“Stations of the Cross” and the Cinema of Sacrifice

The First Station: Maria (Lea van Acken) and the priest (Florian Stetter) in “Stations of the Cross.”

 

I think I should have been more ferocious in pursuit of the whale . . .  Ahab focused all his energies on avenging himself against the whale, but he was trying to penetrate the mystery of why we are here at all, why there is anything. I wasn’t mad enough, not crazy enough, not obsessive enough. I should have done more.” He paused, took a long breath, and added: “At the time, I didn’t have more in me.”[1]

–– Gregory Peck, discussing his role in Moby Dick

 

What Gregory Peck said about playing Ahab could be said about playing “fools for Christ.”[2] Are we crazy enough for the role? Do we have what it takes to trade the wisdom of the world for the folly of God? Just how seriously do we take the call to follow Jesus? Will we only try a few baby steps, or are we prepared to go “all the way, till the wheels fall off and burn?”[3]

In an unsettling essay about those who renounce ordinary human experience to explore the frontiers of the divine, Jean-Yves Lacoste stretches St. Paul’s image of the holy fool to the breaking point. Embodying in explicit practice the concept that the here and now of earthly life is not our ultimate destiny, the holy fool demonstrates that “life true to his essence cannot be lived without a literal refusal of all worldly dwelling.” His extreme form of ascetic renunciation manifests the essential homelessness of the human condition:

“The spectacular marginality of the human being who refuses possessions, a place to live, and so on, does no more than express in particularly concrete form the marginality that in any case affects anyone who wishes to subordinate his worldly being to his being-before-God.”

Understood in this way, spirituality is subversive and dangerous, putting not just our habitual complacency, but our fundamental at-homeness, into question. If we are finite beings making pilgrimage toward the Absolute, we are defined by non-possession. We don’t entirely belong to the here and now. To the world––and to many (or most?) believers––this is madness. We prefer a God who makes us as comfortable as possible where we are. But for Lacoste, the destiny of the fool in Christ “becomes intelligible only in the light of another destiny, that of the crucified one in whom and by whom God restores peace between humankind and himself.”[4]

In his 2014 film, Stations of the Cross, German director Dietrich Brüggemann literalizes this premise in the story of a 14-year-old girl, Maria, who comes to understand her own vocation as the sacrifice of her earthly existence for the sake of another. But Brüggemann and his sister Anna, who co-wrote the script, do not make it easy for us to accept or identify with Maria’s story, because on the surface it shows us a naïve adolescent misled by the bad theology of an abusive religion. We recoil at the reactionary teachings of the priest and the cold rigidity of her mother’s piety. We want Maria to make healthier choices.

Many critics have taken the film to be a critique or satire of fundamentalism and dogmatism, perhaps even an attack on belief itself, though many of the same critics also admit to being moved to tears. But the non-judgmental respect of the filmmakers for Maria, and the disarming purity of her passion for God, won’t let us dismiss the film as just a cautionary tale (“Kids, don’t try this at home!”). And, as the Bible’s less attractive stories have shown[5], God is sometimes known through means which transcend and overcome the given conditions of the narrative. As Rilke said, every story has God in it––even a story about religion gone wrong.

The formal structure of the film is part of its strange beauty. In 110 minutes, there are only 14 lengthy shots (no cutaways to different angles), each one corresponding to the devotional sequence of the Stations of the Cross. So Maria’s imitation of Christ’s passion is not simply an existential choice. It is a pattern to which she finds herself conformed by a power beyond her own devising (script, director, God). She does not define herself as a purely autonomous being; she is drawn and driven by an Other. She only exists to play this part, or to consent to let it play her.

The sense of inevitability is reinforced by the fixed position of the camera, which almost never moves (there are only three exceptions to this, each very purposive). The long takes (the first Station exceeds 15 minutes!) and unmoving camera not only induce a contemplative consciousness in the viewer, but make an ontological statement about the boundedness of the human condition: we operate within given limits of space, time and mortality, as well as the confines of our social constructions. Each of the film’s fourteen shots is a self-contained world. There is no cutting away to see something else. This conveys a sense of destiny, of givenness, while at the same time making everything within the fixed frame worthy of our utmost attention. Every word, look, gesture or action matters.

The First Station (Jesus is Condemned to Death) sets the course for the entire film. [Spoiler alert: If you want to view the film with innocent eyes, watch it before reading further. It is currently streaming on Netflix.]. Six young students in a Confirmation class are seated around a table in a tableaux evocative of the Last Supper. The priest stands in the center (Christ’s position in paintings) to deliver a kind of Farewell Discourse, a final pep talk before they go off to be confirmed.

The priest has youthful energy and conviction. He is no bloodless cleric boring a restless room of teens. He has their full attention. But the content of his teaching begins to make the viewer cringe: Vatican II was heresy, the pope has turned his back on the true faith, and most Catholics now live in mortal sin. “The devil has entered the church,” he says, “and strolls around in it whispering his lies.”

Given the sorry state of church and culture, the priest exhorts his charges to renounce Satan and all his works, including popular music with its demonic rhythms, the vanity of caring about your looks, and the trashy seductions of mass media. Be “warriors for Christ,” he tells them. Defend the faith, resist tempation, and save the souls of your schoolmates by word and example.

And the heart of Christian practice, he concludes, is sacrifice. Having asked his class to make a list of things which give them pleasure, he invites them to start letting them go, one by one, in a kind of perpetual Lent. When class is dismissed, Maria lingers to ask a question. “Can I make a sacrifice for someone else? Like, someone who is ill?. . . What if I wanted to sacrifice my whole life, like the saints?” Uh-oh. A good pastor would hear an alarm go off in such a moment, but this priest tries to defuse her question with generalities (“There are  many ways you can give your life to God”). However, the viewer senses that Maria is moving toward the abyss. She has been condemned to die to this world.

So she takes up her cross. On a walk in the country, she tries to sacrifice the beautiful view by closing her eyes. In gym class, she endures the mockery of her peers by refusing to exercise to rock music. She struggles against her feelings for Christian, a sweet Catholic boy who is drawn to her. She endures the cruel hectoring of her fanatically pious mother, renouncing the self-assertion of adolescent rebellion. But her most fatal sacrifice is her own body. She chooses to suffer the chill of winter by not wearing a coat. She descends into anorexia. Her health starts to fail.

The stages of her “passion” are correlated with the traditional Stations in striking ways:

Jesus falls for the first time (3): Maria lets herself become interested in Christian. The scene is innocent and charming, but there will be no room for teen romance as Maria walks her lonesome valley. She clearly is drawn to him, but later she will protest, “You live in a world of TV, Facebook, and people who’ve sold their souls, who are dead in the middle of life. . . . If you really like me, then go away.”

Veronica wipes the face of Jesus (6): After being horribly treated by her mother, Maria is weeping uncontrollably at the dinner table while her family pretends it’s not happening. Bernadette, the warm-hearted family au pair, is the only one who reaches out to Maria. She offers her a tissue, and the weeping subsides.

Jesus falls for the third time (9): Maria, kneeling for confirmation before the bishop, whose ancient face and gold vestments suggest a medieval painting of God the Father, faints. Her body falls out of the film frame into invisiblity.

Jesus is stripped of his garments (10): Maria, her back to us, sits on the examining table of a doctor’s office with her blouse removed. With drooping head, she remains passive as her mother stubbornly resists the doctor’s call for medical intervention. Maria’s frail and vulnerable figure, utterly still amid the battle of wills waging around her, is a heartbreaking image. Then Bernadette enters quietly to put a coat over Maria. She wraps her arms around the suffering girl like the father embracing his Prodigal Son in Rembrandt’s painting. The two girls remain in that pose––an icon of compassion––for the rest of the scene.

Jesus is nailed to the cross (11): Maria lies in a hospital bed, with Bernadette sitting beside her. A nurse brings food, but Maria refuses to eat. When the nurse leaves, Maria tells Bernadette that she has chosen to sacrifice her life so that her 4-year-old brother, Johannes, might get well (he has never spoken, and the doctors suspect autism). Bernadette says she is going to tell the doctors about Maria’s death wish, so that they will intervene. When she exits the room, Maria feels as abandoned as Jesus on the cross. “Don’t leave me!” she cries. There is no answer.

Jesus dies on the cross (12): After receiving communion in the presence of her mother and little Johannes (like the mother of Jesus and the disciple John at the cross), Maria flatlines. The medical team rushes in to attempt resuscitation, pushing priest and family aside. The camera follows the latter in one of its rare moves, so that we no longer see Maria, who dies outside the frame. She leaves the image, where she has been on camera for the length of every scene so far, just as she leaves the world. And the moment she dies, the mute Johannes speaks at last. “Maria! Where is Maria?” Is this the miracle that authenticates Maria’s sacrifice? The film doesn’t decide for us.

The body of Jesus is placed in the lap of his mother (13): In a funeral home display room lined with coffins, Maria’s parents discuss details with the funeral director. The mother begins to idealize her daughter, calling her a saint as if all her abusive scolding of Maria had never happened. And she insists that given the “facts” of Christian dogma, there is no reason to be sad. But suddenly all that certainty crumbles under the weight of grief and guilt. Her sobbing amid those stacked coffins becomes as unbearable as Magdalene’s hysterical weeping at the foot of the cross in Zefferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus is laid in the tomb (14): In a cemetery, a man operates an excavator to fill an empty grave. The mourners have departed. The noisy machine is indifferent to any resting in peace. Christian, whom Maria feared was an obstacle between her and God, enters the frame to stand at her grave. Then the camera makes its final and most dramatic move, craning up until it looks down upon Christian, the grave, and the excavator from above. After a minute, the boy tosses a flower into the grave, then walks to the far side of the cemetery to gaze upon a landscape of ploughed fields. The camera pans away from the grave to follow him, and then tilts upward, away from the cemetery, away from the earth itself, to gaze upon the sky. If there is anything up there, we cannot see it. A thick layer of clouds blocks our view.

A film is more than its story or the multitude of audio-visual and dramatic elements comprising its life on the screen. A film is also what happens to us as we watch and later reflect. A story which offers unacceptable models of human behavior may stiil exert a powerful spiritual force. Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the masters of religious cinema, put this as well as any:

“The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to the good.”[6]

In Stations, we see little we want to imitate or recommend. The priest’s teachings, the reactionary insularity and arrogance of his breakaway church, the mother’s abusive and unfeeling pietism, and Maria’s self-destructive behaviors are not things we want for our religion or our loved ones. Only Bernadette and Christian provide exemplary models for Christian living.

And yet, my soul was truly ploughed and harrowed by Maria, played so vulnerably by the gifted Lea van Acken. Maria lacked the language, the maturity, and the communal wisdom to fend off the religious extremism of church and family to find a more balanced expression of her desire for God. But like all saints, she was on to something and wouldn’t let it go.

Raymond Durgnat, writing about Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (1967), another film about an adolescent reaching for transcendence without really knowing how to do it, wrote something that I think illuminates Maria’s situation: “She still hasn’t found what she hardly knows she wants, and she fears she never will, but she still won’t settle for not having it. She rejects a soul-destroying future, so she’s damned; but in another sense, she’s saving her ‘divine discontent.’ So perhaps her rejection of a ‘soul-destroying’ future is the intention of saving her soul as best she knows?”[7]

Maria doesn’t quite know how to give herself to God, so she does it in what we consider a mistaken and tragic way. But there is no mistaking the authenticity of her desire and the purity of her will, which exceed all the distortions and limitations of her factual situation. For all the wrongness of her world and the choices she makes, her excessiveness is the quality which overcomes all the brokenness of her story.

The Fifth Station: Maria in the confessional.

 

In the Fifth Station, Maria is in the confessional. It is the only closeup of her in the entire film, but unlike most closeups, she is in profile, facing the grille between her and the priest, who remains unseen beyond the frame of the image. Maria gives an honest account of what her church considers sinful (“I had unchaste thoughts. I imagined Christian and me going to choir together, and him looking at me secretly and finding me beautiful.”) The priest listens carefully, but his responses are sometimes tarnished by a judgmental theology. However, the defects of the verbal exchange are overshadowed by the beauty of the visual image.

The intimate closeup of Maria gives us privileged access to her profound spirit of surrender. Like her Scriptural namesake at the Annunciation, she faces an invisible voice and responds with her whole heart. Whatever the priest says or thinks doesn’t really matter. He’s only a stand-in. The essential image is of a soul saying yes to the Mystery.

So is it enough to say I am moved by the intensity of Maria’s holy desire to reconsider the depth of my own spiritual life, without resolving the story’s problematic tensions between immanence and transcendence? Didn’t the Creator pronounce the goodness of the world? How much of it are we supposed to give up? How much self-emptying is enough? Something in me is drawn to the ascetic rigor of Lacoste’s fool in Christ, but in fact I live out the more Anglican way of loving this “sweet old world”[8] and not being so anxious to refuse it or leave it.

I have no plans to imitate Maria’s passion––or Christ’s, for that matter. But the questions about sacrifice posed by the Way of the Cross can’t be suppressed without losing something essential, as Nikos Kazantzakis reminds us in his parable about the boyhood of Jesus[9], whose restless and troubled spirit was a great worry for his parents. So they entrusted him to the care of the village sage, who met with him every day for a period of many weeks.

“What is troubling you,” the sage asked Jesus.
“I feel a pain I cannot explain. I roam the streets, wrestling.”
“Wrestling with whom?”
“With God, of course!. Who else?”

The sage gave Jesus medicinal herbs and taught him to calm himself with meditation. Every evening they had long talks about God. The sage assured the boy that God was not a consuming fire or an annihilating otherness, but a tender grandfather, with whom he could find loving support and a companionable peace of mind and spirit. God wanted only happiness for Jesus, not suffering or sacrifice. After a few months, Jesus was completely cured, and he grew up to become the best carpenter in Nazareth.

 

 

Related post: The Ten Best Religious Films

 

[1] 1998 interview, q. in William Grimes obituary for Gregory Peck, New York Times (6/13/03).

[2] I Corinthians 4:10

[3] Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard, “Brownsville Girl”.

[4] Jean-Yves Lacoste, “Liturgy and Kenosis, from Expérience et Absolu, in Graham Ward, ed., The Postmodern God: A Theological Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1997), 250, 261.

[5] The Binding of Isaac (Gen. 22: 1-18) is the prime example.

[6] Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986, 1987), 43.

[7] Raymond Durgnat, “The Negative Vision of Robert Bresson,” in James Quandt, ed., Robert Bresson: Revised (Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Cinematheque, 2011), 560. Mouchette is a troubled teen trapped in an oppressive world. In the end she lets her body roll down a hill by a pond, like a game. The third time we see her roll out of the frame and hear a splash. Then we see ripples on the pond, but she is gone. The film was originally banned in France because on a literal level it involved teen suicide. But more astute critics have read the ending as a strangely positive image of transcendence, with the pond as a baptismal gate into a larger reality beyond the world’s horizon. It’s more like an “ascension” than an act of self-destruction.

[8] Lucinda Williams’ song to a friend who committed suicide: “See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world. . .”

[9] The parable is in Kazantzakis’ memoir, Report to Greco (1965). I have reconstructed it from memory. I read it 50 years ago and it has stayed inside me.

 

A Wedding Homily

Rachel and Simon Pollack at their wedding, September 2, 2017 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

On Labor Day weekend, my wife’s son, Simon, was married to his beloved Rachel.
At the ceremony, I was asked to say a word about love:

One of our culture’s most tenacious fictions is
the autonomous individual: self-made, self-sufficient,
like Shakespeare’s Richard III when he says, “I am myself alone.”

But we have gathered here to refute that tired fiction.
No man––or woman––is an island.
Or as another English poet put it,
“I am he as you are she as you are me and we are all together.”

The commitment Simon and Rachel are making is a deeply personal act;
but it is also a public one, testifying in community
to our common vocation to love one another
“with gladness and singleness of heart.”

Unique as each of us is,
we are all made to be in relationship with others,
in communion with others.
Relationship isn’t just something we have or something we do;
it’s something we are.
We only exist in relationship––with other people, with the natural world,                 
with the sacred Source and Giver of life.

The ‘I’ who is myself is only realized in communion with what is more than myself.
‘I’ cannot exist without ‘Thou.’
Human life at its heart is an event of communion
in which we join the divine dance toward which all being tends.
When we love one another,
we manifest the fundamental pattern and flow of the universe.

And so, we who are creatures of such deep longing,
keep reaching for that larger truth of our existence.
We sense our incompleteness, and seek beyond our solitude
for the answering Presence in which we may be completed.

Raymond Carver expressed this, fittingly enough, in the form of a dialogue:

And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved,
to feel myself beloved on the earth.

The theologians say you can never really know yourself
until you see yourself as the Divine Lover sees you––
until you feel yourself, know yourself, as beloved.

Simon and Rachel have discovered this loving gaze through one another,
and they will be blessed by that every day.
And so will we, for such love wants to shed its grace
freely and generously on everyone it encounters.

Simon, Rachel, we rejoice that when Love called, you said yes,
and that you each choose today to be for the other
“a strength in need, a counselor in perplexity,
a comfort in sorrow, and a companion in joy.”

You remind us by your example
that we are too are made to love,
whatever form that may take in our own stories––
not just love as a feeling,
but love as a choice, an intention, an act of the will
transcending self-interest to affirm, nurture and guard
the well-being of the beloved, with all our heart and mind and soul and strength.

The poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes,

We were all born like empty fields.
What we are now shows what has been planted.

Simon, Rachel, you are each a beautiful harvest, planted by many hands.
Some of those are here today, while some are absent in body but present in spirit.
And today you plant a new field together.
May your marriage be blessed with unimaginable abundance.

And to borrow the words of a writer describing Dante’s poetic vision of Paradise,
may the days be many when your marriage will
“not be the extinction of desire, but its constant fulfillment,
the attainment of a perfect state of equilibrium
whereby [your] soul will always receive what it desires
and will never cease desiring what it receives.”

Let me close with a poem by Jane Kenyon
which beautifully conveys the quality of married life.
There is none of the rapturous ecstasy we expect from a love lyric;
instead, we are given a quietly observant description
of the poet and her husband arriving home from a road trip.

It’s called “Coming Home at Twilight in Late Summer.”
The speaker never says “I,” only “we.”
Whatever happens, happens to both of them together.
The details are small and ordinary,
but the fact that they are shared so naturally,
like a practiced ritual,
signals the strength of the bond between the partners.

We turned into the drive,
and gravel flew up from the tires
like sparks from a fire. So much
to be done––the unpacking, the mail
and papers . . . the grass needs mowing. . . .
We climbed stiffly out of the car.
The shut-off engine ticked as it cooled.

And then we noticed the pear tree,
the limbs so heavy with fruit
they nearly touched the ground.
We went out to the meadow; our steps
made black holes in the grass;
and we each took a pear,
and ate, and were grateful.

Here is a moment of pure gift––
the ripened fruit offering itself as a sacrament of fecundity and blessing.
They might have missed it and just gone inside to get busy.
But they were in love, and love was in them.

And love always notices.

They walk out into the meadow,
and there, like communicants at the altar,
husband and wife are fed, as if by a sacred hand.

In this moment, we hear an echo of Paradise Lost:
they’re like Adam and Eve, plucking fruit in the garden.
But this time there is no fall from grace.
There is only blessing.
These lovers are not on the verge of exile.
They have come home.

. . . and we each took a pear,
and ate, and were grateful.

A Deep but Dazzling Darkness

Totality, August 21, 2017 (Photograph by Jim Friedrich)

There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear.
O for that night! where I in Him
Might live invisible and dim!

–– Henry Vaughan, “The Night”

I said to my soul, be still, and let the
dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.

–– T. S. Eliot, “East Coker”

 

The day before the August 21 solar eclipse, I drove south to Oregon, east of the Cascades, taking dusty roads through pine forests and rolling grasslands to a panoramic spot on the center line of the eclipse track, far from the madding crowd. Only eight of us had converged there––from California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska. A few more pilgrims joined our “Eclipse Camp” early next morning, but it remained peaceful and quiet as we awaited the mid-morning totality. It would be the first time for all but one of us.

Sunrise at Eclipse Camp, a few hours before totality (Photograph by Jim Friedrich)

Most people have never seen a total solar eclipse. It’s a rare thing, and often hard to get to. The sun is 400 times larger than the moon, but it is also 400 times further away from earth, making the two spheres roughly the same size in our sky. So why doesn’t the moon block the sun more often?

For one thing, the moon’s orbit around the earth is elliptical, making it larger or smaller to the eye depending on its varying proximity to earth. Only at its perigee––its closest point––does the moon appear large enough to cover the sun perfectly. Another limiting factor is that the orbital paths of earth and moon are not perfectly aligned. Since the plane of the moon’s path around the earth is tipped with respect to the plane of the earth’s orbit around the sun, the two orbits only coincide from time to time.

For this convergence of orbital planes to occur precisely during the new moon––the monthly phase when it sits between earth and sun––moon and earth must repeat a lengthy cycle of variations before everything lines up again. The average wait for a solar eclipse at any given point on earth is 375 years. Some places have to wait 4500 years for a recurrence!

Trying to comprehend all the variables of celestial motion makes my head explode. But picture the moon between earth and sun, casting a cone of shadow which culminates in a circular point just large enough to cover the sun in the eye of an earthling standing at just the right spot. If the moon isn’t at its perigee, the sun-sized point doesn’t quite reach the earth, so the eclipse, even if perfectly centered, isn’t quite total. A little bit of sun overlaps the edges of the moon in what’s called an annular eclipse. And if the moon’s orbital plane happens to be above or below that of earth’s orbit, as it often is, the cone’s shadow point misses the earth altogether.

In a total eclipse, the sun-sized tip of moon shadow sweeps across the earth at a speed ranging from 1000 mph at the equator to 2000 mph at the poles. The eclipse track is about 3000 miles long, varying in width from 167 miles to almost nothing. Since both moon and earth are in continuous motion, the shadow of perfect totality never lasts long: 7 minutes and 40 seconds at most, but usually much shorter. Where I stood in central Oregon it was 2 minutes and 5 seconds.

As both physical fact and potent symbol, the sun has long been associated with the divine: the life-giver and earth-blesser, “whose light divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning.”[1] For the premodern mind at least, this was not simply a matter of metaphorical resemblance. There was a perceived continuum between visible signs and invisible realities. Just as the physical sun illumines and warms the earth, so the heavenly sun (God) brings the light of knowledge and the warmth of love to a receptive creation. And anything in nature that produces wonder and love may be said to have something of God in it.

In such a worldview, writes Dante scholar Rocco Montano, “theologians started always from the assumption that there is a sustaining will and that in fact God operates in the world of nature as perfectly and unceasingly as in the world of grace.”[2] So it is not surprising that the sublimity of a total eclipse, registering so powerfully on the senses, has had an equal effect on religious sensibility.

The Bible contains multiple visions of eclipse-like phenomena: the sun goes dark and the moon turns to blood in prophecies of cosmic distress. And when Jesus dies on a Friday afternoon, a sudden darkness falls upon Jerusalem.

On a more existential level, John Donne, from his Anglican pulpit in 1624, described the human condition as “wintred and frozen, clouded and eclipsed, damped and benumbed, smothered and stupefied” until God should return “as the sun at noon, to illustrate all shadows.”[3]

Another 17th-century poet, Francis Quarles, employed eclipse imagery to convey his own experience of divine absence, which leaves him stumbling and lost in the dark.

Why dost thou shade thy lovely face? Oh why
Does that eclipsing hand so long deny
The sunshine of thy soul-enlivening eye?

Without that light, what light remains in me?
Thou art my life, my way, my light; in thee
I live, I move, and by thy beams I see. . .

My eyes are blind and dark, I cannot see;
To whom, or whither, should my darkness flee,
But to the light? And who’s that light but thee?[4]

The sense of eclipse can be cultural as well as personal. In the 20th century, Martin Buber famously lamented modernity’s secular disconnection from transcendence as the “eclipse of God.”

In his enigmatic 1962 film, L’Eclisse (“The Eclipse”), Michelangelo Antonioni never shows an actual eclipse, but in the last 7 minutes, just when you expect the story of two lovers to be resolved, the characters fail to appear at their usual meeting place. In fact, we never see Vittoria and Piero again. They don’t just go missing. They no longer seem to exist. All that remains, shot after shot, is their meeting place and its bleak surroundings, virtually stripped of human presence and completely devoid of narrative, as though not just God, but humanity itself has been eclipsed, leaving nothing but an unsettling absence. As Antonioni described this strange ending, a world of soulless objects “has devoured the living beings.”[5]

Totality with red solar prominences – towers of hot hydrogen gas (Photograph by Jim Friedrich)

But my own experience of total eclipse triggered no such negative resonance. It was, in fact, two minutes of pure wonder, like seeing the burning bush–– a visible experience in the physical world in perfect conjunction with a reality invisible and transcendent. For 125 seconds, when day turned to night and the solar disc, as in a film negative, became a black circle, I felt––well, pretty medieval, seeing God not only behind and beyond the natural world, but also embedded deeply within its material substance and temporal occurrence. What I saw seemed more than just a scientifically predictable conjunction of celestial bodies. What I saw was . . .

But here language fails me.

“O splendor of God,” wrote Dante after passing beyond the limits of space and time to gaze upon the eternal mystery, “grant me the power to tell of what I saw! (Paradiso xxx: 97, 99)[6] Whether the Dante who beheld the face of God was only the character “Dante” in his Commedia, or the poet himself reporting personal experience, is a never-ending debate among scholars. Whatever the case, his prayer rings true, not only for mystical adepts, but for everyone along the eclipse track who looked up with an open heart and a receptive mind to see the most awesome sight in the natural world.

How weak are words, and how unfit to frame
My concept––which lags after what was shown
So far, ‘twould flatter it to call it lame! (Paradiso xxxiii:121-23)[7]

When the last tiny sliver of sun slipped behind the moon, it was lights out. Although the ambient luminosity had been gradually diminishing into an eerie olive pallor during the hour prior to totality, the deepest dark arrived in an instant. Only the distant horizons beyond the shadow’s center retained a dusky glow, like a fading sky after sunset.

I recollect no thoughts from those two minutes, nor any awareness of duration. I can’t even account for my feelings, because my powers of observation were directed entirely, wordlessly, toward the pitch black circle––like the pupil of a great eye––with its mysteriously glowing corona. My camera was rigged to shoot automatically, leaving me free to gaze with my whole being. I remember shedding some tears, shaken by the overpowering, even numinous force of the experience. Until the sun peeked out again with a brilliant diamond flash, totality was a distinct interval of “absolutely unmixed attention.”[8]

Totality ends as the sun re-emerges with a flash. (Photograph by Jim Friedrich)

When it was over, what lingered was the overwhelming sense that I had experienced both immanence and transcendence in a single image, its roundness like a sacramental Host lifted above the altar of the world. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem too much to claim that within the visionary interval of totality my deepest longing was met by an answering Presence.

Am I just romanticizing––or theologizing––a purely sensory experience of the sublime? It may be medieval of me, but I regard the immanent as a gateway to the transcendent, not its dualistic opposite. Though the divine eludes and exceeds all forms of knowing, God is still a communicator, and wants to be known in ways which are accessible to finite beings. I believe there is no clear separation between matter and spirit, but rather a continuum where tangible, sensory experience can lead us deeper and deeper into something larger and more hidden.

The mystics, exploring the farthest reaches of spiritual experience, describe a “night of the senses,” a “deep but dazzling darkness” where our ordinary ways of knowing are obliterated by the overwhelming excess of divine Being. Metaphysical poet Francis Quarles likened his own spiritual capacities to a candle. When the sun shines, his little flame is overpowered by the immensity of divine radiance. “I am thy taper, thou my sun,” he wrote. “Yet if thy light but shine, my light is done.”

Thy sunbeams are too strong for my weak eye!
If thou but shine, how nothing, Lord, am I?
Ah! who can see thy visage, and not die![9]

We can’t stare directly at the sun without going blind. Nor can we look upon the face of God without the linguistic and sacramental equivalents of eclipse glasses. But there are moments, the Incarnation being the supreme example, when the divine radiance consents to be eclipsed in order to be fitted safely to the human eye. Then we may gaze confidently upon its veiled beauty with open and adoring eyes.

Giovanni di Paolo, Paradiso xxviii (c. 1445)

In the 15th century, Giovanni di Paolo painted exquisite illuminations for Dante’s Paradiso. In his image for Canto xxviii, Dante is kneeling to adore the divine radiance, with Beatrice floating behind him. One of the poet’s many terms for visual contemplation, vagheggiar, expresses perfectly my own engagement with the eclipse totality: “to gaze lovingly.” For Dante the sun is not veiled, nor does he wear special glasses. His is a uniquely privileged gaze. Nevertheless, each of us is invited to do the same: to gaze lovingly at the mystery of the world as our own capacities allow.

When the totality ended, I said farewell to my fellow pilgrims (passing the peace with hugs all around) and headed north on the long dusty road back to the highway. As with all transcendent experiences, “the night of meditation passes, the flesh revives, and the world’s day returns. . . The feeble spirit finds itself beclouded once again with dust.”[10]

My ride home (Photograph by Jim Friedrich)

 

[1] From “Collect for the Renewal of Life,” Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979), 99.

[2] Rocco Montano, Dante’s Thought and Poetry (Chicago: Gateway Editions, 1988), 372.

[3] John Donne, Sermon preached on the evening of Christmas Day, 1624.

[4] Francis Quarles (1592-1644), from “Wherefore Hidest Thou Thy Face,” in A Deep but Dazzling Darkness: An Anthology of Personal Experiences of God, eds. Lucy Lethbridge & Selina O’Grady (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2002), 76-77.

[5] Seymour Chatman, Antonioni: Or, The Surface of the World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 80.

[6] Paradiso trans. by Robert and Jean Hollander (New York: Doubleday, 2007)

[7] Paradise trans. by Dorothy L. Sayers & Barbara Reynolds (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Classics, 1962)

[8] Simone Weil’s memorable description of prayer.

[9] Francis Quarles, q. in R.A. Durr, “Vaughan’s ‘The Night’,” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 59, No. 1 (Jan. 1960), p. 36.

[10] Ibid., 39.

American Demons: The Horror Show in Charlottesville

Hate on the march in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 11, 2017. (Adapted from photo by Samuel Corum)

And though this world with devils filled
should threaten to undo us;
we will not fear, for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us;
the prince of darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo! his doom is sure:
one little word shall fell him.

–– Martin Luther

 

Nazis on the march in America. We recoil at this news with a sense of shock, like getting a bad diagnosis. Our first instinct is denial. Could the social body really be this sick?

Naomi Klein, writing about Trump in The Nation last month, said that we can’t really be shocked by where we find ourselves. “A state of shock,” she writes, “is produced when a story is ruptured, when we have no idea what is going on. But in so many ways, Trump is not a rupture at all, but rather the culmination––the logical end point––of a great many dangerous stories our culture has been telling for a long time. That greed is good, That the market rules. That money is what matters in life. That white men are better than the rest. That the natural world is there for us to pillage. That the vulnerable deserve their fate, and the 1 percent deserve their golden towers. . . . That we are surrounded by danger and should only look after our own. That there is no alternative to any of this.”[1]

We breathe those toxic narratives daily, she says, so a Trump presidency is no real surprise. But it is a horror story. Night has fallen, and America’s demons have come out to play.

The grotesque images of mindless anger in Charlottesville raise disturbing questions––about American society, certainly, but about human nature as well. How did those young men come to be so possessed by hatred and rage? Has the image of God been entirely erased from their twisted faces?

Richard J. Evans, examining the rise of Nazism in the 1920s, saw desperate and resentful young men being attracted to extremism and violence “irrespective of ideology.” They weren’t looking for ideas, but meaning. They desired a cure for melancholy and malaise, a pick-me-up to restore a sense of personal significance. “Violence was like a drug for such men… Often, they had only the haziest notion of what they were fighting for.” Many found a sense of heightened self in “a life of almost incessantly violent activism, suffering beatings, stabbings and arrests.” Hostility to the enemy de jour––Communists, Jews, whomever––was the core of their commitment. As one young Stormtrooper later reflected on the bonding effect of collective violence, it was all “too wonderful and perhaps too hard to write about.”[2]

Evans’ description provides clues to the pathology of white resentment and the resurgence of right-wing extremism, but explanations bring little comfort. None of us remain neutral observers, standing a safe distance from the fray. The demons are Legion, and we are all being swept along, however unwillingly, in the Gadarene rush to the cliffs of madness and destruction (cf. Mark 5:1-13).

Why is there evil? Where does it come from? The Creator spoke the world into existence, and saw that it was good. But as the old stories tell it, the world’s goodness was soon complicated by a persistent power of negation, whose source remains something of a puzzle, though some say it is the diabolic urge to reject or destroy the gifts of life as a show of independence from the Giver.

Before he became Satan, Lucifer was one of heaven’s brightest stars. But his pique over being outshone by Christ precipitated his all-out war against God. His narcissistic self-assertion refused to bow to a greater reality, and he became the archetypal image of creaturely resentment: “the gloomy angel of darkness, on whose brow shines with dim lustre the star of bitter thought, full of inner discords which can never be harmonized.”[3]

Bitter thought, inner discords. None of us is uncontaminated by this negation. At the end of his 2000-page trilogy on the rise and fall of German Nazism, Evans concludes,

The Third Reich raises in the most acute form the possibilities and consequences of the human hatred and destructiveness that exist, even if only in a small way, within all of us. It demonstrates with terrible clarity the ultimate potential consequences of racism, militarism and authoritarianism. It shows what can happen if some people are treated as less human than others. It poses in the most extreme possible form the moral dilemmas we all face at one time or another in our lives, of conformity or resistance, action or inaction in the particular situations with which we are confronted. That is why the Third Reich will not go away, but continues to command the attention of thinking people throughout the world long after it has passed into history.[4]

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky shows us this diabolical rage for destruction in Liza Khokhlakov, a sickly young woman once engaged to the saintly Alyosha Karamazov. Feeling herself in a world without God or grace, she dwells in the hell of lovelessness. “I don’t love anyone,” she insists to Alyosha. “Do you hear? Not a-ny-one.”

Dostoevsky gives this scene the title, “A Little Demon,” because Liza seems possessed––and shamed––by an annihilating spirit. “I just don’t want to do good,” she says, “I want to do evil…” Alyosha asks her, “Why do evil?” And she answers:

“So that there will be nothing left anywhere. Ah, how good it would be if there were nothing left! You know, Alyosha, I sometimes think about doing an awful lot of evil, all sorts of nasty things, and I’d be doing them on the sly for a long time, and suddenly everyone would find out. They would all surround me and point their fingers at me, and I would look at them all. That would be very pleasant. Why would it be so pleasant, Alyosha?”

Liza enjoys the fantasy of her self-loathing being confirmed by many accusers, but Alyosha refuses to take the bait. He simply responds without judgment, “Who knows? The need to smash something good, or, as you said, to set fire to something.”[5]

Nazi salute in Charlottesville, VA (August 2017). Flames added as theological commentary.

Rowan Williams finds in Liza’s words the hellish despair of a morally indifferent universe, where there is just as much self-hatred as hatred of the “other.” If there is no God, then there is no redemption or release either, “and the sense of nausea and revulsion at the self’s passion for pain and destruction is beyond healing. . . . [T]his is what Liza endures: to know the self’s fantasies of destruction or perversity and to feel there is no escape or absolution from them, to know that you are a part of a world that is irredeemable.”[6]

Is there any exit from this ludicrous horror show? What word can we speak to fell the demons? Jesus? God? Love? Although such words have been misused at times for demonic purposes, at their purest they signify the beauty for which we were made, the true Form toward which all beings tend. They drive away the powers of negation, and make our faces shine with the light of heaven. They set us free from the toxic narratives of hate, fear, domination and greed, and give us a better story, in which everything is gift and everyone is neighbor. They bring us home at last to the abundant feast of divine communion, where everything is a You and nothing is an It.[7]

Paul Evdokimov, an orthodox theologian, once suggested that the saintly characters in Dostoevsky were like “the icon in the room, a ‘face on the wall,’ a presence that does not actively engage with other protagonists but is primarily a site of manifestation and illumination. Others define themselves around and in relation to this presence.”[8]

I don’t know exactly what is being asked of God’s friends in Charlottesville, but I suspect it has something to do with embodying such a transformative and defining presence, “a site of manifestation and illumination” where others––maybe even some of those young haters––may rediscover their true Christlike faces, and begin the exodus from the perversities of this dark time into a better country and a brighter day.

 

Related posts

How far can we sink? Donald Trump and the Vortex of Rage

Can this be happening? Donald Trump and the Rise of Authoritarianism

 

 

[1] Naomi Klein, “Daring to Dream in the Age of Trump,” The Nation, July 3/10, 2017, p. 15.

[2] Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 220-21.

[3] Alexander Herzen, 19th century Russian thinker, commenting on Lucifer in Byron’s Cain, q. in Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 649.

[4] Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich at War: 1939-1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 764.

[5] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. By Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsk (New York: Vintage Classics, 1991), 585, 582.

[6] Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (London: Continuum, 2008), 70-71.

[7] Adapted from W. H. Auden, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976), 306. The original line: Everything became a You and nothing was an It.”

[8] Paraphrased in Williams, 29.

“Every common bush afire with God”

Weatherbeaten pines near the summit of Mt. Tallac.

Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries
And daub their natural faces unaware…

–  Elizabeth Barrett Browning

 

August 6th marks the Feast of the Transfiguration, that strange moment in the gospel narrative when the divine glory in Jesus is glimpsed by three disciples on the summit of a mountain. Scholars have puzzled over the strange mysticism of the story, an anomalous intrusion into the more historical tone of the gospel texts. Was it a misplaced post-resurrection story, or did the glory of heaven really blaze for a moment in an ordinary place on an ordinary afternoon?

Although some scholars locate the event on the higher, wilder summit of Mt. Hermon (9232’), tradition commemorates the story on the gently rounded crown of Mt. Tabor, a solitary knob rising 1500 feet above the Galilean plain. To the romantics among us, in love with the sublime majesty of high mountains, Tabor’s humbler setting seems an uninspired choice for a manifestation of the divine. Doesn’t the experience of divine presence require the less accessible, more transcendent heights of a Mt. Sinai, reached only with bleeding feet and gasping breath?

The lectionary readings for the Transfiguration don’t seem worried about the comparison. Sinai and Tabor are both remembered as summits where the divine presence was revealed to mortal sight. The gospel description of a cloud overshadowing the mount of Transfiguration is clearly meant to echo the theophany at Sinai. But the two mountains are in fact very different places.

Sinai is austere, barren, and forbidding, rising out of a desolate landscape that Deuteronomy aptly describes as “a terrible and waste-howling wilderness.” The mountain consists of 580 million year old red granite, overlaid by dark volcanic rock of more recent origin (ten million years ago).Travelers over the centuries have spoken of Mt. Sinai as “dark and frowning”, with its “stern, naked, splintered peaks.” One 19th century pilgrim said, “I felt as though I had come to the end of the world.”

For Moses and his people, its summit was wrapped in the Cloud of Unknowing, where human sight must become blind before it can see the divine light. It is a place apart, inhospitable to ordinary life and everyday knowledge. Its mystery remains hidden from the casual quest. “The knowledge of God,” said Gregory of Nyssa, “is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb.”

The Israelites were smart enough to know this. They stayed down in the valley where it was safe. Even there, the thunder and lightning around the peak made them shudder. The Exodus text says that just touching the edge of the mountain could kill you. So they were happy to let Moses go up alone. As one ancient writer put it, he “left behind every divine light, every voice, every word from heaven, to plunge into the darkness where the One dwells who is beyond all things.”

Medieval mystics said that on the summit, inside the cloud, Moses fell asleep in a supreme self-forgetfulness. Whatever he saw up there was beyond words, but the description of Moses descending is unforgettable: the skin of his face shone because he had been talking to God. The Israelites were afraid to come near him until he had veiled his face.

This is a story about the otherness of God, the one whose incomprehensible mystery is utterly beyond our world, beyond our knowing, beyond our grasp.

In choosing Tabor as the site to commemorate the Transfiguration, tradition has invoked God’s less forbidding aspect. Tabor is what geologists call a monadnock, a native American word for “mountain that stands alone.” Resistant to the erosion that reduced its surroundings to a low plain, its solitary rounded shape draws the eye from miles around. Set in a fertile portion of the Galilee, it is adorned with grasses, shrubs, and groves of pine, oak, and cypress. Where Sinai is fierce and forbidding, Tabor is gentle and welcoming, pleasant and hospitable. Its modest scale and cheerful greenness made me feel at home when I climbed it nearly thirty years ago.

The attributed setting of the Transfiguration is very different, then, from Sinai; but so are the details in the gospel text. Instead of a dark cloud, there is a clear, bright light. Instead of an unspeakable mystical experience by a solitary Moses, there is a describable vision to which several disciples are witnesses. And instead of requiring a long and arduous pilgrimage to a distant place, the Transfiguration takes place in the familiar geography of the disciples’ home turf.

In other words, this gospel story is about the immanence of God, the presence of the divine in the very midst of our stories, not just at their remotest edges. We don’t have to leave where we are in order to find God. God can be found right here, where we are living our lives. Epiphanies come in unexpected places. God may be found in the humblest dwelling.

Recently I climbed one of my own favorite summits––Mt. Tallac, which at nearly ten thousand feet towers above Fallen Leaf Lake in California’s Sierra Nevada. When I was a child, we took family vacations at the lake, spending a week every summer in a rented cabin. While we rarely ventured far from the water, Tallac always loomed above us like a beckoning power, and even as a small boy I felt its summons. I was about ten when I finally made it to the top, and I have returned a number of times since. As a young man, I went up by moonlight to watch the sun rise over Lake Tahoe. In middle age, I ascended at sunset to view a lunar eclipse.

This time, there was no celestial display, and certainly no mountaintop theophany. The only words I was given at the top came from a conversation between two young women who were starting back down. As they passed me, I only heard one sentence: “Was she drunk at the time?” What could I make of such an oracle? On this hike, all my mountain revelations would turn out to be nonverbal.

“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days,” exclaimed Sierran saint John Muir, “inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God.” And on my 12-mile Tallac pilgrimage,  there were many windows indeed.

The journey up the mountain begins gently, along the banks of Glen Aulin.

Checker-mallow halfway up Mt. Tallac.

Jeffrey pine west of Tallac.

Wooly mule ears, looking west from Mt. Tallac.

A marmot at the summit.

Lake Tahoe from the top of Mt. Tallac.

More than halfway down the steep side, a view of Fallen Leaf Lake and journey’s end.

Anglican poet-priest R. S. Thomas described a natural epiphany of his own in “The Bright Field.” At first it seemed a common enough sight: the sun breaking through clouds to illuminate a small meadow. The image quickly slipped from his mind as he went on his way. But in retrospect he realized that the gift of that moment had been “the pearl / of great price, the one field that had / the treasure in it.” If only he had been prepared to give it his full attention.

Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

If only we too would turn aside from our headlong forward rush to notice the illuminations strewn along our way. As I made my descent from Tallac’s summit, taking a steeper, shorter return route to Fallen Leaf, I was less prone to dally. There were snowfields and rockslides to cross, and I needed to reach Fallen Leaf Lake before sunset. Halfway down I spied a magnificent corn lily nested in a thicket about twenty feet from the trail. In my haste I almost passed it by. But then my soul stepped on the brakes, and I turned aside to behold the miracle of its beauty. I waded through the brush for a closer look. Was it “only” a corn lily, veratrum californicum, or was it, as the poets and mystics say, an epiphany “afire with God?”

Corn lily on the southern slope of Mt. Tallac.

 

Related posts:

The Light We May Not See: Thoughts on Dust and Transfiguration

The Woven Light: Reflections on the Transfiguration

Everything Changed, Nothing Changed (Summer of Love, Part 3)

Victor Moscoso poster (1967)

The riptide of The Revolution went out with the same force it had surged in with, the ferocious undertow proportionate to the onetime hopes.

– Todd Gitlin[i]

Everything changed; the world turned holy;
and nothing changed:
There being nothing to change or needing
change; and everything
Still to change and be changed….

– Thomas McGrath[ii]

In The Limey (1999), a Steven Soderbergh film set in contemporary Los Angeles, Peter Fonda plays Terry Valentine, an aging pop music producer, now cynical and corrupt, for whom the idealism of the Sixties is a very distant memory. His young girlfriend asks him what it was really like back then. “Mmm,” she murmurs. “It must have been a time, huh. A golden moment.”

Lem Dobbs’ fine script gives Valentine a wistful reply. “Have you ever dreamed about a place you never really recalled being to before? A place that maybe only really exists in your imagination? Some place far away, half-remembered when you wake up. When you were there, though, you knew the language. You knew the way around. That was the Sixties.” He pauses, frowning slightly as his disillusion kicks in. “No. It wasn’t that either. It was just ’66––and early ’67. That’s all it was.”

When did “the Sixties” end? Kent State (1970)? The Summer of Love (1967)? Or in the helter skelter of Charles Manson (1969), when we “looked into Manson’s eyes and saw in those dark caves what we most feared within ourselves, the paranoia of what might happen if you go too far.”[iii]

Zebra Man (1966), Stanley Mouse & Alton Kelley.

On New Year’s Eve, 1969, I fled an uninspired party and drove to the beach. I wanted to give the last hours of the Sixties my undivided attention. I parked in one of those big empty lots in Santa Monica, in a pool of lamplight where the asphalt meets the sand. I propped my journal against the steering wheel and began to write whatever I could remember about my own Sixties. Out in the darkness, a hundred yards away, the tide was going out, wave by wave.

Just before midnight, a police car pulled up next to me. The officer got out, walked over to my window, and aimed a flashlight at my face. In those days, the Zodiac Killer was on the loose, and a single young man parked all alone at the beach on New Year’s Eve was a definite person of interest.

– What are you doing out here?
– Writing in my journal.
– Mind if I take a look?
– Sure. Why not?

Even then, I was eager for readers. He flipped the pages, reading a few lines out loud. He smiled faintly and shook his head. Lucky for me, it wasn’t the sort of thing a serial killer would write. He handed back my journal and wished me a Happy New Year. By then it was 1970.

Whenever the Sixties did end, and the high tide of cultural upheaval, political activism, youthful idealism and millennial hope began to run out, many were left to wonder what it had all meant. Was it a dead end, or a door opening into something larger and more lasting? Did it change the world? Did it change our lives?

Alice Jaundice (1968), David Warren

Writing about the utopian social experiments of Haight-Ashbury, Charles Perry asked, “How did you deal with the fact that the million visions of the possibilities of life you saw were humiliatingly tied to the perversely unchanging self you brought into the experience?”[iv] And in soliciting the reflections of Sixties people 20 years after the Summer of Love, Annie Gottlieb tried to address her own questions about the decade’s long-term effects on their lives: “Where are the millions of comrades in each other’s arms, the warm bodies that packed every rock concert, college campus, and demonstration, the tattered and colorful armies of love? Forever dispersed into castles of bourgeois comfort and pockets of principled despair?”[v] 8

But as many of us have learned, resignation and despair are not the only options. We may have lost our innocence about the world––and about the traces of darkness in our own hearts––but we are still prisoners of hope. Our formative glimpses of a new heaven and a new earth may have come and gone, but their influence still lingers. However chastened or weary we may be, a sense of expectation remains. What Jesus called the Kingdom of God is a future of human flourishing and divine blessing that still pulls on us with gravitational force. Its current absence doesn’t dim our faith. It only intensifies our longing.

  • Part of the message board at the Psychedelic Shop, Haight-Ashbury (1967)

So when I consider the transformative dimension of the Sixties, and the ache of its disappearing, I call to mind a late summer morning in 1969, when I was awakened at dawn by a pounding on my door. It was the Rev. Craig Hammond, one of my colleagues in campus ministry at the University of Michigan. “The circus is in town!” he said. “If we help them raise the tent this morning, they’ll give us free tickets for tonight’s show.” I threw on some clothes and hurried to join my friends at the circus grounds. And so it was that I was admitted that night––absolutely free––to a world of wonders and impossibilities.

Display at the “Summer of Love Experience” exhibition (2017), De Young Museum, San Francisco

One of the things I remember most is my sense of letdown the next day, after the circus moved on. Where I had seen trapeze artists defy physical law and visual probability, and witnessed clowns die and rise again, there was now but an empty field. Like the Kingdom of God, the circus comes and goes. Its appearance is sudden and brief. And you can’t hold on to it. You can only look for its coming again.

At our campus worship service the following Sunday, I reflected on this analogous relationship:

It’s nearly useless to talk about it now. In a matter of days, it has faded like a dream. The powers set free within its tents seem but idle fancies. The attempt to talk now about the CIRCUS, so soon after its vanishing, comes with a price––acknowledgement of my separation from it.

And yet, it touched us as it passed, its mad motions opened a space between the calm routines and resignations of our everyday lives, allowing us the briefest glimpse of the darkness and the dance of divinity.

But the kingdom is not yet, and we are condemned for the moment to remain audience only. The circus priests of pain an laughter stand on the other side of an unbridgeable divide, though for a day and a night they seemed so very near. When the next morning found no trace of them, we tried to forget as best we could.

But we didn’t forget. Not really. In fact, when our worship team was invited soon afterward to curate a liturgy for a special “General Convention” of the Episcopal Church in South Bend, Indiana, we were inspired to employ circus imagery and metaphors in the construction of the ritual.

In the ordinary round of Episcopal business, a national gathering of clergy and lay representatives happens every three years, but this Convention was summoned in an off-year to address critical issues and questions posed to the Church by the struggles and tensions of the Sixties. The discussions would focus particularly on race, women, and war. A certain amount of disagreement and polarization was anticipated, and we had been given the mission of making ritual to move people from a place of difference into an experience of shared celebration.

We were scheduled to follow an evening concert in a coffeehouse setting, where about 400 people were seated around large tables. There were no obvious signs that a liturgy was about to happen––no procession forming at the back of the hall, no clergy vested in bright robes, no worship booklets distributed. Some began to wonder whether the liturgy, publicized only by mimes handing out flyers at lunchtime, was just an unfounded rumor.

Then the lights went down. A spotlight shone on the stage, where a lone figure came from behind the curtain to give the Ringmaster’s pitch: Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! See the eschaton under the big top! Three rings of grace! Come one, come all, everybody welcome! It seemed meet and right that this Ringmaster, a priest from Washington, D.C., happened to be P.T. Barnum’s great-grandson.

The spotlight switched off, and in the darkness an anonymous voice (in fact the Presiding Bishop, John Hines), read the gathering prayer: God of the Circus, Lord of the Dance, open our eyes to see your show when it comes to town. Amen.

The sermon featured a projection of photographs I had taken at the circus mixed with images of the human condition in the great circus of history, set to the music of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row.” At communion, the reception of bread and wine was followed by an anointing of each communicant with white clown makeup. Finally, after singing “I Shall Be Released,” we made a joyous communal dance.

Afterward, I wrote in my journal:

Now all of us had become the circus­­––we ourselves were the elephants, the high wire artists, the clowns––the circus in us, the circus through us. I saw monks weeping and bishops dancing, and for one bright moment there were a great many things which no longer mattered very much in the light of this One Big Thing.

 

The Summer of Love Experience, De Young Museum, San Francisco

All the photographs were taken July 20th at “The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion and Rock & Roll,” featuring a wealth of artifacts on the 50th anniversary of the Summmer of Love. It continues at San Francisco’s De Young Museum, close to Haight-Ashbury, through August 20th. Pilgrims will be richly rewarded.

Related posts:

“I wanted heaven now” (Summer of Love Part 1)

Something’s Happening Here: Summer of Love (Part 2)

 

 

[i] Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1987), 420.

[ii] Thomas McGrath, Letter to an Imaginary Friend (Chicago: Swallow, 1970, p. 95), q. in Gitlin, p. 420.

[iii] David R. Williams, Searching for God in the Sixties (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2010), 215.

[iv] Charles Perry, The Haight-Ashbury: A History (New York: Wenner Books, 2005), 263-4

[v] Annie Gottlieb, Do You Believe in Magic? The Second Coming of the Sixties Generation (New York: Times Books, 1987), 8.

 

Something’s Happening Here: Summer of Love (Part 2)

Still from Cancel My Subscription, a film by Jim Friedrich (1967)

I am the Messiah. I’ve come down to preach love to the world. We’re going to walk through the streets and teach people to stop hating.

– Allen Ginsberg, after dropping acid at Timothy Leary’s house[i]

Can you picture what will be
So limitless and free
Desperately in need of some stranger’s hand
In a desperate land –
Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain
And all the children are insane
All the children are insane
Waiting for the summer rain

– Jim Morrison, “The End”

I spent the Summer of Love in a mental hospital ten miles from Disneyland. On my first day, I walked into the glass-walled staff booth overlooking the ward room to introduce myself. A stern-faced nurse moved quickly to block my way. “This is for staff only,” she said. “Please go back out to the ward.”

I gave her my best smile. “Um, actually, I’m going to be your chaplain intern for the summer.” Her expression froze while she took this in. Only her eyes moved, slowly scanning me from head to toe. My appearance clearly said “mental patient”––long hair, suede cowboy jacket, Beatles boots, no tie. A chaplain? The cognitive dissonance was frying her circuits. “I’ll get the doctor,” she said curtly.

The ward psychiatrist seemed amused. He told me I didn’t have to cut my hair. “Just put on a tie, and people will know you’re not a patient.” Was the boundary between sane and insane really so slight––just ­­a narrow strip of colored silk?

In the Sixties, boundaries were no longer what they used to be. It was a time to tear down the walls, break on through to the other side, explore the wildness beyond the prison house of the social imaginary. It’s a mythic quest as old as the biblical exodus from slavery to the Promised Land, and its American lineage goes back to the Puritans, Utopians and Transcendentalists.

“Let us….work and wedge our feet downward,” urged Thoreau, “through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance….till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place which we can call reality.”[ii] The Sixties at their best fostered this kind of aspirational, transformative work.

And I opened my heart to the whole universe
And I found it was loving
And I saw the great blunder my teachers had made:
Scientific delirium madness

– The Byrds, “Fifth Dimension”

In reading Charles Perry’s fascinating history of the Haight-Ashbury phenomenon (published 17 years after the Summer of Love), I was struck by the degree to which even the chaotic extremes of play and pleasure were grounded in serious intent. The sobermindedness of New Left activists was easy to see: Let’s get to work, fight the oppressors, and change the world, no matter how long it takes. But the seriousness of the “psychedelic community” of Haight-Ashbury, cloaked in levity and joy, was harder for outsiders to fathom: Let’s be a new kind of world here and now, they declared––tolerant, communal, liberated from money and convention, celebratory, blissful, loving, peaceful, whimsical, turned on and tuned in to the infinite harmony of Being.

As Perry writes, many of the ideas and practices of the Haight “held out the promise that this world is an illusion as conceived––the real world is here and now, but it is as different from what appears to be the real world as being stoned is from being straight, and it’s just around some mysterious corner. Creating a grand synthesis often revolved around finding a verbal formula that would unite everything, if only verbally; the word ‘together,’ which could suggest being organized and effective in one’s personal life as well as united with other people spiritually or politically, or even united with God, came in for heavy use.”[iii]

One resident of the Haight described “a super-curiosity on the street in ‘66. We thought there was going to be a breakthrough, and that it was imminent. I thought, There might be some room in this neighborhood where they’ve found a tunnel out. So I got into as many scenes as I could.”[iv]

Those scenes really started in 1965, when I was a junior at Stanford, 45 minutes down the Peninsula from San Francisco. I’d go up to the City to hear Jefferson Airplane at the Matrix, or the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore. I didn’t do drugs––I was wary of their downside, and didn’t really believe in their necessity––but my capacity for attentive wonder and ecstatic play caused some to think I must be on something. I did attend one of Ken Kesey’s “Acid Tests,” where I joined people beating a resonant metal sculpture with sticks for an hour or so. I didn’t know they were all on LSD. I thought they were performing an experiment in noise music.

The author in 1966.

By the time the San Francisco scene really heated up in late ’66, I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, studying theology and working as a youth minister in a local parish. When a friend at Harvard organized a West-Coast style be-in the next spring, I took my youth group to share the experience. In the theatrical spirit of the times, it seemed just the thing to wear costumes from the church Christmas pageant. So it was that Mary and Joseph, shepherds and Wise Men danced hand in hand with hippies and flower children on the banks of the Charles River. Afterward, I took the teenagers, still in costume, to hear a lecture at Harvard by the controversial Episcopal bishop, James Pike. Our biblical couture made quite an impression when we entered the packed hall.

By June of ‘67 I was back home in southern California, doing the mental hospital gig and, in my free time, experiencing L.A.’s own Summer of Love. I danced to the Byrds, the Doors, and Love, wore flowers in my hair at be-ins, saw young girls coming to the canyons, and made a trippy experimental film. Meanwhile, a seminary friend was helping to feed and house 150 young people per night at a West Hollywood church. Like the 75,000 pilgrims to San Francisco, they had come in search of the Land of Peace and Love. My 80-year-old grandmother organized the ladies of her retirement home to make them sandwiches.

I managed to get up to the Haight once that summer. A friend gave me his brother’s imaginative depiction of the Jefferson Airplane as characters in Alice in Wonderland. “If you run into [their manager] Bill Graham,” I was instructed, “show it to him and ask if he’d consider it for their next album cover.” And when I arrived at the corner of Haight and Ashbury, there was Graham, and with him the Airplane’s lead singer Marty Balin. They politely declined the drawing. A year after the Sixties ended, the artist would die of a heroin overdose.

In 1967, the ubiquitous music, crowded dance floors, playful be-ins, alternative newspapers and distinctive dress were the most public evidence that “something’s happening here,” but in the Haight you could pick up the communal vibe by just walking the streets, sharing a free meal with the Diggers, hanging out in the art-shaped environments of the local stores and eateries, or grooving on “Hippie Hill.” As Perry summarizes, “it seemed that all this energy had to lead to something amazing.”[v]

And did it? Or was it a doomed vision with no lasting effect? We’ll wonder about that in my next post. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with an inspirational word from Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s an experience I wish I could have given my charges at the hospital, an emergence into clarity to which we all might aspire:

And when the fog was finally swept from my head, it seemed like I’d just come up after a long, deep dive, breaking the surface after being under water a hundred years.[vi]

 

 

 

Related post:“I Wanted Heaven Now”- Remembering the Summer of Love in America’s Time of Trial

 

[i] David R. Williams, Searching for God in the Sixties (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2010), 109.

[ii] Henry David Thoreau, Walden: One Hundred Fiftieth Anniversary Edition (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2004), 82-3

[iii] Charles Perry, The Haight-Ashbury: A History (New York: Wenner Books, 2005), 257.

[iv] Greg Riesner, quoted in Perry, 257.

[v] Perry, 264.

[vi] Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in Williams, 40.