woman brings touching carefulness into the space she inhabits.
The woman does not occupy this space. She dwells in it. Her dark blue, bell-like gown helps bring this home. It has the shape and color of a constancy that moves without wavering and changes without losing its stillness. There is a depth in the blue that suggests a fidelity that will not tire or lose its hue of patience and quiet passion. The white shoulder linen is a kind of cupola or lantern. It echos and lightens the shape of the gown, even as the gown gives the light above it a place in which it can abide. The cap does not confine the woman’s face. It provides her a place of contemplative reserve that helps her to focus her attentiveness solely on what is before her. It turns with her, as she turns her face to the changing world. But it also steadies her gaze so that, as she turns, she remains in the place that is her abode.
By virtue of the fact that the young woman dwells in it, this space is enlivened by the act of appreciative love she is performing. Tactile in her hands, and moving on the axis of her stillness, this love is the unifying agency in the painting. It brings the pitcher into communion with the window. It opens the interior, visible space of the room to the exterior that is invisible to us. It is introducing the things of this world, lying on the right side, to the influence of a luminosity that comes from beyond it. We sense that there is a deep, intense intimacy, between the young woman and this light whose modesty keeps it in the background. Her stillness seems to be informed by and in some way dependent on it. It is as if this self-effacing light lies behind all she does. Her composure seems to derive from the same source as the light in which the room is bathed.
Every painting, simply by virtue of its stillness, encourages us to come to a standstill before it—to become present to it and let it become present to us. But this work of Vermeer’s does something more; it pictures the very stillness it creates. It is a meditation on living in the present. The young woman in it who embodies this way of living is, of course, oblivious to us. But there is something profoundly hospitable about her tact. We are drawn by it into the present of which she is patiently mindful.
A common idiom would have us say that patient minding involves taking one’s time. But this young woman is not taking her time. She is givingherself totime. She is allowing the present to be instead of trying to move it along so she can get to what’s coming after it. There is a generosity in her patience. She is not withholding herself from the passing moment as she would if she were expecting or waiting for something more important. She is concentrating on the present as if she is privy to some profound, even inexhaustible significance hidden in it. The present in which she abides radiates into mystery. It is a kind of portal—a kind of window—opening upon what is beyond it.
In this painting, the young woman is in the process of opening this window, but she is doing so with a profound contemplative tact. At the moment, the window is preventing her and the painter and us from seeing what is outside it. Common sense tells us that if we wait a few moments and improve our angle of vision, we will be able to see what is presently blocked from our view—the source of the light in the room. But the woman in the painting is practicing a different kind of minding. She is already in accord, already in a kind of covenant, with the light behind her. She is entirely patient with and patient upon its reticence. We sense that she is caught in the thrall of, and has entrusted her life to, the mystery to which the light in the room alludes. This mystery, the source of all benediction, is beyond her. It is beyond the window. It is beyond Vermeer’s painting. It is beyond wherever we are, whatever present we occupy. Our inability to make this beyond present to us is not due to present circumstances. It is a congenital impotence. The present itself is caught in the throes of a mystery that transcends it.
The Open Window
The window, like the painting that depicts it, is turning toward this mystery. Like the painting, it reveals—and conceals. It promises—and defers. It is not open or closed. It is not transparent or opaque. It is translucent—and colored the hue of human constancy. The woman is opening it with a contemplative tenderness that seems to come from her realization that the present moment signifies the whole of time itself. Her life in its entirety is this act of opening the window—opening time—to the eternity that hails her.
There is something painfully poignant about the muted, self-effacing manner in which light creates an ambience of grace in Vermeer’s painting. As he portrays it, light is an unexpected, unearned blessing. Under the influence of this light, the woman gratefully receives the present as a present—a gift bestowed on her by a mystery that transcends it.
This mystery comes to us from and as the unprecedented future. From inception, we are caught in the throe of a beyond that we cannot escape and cannot master. We cannot ever know what the mystery going to spring on us. The great spiritual masters counsel us to live in the present. But when we do, we find that the present is always opening, like a window, upon a beyond that transcends it. The pitcher and the bowl in Vermeer’s painting are brilliant. They make the present radiant with light. But it’s not the bowl that fascinates us; it is not the pitcher that we find riveting. As soon as we see their glory, we realize that it is borrowed. What draws and holds us is the more reticent light behind them. Brilliance dazzles and saturates. But the poignancy of retiring light is more compelling to us. This is a deep truth of our spirit. The elusive play of light is the gift given us, in our impotence and frailties. We are moved all the way down by it and must be drawn to it. We see all the things in this world only by its providence. It provides by placing us in the middle of the surprise that deepens the mystery it reveals. This mystery turns the present into an enigma of grace we cannot deny or explain. When we live in the present, we find ourselves borne toward a future that eclipses it. Time, it seems, is the throe of eternity.
Vermeer’s painting is itself a kind of window, modeled after the one depicted in it. The modesty of the light in it breaths a kind of holiness. In this life, we come closest to eternity in such hushed intimations of it. It is time itself that lets grace through—and withholds its secret. The window cannot be shut or pushed opened more quickly. The surprise of eternity cannot be put off—and will not be hurried. What we see of it we see only through colored glass—and sometimes in the virtual space of a painting. The light that reaches us is the effulgence of divine shyness. God is the mystery who is always arriving and never present. Hurrying to get to the end of it leads us away from it. We are always already where we are called to be—in between here and beyond, now and eternity, the painting and all it intimates. Time is not a trap. The window is always opening. The beyond is beyond us—but we are not cut off from it. We are caught irretrievably in the throe of it. To live in the present is to entrust oneself to the mystery that transcends it.