Tending the lamps of holy imagination

Dreaming in Venice

Dreaming in Venice

We are in the fifth day of the Venice Colloquium, a small gathering of Christian creatives to “dream the Church that wants to be.” We will finish our work on Sunday in time to attend the mass for All Saints Day in the Byzantine splendor of St. Mark’s cathedral.

The conversations and presentations have been extremely rich, and I will be reporting on them in future posts, once I have begun to absorb and process what has happened here. In the meantime, while I have a rare free moment to attend to my blog, let me try to put into one simple statement the sense of need, perhaps even crisis, which has brought us together:

The practice of holy imagination is like a sanctuary lamp in the life of the Church. If not duly attended to, it is in danger of going out.

(In the very moment of writing that statement, the church bells of Venice began to ring all over the island where we are staying. I’ll take that as a “yes.”)

What would the Church be like if that lamp were to be extinguished? I had a vision of that dismal outcome yesterday, in a video by artist Theaster Gates at Biennale, the international art exposition being held in Venice.

Part of an installation called “Gone Are the Days of Shelter and Martyrs,” the video filled the entire wall of a dark room. Shot inside the dim space of a ruined church, it revealed few details of the interior. The two men who moved about inside were faceless shadows. It suggested to me a lower level of Dante’s Inferno, an impression reinforced by the repetitive violence of their actions.

Lying on the floor amid the rubble of a fallen ceiling, there were two heavy doors. They had become useless, meaningless, no longer attached to any place of entry or exit. The two men would circle the doors once or twice, raise one or the other to an upright position, and let it fall with a great echoing crash. They did this over and over, as if condemned to enact this enigmatic distillation of their wounded condition for all eternity. A wailing offstage blues singer was the only other sound, a cry from the depths of darkness.

The space between the image and the opposite wall was not wide, so that the viewer could not keep much distance from what was being projected. It was like sitting in the front row of an Imax theater. There was no escaping the image. I was immersed in it, and that added to its claustrophobic feel.

But after about ten minutes of this, the camera slowly panned away from the men and the doors, toward the end of the church where the altar had been. The apse wall was broken down, open to the sky. Being able finally to see light breaking into all that darkness seemed like the rolling away of Christ’s tombstone. And just below the roofline, one piece of unbroken wall remained, painted with a fresco of the Last Supper. The holy image was ancient and faded, like a memory not yet entirely lost.

Whatever the artist’s specific intentions, I came away from that screening room with an indelible image of a desolate church robbed of its light. Such a prospect is why we tend our lamps so religiously. It is why we have come to Venice.

But that ruined church is no place to leave you, dear reader. Instead, let me offer another image of the Church, in which “she” is depicted an old woman in her declining years. It is by Mark Harris, a member of our Colloquium, and he graciously permitted me to publish it here. I promise you, it ends well.

She is an Old Woman

She is an old woman,
Not well respected over the years.
Shuffling off to the bathroom
She looks in the mirror
And does not see the face of Christ.

Whatever happened to my body,
She wonders, whose parts all work
Together for good?

She has been ravaged
By some who claimed to be lovers,
And by others who had no such pretensions,
Only opportunistic rapine desire.

For the moment before the first service
She is quiet. She gathers the shambles
Of her dignity and rambles
Off to prayer and Thanksgiving.

“Who will come today, who will come.?
Will they remember me in my glory,
When I was all light and lovely?
Will they come in pity, shame and wonder
That I am still here?”

The word goes around that it was all a story,
That she was never beautiful and never lithe.
She hears them whispering. She feels
Their eyes as they wait to see her die.
They will scurry over her remains
Looking for something to take away:
A remembrance of glory past,
If glory was there at all.

She laughs softly,
And in a resurrection moment
Almost worthy of the second coming,
She is consumed in fire.

Renewed and beautiful,
She lifts the veil that hides her face.
“Behold,” she says,
“I make all things new.”

Bill Viola’s “Martyrs”


The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.

– Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9 (Lectionary reading for All Saints)

At the far end of the south choir aisle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, four “martyrs” perform a perpetual sacrifice in a slow-motion passage from suffering to glory. These martyrs are not the painted or sculptured figures of a traditional altarpiece, but two men and two women, recorded on high-definition video, and played back continuously on a polyptych of four adjacent vertical plasma panels, each 55” x 33.”

This stunning work is by Bill Viola, who has long been exploring the interplay of “technology and revelation.”[i] As David Morgan has written, “Viola’s work suggests that the human condition consists of the fact that we are embodied beings yearning, but ill-prepared, for communion with one another; that we suffer pain and loss, that we struggle to transcend our bodies and our suffering by connecting with a larger or inner aspect of reality; and that we die. Bodies, communion, suffering, transcendence, and death collectively constitute a condition, a worldview that the artist seeks to investigate in his work.”[ii]

Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) was installed at St. Paul’s in 2014, and this week I had my first chance to see it. It is 7.5 minutes long, continuously repeated. Mesmerized and deeply moved, I watched it ten times, and each viewing provoked some new thought or feeling.

The figures begin in stasis, undergo an ordeal involving time and motion, and finally come to rest in a perfect stillness: not the anti-life of death or nonbeing, but something implicitly wondrous.

All the figures are facing in our direction. In the first panel, a kneeling man, head bowed to the floor, is almost completely buried beneath a triangular pile of dirt. We only see the top of his head, clutched by his two tense hands. The dirt begins to fly upward in a column, disappearing into whatever is above the frame. He rises to his feet, ever so slowly, as if it is a great struggle against gravity, or stasis. By the time he is upright, the last of the dirt has vanished into the “above,” and he is staring out at us impassively.

In the second panel, a woman in a white shift is suspended by a rope tied to her wrists. Her feet are anchored two feet above the ground by another rope securing her ankles. She is blown by a great wind coming from the left, buffeted back and forth within the constraint of her tethers, at the mercy of a relentless exterior force. After a while, the wind subsides, her suspended body grows still, and she gazes out with an unexpected measure of serenity.

A black man sits in a chair in the next panel, his head tilted to the side and downcast. Then bits of flame begin to drop from above, continuing to burn where they land. More and more flames fall, some leaving trails like shooting stars, until the whole floor, and the chair, are on fire. By this time the man has raised his head to look out at us, but he appears calm and still even as the flames envelop him. He remains in that position as the flames finally relent and die out.

In the last panel, a man is curled up in a fetal position with eyes closed. A rope tied to his angles is suspended from somewhere above the frame. The slack starts to be taken up, pulling his legs upward, and then his entire body, until he is completely upside down like the Hanged Man in the Tarot, or one of those skinned animals dangling in a Dutch genre painting as a secularized image of Christ’s Passion. When a stream of water begins to fall from above, his arms slowly stir, moving into a prayer position, bent 90 degrees at the elbow, then gradually sweeping backward, like a swimmer’s breaststroke, until they are near his side. Meanwhile, his inverted body begins to be pulled upward by the rope, toward the source of the falling water.

All of the figures have been handed over to forces or situations beyond their control. One buried, one bound and buffeted, one burned, and one left for dead. Yet none of them rages or resists. They accept their condition with a calm grounded in something greater than their own survival.

Each of the first three, after gazing out at us for a time, gradually shift their attention to whatever is above them, out of our sight, until their upturned faces glow with the light of eschatalogical radiance. Their faces never become expressive, or call attention to their own personalities; they remain still and quiet, in a condition of “absolute unmixed attention.”[iii]

The fourth figure, the “Hanged Man,” provides the dissonant harmony within this suite of images. He is the one who appeared already dead, his suffering behind him. His eyes, either closed or obscured by the water streaming down his face, are never quite visible. Although his arms eventually make hopeful gestures of prayer or embrace, the rest of his body stays limp, totally given over to the power at the other end of the rope, which pulls him up and out of the frame. The water continues to fall when he is gone.

Unlike the prayerful final images of the other panels, the fourth is fraught with absence. The other martyrs only gaze at the transcendent. The fourth has already ascended there, and we are left with only the water as a reminder of the one we can no longer see.

Noting that martyr means “witness,” an accompanying statement by Viola and his producer Kira Perov compares the active witness of martyrs to the passive witness of those who merely consume images of suffering through mass media, adding that these four figures “exemplify the human capacity to bear pain, hardship, and even death in order to remain faithful to their values, beliefs, and principles. This piece represents ideas of action, fortitude, perseverance, endurance, and sacrifice.”[iv]

But these evocative images can’t be reduced to a single meaning. The more I watched, the more meanings and associations were generated. The first figure suggested Adam formed from the mud, or Christ rising from his grave, shedding mortality clump by clump. It also seemed a kind of birth.

The strongly sidelit second figure, whose white shift and platinum hair glowed against the black background like a Zurburan crucifixion, mirrored both Jesus and Joan of Arc.

Like gold in the furnace God tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering God accepted them.[v] The fire in the third panel not only recalled the light of burning martyrs, but the positive biblical tropes of the refiner’s fire and tongues of flame.

The fetal position of the fourth martyr evoked both the womb and the grave. The falling water made me think of both baptism and waterboarding. Once he was gone, however, it spoke to me of both memory and promise: what had happened to him, and what might happen to us.

Just what – or who – is at the other end of that rope anyway?

[i] “Technology and Revelation” is the title of a lecture I heard Viola give at the University of California at Berkeley, September 28, 2009.

[ii] David Morgan, “Spirit and Medium: The Video Art of Bill Viola,” Image, No. 26 ((Spring 2000), 32

[iii] This was Simone Weil’s definition of prayer.

[iv] From the installation’s explanatory text.

[v] Wisdom of Solomon 3:6

Dreaming the Church that wants to be

The Rev. Neil Lambert diagrams his ecclesiastical dream.

The Rev. Neil Lambert diagrams his ecclesiastical dream.

Now I look at my own experience and feel the intimate rightness of Lear’s words: ‘I have taken too little care of this.’…Today it is clear that one’s isolated efforts are straws in the wind, and we can do nothing alone – we need others, all the time… we only begin to exist when we are serving an aim beyond our own likes and aversions.      

– Peter Brook

Make visible what, without you, might never be seen.

– Robert Bresson

During a 6-hour layover at London’s Heathrow Airport last spring, my friends Neil and Helen Lambert, who live nearby, spirited me away to a picnic in the green fields of Runnymede, where the Magna Carta had been signed 799 years and 50 weeks earlier. Rain fell as we arrived, so Helen and I retreated to the site’s tea room while Neil got the lunch together under the shelter of a great oak. While drinking our tea, we met a British army veteran who had played the trumpet solo at Winston Churchill’s funeral.

When the rain let up, Neil summoned us out to the feast he had prepared with colored tablecloth, English china, three different courses and a fine local wine. As an Anglican artist/priest with a gift for ceremonial whimsey, he had successfully answered the Psalmist’s question, “Can God make a banquet in the wilderness?” And so it was that over a delightful lunch we conceived the idea of the Venice Colloquium: an intimate international gathering of Christian creatives to “dream the Church that wants to be.”

As artists of faith, Neil and I had been discussing the need for more imagination and creativity in the churches, not only in the way we worship, learn and grow, but also in the way we engage with the world we exist to serve. Part of the challenge, we agreed, was fostering community among the scattered creatives whose isolated efforts, in Peter Brook’s words, are too often “straws in the wind.”

So in the days following that Runnymede picnic, we began to ask around, starting with some people we knew, who knew some other people, and pretty soon we had collected a group of ten creatives, young and old, from the United States, Great Britain (including a man born in Peru), and New Zealand. There are seven Anglicans, two Methodists and one Baptist. Three are women, seven are clergy. All are practitioners in one or more art forms, including painting, music, film, conceptual and installation art, printmaking, writing and poetry. All have been leaders in the exploration of alternative worship.

In three weeks, we will gather in Venice to spend seven days in conversation with each other, not only exchanging ideas, dreams and stories, but also listening attentively to whatever the Spirit might have to say through the experimental chemistry of ten such people thrown together in one place.

Why Venice? We had to meet somewhere, and monastic housing made it amazingly affordable. And “La Serenissima’s” haunting beauty makes a doubly inspiring venue for creatives, since its renowned wealth of historic art and architecture is augmented by the cutting-edge work on display at Biennale, one of the world’s leading exhibitions of contemporary art.

What can emerge from such a collective interplay and cross-pollination of practitioners and thinkers over the course of a week together in the intimacy of a small-group setting? While we believe our gathering will be inspiring and enriching for everyone’s personal ministry and creativity, we think it can bear fruit as well in the wider communities to which we will return. We also hope that it will stimulate further networking among creatives within and beyond the church, and become a useful prototype for similar gatherings in the future. But as the biblical God repeatedly demonstrates, faith means not falling in love with planned outcomes. As T. S. Eliot put it, “wait without hope / For hope would be hope for the wrong thing … / Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.”

Of course we will each arrive in Venice with our share of specific hopes and dreams. We have been exchanging some of these online already. On the one hand, we all care deeply about the nature, quality and purpose of our common life. On the other hand, we also want to look beyond our walls, making sure the boundaries necessary for identity are sufficiently porous to allow flow both inward and outward. What about those who don’t fit the inherited definitions of Christian? How much diversity can we incorporate and still be the Body of Christ? What do the unchurched or uninitiated have to tell us about who we might be for them – and how they might change us? How can we listen to voices from the margins, and cultures beyond our own? Where might interfaith collaboration lead?

As the angel of Resurrection famously said, The tomb is empty and Jesus has left the building. Where should we be looking for Jesus now? In the “other.” In the “elsewhere.” And what does this sometimes unsettling centrifugal dynamic mean for how we are to do and be church?

One participant has asked, “Are artists called to a particular way of being in the world, and if so how do we nurture environments that foster that way of being?” Another calls us to dream collectively a “rebirth of wonder.” Another wants to explore “the salvific power of beauty.” Another envisions doing for church what Cirque du Soleil has done for circus, so that imagination, creativity, and art are not frills or strategies or institutional departments, but “the DNA of who we are as God’s people.”

They say democracy was born at Runnymede. To dream that a rebirth of wonder began there as well would be, of course, ridiculously grandiose. We are simply a few of God’s friends gathering in a small room to see what happens.