“I Once Was Lost”: Rethinking Jesus’ Most Beloved Parable

Alexander Sokurov, “Lc. 15:11-32” (Prodigal Son installation, 2019). Sculptures by Vladimir Brodarsky & Katya Pilnikova.

 Life is a dialectic of dwelling and wayfaring, in the world yet not of it.

––– Erazim Kohák

I once was lost, but now I’m found.

––– John Newton

 

Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son is the Bible’s preeminent tale of forgiveness and reconciliation. The welcoming father’s embrace of his foolish and errant son is a vividly concise summary of the gospel message: We can never be so lost that we cannot be found. We can never be so wrong that we cannot be loved.

Rembrandt’s celebrated painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son, would be one of his final works. He was bankrupt, his style no longer in vogue. His wife and three of their children were long dead, and he would have to sell his wife’s grave to pay his debts. His only surviving son Titus, age 27, died of the plague even as the parable’s “lost son” was taking form on canvas. As Rembrandt struggled with his own sadness and despair, he created the most indelible image of mercy in the history of art.

Rembrandt van Rijn, “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (c. 1167-1669).

Father and son emerge from a world of shadows, for compassion is the light of the world which no darkness can comprehend. The arch formed by the father’s welcoming arms is echoed by the arched doorway in the background, showing love to be the true way home. And unlike most other artistic depictions of this scene, there is no happy glance between the reunited pair. The prodigal’s repentant posture delays the moment when their eyes will meet.

Kierkegaard wrote at length about the “infinite qualitative abyss” between God and humanity, a condition due not only to the uncrossable difference between finite and infinite, but also to the profound estrangement from the holy wrought by human sin. Given the magnitude of the gulf between ourselves and the divine, how could we ever be in relation with One who is so totally other? “The danger,” said Kierkegaard, “is that God becomes so dreadfully and irreconcilably Other to the self that one is swallowed up by the horror of this infinite qualitative abyss.” [1]

The modern solution to the gulf between human and divine has been to ignore (or forget entirely) the Holy Other and concentrate on the human situation in solely human terms, permanently severing the problem of earthly existence from the problem of God. How well that works is a matter of some debate, but for the faithful, such a strategy omits far too much of value. Exiling God from the world is not a solution for our own condition of exile.

The Prodigal Son under the melancholy gaze of Rembrandt’s “Portrait of an Old Woman” (1654) in Sokurov’s installation.

We all long to go home, to find the place where we are loved and known and welcomed, the place where all wanderings cease, and we can finally know what it means to dwell. But with the longing comes doubt. Is there such a place? Can we ever get there? And how will the journey change us?

For the unbeliever, human life concludes with annihilation. After our last breath––nothing. But the future of the believer may also be described as a kind of annihilation. As we draw near the absolute center of all that is, the egocentric self can no longer maintain its pretentious fictions. The really Real exposes our own unreality. The gaze of God is fatal to our illusions.

When Moses asked to see God’s face, God told him that “no human may look upon Me and live” (Exodus 33:20). This crucial Hebrew text reflects an ancient fear of direct contact with the divine, whose infinite voltage could fry the circuits of finite beings. But the biblical God posed an additional, even greater threat: the penetrating gaze which sees us for what we are.

Day of wrath! . . .
What a great tremor there will be,
when the Judge is to come,
who will examine all things strictly  . . .
I groan, as if accused;
my face blushes because of my fault . . . [2]

Who among us is ready to have every story told, every failure examined, every blemish known? Therapeutic honesty is hard and painful work. Kierkegaard wrote in his Journal that “to see yourself is to die, to die to all illusions and all hypocrisy––it takes great courage to look at yourself.” And, he added, this “can only take place in the mirror of the Word.” [3]

The Christian goals of illumination and divine union must be preceded by confession and purgation. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8). Even the saints are not exempt; the best of them are brutally honest about their own incompleteness. St. John of the Cross, speaking from personal experience, said that the journey of faith “does not consist in consolations, delights, and spiritual feelings, but in the living death of the cross, sensory and spiritual, exterior and interior.” [4]

This annihilation of self––“the living death of the cross”––is not morbid self-hatred (fixating on my sin is just another form of ego), but the abandonment of everything false or misshapen as the necessary prelude to profound transformation. The death of self becomes the beginning of Self.

I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased;
I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies. [5]

In Rembrandt’s painting, the Prodigal Son presses his face against his father’s comforting body. He is still in the confessional stage, kneeling with downcast eyes, not yet daring to stand face-to-face with the one he has hurt so deeply. But consciousness of his fault is overcome by grace––the leap of faith which accepts the “impossible possibility” of being forgiven. Only by knowing ourselves as sinners needing mercy can we become aware of forgiveness. The eyes which were cast down by shame will soon be raised up to see the welcoming father face-to-face. “By surrendering its despair before God, the self becomes open to forgiveness: the gift from the divine which is the impossible possibility of coming to know oneself as one is known by God.” [6]

The Kierkegaardian surrender of existential despair in order to receive the gift of mercy applies perfectly to Rembrandt’s painting:

“Justice looks judgingly at a person, and the sinner cannot endure its gaze; but love, when it looks at him––yes, even if he avoids its gaze, looks down, he nevertheless does perceive that it is looking at him, because love penetrates far more inwardly into life, deep inside life, in there where life emanates, than justice does, which repellingly establishes a chiasmic abyss between the sinner and itself, whereas love is on his side, does not accuse, does not judge, but pardons and forgives.” [7]

The Return of the Prodigal Son, acquired by St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum over 250 years ago, has long haunted the imagination of Russian visual artists. In his metaphysical sci-fi film Solaris (1972), Andrei Tarkovsky returns his cosmonaut protagonist from the “far country” of outer space to the door of his childhood house, where he is embraced like Rembrandt’s prodigal. But his father, we have learned, is deceased, and his son remains somewhere out in space, light years from earth. Tarkovsky’s moving image of ultimate reunion with both parent and planet earth turns out to be only memory or dream. It is in fact “impossible”––which only deepens the desire to make it so.

The son returns home (in his imagination), from the closing scene of Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” (1972).

Another Russian filmmaker, Alexander Sokurov, included Rembrandt’s actual painting in Russian Ark (2002), a meditation on Russia’s troubled history filmed entirely inside the Hermitage in a single 87-minute shot, with the camera moving through the galleries to encounter both paintings and people from different centuries. The pensive French aristocrat we follow from room to room stops for a long time in front of Rembrandt’s great canvas, silently paying homage to its power. For the Russian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, Sokurov himself returns to the painting, rethinking its themes with sculpture, video, music, lighting, a mirror, and various objects from an artist’s studio. His installation is called “Lc. 15:11-32,” after the biblical citation for Luke’s telling of the parable.

The sorrowful father in the first room of Alexander Sokurov’s installation, “Lc. 15:11-32.”

In the first of two dark rooms, father and son stand far apart in the gloom. It is not clear whether they even see each other across the black abyss that separates them. Behind the father are two large video projections representing a world gone wrong. One shows a blurred image of a city dissolving in flames, like an apocalypse by Hieronymus Bosch. The other shows Christ sitting in a desert as soldiers enter with flame throwers to fill the screen with fire and smoke. We realize that not just the son, but the whole world has gone astray. Not even a divine father can fix it. Grace and redemption remain an impossibility in this terrifying darkness.

Ivan Nikolaevich Kromskoy, “Christ in the Wilderness” (1872).

The Christ in the video image is taken from a nineteenth-century Russian painting, Christ in the Wilderness (1872), by Ivan Nikolaevich Kromskoy, whose humanized Jesus, unlike the serenely transcendent Savior of Orthodox iconography, reflected the revolutionary and questioning mood of the painter’s generation. In an age of religious doubt, traditional understandings seemed out of touch with experience. For Kromskoy, a self-assured Christ radiant with divinity was too detached from human suffering. “My God––Christ––is the greatest of atheists,” he said, “a person who has destroyed God in the universe and shifted him directly to the center of the human spirit and who, therefore, goes calmly to his death.” [8]

One of the video projections in the first room of Alexander Sokurov’s installation, “Lc. 15:11-32.”.

But how calm can such a Christ really be, sitting now, according to Sokurov, amid the flames and smoke of our endless desert wars? He may be the “fellow sufferer who understands,”[9] but he appears to be as lost as the Prodigal Son, exiled to the far country of human sin. His inheritance of divine power has been squandered by incarnation. He may share our griefs––does he also share our helplessness?

In the vast first room of Sokurov’s installation, estrangement is absolute and unchanging. But beyond it lies a second room, like a small cave, where the abyss of sin and separation is overcome at last. In a sculpted restaging of Rembrandt’s painting, the lost son comes home to the father’s compassionate embrace.

In the second room of Sokurov’s installation, father and son are reunited.

Behind the figures there is a large mirror, whose reflected image repeats the scene, reminding us that every retelling of the parable is but a version of an original which cannot be grasped directly, but only experienced in the second-hand reflections of Luke, Rembrandt, Sokurov, and all the rest of us who engage Jesus’ story. The mirror’s surface is slightly wavy, and it sways slowly back and forth, producing a continuously distorted image, suggesting the instability and uncertainty of every interpretation.

The figures are reflected in a distorting mirror.

The mirror also includes the viewer, allowing each of us to know ourselves as witnesses to the impossible mystery of divine mercy. But such seeing does not always come naturally. While I stood transfixed in this cave of revelation, two young women entered. After a brief glance at the sculpture, they became absorbed with photographing their own misshapen reflections in the mirror, giggling at the funhouse gag.

In my mind, I judged their heedless frivolity, and the moment I did so I became equally blind to the meaning of The Return. I forgot my own prodigal culpability, my own need to kneel with downcast eyes. I forgot the unconditional nature of the father’s embrace. I had become the elder brother.

No matter, says the parable. The prodigal, the proud, the penitent, the foolish––we’ll all be gathered in eventually. And the conclusion of all our wandering stories will be a home of abiding welcome. The door is open. The feast is ready. Love is waiting. Come.

 

 

 

Related Posts:

The Return of the Prodigal Son

Venice Biennale 2019: “A wound in a dance with love”

 

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Without Authority, cited in Simon D. Podmore, Kierkegaard and the Self Before God: Anatomy of the Abyss (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2011), 8.

[2] Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”), a thirteenth-century Latin poem about the Last Judgment and our collective plea for forgiveness. It became a traditional part of requiem masses, but its vivid images of doom and “wrath” sound jarring to modern ears accustomed to a kinder and gentler eschatology. However, when we consider the moral and apocalyptic implications of climate change, the notion of a “day of reckoning” when “nothing will remain unpunished” and “even the just can scarcely be secure” seems uncomfortably apt, as does the poem’s anguished cry for rescue and “the gift of forgiveness.”

[3] Kierkegaard Journal, cited in Podmore, 155.

[4] John of the Cross, cited in Hans Boersma, The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 184.

[5] John of the Cross, “The Dark Night,” cited in Boersma, 178.

[6] Podmore, 179.

[7] Kierkegaard, Without Authority, cited in Podmore, 173-174.

[8] Ivan Kromskoy in a letter to a friend, quoted in Walther K. Lang, “The ‘Atheism’ of Jesus in Russian Art: Representations of Christ by Ivan Kromskoy, Vasily Polenov, and Nikolai Ghe,” I recommend the entire article for those interested in art and faith. It is found on the website Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide: http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/autumn03/272-the-qatheismq-of-jesus-in-russian-art-representations-of-christ-by-ivan-nikolevich-kramskoy-vasily-polenov-and-nikolai-ghe

[9] Alfred North Whitehead’s famous description of God has provided a moving and influential image of a divinity deeply affected by human suffering, a God who takes our pain into Godself. Critics of such theology wonder whether too much divine power has been relinquished. Can a vulnerable God still save us?

Venice Biennale 2019 –– “A wound in a dance with love”

Lorenzo Quinn (Italy), Building Bridges (2019).

I think that art is a wound in a dance with love.
And if the wound and the love are the same size,
they can dance well.

–– Sean Scully

At the 2019 Venice Biennale, “May You Live in Interesting Times,” nearly 200 artists from around the world engage and illumine the human condition and the historical moment in a multitude of creative and challenging ways. By the time you complete a multi-day journey through two large exhibition spaces as well as dozens of installations in churches, palazzos and warehouses throughout Venice, you will have been repeatedly delighted, deepened, bewildered, provoked, amused, annoyed, educated, bored, enriched and inspired.

“Perhaps art can be a kind of guide for how to live and think in ‘interesting times,’” says Biennale curator Ralph Rugoff. “It invites us to consider multiple alternatives and unfamiliar vantage points.” And the meaning of art, he adds, does not reside principally within a given work, but in the conversations which the artist’s intuitions and labors bring into being.

I visited Biennale a couple of weeks ago (it runs from May to November), and found a wealth of imagination, conviction, and––even in these dark and troubled times––beauty and hope.

Lorenzo Quinn’s “Building Bridges” (pictured above), with its six pairs of arms reaching across a watery divide, is a powerful monument to connection and communion in a world obsessed with borders and uncrossable difference. Its immense scale, dominating both the eye and the public space, registers as playful and celebratory rather than gigantically repressive. And with no two hands meeting in the same way, there is union without uniformity.

 

A contrastingly somber approach to boundaries is an untitled kinetic work by Shilpa Gupta: a residential security gate swings back and forth, slamming into a wall every 30 seconds. Gupta, who lives in Mumbai, uses her art to address the dehumanizing divisions between nations, ethnicities, religions and classes. The wall makes it a gate to nowhere, but over the seven months of the exhibition the wall is gradually being broken down. Is this a metaphor for pointless violence, or the persistent and patient work of liberation?

Gupta’s other installation at Biennale, For, in your tongue, I cannot fit, has rows of metal spikes, each one piercing a piece of paper with the names and words of 100 poets, from the 7th century to our own time, who were imprisoned for their works or their politics. A microphone is suspended above each of these pages, as though waiting for the poets to speak again. These microphones have been turned into speakers, so that we hear a multitude of the silenced voices, filling the dimly lit room with poetic speech and protest.

Shilpa Gupta (India), For, in your tongue, I cannot fit (2017-18).

Words of an imprisoned poet in Shilpa Gupta’s installation, For, in your tongue, I cannot fit (2017-18).

Some of the texts were anguished, but many of the poets refused to mirror the violence they suffered. “Sing, Tar, sing,” wrote Musefig from his cell in 1937. “How can they forget you once they’ve heard you sing?” Of all the lines I read, my favorite was this by Dennis Brutus (detained 1963): “But somehow tenderness survives.”

Murielle Argoud (Switzerland), Homage to Heraclitus . . . everything flows (2018).

In such a damaged social imaginary as ours, art which is unapologetically beautiful and/or spiritual may suffer critical suspicion, but Murielle Argoud’s ravishing canvases offer a persuasive––and deeply moving––reacquaintance with the transcendent. Using an “alchemical” mixture of oil, sand, lava and gold leaf, Argoud strives to convey both the world’s liquid materiality and the hidden depths within it. On her website she describes her art practice as a search for the beginning of everything, an opening of the heart to receive the mystery of the world. In a poem accompanying her Biennale paintings, she says:

Where words cannot touch, the life of colour can
merge with the heart of the beholder. . .

Creating stillness for the song of the painting
to become audible.

Creating stillness for deeper contemplation ––
no wish to analyse or understand. . .

Mario Basner (Germany/USA), Beelitz Heilstätten Sanatorium (2016).

Mario Basner’s haunting photographs of a 19th-century tuberculosis sanatorium, now an abandoned ruin south of Berlin, are infused with his deeply personal response to the spirit of place: “This is a place where people faced life and death, love and loss, hope and despair; it was a structure where people fought for their utter existence.” The elegant beauty of the building reflected a compassionate respect for the dignity and worth of its patients. Their struggle for life was honored by the nobility of the architectural design.

To see that grandeur in decay moves us twice over, not only by memorializing the aspirations and ministrations of a vanished age, but also by imaging temporality so tenderly. The room in the photograph is full of human absence. The floor––littered, wet and muddy––indicates long neglect. Like the pool of water in the middle, the room seems cut off from life. The space is suffused with the pastness of things left behind.

And yet the room is not utterly dead or devoid of beauty. The light from outside is soft and comforting. The watery floor, like the moist and dripping interiors in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, is a richly ambivalent symbol. It can indicate stagnation and decay, as nature begins to erase the structures of human habitation. But it can also be a maternal sign of life-giving power, a source which sustains and nurtures. The triptych of windows resembles a church, with the central bay the chancel and the lone cot the altar. The pool of water, like a baptismal font, suggests purification and rebirth.

Shoplifter / Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir (Iceland), Chromo Sapiens (2019).

The Icelandic artist known as “Shoplifter” (Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir) takes us to a place of pure happiness, a technicolor cave made of synthetic hair. The artist describes the riot of color as “euphoric kinetic synesthesia.” Deeper into the cave, more soothing whites and pastels replace the neon hues to make “a fluffy heavenly nest that cradles you into a sense of serenity and sublime gentle bliss.” You can’t spend time in here without smiling.

Alexander Sokurov (Russia), detail of Prodigal Son installation (2019).

Alexander Sokurov’s installation inspired by Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son, was my most powerful Biennale experience. It will be the subject of my next post, so I only mention it in passing here.

Federico Uribe (Colombia/USA), Plastic Reef (2019).

Environmental degradation is a recurring subject at Biennale, but Federico Uribe’s Plastic Reef is unique in its whimsical approach, using recycled plastic items to make a playful undersea world.

Federico Uribe (Colombia/USA), Plastic Reef (2019), made from recycled plastic waste.

When you enter the gallery, filled with lighthearted ambient sound, your initial reaction is delight. Then you look more closely, and the irony hits home. The plastic parody of marine life prophesies the potential collapse of the earth’s largest ecosystem. 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the sea every year, and there is now more plastic than plankton in our oceans. The joy with which you entered begins to seep away.

Elizabeth Heyert (USA), The Idol (series, 2018-19).

American artist Elizabeth Heyert critiques contradictory (male) gazes of women in her pairing of close-ups of old Marian statues from southern Spain with “bad girl” images from American pop culture. When I showed this particular example to a priest friend, he wondered how the meaning might change if the quote came from the saint instead of the actress.

Raoul “Iggy” Rodriguez (Philippines), detail from Hallowed Be Thy Name (2019).

This hellish imagery from Raoul Rodriguez mimics the genre of Catholic altarpieces, with saints replaced by grotesque figures who worship a swine-like beast hovering above them. The beast’s halo is made of bullets, and his throne is the crushed form of one of its victims. Some of the figures are harming themselves––doing the beast’s work for him––while another takes a selfie of his own agony, unable to envision any alternative. I couldn’t help seeing this horrifying canvas as a portrait of Trump’s America––that evil carnival of absurdity and self-destruction.

Daniel Pesta (Czech Republic), Chain (video, 2018).

Even more disturbing was Daniel Pesta’s video of eight men seated around a table in a deserted factory, their hands and forearms thickly bandaged. They are as still as monks at prayer, inexpressive and wordless, bound together by some secret purpose. Then the man at the head of the table holds one hand over a candle until his bandage bursts into flame. This fire is passed from hand to hand around the table until all their hands have become torches. Finally, they beat their hands on the table, an infernal drum circle, until the flames are at last extinguished.

Daniel Pesta (Czech Republic), Chain (video, 2018).

A group of white men with torches immediately conjures the collective madness of Nazis past and present, but here the hands themselves are the torches. Hands are supreme emblems of individual will––reaching, touching, making, choosing, taking, receiving––but at this table of demonic communion the hands are surrendered to a terrible force which consumes human freedom. Pesta wanted to depict the mindless dynamic of totalitarian societies whose “servility, weakness and desire to allow themselves to be controlled, testifies as to how far a person is prepared to go in pursuit of his own humiliation or self-destruction.”

Had I had enough of hell by now? Not quite. Accompanied by fellow artist/priest Neil Lambert, an English vicar and kindred spirit I first met in a Prague beer hall, I went in search of In Dante Veritas, a multi-media experience of the Inferno by Russian artist Vasily Klyukin. Using sculpture, video, sound, and a wide variety of materials and objects, Klyukin reimagined Dante’s nine circles of hell in terms of environmental collapse amid the chaos of misinformation and malignant desire. Through his vivid presentation of a world gone wrong, he poses the question, “Are we capable of change?”

Arsenale Nord, site of Vasily Klyukin’s Inferno installation at the Venice Biennale 2019.

The installation was said to be in a huge warehouse at the edge of Venice’s old shipyard, the Arsenale. Neil and I made a circuitous journey by boat and on foot (there are few direct routes in labyrinthine Venice), but when we finally reached the entrance to hell, it was locked. We peered through a crack in a curtained window. The vast space was totally empty. Hell had gone out of business. Or moved to a new location.

Abandoning all hope of experiencing Klyukin’s vision, we wandered the byways of Castello, one of the quietest and emptiest parts of Venice, conversing as we went. At one point I was describing to Neil a film I made years ago about a man assigned by a modern-day government to investigate a potential troublemaker named Jesus. As he hears about Jesus from various people whose lives have been touched and changed by him, the investigator becomes intrigued. But before he can ever meet him, Jesus is executed.

Distraught, the investigator goes to the soup kitchen where Mary Magdalene works (we shot this at the Catholic Worker on L.A.’s skid row). “I so wanted to meet Jesus,” he tells her. “You will,” she replies, and takes him to an upper room where Jesus’ friends are sitting around a table sharing bread and wine. The film ends with one of them offering the investigator a piece of bread.

This film was made to create conversation in church settings, but congregations with minimal sacramental life complained that there was no risen Christ at the end. Sacramental churches, on the other hand, embraced the image of the offered bread as a satisfactory sign of the Resurrection.

And at that precise moment in my story, we were passing a little church with a bronze plaque by the  door. We stopped to read it: “The Church of Christ the King. Adoration of the Eucharist daily.”

Plaque at the entrance to the church of the Franciscan Sisters of Christ the King, Venice.

Inside, the Franciscan Sisters of Christ the King had begun their daily adoration of the Blessed Sacrament just minutes before. We had arrived at the right place at exactly the right time. Unable to gain admission into hell, we had stumbled on heaven instead––whether by accident or grace I cannot say. We slipped inside the small church. A dozen nuns in white robes sat in silence before the monstrance displaying the consecrated Host. One of the sisters looked around when we opened the door, casting a stern glance to warn off heedless tourists. When we knelt to pray, she relaxed, returning her attention to the Host.

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Last Supper (1592-94), and Sean Scully, Opulent Ascension (2019, in San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice.

Earlier that day, we had seen Tintoretto’s great Last Supper painting which flanks the altar of San Giorgio Maggiore. The very air in that painted upper room seems charged with angelic energy and Godly presence, manifesting the infusion of divinity into matter which Christ and his eucharist are all about. Tintoretto’s painting represents the present as well as the past. The world continues to be charged with the grandeur of God, and every eucharist makes this explicit. The Host we adored in that little church of Christ the King was a sure sign of continuing presence, but not exclusively so. For the attentive soul, the signs are everywhere.

But divine presence is elusive, and the social imaginary of our secular age makes it especially difficult to perceive. We can spot hell easily enough, as so much of Biennale attests. Heaven, however, can be harder to find. But spiritual longing, however sublimated or misdirected, remains. And Sean Scully’s “Opulent Ascension,” a temporary installation in the same church as the Tintoretto, expresses that longing perfectly.

Sean Scully (Ireland/USA), Opulent Ascension, in Andrea Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice.

Inspired by Jacob’s dream of a ladder to heaven (Genesis 28:12), Scully’s stack of colored slabs rises more than ten meters toward the luminous dome of Palladio’s Renaissance church. Amid the subdued grays and whites of the interior, the miraculous colors exude the vitality of spiritual aspiration, like spring flowers renouncing winter’s drabness. But such faith in a welcoming and obtainable transcendence is not universally shared.

Alexandra Bircken (Germany), Eskalation (2016).

Another Biennale installation, Alexander Bircken’s Eskalation, posits Jacob’s dream as ladders to nowhere. Forty figures, made from calico dipped in black latex, are scattered from floor to ceiling on rungs and rafters. Their collapsed and lifeless forms bear witness to the futility of the ascent.

Alexandra Bircken (Germany), Eskalation (2016).

This solitary figure at the base of one ladder is an indelible image of spiritual death. Its back is turned to the ladder, as if rejecting even the dream of transcendence. The ladder of ascent no longer holds any meaning. It has become illegible. The figure slumps into despair. No, not even that. Despair requires hope, a memory of paradise lost. Here we have sunk deeper than despair, into the abyss––absent all traces of desire.

Let us counter this bleak image with Scully’s Opulent Ascension. Does this juxtaposition set before us a strictly binary choice between utterly separate narratives, or is the human condition more complicated than that? Scully says that art is a wound in a dance with love. So, perhaps, is life.

Sean Scully (Ireland/USA), Opulent Ascension (2019).

“Trailing clouds of glory”–– Requiem for my Niece

Anise Stevens, 1969-2019 (Photo by Emilie Zeug)

Almost 50 years ago, the baptism of my niece, Anise Mouette Stevens, was one of my first sacramental acts. For the past seven years, she fought a brave battle against cancer. Today, with a heavy heart, I presided at her Requiem. 

Some of you were there when Anise entered this world.
Some of you were there when she left it.
Some of you grew up with her, or worked and played with her,
or were taught and mentored by her.
Some of you have known the intimacy of family with her,
or the close bonds of friendship.
Some of you have shared the journey of motherhood with her.
Some have shared her fierce struggle for wellness.
All of us have been touched by her, inspired by her.
All of us have felt, in our own special way, “the Anise effect.”

I can’t begin to describe my niece’s rich and amazing life in the few minutes I have here. There will be time for stories and memories later, but for now, let me offer a sampling of the many voices of love and gratitude posted by her “tribe” online at The Anise Effect Facebook page.

Brave, stylish, radiant, beautiful, kind, warm, caring, daring, sharp-witted, accessible, erudite, literary, Anise is one of a kind.

She had a way of being there without trying to fix you, minimizing your problems, judging you, or expecting any­thing back from you. She just was there.

She made excellence itself a norm in her classes, and that made us all want to work hard to be our best, not to please her, but because that was the standard she had created.

She gave me advice about life that I will follow for the rest of my life

She was the only LA art writer to walk into The California African American museum when I called for diverse coverage of the art scene—back when it wasn’t the hip place to be. 

I hope you know how much I have always looked up to you and your intelligence, grace, beauty, coolness, decisiveness, creativity, boldness, kindness, charm, energy, forward motion, vision, vulnerability, strength. You inspire me.

You truly were instrumental in showing me a new way to live.

Anise never once felt sorry for herself, but in her pain gave comfort to others.

You carried a million pounds on your shoulders, yet still kept a loving and generous nature.

She’s intelligent, caring, creative, loving, strong, and hilariously, bitingly (at times) witty. Those are all important characteristics, and Anise simply wouldn’t be Anise without them. Beyond all of that, however, Anise has a rare talent for bringing out the best in all who know her.

She listens to understand. 

Anise walks on water.

Such beautiful tributes. Blessed is she who has touched so many people.

I’ve been reading over her writings about the L.A. art scene.[i] She had an engaged, humane voice as a critic, always seeking connections between the artworks and the questions of who we are and how to live. And certain sentences jumped out at me as if they might be telling me not just about a particular artist, but about Anise herself, about her own sense and sensibility in the art of shaping a life. Listen to these three sentences, taken from three different reviews:

She not only sheds the unnecessary, but she articulates the primary essence of her materials. [ii] 

Accidents and mistakes aren’t simply recognized as failures, but instead as original, one-of-a-kind works[iii]

Considering all that could go wrong when working with such unpredictable materials, [her] efforts glisten with an air of mystique.[iv]

Well, Anise certainly had an air of mystique, and so much more. But now, each of us feels the wound of her departure. Even though we know a lot about mortality, and the battle she fought, her absence still feels like a surprise. And so untimely. So unjust. How could someone so precious, so dear, so full of life, not live forever?

To live in this world, says Mary Oliver,
you must be able to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go. [v]

At Church of the Angels in Pasadena, California, everyone came forward to lay a flower on the altar with Anise’s ashes.

There’s an Irish song called “The Parting Glass.” They sing it in pubs at closing time. Its minor key and wistful words express the melancholy of ending the evening’s camaraderie as people go their separate ways into the night––a sorrow which feels like a rehearsal for the end of life itself:

Oh, all the comrades that e’er I had,
Are sorry for my going away.
And all the loved ones that e’er I had
Would wish me one more day to stay.
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not,
I’ll gently rise and softly call,
“Goodnight, and joy be with you all.

I love that last line. The singer doesn’t just say farewell and disappear. She pronounces a blessing upon those who remain: “Joy be with you all.” Yes, we honor our dead by the tears we shed. We honor them even more by embracing the joy they wish for us.

If I should die before the rest of you, said British comedienne Joyce Grenfell,
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone.
Nor when I’m gone speak in a Sunday voice,
But be the usual selves that I have known.
Weep if you must,
Parting is hell,
But life goes on,
So sing as well. [vi]

Such a recovery of joy is not a matter of forgetting or leaving behind. The connection continues, but in a new way. When C.S. Lewis wrote about the grief process after the death of his wife, he said that as the acute sense of loss began to fade, he wondered whether he was starting to forget her by being happy again, or whether he might betray the rich complexity of her being by reducing her to a fixed set of memories.

But once he just stopped worrying about it, he found that, as he put it, he “began to meet her everywhere.” It wasn’t a voice or an apparition, or even a big emotional experience. It was, he said, “a sort of unobstrusive but massive sense that she is, just as much as ever, a fact to be taken into account.” [vii]

The absence of a loved one in a bodily and temporal form is succeeded by new forms of presence. I once asked a group of high school students to write their own epitaph, and one seventeen-year-old girl proposed this for her imaginary tombstone:

You say goodbye,
I say hello.

The people who matter have a way of sticking around. Although death changes the relationship, it doesn’t end it. The dead continue to occupy our thoughts. They remain present to us in stories, memories, emotions, DNA (in some cases), and whatever else they left us with.

Our beloved Anise is no longer in one particular place. She is now in every place we remember her. She is present when her voice echoes in our ears, or in those places where we shared special times together. She is present whenever we think of her, or speak of her, or tell the stories that embody her time among us.

The great east window in this church makes the same point. The angel of resurrection is telling the sorrowing women, “The one you seek is not where you laid him. From now on, you need to be looking elsewhere.” Or as we heard earlier in Wendell Berry’s poem, “She is hidden among all that is, / And cannot be lost.” [viii]

As a person of faith, I believe that this continuing presence is not merely memory or imagination. Whether we live or die, we all belong to a larger wholeness, from which we can never be separated. This wholeness, for which there are many names, is the Love that binds us all together. This interconnection, this communion, cannot be broken, even by death.

The Lakota people have the expression “all my relatives” to describe the continuing bond between the living and the dead. Martin Brokenleg, a Lakota Episcopal priest has said that “Our experience shows us that death does not break our kinship bond. We turn to one another for help and support regardless of which side of death our relatives are on.”

Christian tradition calls this the communion of saints, described in the Bible as a great cloud of witnesses encouraging us from above. I especially love novelist George Eliot’s term for this fellowship of heaven: “the choir invisible whose music is the gladness of the world.” And I think that Anise’s tribe, all who have experienced her supportive and encouraging nature, would agree that her music was, and will continue to be, the gladness of the world.

T.S. Eliot said, “In my end is my beginning.” Anise died at 5:28 a.m. on New Year’s Day. That was the exact beginning of astronomical twilight, the very first minute of dawn on the first day of the year of her 50th birthday. Outside on the street, the Rose Parade was in its final stages of preparation.

Anise’s stepmother has posted a description of that morning:

We’re with Anise’s body that we washed and anointed as the Rose Parade unfurls just outside the window. Her apartment is on Orange Grove at the start of the parade. Bands are playing and the front lawn is filled with bleachers of cheering people. Anise has flowers tattooed on both shoulders. She painted flowers. We dressed her in a favorite dress with embroidered flowers. And now the entire street for miles around is filled with flower-strewn floats.

Life and death, singing in harmony.

Painting by Anise Stevens.

In her last weeks, Anise wondered about what lay ahead. That is the question. My sister Martha said to me the other day that her daughter is “on her way,” and then she cited Wordworth’s evocative image of the next life as our native home to which we shall return:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; / The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, / Hath had elsewhere its setting / And cometh from afar; / Not in entire forgetfulness, /And not in utter nakedness, / But trailing clouds of glory do we come / From God, who is our home: [ix]

We have no maps for our homeward journey. Still, we wonder.

When Henry David Thoreau lay dying at age 45, a family friend said to him, “You seem so near the brink of the dark river that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.” And Thoreau, who had spent his life carefully observing and describing what he saw in the fields and woods around Walden Pond, replied simply, “One world at a time.” [x]

However curious we may be about what it’s like across that dark river between the worlds, we can’t see it from here. But I would venture to say that heaven is not so much a place as it is a relationship. We live in God and God lives in us. And that is true on both sides of the river.

When the 14th-century English mystic, Julian of Norwich, was only 30 years old, she fell ill and came very close to death. As she lay on her sickbed, she had a vision of divine Love, who told spoke to her, telling her everything she needed to know about her ultimate future:

All shall be well, and all shall be well,
and all manner of thing shall be well.

 What else do we need to know?

Jane Kenyon was a poet who died at 49, the same age as Anise. She envisioned the process of dying to be “like a horse grazing / a hill pasture that someone makes / smaller by coming every night / to pull the fences in and in.” No more “running wide loops,” nor even “the tight circles.” But the body’s decline is not the only thing going on, according to the poet. Surrender is prelude to transformation, and Kenyon’s poem[xi] turns into a prayer:

Master, come with your light
halter. Come and bring her in.

And in Kenyon’s “Notes from the Other Side,” she reports that “God, as promised, / proves to be mercy clothed in light.”[xii] Amen to that.

 And we do know one thing for a fact: at the end, Anise was smiling.

Anise Stevens, mid-1970s (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

Some of you may have seen on The Anise Effect a photograph I took over 40 years ago, capturing Anise as a little girl, running joyfully through a field on her Aunt Marilyn’s farm. She is kicking up the dust beneath her feet. The late afternoon sun is behind her, a radiant backlight, and the dust too is suffused with radiance, as if Anise were trailing clouds of glory. It may only be dust, but it is transformed by the sun into a glorious substance. And so shall we all be transformed.

We began the liturgy by singing an early American lyric:

My friends, I bid you all adieu;
I leave you in God’s care;
And if I here no more see you,
Go on––I’ll meet you there.

I believe that Anise is wishing us all well this very moment, so let me close with another lyric, from a song by Jane Voss, “To All My Friends in Far-Flung Places”:

To all of you who took me in
Who shared the thick and stretched the thin
Who gave me comfort on the run
Who saved my life, who made it fun
Wherever you may be tonight
I hope this finds your burdens light
Your purpose high, your spirit strong
I hope that you have got along
My song was lost and gone, if not for you

 

 

[i] You can find links to her critical writings here: http://www.anisestevens.com/clips.html

[ii] “Miya Ando,” Artillery Magazine, Nov. 8, 2016 (http://artillerymag.com/miya-ando/)

[iii] “The Analog Revolution: Shock of the Old,” Artillery Magazine, May 3, 2016 (http://artillerymag.com/the-analog-revolution/)

[iv] “Farrah Karapatian,” Artillery Magazine, Feb. 3, 2016 (http://artillerymag.com/farrah-karapetian-2/)

[v] Mary Oliver, “In Blackwater Woods,” Mary Oliver: New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 178.

[vi] Quoted in All in the End is Harvest: An Anthology for Those Who Grieve (UK: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1989).

[vii] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, q. in All in the End is Harvest, 105.

[viii] Wendell Berry, “Three Elegiac Poems.”

[ix] William Wordsworth, “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Chiidhood.”

[x] Malcolm Clemens Young, The Spiritual Journal of Henry David Thoreau (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009), 8.

[xi] Jane Kenyon, “In the Nursing Home,” Jane Kenyon: Collected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press. 2005), 282.

[xii] “Notes from the Other Side,” in Jane Kenyon: Collected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005), 267

 

Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ

Piero della Francesca, The Baptism of Christ (after 1437), National Gallery, London. (Creative Commons license)

A few years ago, while visiting London, I wanted to connect with a friend who lives at the outskirts of the city. Neil, who is an artist as well as a priest[i], told me to meet him at Piero della Francesca’s painting of the Baptism of Christ in the National Gallery. I arrived first, and stood transfixed before that marvelous 15thcentury painting. John the Baptist pours water over Jesus as the Holy Dove hovers just overhead. They stand at the edge of the river, in the shade of a great tree. The formality of the figures and the almost eternal sense of stillness induced a responding quietude in me. When I felt a hand on my shoulder, I knew it was Neil, but I did not look away from the painting. “Remember your baptism,” he whispered, and with a small vial of water drawn from his parish font, he poured a few drops onto my head.

It was a whimsical yet powerful way of connecting my own baptism with the baptism of Christ, making them both present in a single moment, inviting me to receive their multiple meanings into my heart and soul. When the Church celebrates the Baptism of Our Lord this Sunday, I will be thinking of that moment, and that painting.

Piero’s baptismal scene is untroubled by modern oppositions between empirical and spiritual. Its visible world is charged with something more than the eye can see. Or rather, what the eye sees participates in a reality the senses cannot directly grasp.

The Renaissance embrace of the empirical is clear. The sky is blue, not the gold of eternity. The natural world is prominent in the trees and landscape. The human bodies, while in the stylized poses of dancers, are not abstractions. They have weight and substance.

Yet we also see a world governed by invisible meanings: the dove, while rhyming perfectly with the hovering clouds, is the Holy Spirit; the trio on the left is angelic; the principal gestures are sacramental signs of inward grace; and the strong heavenward reach of the picture’s verticals balances harmoniously with its earthly horizontals. Strangely, there are no shadows, as if light is not cast from a distant, separate source, but inheres equally in everything: a sure sign of divine presence.

The more you look, the more you see. The face of the Baptist, who must now “decrease” with the coming of Christ (John 3:30), is only seen in profile, while the full face of Jesus confronts us directly, like an icon. But his eyes do not look outward to fix us with an iconic gaze; their attention is wholly interior. The bent figure on the right could be a realistic touch, another candidate preparing for baptism, but his faceless anonymity suggests a more symbolic meaning. The garment that hides his individuality indicates an identity in transition: either he is shedding the old self which is left behind in the sacrament of new birth, or he is putting on New Being as in the Pauline image from Galations 3:26: “All you who have been baptized have been clothed with Christ.”

The great tree, apparently an Italian walnut, is clearly more than an object of botanical interest. Everything about it suggests the Tree of Life, a mythic image prominent in the first and last chapters of the Bible. Rooted deeply in the earth, it reaches into the heavens, beyond the frame of the painting, where human sight cannot follow. Like the Christ whose erect body it exactly parallels (even its bark shares the identical color and smoothness of Christ’s skin), the Tree unites the dualities of earth and heaven, integrating them into a harmonious whole.

Perhaps the most uncanny element in Piero’s painting is the Jordan River. As the biblical boundary between the wilderness wandering of the Exodus and the land of Promise on the other side, the Jordan became a traditional image of the passage not only between old and new, past and future, but between life and death. Many examples occur in the American spirituals and shape note songs I love to sing with my folkie friends.

I’ve almost gained my heavenly home of friends and kindred dear;
I’ve brushed the dew on Jordan’s banks, the crossing must be near.

These lines, from “Angel Band,” suggest a gentle crossing. But other songs, like “The Promised Land,” strike a note of anxiety and risk:

On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand and cast a wishful eye,
To Canaan’s fair and happy land where my possessions lie. . .
Though Jordan’s waves around me roll, fearless I’d launch away.

But in Piero’s depiction, the river is no formidable flood fraught with difficulty and danger, but a quiet, meandering channel, calm and smooth as a mirror. And it comes to an end at the place where Jesus stands. This could be a direct reference to Joshua’s crossing of the Jordan, which parted like the Red Sea to let God’s people cross over into the Promised Land (Joshua 3:14-17). Or it could be showing Christ to be the one who opens the way between the worlds of life and death, sin and salvation.

The sacrament of baptism employs the tension between water as an image of life (birth, growth, and the quenching of thirst) and an image of death (flood and drowning), expressing the inseparable connection between dying and rising in the Paschal Mystery. We die to self in order to live to God. But in the eternal stillness and calm of this painting, that tension is absent. The raging flood has been tamed into a tranquil pool. We have already crossed over into the peace of heaven.

Of course, it’s only a freeze frame. Soon history will resume and pick up speed. The river will start to rise and become once again tricky to cross. Jesus will begin to make his way through many dangers, toils and snares. So will we. But I am grateful to Piero for this moment of calm, a promising glimpse of something behind and beyond the raucous flow of time.

 

[i]The Rev. Neil Lambert is the vicar of St. Mary’s, Ash Vale, a 40-minute train ride from Waterloo Station. You can read more about him in my post, “Dreaming the Church that wants to be.”

What Will You Wish You Had Said?

Listening to voices from the end of life at Spoken/Unspoken.(Photo by Jim Friedrich)

At the end of your life, what will you wish you had said?

 This question is the premise for “Spoken / Unspoken: Stories of Living and Dying,” a moving audio installation at California’s Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. In a room of warm and cheerful colors, the visitor hears a succession of voices responding to the question. Each speaker is a person near the end of his or her life, recorded at Hospice of Santa Cruz County. Their words are also supplied in written form.

“I wanna say it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. . . I want to say everything. Everything I feel. Everything I experienced. . . I’m finding answers all the time and I’m finding more questions too. . . I’m letting it happen, I’m not running after it. If it comes I’ll latch onto it.”

 “I wish I could say I’m sorry to the people who I have offended in my life in different ways.”

 “I don’t understand myself. One of these days I’ll find out what’s going on.”

 “I cannot believe the speed of light that takes place toward your end days. What happened from 50 on was unbelievable. Time goes by so quickly. It’s just unimaginable. You can’t do anything about it.”

 “I’ve often been afraid [to get closer to people]. I don’t know why I’m afraid. There’s times that I think I’ve had answers to a problem a person has told me about and I haven’t shared what I thought the answer was, and I feel like I missed the point. I missed the time of being God’s handyman. They are not so much words of wisdom, but they are feelings that I have. I didn’t tell them that I loved them enough. I didn’t show that love enough.”

“I want to say, may this be a good day for you and that you’re enjoying . . . thinking of the creative things in you that God has given you to do––and go do one of them someday.”

Every voice is accompanied by its own unique musical score, created by composer and sound artist Lanier Sammons. The peaceful ambient music reflects not only the emotional content of the various interviews but also the particular tone, tempo and manner of each individual speaker. The result is a quality of presence which is more than whatever is being said.

I was especially taken by the man who broke into a rendition of “Some Enchanted Evening.” His singing was melodious and full of warmth. You may see a stranger across a crowded room. And somehow you know. It’s all about desire. As the theologians and novelists tell us, every story begins with a lack, and longing is at the heart of who we are.

We all know that words can suggest but never exhaust the complexity of our stories or the mystery of our being. But what is unique about the voices in this installation is their location––at life’s most critical boundary. Whether we think of it as “the end” or understand it to be the door between worlds, death invites retrospective reckonings. What has been the meaning of my story? Did I make a difference? Is there something I wish I had done, or said?

Spoken / Unspoken works at many levels. The attentive acts of listening by the hospice staff, the sound artist, and the museum curators have honored the beauty and value of dying elders, who are too often marginalized by a society uncomfortable with aging and death. The various voices convey both the uniqueness of every individual and the universality of our shared human condition. And it creates a sacred space where we can experience community not only with the specific people who share something of themselves in the recordings, but with every soul on pilgrimage into life’s unknown futures.

The installation also prompts visitors to perform a couple of actions.  Stationery and pencils are provided so we can communicate by letter something that needs to be said to a friend or loved one. A text encourages us: “Don’t wait, say it now.” There is also an adjacent recording booth, where you can make your own response to the question, “What do you wish you had said?” Sammons will then take your story, weave it together with other voices, and set it all to music. A week later you can hear the result on headphones as part of the installation.

What have I myself left unsaid after so many years on this earth? I’ve been wondering about that ever since experiencing the Santa Cruz installation a couple of weeks ago. I’m also dreaming about the adaptation of this sound installation concept for religious communities. I have led church retreats where we practice storytelling and storylistening––beginning with our communal sacred stories and moving into the treasuries of our personal stories. And people are usually surprised to discover how much there is to know about the life stories and spiritual experiences of their companions in faith. Even in communities where we profess the sacredness of every person as God’s beloved, so much is left unsaid between us.

So here’s an idea. What if communities of faith spent some time recording members’ responses to the big questions––about God, humanity, faith, hope, love, transformation, etc.––or provided a sound booth (a technological confessional?), where people can walk in and record what matters most to them? Then let some music and sound artists create an audio mix from the gathered material, and play it back in a church space where drop-ins can linger and listen to a living “cloud of witnesses.”

If any of this sparks your own creativity or exploration, I’d love to hear about it.

Epiphanies in the Temples of Wonder

Grand Teton National Park, Winter 1979 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

We have seen the Creator as Light and the Spirit as Light,
guiding with light the whole creation.

–– Byzantine matins, Feast of the Transfiguration

One senses something more than the natural…What these paintings seem to depict is not so much discrete things – trees, fields, figures, buildings – shown in particular configurations – but something that subsumes or, in potentiality, contains them.

 ––Museum label for a George Inness survey at the San Diego Museum of Art (2004)

 

I took my photograph of wintry pines forty years ago while cross-country skiing in Grand Teton National Park. I had stopped to contemplate the grove with its sense of mysterious depth, all those vertical lines receding into an infinity my eye could not penetrate. I felt the pull of whatever lies behind the components of the visible: the “something that subsumes or contains them.” It seemed an intimation of whatever lies beyond the self and its constructions.

The photograph became my Christmas card that year, with these words written on the back:

Shhh!
it comes
it goes
put yourself in its path
and wait

In this season of Epiphany (“manifestation”), we are invited to consider the possibility that the Transcendent desires to be seen. And when we are receptively attentive––and unhurriedly patient––we may discover the world to be a theater of divine showings and human awakenings.

Even in a world of “dull” and “prosaic” facts, said Emerson in an 1838 lecture, “the aroused intellect finds gold and gems in one of these scorned facts, then finds that the day of facts is a rock of diamonds, that a fact is an epiphany of God, that on every fact of his life he should rear a temple of wonder and joy.”[i]

Every year, every day, every hour of our lives offers its epiphanies. Leafing through old journals for some memorable examples of my own, I came across some passages from a European grand tour in the 1970s, a few years before I photographed the snowy Teton pines. My older self might want to tame some of the exuberant excess in the writing, but I still recognize, and do not regret, the intensity of that young man’s wonder.

An epiphany has been called “a moment when . .. consciousness finds itself flooded, or breathed into, or simply filled by a force . . . that comes from outside the self and is incorporated into the soul of the recipient.”[ii] My first direct encounter with the collection of J. M. W. Turner paintings in London’s Tate Gallery felt like that. This is how I wrote it down at the time:

Having seen most Turners only in reproduction, or in the vivid descriptions of [19th century critic] John Ruskin, I was not fully prepared for the ecstasy, the overwhelming somatic experience, of viewing the actual paintings. The three large Turner galleries were a temple of light, each framed canvas a window into a universe of radiant splendor. The early paintings showed his classical lineage, the formal narratives, but it was not long before his clear shapes began to waver and blur in the universal solvent of a liquid light. It was not a failure of drawing but the birth of new vision.

 Some of his sunsets and storms engulf recognizable forms, almost to the point of abstraction, yet they remain anchored in real perception, aspects of the created world which registered in the artist’s here and now. In “Interior at Petworth,” golden light, turbulent and thick, pours through the windows like water from a burst dam, tearing through the staid Victorian inner space to submerge everything in its radiance. How did Turner come to see a world so alive with animating energies? Was this light within his mind, leaving the room essentially untouched, or did he see something inherent in the physical world, a subversive brilliance operating outside the range of mortal sight?[iii]

J.M.W. Turner, “Interior at Petworth” (1837)

A week later, I walked through the doors of la belle cathédrale de Chartres into another epiphany:

The moment of entrance flooded me with intense emotion. I knew it would be beautiful, but I was unprepared for the way the soaring interior would catch me up in a such a physical way, and ravish my virgin eyes with the vivid, fantastic hues of medieval glass, floating islands of magic color in a sea of smoky shadows.

My eyes filled with tears. Never before had a building made me weep. It was that sense of perfection I have found more often in nature, the homecoming when one arrives at the perfect moment, the perfect place, where the lack that drives our stories is satisfied, every desire met.

I drifted around the cathedral as in a dream. There were no lights on at first, and the upward-thrusting shafts and vaults disappeared, like prayer, into a realm beyond our sight. The eloquent profusion of Gothic lines, the underlying mind that held vast forces in balance, subduing the play of gravity and architecture into a state of arrested serenity, was everywhere implied, but the complexity outran the mind’s descriptive grasp. Chartres invites not analysis, but worship. In every direction, the space receded into vague twilights. The effect was neither disorienting nor alarming, but enfolding, a mothering womb rather than annihilating tomb. Theotokos, the Divine Mother, was not only at the heart of the north rose window. She was the very space in which we moved.

The kaleidescopic windows seemed suspended, weightless, free floating in the darkness, jeweled messengers uttering angelic phrases directly to the soul, unclothed by human words. The north rose window, like Dante’s vision of the heavenly dance, held me rapt for the longest time. What kind of imagination had spread such rich fare before us? And if we feasted on such visions, how would we be changed?[iv]

North rose window, Chartres cathedral

 

 

[i] From “School,” a lecture given by Ralph Waldo Emerson in Boston on Dec. 19, 1838.

[ii] Ashton Nichols, The Poetics of Epiphany: Nineteenth Century Origins of the Modern Literary Movement (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1987), 14.

[iii] Personal journal (April 29, 1976).

[iv] Ibid. (May 4, 1976)

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)

 

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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)