The most dangerous place in the world

Small mtn tent still

I have come to understand that this small ring is the most dangerous place in the world, but also a place where everything is possible, where eyes are opened.

In Jacques Rivette’s magical film, Around a Small Mountain (2009), a footloose Italian named Vittorio, wandering Europe’s back roads in a sports car, chances upon a small French circus on tour in the backwater of Languedoc. Although the story is set in our own time, it is really a medieval romance. Vittorio is the knight errant questing for that nameless object of desire perpetually beyond his grasp. And the enchanted world of the cirque, curiously untouched by modernity, is the place where the knight will be tested.

When Vittorio encounters the enigmatic Kate, a woman who is “a prisoner to what happened” in the circus ring years ago, he lingers in her domain long enough to attempt a rescue. “All the dragons in our lives may be hurt princesses,” he says, echoing Rilke’s famous line: Perhaps everything terrifying is deep down a helpless thing that needs our help.

As Vittorio attempts to break the spell cast over Kate by the lingering presence of a dead father and the haunting absence of a dead lover, he has to face his own dragon, which is never specifically identified. The secret of his being remains a mystery, unknown to himself and to the actor who plays him, unknown to the audience and the director as well. The sentimentality of a conventionally romantic conclusion – man and woman settling down happily ever after – would betray this mystery, and Rivette rejects such an option. The ultimate fate of Kate and Vittorio is not revealed to themselves or us. “Will I start living again?” she wonders. “I don’t know if I am alive,” he says. Might the future perhaps return them to each other? “Who knows?” is the last line of the film.

We exit this cinematic world still mesmerized by its embrace of uncertainty, its refusal of resolution. Like the knight errant, we remain prisoners of unsatisfied longing. We wouldn’t have it any other way. As C. S. Lewis noted, an unsatisfied desire is “more desirable than any other satisfaction.”

Nevertheless, something transformational has happened to Kate and Vittorio and, vicariously, to us, in that “most dangerous place,” the circus ring. They have each stepped into the exposed and empty space where they must perform the truth of themselves, put themselves at risk, wrestle their demons, without really knowing in advance how they’ll ever get through it. But they have already taken their first steps into a new life. In the words of the German Romantic Friedrich Hölderlin, quoted in another Rivette film, “Where danger is, there grows the saving power also.”

I recently saw Around a Small Mountain for the first time, and I was particularly struck by the hermetic quality of the circus. It seems sealed within its own world, having minimal interaction with contemporary life. The landscape it travels remains little changed from the Middle Ages, as if forgotten by modernity. Though the circus is touring the towns around the perimeter of a small mountain, there is little sense of movement from place to place. Wherever the troupe pauses in their circuit, the mountain’s solitary peak still looms in the background, as if the land itself casts a spell they cannot escape.

In the course of the film, we see a number of performances, but they seem to have no public. The first time we enter the tent, there are only a few people in the audience as the camera sweeps over mostly empty seats. After that, the camera doesn’t even bother to look away from the ring to the surrounding bleachers, so we are never sure whether we are viewing a rehearsal or an actual show.

The acts are performed in an almost eerie silence, without applause or any other sounds to indicate the presence of an audience. This melancholy absence of witnesses seems of no concern to the acrobats, jugglers and clowns who carry out their rituals with as much devotion and attention as a priest saying mass in an empty church. Whether what they do is of any relevance to the outside world does not seem an issue for them. What matters is the faithful performance of the circus rites.

As I watched the ritualized actions in the circus ring, skills and gestures passed down through many centuries, imbued with the strangeness of a premodern sensibility, I could not help thinking about the Christian liturgy. We too perform rites forged in a distant past, shaped by a social imaginary largely unintelligible to secular modernity. And like the circus in the film, our “audience” has largely deserted us.

In his audio commentary on the DVD, Chris Fujimara describes the circus as “an end state, a final repository, a gathering and summation. Everything in life is being distilled and evoked from this ring in a way that has to do with aging, with memory, with death, with the imminent end of things, with the suggestion that the circus, this mode of entertainment and spectacle, already belongs to the past.”

There are those who see Christianity’s own pastness as prelude to extinction, and believe everything alien to the present social imaginary should be jettisoned as quickly as possible. I myself have spent over forty years adding radically contemporary elements to the worship mix. But that has never, I hope, been at the expense of the strangeness of what we do and the mystery of what we worship.

In some future posts I will have more to say about the implications of this strangeness for the concrete practices of worship as well as the need to connect with an absent public. But for now, like the ringmaster, may I simply direct your attention to the center ring, the most dangerous place in the world, the empty space where everything is possible, where eyes are opened. To paraphrase Jacques Rivette, “there is no other subject.”

A tender doom

UW fall leaves

The fictions of summer are so persuasive: the constancy of fair weather, the treasure of unhurried time, the allure of nature’s green paradise, the willful suspension of care and duty. In hammock or kayak, who can imagine anything but endless bliss and smiling skies?

Summer’s last full day in Puget Sound was as perfect as they come – brilliant light, delicious warmth. Even after sundown, we lingered outside in summer clothes as if it were still August. But the harbingers of autumn had already begun to intrude. Darkness which delayed until bedtime six weeks ago was now arriving for dinner. The clamor of songbirds at our feeders has dwindled to a lonely remnant. And it’s now almost impossible to find a blackberry worth eating.

In the hours before the equinox yesterday, clouds rolled in and the temperature dropped, like a set change between acts – or, in poet Penelope Shuttle’s fine image, it was “the year changing its mind.”

But as John Burroughs noted, fall “comes like a tide running against a strong wind; it is ever beaten back, but ever gaining ground, with now and then a mad push upon the land.” There are still some lusciously brilliant days to come, but we can no longer claim them as our seasonal right. We may only receive them as gifts of increasing rarity, now that the earth has tipped toward winter.

Describing the mechanisms of autumnal change, Peter J. Marchand points out that the seasonal senescence of plants is not simply a matter of loss. The process of dormancy is just the flip side of growth, and there is “as much life as there is death in the browning of meadows and the drying of leaves in autumn.”

If we could sit under a maple or aspen in the fall and observe all that is going on within the plant, we would witness a remarkable communication of chemicals and flow of materials: a bustling hubbub of messenger molecules and hormones directing complex metabolic processes, a train of nutrients and waste materials being shuttled into storage compartments; a clatter of metabolic machinery being disassembled (Autumn: A Season of Change, p. 14).

We each have our own versions of this slowing down, letting go, turning inward, growing quiet. We can’t hold summer forever. The leaf falls, the year dies, the heart submits to a process beyond its control. In Marchand’s wonderful book on autumn, he catalogs the poetics of the season as well as the science, and his citation of Martha McCulloch Williams, a 19th century American writer, makes a lovely overture to the days before us now.

September, she said, is a “fair month, truly – golden fair, spiced with breath of the orchards, the vineyards’ winy smell,” with the earth “smiling peace to a perfect heaven.” But she knew that beneath the exhilarating splendor of early autumn there sounds “an under-note – a wailing minor of loss and waste. Faint, ah, so faint!” So savor this mellow time while it lasts, and when it goes for good, do not forget the promise of returning spring.

Walk afield [then] every day … Whether sun shines, or rain drips, or white frost bites and stings, you should find a liberal education in the hectic beauty of death; not cruel death, but a tender doom, sweet with the glory of full harvest, and spanned with the rainbow of resurrection.

God’s not fair!

Sign at Occupy LA city hall encampment, October 2011

Sign at Occupy LA city hall encampment, October 2011

If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let them with gratitude join in the Feast!
And those that arrived after the sixth hour,
let them not doubt; for they too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let them not hesitate; but let them come too.
And those who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let them not be afraid by reason of their delay.
For the Lord is gracious
and receives the last even as the first.
Christ gives rest to those that come at the eleventh hour,
as well as to those that toiled from the first.

This famous passage from the ancient Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom is a marvelous riff on Jesus’ parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Mt. 20:1-16). It’s certainly good news to the latecomers, but rather disconcerting to those of us who have a strict idea of who’s in and who’s out. You never know what kind of people you’re going to run into at God’s place. You may have to break bread with some who haven’t earned their place at the table the way you have, who haven’t paid their dues the way you have. It’s not fair. The kingdom of God is not fair.

That’s the trouble with mercy and forgiveness and grace. They are so undiscriminating. How are we supposed to know where we stand, how can we measure up, how can we hold others accountable, if the standards are so loose and slippery?

Let’s face it. Jesus was a terrible bookkeeper. He didn’t maintain accurate accounts of how everyone was doing. He was too busy throwing a party for God’s friends. Y’all come. Everyone’s welcome!

The first disciples who listened to this story undoubtedly needed to hear its message. They were anxious about where they stood with Jesus and with God. Lord, who’s going to sit at your right hand and who’s going to sit on your left? What are we going to get for following you? Whom do you love the most? This anxiety about status and privilege continues in the Book of Acts, when some of the original Jewish believers resent the influx of Gentile converts. And we have our own versions of this calculating mentality today. Who’s in, who’s out? Who’s better, who’s worse? Who belongs, who doesn’t? Who’s saved, who’s not?

But with this parable, Jesus tells us:

  • Stop worrying about wages. The kingdom isn’t something you earn. It’s a gift. Be glad you are one of the recipients.
  • Don’t worry about how much you’ll get. You’ll get what you need. You really will.
  • Stop comparing yourselves to others. God loves everyone equally.
  • Don’t be envious or resentful of someone else’s good fortune, even when you think it’s undeserved. Be glad that God is so generous, even if it’s not always about you.

Once the whole idea of a bookkeeping religion has been exploded by this parable, we begin to realize that it’s not a story about wages at all. It’s a story about the vineyard. Everyone gets invited to the vineyard, and ending up there together is the whole point. The latest have not come too late, and the earliest have not come too early. In the end, everyone is there, no one is missing.

Now if you don’t want to be part of this vineyard collective, just take what you’ve earned and go. That’s what the master tells the complainers, the bookkeepers, and to me it’s the most chilling line in the story. You don’t want any part of the kingdom’s undiscriminating generosity? OK, fine. Go off and be by yourself, or with your little circle of the like-minded. But you may find it rather lonely. And you’ll miss one hell of a party.

A feather on the breath of God

Hildegard at desk

When I was 42 years and 7 months old, a burning light of tremendous brightness coming from heaven poured into my entire mind. Like a flame that does not burn but enkindles, it inflamed my entire heart … just like the sun that warms an object with its rays.

So wrote Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth-century abbess, artist and activist whose feast is celebrated today. In a society where women were more seen than heard, it took her a long time to find an outlet for her voice. She had experienced visions ever since her childhood, but she kept them mostly to herself until she was in her forties. Her reticence wasn’t just due to social pressure. She also shared the self-doubting anxiety of every artist. Did her visions matter? Would the world understand or care? But as every artist knows, if you have a gift and don’t make it visible, it will sicken and die within you, and your own body will suffer the effects.

And Hildegard in fact became a sickly woman: “Not in stubbornness but in humility, I refused to write for so long that I felt pressed down under the whip of God into a bed of sickness.” But at last she overcame her inhibitions. Her call was too strong to resist. She began to write, and compose, and produce paintings of her visions. Her body was restored to health, and from then on, she tried to live the life only she could live.

In one of her visions, God told her: O how beautiful your eyes are when you tell the divine story!

Tell the divine story: That was the work she had been given to do. In addition to the normal duties of a medieval abbess in the Rhineland, Hildegard became a storyteller, a musician, an artist, a writer; and through all these media she obeyed the command given to every artist, to “make visible what, without you, might never be seen.” She was also an activist, reminding the powerful to show compassion to the poor, and railing against clergy who failed to blow “the trumpets of divine justice.”

Hildegard was always mindful of the source of her creativity:

The marvels of God are not brought forth from one’s self.
Rather, it is more like a chord, a sound that is played.
The tone does not come out of the chord itself,
but rather, through the touch of the musician.
I am, of course, the lyre and harp of God’s kindness.

She put this even more succinctly when she called herself “a feather on the breath of God”

The bright-colored enigmas of her illustrated visions, painted by others under her supervision, are unlike anything else in western medieval art. Figures embedded within circles or mandalas express her experience of God as being “like a wheel, a circle, a whole, that can neither be understood, nor divided, nor begun nor ended … just as a circle embraces all that is within it, so does the Godhead embrace all …. You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.”

Hildegard’s music was as original as her images. Her compositions resemble the Gregorian chant of her time in their liturgical form and musical modes. They also conform to plainchant’s suppression of extroverted individuality for the sake of devotional calm. At the same time, they go beyond traditional chant in several ways: her melodies have an exotically wide range, often spanning two octaves, with sudden leaps from low notes to high notes; her texts are rhapsodic outpourings of strikingly original imagery; and her songs possess a freedom and exuberance that reflect an artist on the loose.

Her music wasn’t primarily a form of personal expression. It was a manifestation of deepest reality. “O Trinity, you are music, you are life,” she prayed. For Hildegard, “all of creation is a song of praise to God.”

She didn’t make up her songs; she listened in to the music of heaven:

Then I saw the lucent sky, in which I heard different kinds of music, marvelously embodying all the meanings I had heard before. I heard the praises of the joyous citizens of heaven, steadfastly persevering in the ways of Truth; and laments calling people back to those praises and joys; and the exhortations of the virtues.

This was more than metaphor, as her writings make clear. Her compositions came to her whole, given by God, much like the auditory mysticism of St. John the Divine, who wrote in the Book of Revelation: “And I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they sang a new song before the throne.”

Hildegard believed that the music of heaven is in us and all around us. We have been created to harmonize with it. “The soul is symphonic,” she said.

She conceived a charming image of Adam before the Fall: he sang with a voice of pure honey, and the devil knew that as long as Adam managed to remember the sweetness of the heavenly songs, he could never be tempted. So with Adam, as with all of us who have come after, the devil set out “to trouble or destroy the affirmation and beauty and sweetness of divine praise and of the hymns of the spirit.”

In Hildegard’s opera, Ordo Virtutum, an allegory of the virtues, all the characters sing – except the devil, who can only heckle and shout. The devil’s work is dissonance, the shattering of harmony.

Hildegard once had a dispute with the bishops of her diocese, who tried to force her submission on a matter of principle by forbidding her nuns to take communion or to sing the liturgy. It was a terrible ordeal for her community to live without music. Hildegard remarked at the time that those who choose to silence music in their lifetime will go to a place where they will be “without the company of the angelic songs of praises in heaven.” It was her discreet way of telling the prelates to go to hell.

Every artist has to deal with philistines, but we can be thankful that Hildegard’s enormous gifts were for the most part supported by her contemporaries. She fell into obscurity for centuries after her death, but she returns anew to our own time with a voice we long to hear, a voice resonant with compassion, a voice aflame with justice, a voice attuned to the divine harmony for which all of us are made.

Sometimes Hildegard seems to live in a different universe than we do, a universe alive with multi-sensory evidence that God is “burning everywhere,” that everything in the world is dense with meaning and liveliness.

All the senses, in her universe, deliver this message to the receptive soul. Unlike the purely material universe proposed by modernity, a happenstance of mute objects and dead space, Hildegard’s universe was sacramental, alive with significant presence.

In one of her visions, a human figure stands in the center of a cosmic wheel. This Christlike image of Divinity declares to her and to all the world:

I, the highest and fiery power,
have kindled every spark of life …
I, the fiery life of divine essence,
am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows.
I gleam in the waters. I burn in the sun, moon and stars.
With every breeze, as with invisible life that contains everything,
I awaken everything to life.

Is this not the high calling of every saint – and every artist?
To awaken everything to life.
To set our imagination aflame.
To make visible the unsurpassable beauty of God.

As Simon Weil put it so well in our own era,

A sense of beauty, although mutilated, distorted, and soiled, remains rooted in the human heart as a powerful incentive… If it were made true and pure, it would sweep all secular life in a body to the feet of God.

Seventy times seven

Jacopo da Pontormo, Deposition (1525-26), Capponi Chapel, Santa Felicita, Florence

Jacopo da Pontormo, Deposition (1525-26), Capponi Chapel, Santa Felicita, Florence

A homily on Matthew 18:21-35 for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost (and 9/11)

So Peter comes up to Jesus and says, “Lord, forgiveness is really hard work. When do I get to quit?”

And Jesus says, “Peter, sometimes you’re as dumb as a rock. If you want to stay with me, you can never stop forgiving.”

“But Lord, you don’t expect me to forgive everyone, do you?”

“Yes, Peter. Everyone.”

          The Gospel of the Lord.

I once led a workshop exercise based on the Flood story. We all wrote on cards the types of people we thought the world would be better off without – drug dealers, terrorists, polluters, tax collectors and sinners, etc. – and we put our cards in a pile in the center of our circle. Each person had to pick a card, becoming the character they drew. Then they each had to make a case for themselves, to persuade us to let them come aboard the ark rather than be left to die in the flood. Most of us had at least one or two people we didn’t want to sail with, but some of the women – though none of the men – voted to forgive everyone.

How would you vote? Saved, or drowned?

The driver who cut you off on the freeway?
The neighbor who won’t quiet her barking dogs?
The priest who failed to visit you when you were sick?

How would you vote?

The colleague who stabbed you in the back?
The friend who let you down?
The spouse who betrayed you?

How would you vote?

The football player who knocked out his fiancé in an elevator?
The fanatics who flew the planes into the towers?
The lawyers and politicians who made torture a national policy?
The men who beheaded American journalists on YouTube?

Let’s be clear. Forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning or tolerating wicked acts. It doesn’t mean a wife should stay with an abusive husband, or that we can’t feel shock and outrage when we witness hateful instances of oppression or racism or brutality.

What forgiveness does mean is that
we don’t let those things have the last word.

We all know about this on a personal level. You may never forget a wounding encounter, but you know you can’t let it fester inside forever, you can’t give it power over you forever. At some point, you have to let it go.

Tell the truth about it, to the offender if possible, and to yourself. Don’t minimize the damage. But don’t hold on to the hurt. Don’t make your life about the hurt.

Forgiveness means leaving resentment behind. It means letting go of the reactive desire for punishment. There was a POW who said he could never forgive his captors. So a friend told him, “Then they’ve still got you in their prison.”

Rabbi Harold Kushner told a woman who was betrayed and abandoned by her husband: “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable… I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman…. you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment. You’re hurting yourself.”

That’s all true as far as it goes. We can be bigger than our hurts. We can live in the present, not the past. But when Jesus told us to forgive, he wasn’t just talking about our personal well-being.

He was talking about a radical revolution in human relations.
He was telling us to exit the endless cycle of violence and retribution.
He was telling us to choose life, not death.

Those terrorists who committed atrocities on YouTube,
they want our rage, they welcome our hate,
because it means we are consenting to play their game of death,
adding our own tributaries of anger to their river of violence.

So we are presented with a clear choice:
Either forgive them,
or become them.

Jesus is asking something very hard of us.
Yes, maybe we can forgive the ordinary hurts of daily life.
But how can we forgive those monsters on YouTube?
That goes against human nature. That seems impossible.

Maybe it was impossible once. But Jesus, who died forgiving his own killers, has redefined what is possible. Jesus has opened the door to redemption for even the worst of sinners.

They may not always go through that door – some may choose to remain in the godless hell of their own self-will, but we are not allowed to close the door on them. We are not allowed to deny anyone the possibility of redemption, the possibility of reconciliation and healing.

God wants to do something new with this world, and as long as we perpetuate the cycle of violence and vengeance, that new thing cannot happen.

If we say that there are some people who cannot be saved, we are limiting the power and grace of God, and we are refusing our own vocation to be God’s agents of grace and forgiveness not only for the people we know, but for the stranger and the enemy as well.

We can do this, Jesus assures us. We can forgive – not because we are saints with extraordinary powers, but because we are sinners who have ourselves been forgiven.

Just ask St. Paul, who reminds us this morning not to judge one another, who asks us to remember that since we all belong to God, we also belong to one another. These are the words of the man who held the coats for Stephen’s murderers while they stoned the first Christian martyr.

If that stoning had been on YouTube, we might still be holding that horrifying image in our minds, still hating Paul as a monster instead of reading his words as Scripture. Paul knew what it meant to be forgiven, and that’s why he could be so eloquent about grace.

“We all stand before the judgment seat of God,” he says.
Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.

When Peter asked his question about forgiveness, Jesus told him a story.

A slave who owes his master a gazillion dollars is forgiven this unpayable debt, but then he goes right out and finds a fellow slave who happens to owe him fifty cents. He grabs him by the throat.
“Pay me now!” he says.
“Have mercy!” the man cries. “I cannot pay you.”
“That’s not my problem,” he says, and throws the man into a dungeon until he can pay what he owes.

It’s one of Jesus’ craziest stories, and it’s meant to be. The absurdity of the parable puts a spotlight on our own absurdity when we who have been forgiven so much refuse to pass that forgiveness on to others.

If we say we have no sin, we are only deceiving ourselves. It’s not just a matter of how we act as individuals. We must also acknowledge our inescapable participation, conscious or unconscious, voluntary or involuntary, in all the systemic processes that negate the flourishing of life on earth. Just by functioning within the habitual realities and practices of a fallen and imperfect world, we become complicit in the things that fall short of God’s intention, the things that disappoint God’s hope for us.

And still, God loves us.
And still, God forgives us.
And still, God keeps heaven’s door open
and leaves the light on for us.

Perhaps you saw the extraordinary film, Of Gods and Men, which came out a few years ago. It tells the true story of eight French Catholic monks who lived in the mountains of Algeria during a time of civil war and terrorist violence in the 1990’s. Their monastery was at the edge of a poor Muslim village, where they lived in harmony with their neighbors, providing the village’s only accessible health care.

As the surrounding political violence escalated, the monks were warned by the government to leave the country. As Catholics in a Muslim country, they would be suspected of trying to make converts. Their very presence was an offense to the religious extremists. But the monks felt called to remain among the people they served, despite the high probability of martyrdom. Despite their own fears.

“If something happens to us, although I do not wish it to,” wrote Brother Michael, one of the monks, “we want to live it here in solidarity with all the Algerians, men and women, who have already paid with their lives, and in union with all unknown innocent victims.”

As for the armed rebels and the armed soldiers who were fighting all around them, the monks called them “our brothers of the mountains and our brothers of the plains.”

Their abbot, Dom Christian, wrote a letter to his family in Advent, 1993, two and a half years before he and his brother monks were beheaded by terrorists. Anticipating his own martyrdom, he insists that he is not exceptional, since so many others in that land were also at risk.

“My life,” he wrote, “is not worth more than any other — not less, not more. Nor am I an innocent child. I have lived long enough to know that I, too, am an accomplice of the evil that seems to prevail in the world around, even that which might lash out blindly at me. If the moment comes, I would hope to have the presence of mind, and the time, to ask for God’s pardon … and, at the same time, to pardon in all sincerity him who would attack me…”

What an extraordinary thing to say: Here is a good and humble and holy man confessing his own complicity in the evils of the world. And what does he hope for? He hopes for the presence of mind, in the very moment of being murdered, to ask forgiveness. Forgiveness not only for himself, but for his killer as well. As he had once said of his monastic community, “we should openly be on the side of love, forgiveness and communion, against hate, vengeance and violence.”

The last part of Christian’s letter is addressed not to his family, his loved ones, but to the unknown violent stranger who will one day kill him, the stranger whom he calls “my friend of the last moment.”

He calls his killer friend, refusing the way of violence and vengeance and hate, and by so doing he plants the kingdom of forgiveness in the very place where his own blood would be spilled by his assassin’s sword.

He commends that assassin not to hell, not to eternal punishment, but to God. A-dieu, he tells him. A-dieu: “to God.” And then he imagines a future that may seem impossible to us, but is the only future which God desires.

Listen to what he says. This is how Christian ends his letter; this is what he wants to tell the stranger who will one day cut off his head:

“And to you, too, my friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, for you, too, I wish this Merci, this “A-Dieu,” because in God’s face I see yours. May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.”

You can never go fast enough


Last Sunday I came across a classic car show in a Seattle suburb. The bright colors and streamlined shapes were impossible to resist. I stopped to join the crowd in rapt admiration of the immaculately restored Mustangs, GTO’s, T-Birds, Corvettes and other beauties dating as far back as the 1920’s. As sculptural objects they offered the tangible pleasures of sweeping lines, voluptuous curves, and an exuberant array of intense colors. But there was more to it than the allure of shiny objects. The classic cars lining the streets were also saturated with nostalgia and myth.

Nostalgia longs for a time when nostalgia didn’t exist because everyone “then” was happily embedded in the present. As Svetlana Boym observes:

At first glance, nostalgia is a longing for a place, but actually it is a yearning for a different time – the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition. (The Future of Nostalgia, p. xv)

Those classic cars were time machines, transporting us into memories both real and imagined. They did not function the way ruins do to produce a melancholy awareness that all things pass away, for these were not dented, rusting hulks. They appeared flawless and bright, impervious to decay, inviting us to re-experience lost time as if we were still there.

The soundtrack of my youth played over loudspeakers. Drive-in trays held plastic replicas of burgers and shakes. A Howdy Doody doll gripped the steering wheel of a convertible. Nostalgia all around. But it wasn’t just personal associations that tugged at me. I also felt communion with a vanished golden age. Classic cars are tangible signs of a less anxious time before fossil fuels, air pollution and climate change became universal worries. A 1980 Tom T. Hall sums up that lost era with a haiku-like refrain:

Back when gas was 30¢ a gallon,
and love was only 60¢ away.

Of course cars are more than just present objects or past memories. They are vehicles designed to propel us ever forward, down the road to whatever Promised Land awaits us. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the Italian poet whose Futurist movement obsessed over novelty, assailed the snail’s pace of the “sleepy” culture prior to the automobile. “Time and Space died yesterday,” he declared in 1909. “We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.” For Marinetti, a racing roadster hurling the spirit of its driver across the earth in a headlong blur was “more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”

Not everyone was equally thrilled by a culture of ever-increasing velocity. In 1910, the French writer Octave Mirbeau called “automobilism” a mental illness with “a pretty name: speed.” It makes us “impatient to get going once [we have] arrived somewhere, because it is not somewhere else, somewhere else, always somewhere else.”

But “somewhere else” is the American dream. Pilgrim ships and covered wagons were just the slow-motion precursors of the endless road movie that drives our culture. We are a people enamored of open highways, limitless horizons and liberating journeys to the distant places where we can reinvent ourselves.

Road imagery is abundant in American song. All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood … We’re riding out tonight to case the Promised Land (Bruce Springsteen) … When we come to the place where the road and the sky collide / Throw me over the edge and let my spirit glide (Jackson Browne).

And how many times have the movies put us behind the wheel of a classic car in the desperate search for self and meaning? In countless films protagonists flee an oppressive local situation at 70 miles per hour, whooshing toward Somewhere Else in an ecstasy of freedom. As Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard tell it, those drivers want to go “all the way, till the wheels fall off and burn.” Thelma and Louise were perhaps the only ones who ever made it that far. When, pursued by a posse of police cars, they run out of road at the edge of a deep canyon, they just keep going, leaving time and history behind as a freeze frame catches them in mid-air. Then they and their car dissolve into a screen of pure whiteness, where their fate remains eternally beyond our view.

It is one of the most exhilarating endings in cinema, an eschatological leap of liberation and transcendence. But many road movies detour into darker terrain, and the perpetual motion of aimless wandering can find no lasting place to dwell. Flight from culture and place constitute the classic quest for regeneration, but if you lose your way and never reconnect with something beyond yourself, you may just die in the wilderness. The American inability to dwell is part of our shadow side, with disastrous consequences for our psyches, communities and natural habitats. For more on that, read Wendell Berry.

The futility of purposeless mobility, of speed going nowhere, is perfectly expressed in the ending of Two-Lane Blacktop, Monte Hellman’s brilliant 1971 film about a couple of pals drifting around the country in their souped-up ’55 Chevy, picking up street races where they can. The minimal narrative structure has pretty much evaporated by the last scene, where the Driver (all the characters are nameless) revs up his engine for one more race. “You can never go fast enough” is his mantra.

The final shot shows him in silhouette from the back seat, his hair blowing wildly as the car picks up speed. This shot also freeze-frames, but instead of dissolving into the white transcendence that embraced Thelma and Louise, the image begins to burn and melt, as if jammed in the projector. Whether you see that burning frame as an image from Beckett or from Dante, it’s not a happy ending.

Those classic cars have brought me this far, but now I’ve run out of road. How do I end? FADE TO WHITE.

Messianic light

Morris Graves, The Genesis of Life Lay Deep and Anticipant under the Sky II (1944, detail)

Morris Graves, The Genesis of Life Lay Deep and Anticipant under the Sky II (1944, detail)

At the beginning of Moby Dick, Ishmael encounters a strange painting hanging in the entry of an old inn. Dimly lit and “thoroughly besmoked,” it was an indistinguishable mix of “shades and shadows” with a “long, limber, portentous black mass of something hovering in the center.” It seemed a picture of primal chaos, suffused with “a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it,” prompting Ishmael to obsess about its meaning.

It’s the Black Sea in a midnight gale. – It’s the unnatural combat of the four primal elements. – It’s a blasted heath. – It’s a Hyperborean winter scene. – It’s the breaking up of the ice-bound stream of Time. – But at last all those fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture’s midst. That once found out, and all the rest were plain. But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great Leviathan himself?

Ishmael might have been contemplating the inky monolith of a late Rothko, or one of Morris Graves’ dark wartime nocturnes of a restless and tormented life force. It was a classic experience of the Sublime, where the human and the known are overwhelmed by the transcendent and the unknowable. Whether you are Moses enveloped in Sinai’s stormy cloud or a tourist gawking at Niagara Falls, you feel a sense of shock and awe in the presence of a wild uncontrollable force. For a moment, at least, the stable coordinates of the humanly constructed world are blown away. The tourist may escape with merely a pleasant shudder, but the saint is swept into the divine abyss.

The Sublime is the annihilating negative which questions, disrupts, challenges a world too narrowly constructed in our own image. It is the vast unknowable desert that lies beyond our maps; the nameless voice that asks ‘Why?” and “Why not?”; the apocalypse that rejects the finality of empires. It is the dark night of the soul where language fails and silence speaks; the radically other, ungrasped by imagination; the formlessness prior to every making. It is the ending that births the beginning.

Artists have long attempted to convey the transcendent through sensuous means and materials, but only in the last century have some of them tried to do it without using recognizable images or narratives. Color, shape and texture in themselves would be sufficient to make visible the underlying essence of reality, according to pioneers of the abstract like Kandinsky. As Barnett Newman said in a 1948 manifesto, “We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting.” An abstract canvas could provide direct revelation through pure sensation, unmediated by stories or symbols or replications of the material world.

Whether the “abstract sublime” actually put the viewer in closer touch with the deepest reality, or was just another form of representation as “fictional” in form as a biblical scene or a landscape, has been widely debated. Can any image be identical to what it portrays? And is form only something that exists in the perceiving mind, and not a quality inherent to the universal flux? If deepest Reality, or God if you will, is unrepresentable, how can you make a picture of it? Can you stand before of the saturated hues of a Rothko and believe you are in the presence of the transcendent? Some have. I have.

Most artists today are reluctant to make overt claims for their work as spiritual events between viewer and the transcendent, as deep speaking to deep. In the postmodern play of signifiers, there is no divine Voice, no Reality trying to communicate with us from a realm beyond finite language. As atheist philosopher Richard Rorty reductively put it, “the world does not speak. Only we do.”

That is not my experience. Nature has spoken to me. Sacrament has spoken to me. Christ in my neighbor has spoken to me. And art, both figurative and abstract, has spoken to me, most recently in the paintings of Morris Graves in a revelatory exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum, Modernism in the Pacific Northwest: The Mythic and the Mystical.

The exhibition makes a case for Seattle as the birthplace of modernism in American art. Mark Tobey’s “white writing” paintings, where thin lines of white paint permeate scenes like an energy field binding all things together, have been credited with the invention of gestural painting, which Jackson Pollock would adapt and make famous. Both Tobey and Graves, imbued with the art and the spirituality of Asian and Northwest native cultures, approached their work with a mystical sensibility that impressed East coast critics and artists alike. Even when the New York School veered away from the spirituality of art into pure painting free of “meaning,” the Northwest painters continued to make substantial connections between art and spirit.

I was particularly moved by Graves’ World War II work. Jailed for refusing to fight, Graves was profoundly troubled by the madness and destruction of the conflict, what he called “the death of all reason.” When he was released in 1943, he began to paint feverish visions of a monochrome night world on the verge of ending, as darkness and deluge swirled all around. There were forms – a crow, a minnow, a waning moon – which resisted the devolution into utter chaos. These few were signs of resistance and grace. Graves wrote of the minnow:

Silvery minnow-moment of awareness flash-gleaming in the depths, now seen, now gone … when crisis occurs, the minnow voluntarily comes into view – to renew faith and give direction.

But Graves’ wartime paintings never showed more than brief glimmers of hope in a world of threat and horror. It was not until the war ended that Graves could fill a canvas with light, in his depiction of a brilliant lotus flower in bloom. This Buddhist symbol of meditation and enlightenment could be seen as a victory of light over darkness, but some have noted the bloom’s resemblance to a nuclear cloud. As with the August 6th coincidence of Hiroshima Day with the Feast of the Transfiguration, the struggle between life and death is far from done.

Graves believed that art has a profoundly meaningful task, and something Theodor Adorno said might well be applied to Graves’ own work:

Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light.

Art can reveal the poverties and distortions of the world.
Can it also enable us to stand in the “messianic light?”
Are there indeed showings of the divine in color, form and light?

On the day after the Feast of the Epiphany in 1956, Sylvia Plath wrote a postcard to her mother, describing her visit to the Matisse Chapel on the Riviera. The entrance was shut when she arrived. The chapel only opened twice a week, and on the other days not even rich tourists waving large sums of money could gain admittance. Plath was “desolate” at her bad timing. She wandered glumly around the walls enclosing the chapel, “feeling like Alice outside the garden.” Then she returned to the locked gate and stood quietly.

I began to cry. I knew it was so lovely inside, pure white with the sun through blue, yellow and green stained windows.
Then I heard a voice. ‘Ne pleurez plus, entrez,’ and the Mother Superior let me in, after denying all the wealthy people in cars.

I just knelt in the heart of the sun and the colors of sky, sea and sun, in the pure white heart of the chapel. ‘Vous êtes si gentille,’ I stammered. The nun smiled. ‘C’est la miséricorde de Dieu.’

It was.