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

Do not fear: Reflections on the Venice Colloquium

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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

 

Bill Viola’s “Martyrs”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[iv] From the installation’s explanatory text.

[v] Wisdom of Solomon 3:6

The Woven Light: Reflections on the Transfiguration

James Turrell, Arrowhead (2009)

James Turrell, Arrowhead (2009)

We would have thrown our clothes away for lightness,
But that even they, though sour and travel stained,
Seemed, like our flesh, made of immortal substance.
And the soiled flax and wool lay light upon us.
Like friendly wonders, flower and flock entwined
As in a morning field. Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
And nowhere?…

– Edwin Muir, “The Transfiguration”

Martin Scorcese’s 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ,” was criticized by many for its eccentric portrayal of a Jesus deeply conflicted by the fierce struggle between his two natures. As one reviewer wondered, “Is he God or is he nuts?” Scorcese, who specializes in tormented, confused male characters full of nervous intensity, defended his approach as an attempt to explore Christ’s humanity without the blinding glow of divine self-assurance that made many movie Jesuses seem stiff, complacent and unreal.

“What we were taught in Catholic schools emphasized the divine side of Jesus,” said Scorcese, who had considered priesthood in his adolescence. “Jesus would walk into the room and you would know he was God. Maybe he glowed in the dark or something, I don’t know, but this is the impression they gave us as children.”

The Jesus of Matthew, Mark and Luke does not glow, except in that strange moment called the Transfiguration, celebrated on August 6th in the liturgical calendar. This feast day goes largely unnoticed now in the western churches, who have essentially transferred it to the last Sunday of Epiphany. This neglect of August 6 is in part a concession to the decline of weekday celebrations, but it may also reflect a discomfort with the story itself, which feels like myth or vision rather than actual history. Not even the risen Christ matched the glow of the Transfiguration. What are we being asked to believe here?

We can never know the phenomenon behind the reported perceptions by Peter, James and John. But the symbolic dimensions of the narrative are clear, linking the incident to the ancestral epiphanies of Moses and Elijah. There is a mountain, where earth below meets heaven above. There is a cloud of unknowing, veiling divine presence in hiddenness and mystery. And there is a voice, making contact with human sense, rupturing the boundary between holy and profane to affirm the unique filial status of Jesus as God’s Beloved “Son.”

But what about that “dazzling” glow? What did the disciples actually see in Jesus on that mountain? Was it an unrepeatable moment, a temporary endowment bestowed upon Jesus to make a point to doubting disciples, or was it something Jesus always possessed?

Gregory of Palamas, a 14th century Orthodox theologian, argued the latter. He based his influential meditation practice of Hesychasm on contemplation of the “uncreated light” first seen at the Transfiguration. This light, he taught, was not an ephemeral experience of the senses but the unmediated presence of God. Although this holy light could be seen through physical eyes, it was not a natural light. It was, in fact, the uncreated energies of the Godhead, the splendor of the age to come, a light shining from God’s future into the present moment.

Christ is transfigured, not by putting on some quality he did not possess previously, nor by changing into something he never was before, but by revealing to his disciples what he truly was, in opening their eyes and in giving sight to those who were blind. For while remaining identical to what he had been before, he appeared to the disciples in his splendor; he is indeed the true light, the radiance of glory.[i]

Whatever we make of Gregory’s metaphysical claims, which were disputed by many of his contemporaries, the spiritual resonance of light is undeniable and universal. It is always seems to be about something more than physics. It seems inevitably imbued with Spirit.

Annie Dillard describes “mornings, when light spreads over the pastures like wings, and fans a secret color into everything, and beats the trees senseless with beauty…Outside it is bright…It is the one glare of holiness; it is bare and unspeakable. There is no speech or language; there is nothing, no one thing, nor motion nor time. There is only this everything.”[ii]

Where does such light come from? Is it something that happens to our eyes but is not really in the world, or is it somehow there, in the heart of things, “born of the one light Eden saw play?” Is it not just a simulacrum of divinity, but a direct manifestation?

James Turrell, Breathing Light (2013)

James Turrell, Breathing Light (2013)

James Turrell, one of the most celebrated of the contemporary “Light and Space” artists nurtured under California skies, has been exploring light and its effects since the 1960s. His mesmerizing spaces invite participants to experience not objects made visible by light, but light itself in an astonishing repertoire of varying colors and brightness. If there are walls, they seem to dissolve into the immateriality of radiance. If there is a ceiling, it may have a large opening inviting us to contemplate the luminous canopy of sky. “Light,” says Turrell, “is not so much something that reveals as it is itself the revelation.”

We eat light, drink it in through our skins. With a little more exposure to light, you feel part of things physically. I like the power of light and space physically because then you can order it materially. Seeing is a very sensuous act – there’s a sweet deliciousness to feeling yourself see something.[iii]

For many of us fortunate to have savored the deliciousness of Turrell’s light spaces, feeling ourselves see something is not just an intellectual or psychological act. It is spiritual – the “glare of holiness … beating us senseless with beauty.”

Turrell’s own Quaker tradition says that prayerful attention is “going inside to greet the light.” But is the radiance of divine beauty just in our souls, or does it permeate the universe? Does it show itself to us here, there and everywhere, as it did to Peter, James and John?

David Bentley Hart, an Orthodox theologian, proposes creation as a manifestation of God’s infinite luminosity, what he calls “the agile radiance of the Spirit.”[iv] We see this radiance not by looking away from the world, but by looking more deeply into it. But when the light is in eclipse, what then? “Sometimes,” says Bruce Cockburn, “you have to kick the darkness till it bleeds daylight.” Even at the Transfiguration, according to an Anglican midrash by a seventeenth-century bishop, Moses and Elijah felt impelled to warn Jesus about the suffering and darkness awaiting him once he descended the mountain:

A strange opportunity … when his face shone like the sun, to tell him it must be blubbered and spat upon;… and whilst he was Transfigured on the Mount, to tell him how he must be Disfigured on the Cross![v]

The poet Kathleen Raine perfectly describes the utter bleakness when “the curtain is down, the veil drawn” over the world’s deep radiance. “Nothing means or is,” she says.[vi]

Yet I saw once
The woven light of which all these are made
Otherwise than this. To have seen
Is to know always.

[i] St. Gregory Palamas, The Triads, in Richard Harries, Art and the Beauty of God: A Christian Understanding (London: Mowbray, 1993), 85

[ii] Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (New York: Harper Perennial, 1998), 67-8

[iii] q. in Michael Govan, “Inner Light: The Radical Reality of James Turrell”, James Turrell: A Retrospective (New York: DelMonico Books, 2014), 13

[iv] The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (David Bentley Hart, Eerdmans 2003), 292

[v] Joseph Hall, Contemplations upon the principal passages of the Old and New Testaments, 1612-28, found on Google Books, p. 383

[vi] Kathleen Raine, in Harries, 87

Every day, a miracle

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The Greek island of Santorini is famous for its singular beauty, shaped by ancient catastrophe. Like many of Greece’s treasures, it is a ruin, the curved remnant of an immense volcanic crater. When the caldera collapsed, the sea poured in, leaving only a few bits of the crater still above water. Santorini is the largest and tallest of these, with vertical walls rising a thousand feet above the Aegean. And perched along the edge of its towering cliffs are several whitewashed settlements, shining bright and cheerful against the fierce dark rock beneath them.

The village of Oia on the island’s western tip is the picturesque mecca for romantic travelers hoping for a travel poster moment. It has always drawn honeymooners, but it is also increasingly popular for destination weddings. The fairytale warren of cliffside dwellings, the dizzying prospect of the vast Aegean blue, the vivid sunsets and candlelight dining can persuade even the forlorn and forsaken to recover the idea of happiness.

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“The secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment,” said Nietzsche, “is to live dangerously! Build your cities on the edge of Vesuvius!” So on Santorini, after one of the biggest cataclysms in recorded history, humans returned to the edge of disaster and pitched their precarious towns. It’s been the isle of romance ever since.

Perhaps it has been loved too much. Since I first came here in 2001, the main pedestrian avenue has been developed into a trendy corridor of shops that feels more like a generic consumerist mall than a local village. We couldn’t see Greece for all the shoppers funneled in from the cruise ships. We resolved to retreat to our quiet balcony just outside town, to while away our time with reading and gazing.

But grace had other plans. Santorini had more to give us. The first gift was Atlantis Books, ensconced In the cozy quarters of an old sea captain’s house. You must descend steps to enter. Painted on the handrail: “Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.” The music playing inside was Texas legend Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty”; Living on the road, my friend, was gonna keep you free and clean …” 

Great song, but not widely known. I knew I was onto something here. I struck up a conversation with Nick Hunt, a writer from London visiting for a few months to help mind the store. Painted in an expanding spiral on the ceiling above us were the names of hundreds like him who have worked here during its eleven-year history, drawn by its literary fervor and high-spirited whimsey. There are quotes on the walls in several languages. Charles Bukowsi’s caught my eye: “Find what you love and let it kill you.” The book inventory was rich and full of unexpected treasures, such as a first edition in red leather of Lewis Carroll’s logical conundrums, The Game of Logic.

I had just been reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s riveting account of his walk across Europe, at the age of eighteen, from Britain to Byzantium (Istanbul) in the 1930’s. It’s some of the greatest travel writing of the twentieth century, and I was delighted to learn that Nick had recently retraced Fermor’s journey on foot to see what may have changed in 80 years. His own book about what he found, Walking the Woods and the Water, will be at the top of my reading list when I get home.

  

It was lovely to make such resonant connections, both musical and literary, in such an unexpected place. But the day had even more to give us. Just down the street we stopped in at the workshop of the celebrated icon “writer,” Dimitris Kolioussis, a man of great heart and generous spirit. His exquisite icons, painted meticulously with traditional methods, but often on found materials from old doors to cutting boards, are profoundly moving. His workshop, filled with these holy images, seems a kind of church, and his calling is clearly sacramental: bringing the invisible into visibility.

  

“I started making icons when I was a boy,” he told us. “Then I discovered it was my job.” He paused thoughtfully before adding, “Every day, a miracle. Every day, I give thanks.”

A guitar leaned against his easel. I picked it up and sang him a couple of American folk songs as a modest thank offering. He replied with some tasty blues licks.

It was a day of gifts which never would have happened had we remained on our beautiful balcony and kept to ourselves. Once again, Santorini, you have taught us happiness.

The beautiful voyage

parthenon-large-image

I am off to Greece in the morning, to look at old stones and swim in ancient seas. It’s a vacation, but I will be reading Jan Patocka’s Plato and Europe, in which he explores the Greek philosophical origins of what he terms “the fundamental heritage of Europe”, which is “the care of the soul,” just to keep in trim for the riches in store. Will I find Apollo or Dionysus? Plato or Zorba? Watch this space.

And on the eve of departure, what better invocation than C.V. Cavafy’s “Ithaca”:

When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
Do not fear the Lestrygonians
and the Cyclops and the angry Poseidon.
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not raise them up before you.

Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
buy as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit hosts of Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from those who have knowledge.

Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and even to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
But she has nothing more to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must surely have understood by then what Ithacas mean.

God and the imagination are one

HS dove

Following this blog’s inaugural series of dispatches from the Camino de Santiago last spring, readers of The Religious Imagineer may have noticed a curious diversity of topics: saints, seasons, nature, culture, theology, Scripture, liturgy, art, theater, circus, classic cars and cinema. And perhaps they wonder, what ties all this stuff together?

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. When Isaiah Berlin explored the implications of this ancient Greek saying in his celebrated 1953 essay, he argued that Tolstoy was by nature a fox but by conviction a hedgehog. His interests were wide and his eye for the particular was acute, but he sought to contain the world’s multiplicity within a single defining idea.

I can relate. And the one big thing for this blog is found in a line from Wallace Stevens:

We say God and the imagination are one …
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

This might be taken as a secular celebration of the human mind, reducing God to one of its creative fictions. But if I read Stevens with the hermeneutic of a believer, “God and the imagination are one” is not necessarily a matter of either-or. It might also mean both-and. God dwells both in the mind and outside it. Imagination is both a way we reach beyond ourselves, and a means by which the transcendent finds a home in us, enabling us to see with the eyes of God and the mind of Christ, and to act accordingly. To say that God and the imagination are does not mean for me that they are identical, but that they participate deeply in one another.

The Creator’s “Let there be light!” and Jesus’ refusal of the tomb’s finality are the supreme biblical examples of divine imagination. But there have been countless imagineers engaged in the work (or is it play?) of bringing the new heaven and new earth into being. The activist imagining peace, the oppressed imagining justice, the forgiver imagining reconcilation, the mourner imagining joy, the saint imagining a new way of being, the theologian and the artist imagining the beauty of the infinite in the particular, are all practitioners of the holy and transformative task of conforming the world more closely to God’s image.

When Jesus quoted Isaiah 61 in his hometown sermon, he embraced such prophetic imagination as his own vocation.

The Imagination of God is upon me,
for she has sent me to bring good news to the poor.
She has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind;
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of divine favor.

So to return the original question about The Religious Imagineer’s diversity of topics, I would say that imagination is the unifying subject of this blog. How do we say the unsayable, see the invisible, dance the impossible in our images, rituals and stories? How do we attend to the traces of God amid the chronic unknowing of secular modernity? How do we imagine the really Real and the not-yet?

Video artist Bill Viola, the subject of an earlier post, has observed that “in the Middle Ages they painted the sky gold in the paintings … It was realism they were after – reality of the divine effused through everything in the physical world.” That is my theme as well.

As ever, thanks for reading.