To Plough and Harrow the Soul: The Shared Work of Art and Faith

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna and Child with Singing Angels (1477), Gemaeldegalerie, Berlin

[Art] makes us see in new and different ways, below the surface and beyond the obvious. Art opens up the truth hidden and within the ordinary; it provides a new entrance into reality and pushes us through that entrance. It leads us to what is really there and really going on. Far from subjective, it pierces the opaque subjectivity, the not seeing, of conventional life, of conventional viewing, and discloses reality.[i]

– Langdon Gilkey

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.[ii]

– Andrei Tarkovsky

 

In the blood-soaked trenches of World War I, a young German chaplain found respite from horror and death by looking at reproductions of great art in tattered magazines. Even in black and white, faintly viewed by candlelight, the images revealed to him “the existence of beauty.” As soon as the war ended, he went straight to the art museum in Berlin to see, for the first time, one of the paintings which had comforted him in battle: Botticelli’s Madonna and Child with Singing Angels.

Gazing up at it, I felt a state approaching ecstasy. . . As I stood there, bathed in the beauty its painter had envisioned so long ago, something of the divine source of all things came through to me. I turned away shaken … I believe there is an analogy between revelation and the way I felt … the experience goes beyond the way we encounter reality in our daily lives. It opens up depths experienced in no other way.[iii]

Ten years later, in 1927, a middle-aged Canadian painter saw an exhibition of modernist landscapes by the celebrated “Group of Seven.” That night she wrote in her journal:

Oh, God, what have I seen? Where have I been? Something has spoken to the very soul of me, wonderful, mighty, not of this world. Chords way down in my being have been touched. . . Something has called out of somewhere. Something in me is trying to answer.[iv]

The young German, Paul Tillich, would become one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, while Emily Carr, at age 56, would begin her most productive period as a painter, exploring the unique spirituality of Canadian landscapes.

Tillich and Carr each had a powerful, life-changing experience in the presence of paintings. Were they describing a religious experience or an aesthetic one? Whatever distinctions might be made between the religious and aesthetic dimensions of each encounter, what they had in common was the fundamental dynamic of revelation: call and response.

 Something has called out of somewhere.
Something in me is trying to answer.

 

Lawren Harris, North Shore, Lake Superior (1926)

Art, like religion, addresses us, hoping for a response. Art, like religion, wants to take us “deeper and deeper into the world.”[v] Art and Christianity have sometimes acted like rivals, but they really share a common task––to rescue us from what David Foster Wallace called “our tiny skull-sized kingdoms,”[vi] and awaken us to larger realities.

Gary Indiana, in his appreciation of the transcendental cinema of Robert Bresson, put it this way:

You go to a work of art and hope to be transformed. Quietly, secretly, to be roused from a waking sleep, agitated at some resonant depth in your psyche, shown something you couldn’t have shown yourself. Bresson shocks you into reconsidering your whole existence.[vii]

Not everyone welcomes this kind of engagement in art – or in religion, for that matter. Many would prefer art to remain a harmless commodity, a decoration, an amusement. The average time a museum visitor spends in front of a painting is about fifteen seconds. As for religion, how many churchgoers want a worship service to shock them into reconsidering their whole existence?

Once upon a time in the West, there was no such thing as religious art.[viii] There were simply religious beliefs and practices involving images, words, music, singing, architecture, drama and movement. But with the waning of the Middle Ages, art began to lose its preoccupation with sacred stories and theological themes. Artists turned their attention to the human being, the natural world, material objects and daily life, even as churches of the Reformation, wary of idolatry, began to strip images and ornaments from their places of worship.

Thus the typical modern narrative of art history shows religious concerns and perspectives being left in the dust with the rise of secular culture. The modern artist was expected to ignore religion or to mock it. Christian subjects and symbols, no longer a living language for many, began to lose their hold on the imaginative life of the West. Museums replaced churches as sites of popular devotion. And conventional wisdom concluded that good artists were not religious and religious artists were not good.

Barnett Newman’s fierce manifesto in 1948 declared art’s absolute independence from religious tradition:

We do not need the obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated legend. We are creating images whose reality is self-evident and which are devoid of the props and crutches that evoke associations with outmoded images, both sublime and beautiful. 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. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life’, we are making them out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.[ix]

Some of that same antipathy lingers today. When a symposium on art and religion was held a few years ago, two prominent art critics refused to attend. They said it would be too “painful” to sit at a table where people talk about religion and art at the same time.[x]

Christians have made their own contribution to the divide. They have not always been comfortable with the questioning spirit and expressive freedom of artists. And many churches are simply out of touch with contemporary art, failing to regard engagement with the arts as a significant spiritual practice. Nor do they foster dialogue––or collaboration––with local artists, closing the door to the possibilities of mutual exchange.

But contemporary Christianity’s greatest failing with respect to the arts may be a lack of imagination––in our worship, our formation practices, and our theological conversations. Gerhard Richter, one of the world’s most celebrated living artists, thinks “the church is no longer adequate as a means of affording experience of the transcendental and of making religion real—and so art has been transformed from a means into the sole provider of religion.”[xi] It is a troubling indictment, and I hope we can prove him wrong with a rebirth of vision and wonder in our common life.

Meanwhile, the whole tired narrative of art leaving religion behind is being reexamined. A close look at the writings and conversations of modern and contemporary artists reveals a continuing interest in the transcendent, the numinous, and the sacramental. A lot of artists may have stopped going to church or painting traditional religious subjects, but few have ever abandoned the search for meaning or depth of presence in their work.[xii]

Many iconic figures of modern art openly recognized the spirituality of their work. “I want to paint men and women,” wrote Vincent van Gogh, “with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to communicate by the actual radiance and vibration of our coloring.”[xiii] Jean Miró hoped painting could “discover the religious essence, the magical significance of things.”[xiv] Mark Rothko believed that both the making and the viewing of his intensely colored canvases had a sacred dimension: “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”[xv]

Roger Wagner, Menorah (1993)

There are an increasing number of well-respected Christian visual artists, such as Roger Wagner, Makoto Fujimura, and Terrence Malick, who are exploring Christian subjects, stories and symbols with fresh eyes and astonishing means. Many others, though not active in faith communities, still find in Christianity a deep language for the big questions of identity, purpose, and suffering.

The persistence of Christian subjects and images, despite the immense erosion of the Church’s cultural presence, is exemplified in the case of Barnett Newman. Only ten years after his manifesto against the “outmoded images” of western art and religion (quoted above), he began to paint one of the sacred masterpieces of modern art: Stations of the Cross (1958-1966). In fourteen large abstract canvases of minimal content, he explored Christ’s anguished scream from the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Newman called it “the unanswerable cry,” and in each of those paintings, often with only a thin black line in tension with––even overwhelmed by––the empty space around it, he questions our place in the larger whole. What does it mean to exist, to suffer, to desire? Are we alone, ignored, or loved?

Barnett Newman, Stations of the Cross, First Station (Jesus is Condemned)

Ultimately, it is not just the intentions or beliefs of the artists, nor their chosen subjects and styles, which make their art religious, for “any art that helps us penetrate the surface of things is religious, regardless of content or creator.”[xvi]  And whether art is a mirror of the human condition, a window into beauty both immanent and transcendent, or a hammer to shatter our complacencies, it shares many of the tasks and effects of religion.

Art and faith are, each in their own way:

  • Transformative: opening us up to the otherness of worlds beyond our isolated egos.
  • Revelatory: showing us what might otherwise remain invisible (suffering and injustice as well as more sublime realities).
  • Sacramental: making present to our senses the depth and beauty of a world “charged with the grandeur of God.”
  • Relational: connecting us with “Something” that not only desires to be known, but wants to address us.
  • Prophetic: making it impossible to avert our eyes from pain, suffering and injustice.
  • Formative: teaching us how to be receptive and pay the deepest attention.

Art and faith, then, are fundamentally allies, though they may not always act like it. Deepening the connections between them is, I believe, part of the Spirit’s dance. Or as Cirque du Soleil’s Michel Laprise puts the question:

A bridge to a new dimension? A magnetic portal to an invisible world? Yes! Why not? The Valley of Possible Impossibles, where dreams are on standby … waiting to be ushered into the now Abandoned dreams, collective dreams, mad, mad, mad utopian dreams … the unconscious into the conscious. Duality! Oneness!

Let the journey begin… [xvii]

 

Cirque du Soleil, Kurios (photo by Jim Friedrich)

 

Related posts

Do Not Fear: Reflections on the Venice Colloquium

“The artist formerly known as priest”

 

[i] Langdon Gilkey, “Can Art Fill the Vacuum?” in Art, Creativity, and the Sacred: An Anthology in Religion and Art, ed. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona (New York: Crossroad, 1984), 189-90.

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

[iii] Paul Tillich, q. in On Art and Architecture, ed. John Dillenberger and Jane Dillenberger (New York: Crossroad, 1987), 234-5.

[iv] Emily Carr, Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of an Artist (Toronto: Irwin Publishing, 1966), 6.

[v] Mary Oliver, “The Journey,” in New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982), 114-5.

[vi] David Foster Wallace, This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009), 117.

[vii] Gary Indiana, “Movie Rites,” Artforum (April 2000, v38 i8).

[viii] See Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997)

[ix] Barnett Newman, “The Sublime is Now,” Tiger’s Eye (Dec. 1948), reprinted in The Sublime (Ed. Simon Morley, Documents of Contemporary Art, London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2010), 27.

[x] Re-Enchantment, ed. James Elkins & David Morgan (New York & London: Routledge, 2009), 110

[xi] Gerhard Richter: Text, Writing, Interviews and Letters, 1961-2007 (London: Thames & Hudson, 2009), 34.

[xii] Charlene Spretnak’s extensive documentation in The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) makes the case persuasively.

[xiii] Spretnak, 40.

[xiv] Ibid., 102.

[xv] Ibid., 129.

[xvi] Daniel A. Siedell, God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 164.

[xvii] Michel Laprise, Workbook for Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities (2014)

Temporary Resurrection Zones

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.

– Revelation 21:1

We can’t create a world we haven’t yet imagined. Better if we’ve already tasted it.

– Beautiful Trouble[i]

At the Last Supper, with less than 24 hours to live, Jesus took the time to go around the room and wash the feet of every disciple. Then he asked all of them to do the same when he was gone. “You must wash each other’s feet,” he said. “I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you” (John 13:14-15). He could have been speaking metaphorically. Maybe “wash each other’s feet” simply meant that they should always serve one another in loving humility.

But I suspect Jesus wanted them to repeat the footwashing not just as a reminder of his message, but because there is something you can only learn when you kneel at the foot of another, take their foot in your hands, and pour water over it. And there is something you can only know when you let someone kneel before you and minister to you as a living icon of Christ, who emptied himself and took the form of a slave.

Thankfully, the Church has preserved footwashing in its Holy Week rituals, and every year this archaic act, with its egalitarian model of mutual love, posits its quiet but tangible challenge to the social order. In our own time, Pope Francis has used the rite to embrace the marginalized, including prisoners, immigrants and Muslims. Church history abounds with similar examples.

In medieval England, some of the poor were invited into the Canterbury cloister every Maundy Thursday afternoon. Then the monks would make an entrance, each standing face to face with one of their impoverished guests. An eleventh-century text describes the remarkable scene:

Then the prior shall strike the board thrice at the abbot’s command,
and genuflecting and bowing down they shall adore Christ in the poor.

Once each monk had washed and dried the feet of the person before him, he bent to kiss each foot with extraordinary reverence. As C.S. Lewis once put it: Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses…for in him Christ is truly hidden.

One of my favorite footwashing stories took place in Madrid’s Royal Chapel in the mid-nineteenth century. The king and queen entered dressed in all their finery. Seated on two separate platforms were twelve poor men and twelve poor women, all of them old, dressed in fresh clothing provided by the monarchs. The king knelt to wash the men’s feet while the queen, adorned with white mantilla and diamond diadem, did the same for the women. And while the queen was washing one woman’s feet, her diamond bracelet slipped off her wrist into the basin of water. The poor woman reached down to retrieve it, and held it out to the queen. But the queen told her, “Keep it, hija mija; it is your luck.”[ii]

I don’t know what was in the queen’s heart at that moment, nor is there any record of the poor woman’s thoughts. The incident was only the briefest ripple on the placid surface of the status quo. The social order quickly resumed its accustomed injustice, and the queen probably had plenty of spare diamonds in her chamber. Her generous act may have been little more than a display of superior power and wealth.

Still, it was a tiny crack in the accustomed order, offering a glimpse of a better world beyond the consensus reality. Jesus knew what he was doing when he told us to keep washing each other’s feet. Rinse, repeat. Maybe someday the ritual’s radical implications will dawn on us and we’ll work to change the way we live together.

Activists have a term for what Jesus did in the footwashing: prefigurative Intervention. It is an action which dissents from the dominant order by showing a different way of being and relating. Beautiful Trouble, a handbook for creative activism (reviewed in my last post), describes it this way: “The goal of a prefigurative intervention is twofold: to offer a compelling glimpse of a possible, and better, future, and also––slyly or baldly––to point up the poverty of imagination of the world we actually do live in.”[iii]

Instead of a direct assault on the existing order, create an alternative experience attractive enough to lure people toward something better. This is the premise underlying the Eucharist, where an alternative world of welcome, inclusion, abundance and communion is proposed at least once a week around the world.

Hakim Bey, a Sufi poet, scholar, and “anarcho-immediatist,” has called for the creation of “temporary autonomous zones”–– “an eruption of free culture” where alternative futures may be experienced, if only briefly. Instead of simply waiting for large-scale historical change to arrive, why not create ephemeral spaces and moments where something different can be experienced? “Are we who live in the present doomed never to experience autonomy, never to stand for one moment on a bit of land ruled only by freedom?”[iv]

A simple example would be PARK(ing) Day, when people in American cities put enough coins in parking meters to buy curbside spaces for a day, turning them into a mini-park with a tiny pool, a little jazz lounge, or some other variation where people can discover a different way of inhabiting public space in a temporary respite from automobiles and bureaucratic planning. More elaborate and challenging “prefigurative interventions” were the famous encampments in Wall Street and Tahrir Square, enabling large numbers of people to imagine that another reality might be achievable.

As the writers of Beautiful Trouble make clear, the “idea is not to paint a pretty picture full of rainbows and unicorns, but to put forward a fragment of something visionary, desirable, and just beyond the realm of the possible––and in such a way that your action calls out the vested interests making it impossible.”[v]

One of my favorite examples is a series of intervention called “small gifts.”  The one described in Beautiful Trouble––“take what you need, give what you can”–– created a space for “conversation and generosity” in a busy shopping area. The three British artists who curated this action sought answers to the following questions:

What would our world look like if we exchanged gifts rather than money?
What is the value in speaking to strangers?
What if we focused on giving as much as we can rather than as little?

They set up a dining table and chairs in a busy shopping area, and made one hundred tiny envelopes containing a one-pound coin, a written question, and an invitation to use the coin to make, find or buy something to bring back to the table. Then the artists began to offer the envelopes to passersby. Anyone who accepted an envelope became part of the conversation. And if they then used their coin to bring something back to the table, they were asked to share the question in their envelope to prompt conversation with those already there. And all were welcome to share in whatever was on the table at the moment.

“Give what you can, take what you need” gift envelope with pound note (Photo by Rani Shah)

This improvised sharing of food, conversation and gift-giving not only created community in a place of alienation and anonymity, it stimulated rich exchanges about “generosity, value and ownership” while avoiding the divisiveness of overt political discourse.[vi] It was also, I would suggest, an enacted parable of the heavenly banquet.

The Church is always wondering how to do its work in the world. It’s not enough to stay within our walls and hope the world drops by from time to time. We need to take our gifts into the wider community, to make prefigurative interventions in intentional and creative ways. Some churches do “Ashes To Go,” anointing busy urbanites on street corners and transit stations on Ash Wednesday. Others offer to wash the feet of strangers on Maundy Thursday, or celebrate the eucharist in parks with the homeless. Some join forces with community leaders and organizers to serve the poor, alleviate hunger and homelessness, and advocate for political change and economic justice.

These are all really great ministries, but I hope we will also be inspired to go beyond what we already know and do, to invent a whole multitude of imaginative and alluring ways to interrupt the blind sufferings of history with temporary resurrection zones and divine interventions. We need both to learn from and collaborate with the artists and creatives who are already out there ahead of us, announcing in their own diverse idioms that God’s future is not only on its way, it might already be available in the here and now.

Related posts 

Unsilent Night: An Advent Revelation

“Delightful! Wonderful! Incomparable!” – Thoughts about Holy Spaces

[i] Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution, “Assembled” by Andrew Boyd with Dave Oswald Mitchell (New York/London: OR Books, 2016), 84

[ii] James Monti, The Week of Salvation: History and Traditions of Holy Week (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1993)

[iii] Beautiful Trouble, 82

[iv] ibid., 270

[v] ibid., 83

[vi] ibid., 360-63

“The artist formerly known as priest”

Text:Robert Bresson; Calligraphy: Br. Roy Parker OHC

Text:Robert Bresson; Calligraphy: Br. Roy Parker OHC

We are all artists, we are all storytellers. We all have to live by art, it’s our daily bread… And we should thank the gods for great artists who draw away the veil of anxiety and selfishness and show us, even for a moment, another world…. and tell us a little bit of truth.”

— Iris Murdoch [i]

In the strict sense, of course,
We invent nothing, merely bearing witness
To what each morning brings again to light:
Gold crosses, cornices, astonishment
Of panes, the turbine-vent which natural law
Spins on the grill-end of the diner’s roof,
Then grass and grackles ….
All these things
Are there before us, there before we look
Or fail to look.

— Richard Wilbur, “Lying” [ii]

My friend and sometime colleague Mark Harris has been an Episcopal priest for half a century. Now in his seventies, with his days of institutional church employment behind him, he devotes much of his time to making art. One of his friends recently designated him as “the artist formerly known as priest.”[iii]

The Prince reference made me laugh, but I also resisted the concept. Priest and artist are not contradictory vocations. Both draw back the veil between seen and unseen; both bear witness to a depth, a meaning, a beauty, or a Presence which is ever before us whether we “look or fail to look.”

Of course the priest is committed to a particular story about the world, and is accountable to some form of ecclesiastical authority, while the artist has no such constraints. In fact, it has been a commonplace of modernity to depict religion as antithetical to artistic freedom.

After a “shameful and distressing” conversation about the subject with T.S. Eliot in 1928, Virginia Woolf wrote to her sister: “He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was really shocked. . . I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.”[iv]

Similarly, a collective manifesto in 1948 declared art’s absolute independence from religion:

“We do not need the obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated legend. We are creating images whose reality is self-evident and which are devoid of the props and crutches that evoke associations with outmoded images, both sublime and beautiful. 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. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life’, we are making them out of ourselves, our of our own feelings.”[v]

The modern narrative of art history, at least in western civilization, describes the messy divorce between art and religion. Art drifted away from sacred stories and theological themes to focus on the human being, the natural world, material objects and daily life. Then it stripped away all manner of content until its only subject was art itself, the pleasure of pure form and color unburdened by any external meaning.

In her persuasively argued book, The Spiritual Dynamic in Art, Charlene Spretnak refutes this narrative, documenting the deeply spiritual perspectives expressed by many of the iconic figures in modern art. For example, Van Gogh understood his revolutionary style as reinterpretation rather than rejection of a religious worldview: “I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to communicate by the actual radiance and vibration of our coloring.”[vi]

Writing “On the Meaning of Painting” in 1939, Joan Miró insisted that the artist’s vocation was to “endeavor to discover the religious essence, the magical significance of things,” rather than “merely add to the sources of stupefaction.” Recalling his first drawing class as a youth, he said, “That class was like a religious ceremony for me; I washed my hands carefully before touching the paper and pencils. The implements were like sacred objects, and I worked as though I were performing a religious rite.”[vii]

Spretnak cites many more such examples. But the rich and complicated relationship between art and religion is too vast for a single post, so for now let me return to my original argument. Priest and artist, for all their differences, share some essential common tasks:

To make visible what might otherwise not be seen.
To integrate life’s incompatible elements within a harmonizing vision.
To facilitate our encounter with a life-changing Presence.
To perform ritual interventions for the creation of community.

I am aware that many would define priesthood more narrowly, or art less religiously. Nevertheless, I am proud of the company I keep in this matter.

Seventeenth-century Anglican poet/priest George Herbert grounded his poems in a word or an image, morphing it into a multiplicity of resonant meanings. As one critic has put it, “he breaks the host of language” as the one becomes the many. This was more than clever wordplay. It was a worldview: one thing becomes another, like bread becoming God. Or a poet becoming a priest.

Contemporary Catholic poet Les Murray makes a similar connection between his verse and the Eucharist. Both involve “the absolute transformation of ordinary elements into the divine.”[viii]

The Orthodox composer John Tavener (d. 2013) described his music as “liquid metaphysics.” Acknowledging that his call was not to prove God’s existence but only to witness to his own experience of Presence, he said, “I cannot clearly demand belief in what I believe in, but I can ask for an openness, or certainly an acceptance that another level of reality exists beyond this commonplace one.”[ix]

Whether ordained or not, such artists perform a priestly function, inviting us to attend to the mystery of the world, in which “things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new.”[x] Or as I once heard arts innovator Peter Sellars put it, “The purpose of art is to wake people up who are sleepwalking, to grab them and say, ‘You cannot pass this by. This is your life!’”[xi]

Daniel A. Siedell, who has focused his critical attention on art and religion, makes an eloquent case for the priest/artist connection:

“There is a sacramental and liturgical presence in contemporary art, in which artists explore the potential of banal materials and gestures, in defined spaces, to embody and serve as a vehicle for profound meaning and experience. The liturgical dimension of contemporary artistic practice, which incorporates and re-performs the power of sacred space, ritualized gestures, and sacramental objects that testify to what philosopher William Desmond calls ‘the porosity of being,’ requires more expansive and richly-nuanced notions of both ‘art’ and ‘religion’ than those offered by modernist critics.”[xii]

Chiharu Shiota, "The Key in the Hand", Venice Biennale 2015 (photo by Jim Friedrich)

Chiharu Shiota, “The Key in the Hand”, Venice Biennale 2015 (photo by Jim Friedrich)

Chiharu Shiota is a Japanese artist living in Berlin. Her haunting installations are inspired by religious sites and rituals which evoke “strong emotional reactions. I think those reactions are sacred, but not necessarily the objects. It is similar with my art work. It’s the emotions that are sacred.”

For her work, “Key in the Hand,” she collected 180,000 old keys from all over the world, suspending them with 250 miles of red yarn over two old boats at the Venice Biennale in 2015. The keys represent the memories and treasures we lock away until we choose to entrust their custody to others. Shiota states that keys “protect important people and spaces in our lives. They also inspire us to open the door to unknown worlds.” [xiii] The yarn evokes blood and the interconnectedness of relationship. The boats, like an immense pair of hands, “catch” the rain of memories falling from above.[xiv]

Is Shiota’s work not sacramental, employing tangible objects to manifest hidden realities and touch our own deepest places? Does not its breathtaking beauty feel like a hint of the transcendent splendor toward which all being tends?

Chiharu Shiota, "The Key in the Hand", Venice Biennale 2015 (photo by Jim Friedrich)

Chiharu Shiota, “The Key in the Hand”, Venice Biennale 2015 (photo by Jim Friedrich)

Six years after Hurricane Katrina, the African-American artist William Pope.L invited residents of struggling New Orleans neighborhoods to donate photos in response to two questions:

When you dream of New Orleans, what do you dream of?
When you wake up in the morning, what do you see?

The collected photographs were to be projected onto a rear screen attached to the back of an old ice cream truck painted entirely in black. And one night in October, 2011, this 8-ton truck, with its engine shut off, was hauled through the city by a team of strong bodies from sundown to sunrise.

The artist imagined the black truck as the weight of our “collective darkness,” all those regrets and fears and demons we drag behind us. Countering the darkness, the back of the truck was illumined by projections from the inside of all the light collected from their lives and their dreams.

“I am asking people,” he said, “to show the fragility of their bodies as a collective and then go for a walk with others who are dragging the same old dreams down the same ole corridors and to take time out to wonder about that.”[xv]

Is this not priestly work? Using common materials and ritual actions, Pope.L. was the presider/curator for a “work of the people” which employed many of the elements of Christian liturgy: narrative (the photographs as “stories,” and the journey of the truck), symbol (darkness and light), time (a night passage framed by the setting and rising of the sun), and community (facilitating connections among the photographers, performers, and the neighborhoods through which they made ritual procession).

Pope.L acknowledges a “priestly” association: “Like the African shaman who chews his pepper seeds and spits seven times into the air, I believe art re-ritualizes the everyday to reveal something fresh about our lives. This revelation is a vitality and it is a power to change the world.”[xvi]

Critic and poet Donald Kuspit says that “being an artist is about being a certain kind of subject, not just about making certain kinds of objects,”[xvii] while Iranian/UK installation artist and sculptor Shirazeh Houshiary defines an artist as “someone who is capable of unveiling the invisible, not a producer of art objects.”[xviii] It seems that such artists as Shiota and Pope.L have brilliantly intuited this implicit artist/priest connection.

What I wonder, as an artist/priest myself, is whether those officially ordained by traditional Christian communities, such as my own Anglican tradition, fully understand the implications of this connection for our own work. Do we bring to our own priestly vocation the same degree of passion, creativity, imagination, curiosity and daring displayed in the work of the artist?

We may have much to learn.

 

Related Posts

Do Not Fear: Reflections on the Venice Colloquium

Sweet Miracle of Our Empty Hands

Heart Work and Heaven Work

Tending the Lamps of Holy Imagination

Note: The image at the top of this post was made for me by the wonderful calligrapher and Episcopal monk Br. Roy Parker OHC. For information on his work:  http://www.holycrossmonastery.com/calligraphy

[i] Iris Murdoch, Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues, 1986, p. 62-3, q. in Theological Aesthetics after von Balthasar (Ed. by Oleg V. Bychkov & James Fodor, Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008), 162

[ii] Richard Wilbur: Collected Poems: 1943-2004 (New York: Harcourt, 2006), 83

[iii] Some of Mark’s work may be seen here: http://www.preludiumarts.net/ One of his poems is found in the Related Posts link to “Tending the Lamps of Holy Imagination”

[iv] London Review of Books, 10/23/14

[v] Originally published in Tiger’s Eye (Dec. 1948), q. in The Sublime, ed. Simon Morley, Documents of Contemporary Art (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2010), 27

[vi] Charlene Spretnak, The Spiritual Dynamic in Art: Art History Reconsidered: 1800 to the Present (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 40

[vii] ibid., 102, 100

[viii] Missy Daniel, “Poetry is Presence: An Interview with Les Murray”, Commonweal 119, no. 10, 1992, 10), q. in Between Human and Divine: The Catholic Vision in Contemporary Literature, ed. Mary C. Reichart (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 217

[ix] John Tavener, ed. Brian Keeble, The Music of Silence: A Composer’s Testament (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), 163

[x] The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 291

[xi] From my personal notes on a “The Arts: A Catalyst for Change,” a forum at the Stanford University Centennial Weekend, October 1991

[xii] Re-Enchantment (James Elkins, David Morgan, eds., New York & London: Routledge, 2009), 234

[xiii] http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2015/05/the-key-in-the-hand/

[xiv] Interview with Shiota: http://2015.veneziabiennale-japanpavilion.jp/en/project/

[xv] Glenn Harper and Twylene Moyer, eds., Artists Reclaim the Commons: New Works/New Territories/New Publics (Ed., (Hamilton, NJ: isc Press, 2013), 247

[xvi] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Pope.L

[xvii] Artforum (1984), q. in Daniel A. Siedell, God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 124

[xviii] Interview with Stella Santacatterina (1994), q. in The Sublime, 93

 

The Return of the Prodigal Son

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1661–1669 (Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg)

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1661–1669 (Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg)

Sometimes I lead retreats to explore correlations between biblical narratives and our own stories. It’s not just a matter of putting ourselves in a given Bible story as a method of interpreting it. We also need to let it interpret us, as we discover the biblical motifs which are playing out in the particular circumstances of our own lives. What is my creation story, what is your exodus story, what is each one’s death and resurrection story?

At one such retreat, we considered Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. After studying the text, we tried out various ways of retelling it in our own words. Then we divided into three groups: Fathers, prodigal sons, and elder brothers. Membership in each group was determined by chance, although it turned out that the “elder brothers” consisted mostly of firstborn children.

Each group was asked to wrestle with their assigned character. What do you feel about this character? What does the story tell you about him? What does the story leave unsaid? Then they were invited to share a related story from their own lives. Tell about the struggles of being a parent, a child, or a sibling. Tell about a time you were forgiven, or needed to forgive. Tell about a time you felt neglected or ignored, envious or resentful.

One man said he had been disappointed at first to draw the father’s group, because he always related more strongly to the elder brother. As the oldest child in his family, he had some of the issues common to that role. He knew the burden of wanting to live up to his parents’ expectations, to be “perfect,” obedient, one who pleases by getting everything right. He had also experienced some envy and resentment of younger siblings who seemed more carefree and less responsible.

But as he listened to others in the group engage with the father’s side of the story, it occurred to him that he himself had actually been a father for as long as he had been only a son and brother. Maybe, he said, it was time to rethink his own story and who he was in it.

In the early nineties, Henri Nouwen wrote “a meditation on fathers, brothers, and sons” using the parable of the Prodigal Son along with Rembrandt’s famous painting of the moment when the errant child is welcomed home. Like the people in my retreat, he found critical insights into his own life in each of the characters. And in doing so, he realized that there were two sons, not just one, who went astray from their father’s will, into “a distant country,” the place of alienation.[i]

The younger son’s sins may have been more dramatic and colorful, but the elder brother’s bitter and jealous heart grieved his father just as much. Both sons are lost. Both need to be welcomed “home.” As Rembrandt’s painting shows, the elder stands in the shadows, separated from the radiant light surrounding the father and his youngest child.

“There is not only the light-filled reconciliation between the father and the younger son, but also the dark, resentful distance of the elder son. There is repentance, but also anger. There is communion, but also alienation. There is the warm glow of healing, but also the cooling of the critical eye; there is the offer of mercy, but also the enormous resistance against receiving it.”[ii]

Whether the elder brother will be able to step out of his darkness into love’s radiance remains unknown in both the painting and the original parable. But the father has made it clear that his parental love will never be withdrawn. Like the loving mercy of God, his welcoming arms remain ever extended and expectant, now and forever. As Nouwen writes, “The heart of the father burns with an immense desire to bring his children home.”[iii]

Nouwen describes the differences between the father’s hands in Rembrandt’s painting. His left hand is strong, masculine, gripping his son encouragingly. His right hand seems more refined, almost feminine, offering the caress of consolation. The father’s red cloak also conveys shelter and protection, like the enfolding wings of a mother bird.

Love so amazing, so divine, has a cost. It does not always produce happy endings. In the “fathers” group at the retreat, one woman told us about her own prodigal son, a forty-year old man who had struggled for years with his own lostness. “I welcomed him home every time,” she said, “and then he would just break my heart all over again.” Six months before our retreat, he had committed suicide.

When we hear the parable, it is natural to focus on the prodigal’s experience of unconditional, unmerited welcome. We all long to hear the word of mercy for ourselves: weary pilgrim welcome home. But Nouwen won’t let us stay there. Although we each need to make our way on the difficult journey home, in the end we are called to claim the role of the father as well. Forgiven so much, may we also become the ones who forgive, whatever it costs.

“His outstretched hands are not begging, grasping, demanding, warning, judging, or condemning. They are hands that only bless, giving all and expecting nothing … As I look at my own aging hands, I know that they have been given to me to stretch out toward all who suffer, to rest upon the shoulders of all who come, and to offer the blessing that emerges from the immensity of God’s love.”[iv]

 

 

 

[i] Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers, and Sons (New York: Doubleday, 1992)

[ii] ibid., 126-7

[iii] ibid., 89

[iv] ibid., 127-8, 130

Brief prologue for the Nativity

Apse mosaic, Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato, Murano, Venezia (12th century)

Apse mosaic, Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato, Murano, Venezia (12th century)

Dear readers, in these last hours before the Feast of the Nativity, let me wish you all a very Merry Christmas. Thank you for your interest in what happens here, and for your thoughtful reading and supportive comments. I am grateful for your visits. May the twelve days of Christmas bring you much joy and blessing.

In lieu of a post today, I offer these three passages as prologue to Christmas Eve:

Today the Virgin is on her way to the cave where she will give birth in a manner beyond understanding to the Word who is, in all eternity. Rejoice, therefore, universe, when you hear it heralded: with the angels and shepherds, glorify the Holy One who chose to be seen as a new-born babe, while remaining God in all eternity.

— Preparation of the Nativity, Orthodox liturgy

“I suppose they try to make you believe an awful lot of nonsense?” “Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.” “But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.” “Can’t I?” “I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.” “Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.” “But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.” “But I do. That’s how I believe.”

— Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

 

I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years…

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper…

When the young girl who starves
sits down to a table
she will sit beside me…

I am food on the prisoner’s plate…

I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills…

I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden…

I am the stone step,
the latch, and the working hinge…

I am the heart, contracted by joy…
the longest hair, white
before the rest…

I am there in the basket of fruit
presented to the widow…

I am the musk rose opening
unattended, the fern on the boggy summit…

I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name…

— Jane Kenyon, “Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks”

 

Related post: How Can This Be?

Do not fear: Reflections on the Venice Colloquium

image

The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion – all in one.

– John Ruskin[i]

I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas.
I’m frightened of the old ones.

– John Cage[ii]

John Ruskin, the influential Victorian oracle on all things pertaining to the visual arts, had a particular passion for Venice. As a young man, he made repeated visits to analyze and record, in words, drawings and watercolors, the endangered architecture of the place he described as “a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak, so quiet, – so bereft of all but her loveliness, that we might well doubt, as we watched her faint reflection in the mirage of the lagoon, which was the City, and which was the Shadow.”[iii]

A city floating on the sea, a mirage of reflections and watery light, an endless play of surfaces and mazes, seems more imagined than built. Ruskin’s fevered description of San Marco celebrates this fantastic evanescence:

… as if in ecstasy, the crests of the arches break into a marble foam, and toss themselves far into the blue sky in flashes and wreaths of sculptured spray, as if the breakers on the Lido shore had been frost-bound before they fell, and the sea-nymphs had inlaid them with coral and amethyst.[iv]

Artists, writers, and dreamers have long made pilgrimage to Venice not just to admire its beautiful treasures, but to be immersed in its spectral fancies, a provocative analog for their own imaginative processes. When a small group of Christian creatives gathered there for the Venice Colloquium in late October, we arrived with that same longing for inspiration and discovery.

Our collective intention was to “dream the Church that wants to be.” It was born of a shared sense of urgency about the state of imagination in the common life of God’s friends. In my last post, I wrote that “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 a week of group conversations and Venetian wanderings, we tended the flame as best we could.

We had little interest in being theological spin doctors, cranking out persuasive messages or illustrative answers. Art is not argument or propaganda. Its purpose is not to answer questions, make a point, or silence doubt. The artist should not know what is going to happen when she goes to work. One of our group, a painter, said, “I am not trying to get a message out with my work, but to evoke a deep experience. What right do I have to impose my meanings on the incredible lives of other people?”

“Church,” said another, “has become the place where you go if you know, rather than the place to find out. It has become the place of the answer instead of the question.” Could we possibly abandon the project of collecting the best answers and devote our attention to curating the best questions? Where would that lead? Would we just get lost in the maze of unknowability? Or as the Psalmist says, is there anywhere we can go where God is not?

Where can I escape from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in the underworld, you are there.[v]

When we discussed the drag imposed on creativity by the institutional rage for order, the young leader of an “emergent” Christian community spoke up: “I want a wild church, where things are out of our control.” For Christians concerned about communal stability and institutional sustainability, that might sound like a recipe for chaos. But as our sacred stories remind us, chaos is prelude to creation. And if anyone thinks the Church is not in need of some serious re-creation, they aren’t paying attention.

The worship spaces of Venice, with their monumental forms of marble and mosaic, their exuberant decoration, their Bellinis, Titians, and Tintorettos, express a religious confidence that is nearly incomprehensible to our own time. More frequented by tourists than believers, they seem like gorgeous tombs for an expired past. Then what shall we say when the prophet asks: Can these bones live?

Jaume Plensa,

Jaume Plensa, “Together”

One Sunday morning I attended mass at San Giorgio Maggiore. There were less than forty people present in its vast interior. But as soon as the liturgy ended, many more people began to stream into the church. They had come not to worship, but to experience a contemporary art installation, part of the Biennale art exposition taking place throughout the city. A giant head, made of thick wire, faced the altar from the nave. Consisting of far more empty space than substance, it was a ghostly, immaterial presence, in but not of this world. A great golden hand, suspended over the crossing, bestowed upon that serene and mysterious face a perpetual blessing.

Jaume Plensa,

Jaume Plensa, “Together”

The contrast between the sparsely attended mass and the popular artwork could be interpreted as a simple duality of irreconcilable opposites: religion vs. art, old vs. new, moribund vs. vibrant, neglected vs. popular. But that would be too facile, ignoring the deep connections between the artwork and the worship space it inhabited.

It was not accidental that the head, modeled on a girl of Chinese and Spanish ancestry, faced the altar from the nave, like any common worshipper, or that the blessing hand mimicked the gesture of countless priests who had presided in that place for a thousand years. The work couldn’t be detached from Christian ritual without evacuating much of its meaning.

At the same time, there was something universal about a blessing hand and a receptive face. The extreme magnification of head and hand functioned like a cinematic close-up, focusing on the act of blessing in isolation from any specific ritual context or tradition. We didn’t see the vested body of a Catholic priest, or encounter the sociology of a local congregation. We only saw a hand that blesses and a face that receives. For me, the elemental humanity of this universal gesture reinforced rather than replaced the meaning of Christian blessing.

So instead of a rivalry between art and religion, there was a conversation, in which each informed and enriched the other. An explanatory text said that Jaume Plensa’s artwork, entitled Together, employed “a metaphorical language that will connect people of many faiths and of no faith.”

The conversation between art and religion, and among artists of many faiths and no faith, can only be tentative and experimental in an age of fragmentation and doubt. It will also be wild and unpredictable. If any of our small group came to Venice thinking we might collectively forge a vision of what the Christian artist is called to be in such a time, in such a Church, we were soon awakened from that fond dream. There will be no manifesto from the Venice Colloquium. We have returned to our homes with no answers, only more questions. And some lasting images.

Another Biennale work, Rashad Alakbarov’s The Union of Fire and Water, provided particular inspiration. As part of an installation evoking the turbulent political history of Azerbaijan, an array of swords and daggers was arranged in such a way that a message was created from their shadows: Do not fear. The instruments of violence and death had been transformed into an utterance of encouragement and hope. It was reminiscent of the Arma Christi, where the implements of Christ’s suffering become symbols of salvation.

Through the play of light and shadow, the handwriting on the wall was there for all to see. For artists out on the road of unknowing, with the voices of caution and order tugging us backward lest we lose our way, it seemed like a word from heaven. Do not fear.

Rashad Alakbarov,

Rashad Alakbarov, “The Union of Fire and Water”

[i] John Ruskin, Modern Painters III (IV: 333), abridged and edited by David Barrie (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), 404

[ii] q. in Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (New York: The Penguin Group, 2012), x

[iii] Ruskin, The Stones of Venice I, 9:17, quoted in Ruskin’s Venice: The Stones Revisited, ed. Sarah Quill (Farnham, Surrey: Lund Humphries, 2015), 41

[iv] The Stones of Venice (10:82-3), ibid., 55

[v] Psalm 139: 6-7

 

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.”