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.

A feather on the breath of God

Hildegard at desk

When I was 42 years and 7 months old, a burning light of tremendous brightness coming from heaven poured into my entire mind. Like a flame that does not burn but enkindles, it inflamed my entire heart … just like the sun that warms an object with its rays.

So wrote Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth-century abbess, artist and activist whose feast is celebrated today. In a society where women were more seen than heard, it took her a long time to find an outlet for her voice. She had experienced visions ever since her childhood, but she kept them mostly to herself until she was in her forties. Her reticence wasn’t just due to social pressure. She also shared the self-doubting anxiety of every artist. Did her visions matter? Would the world understand or care? But as every artist knows, if you have a gift and don’t make it visible, it will sicken and die within you, and your own body will suffer the effects.

And Hildegard in fact became a sickly woman: “Not in stubbornness but in humility, I refused to write for so long that I felt pressed down under the whip of God into a bed of sickness.” But at last she overcame her inhibitions. Her call was too strong to resist. She began to write, and compose, and produce paintings of her visions. Her body was restored to health, and from then on, she tried to live the life only she could live.

In one of her visions, God told her: O how beautiful your eyes are when you tell the divine story!

Tell the divine story: That was the work she had been given to do. In addition to the normal duties of a medieval abbess in the Rhineland, Hildegard became a storyteller, a musician, an artist, a writer; and through all these media she obeyed the command given to every artist, to “make visible what, without you, might never be seen.” She was also an activist, reminding the powerful to show compassion to the poor, and railing against clergy who failed to blow “the trumpets of divine justice.”

Hildegard was always mindful of the source of her creativity:

The marvels of God are not brought forth from one’s self.
Rather, it is more like a chord, a sound that is played.
The tone does not come out of the chord itself,
but rather, through the touch of the musician.
I am, of course, the lyre and harp of God’s kindness.

She put this even more succinctly when she called herself “a feather on the breath of God”

The bright-colored enigmas of her illustrated visions, painted by others under her supervision, are unlike anything else in western medieval art. Figures embedded within circles or mandalas express her experience of God as being “like a wheel, a circle, a whole, that can neither be understood, nor divided, nor begun nor ended … just as a circle embraces all that is within it, so does the Godhead embrace all …. You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.”

Hildegard’s music was as original as her images. Her compositions resemble the Gregorian chant of her time in their liturgical form and musical modes. They also conform to plainchant’s suppression of extroverted individuality for the sake of devotional calm. At the same time, they go beyond traditional chant in several ways: her melodies have an exotically wide range, often spanning two octaves, with sudden leaps from low notes to high notes; her texts are rhapsodic outpourings of strikingly original imagery; and her songs possess a freedom and exuberance that reflect an artist on the loose.

Her music wasn’t primarily a form of personal expression. It was a manifestation of deepest reality. “O Trinity, you are music, you are life,” she prayed. For Hildegard, “all of creation is a song of praise to God.”

She didn’t make up her songs; she listened in to the music of heaven:

Then I saw the lucent sky, in which I heard different kinds of music, marvelously embodying all the meanings I had heard before. I heard the praises of the joyous citizens of heaven, steadfastly persevering in the ways of Truth; and laments calling people back to those praises and joys; and the exhortations of the virtues.

This was more than metaphor, as her writings make clear. Her compositions came to her whole, given by God, much like the auditory mysticism of St. John the Divine, who wrote in the Book of Revelation: “And I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they sang a new song before the throne.”

Hildegard believed that the music of heaven is in us and all around us. We have been created to harmonize with it. “The soul is symphonic,” she said.

She conceived a charming image of Adam before the Fall: he sang with a voice of pure honey, and the devil knew that as long as Adam managed to remember the sweetness of the heavenly songs, he could never be tempted. So with Adam, as with all of us who have come after, the devil set out “to trouble or destroy the affirmation and beauty and sweetness of divine praise and of the hymns of the spirit.”

In Hildegard’s opera, Ordo Virtutum, an allegory of the virtues, all the characters sing – except the devil, who can only heckle and shout. The devil’s work is dissonance, the shattering of harmony.

Hildegard once had a dispute with the bishops of her diocese, who tried to force her submission on a matter of principle by forbidding her nuns to take communion or to sing the liturgy. It was a terrible ordeal for her community to live without music. Hildegard remarked at the time that those who choose to silence music in their lifetime will go to a place where they will be “without the company of the angelic songs of praises in heaven.” It was her discreet way of telling the prelates to go to hell.

Every artist has to deal with philistines, but we can be thankful that Hildegard’s enormous gifts were for the most part supported by her contemporaries. She fell into obscurity for centuries after her death, but she returns anew to our own time with a voice we long to hear, a voice resonant with compassion, a voice aflame with justice, a voice attuned to the divine harmony for which all of us are made.

Sometimes Hildegard seems to live in a different universe than we do, a universe alive with multi-sensory evidence that God is “burning everywhere,” that everything in the world is dense with meaning and liveliness.

All the senses, in her universe, deliver this message to the receptive soul. Unlike the purely material universe proposed by modernity, a happenstance of mute objects and dead space, Hildegard’s universe was sacramental, alive with significant presence.

In one of her visions, a human figure stands in the center of a cosmic wheel. This Christlike image of Divinity declares to her and to all the world:

I, the highest and fiery power,
have kindled every spark of life …
I, the fiery life of divine essence,
am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows.
I gleam in the waters. I burn in the sun, moon and stars.
With every breeze, as with invisible life that contains everything,
I awaken everything to life.

Is this not the high calling of every saint – and every artist?
To awaken everything to life.
To set our imagination aflame.
To make visible the unsurpassable beauty of God.

As Simon Weil put it so well in our own era,

A sense of beauty, although mutilated, distorted, and soiled, remains rooted in the human heart as a powerful incentive… If it were made true and pure, it would sweep all secular life in a body to the feet of God.

Messianic light

Morris Graves, The Genesis of Life Lay Deep and Anticipant under the Sky II (1944, detail)

Morris Graves, The Genesis of Life Lay Deep and Anticipant under the Sky II (1944, detail)

At the beginning of Moby Dick, Ishmael encounters a strange painting hanging in the entry of an old inn. Dimly lit and “thoroughly besmoked,” it was an indistinguishable mix of “shades and shadows” with a “long, limber, portentous black mass of something hovering in the center.” It seemed a picture of primal chaos, suffused with “a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it,” prompting Ishmael to obsess about its meaning.

It’s the Black Sea in a midnight gale. – It’s the unnatural combat of the four primal elements. – It’s a blasted heath. – It’s a Hyperborean winter scene. – It’s the breaking up of the ice-bound stream of Time. – But at last all those fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture’s midst. That once found out, and all the rest were plain. But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great Leviathan himself?

Ishmael might have been contemplating the inky monolith of a late Rothko, or one of Morris Graves’ dark wartime nocturnes of a restless and tormented life force. It was a classic experience of the Sublime, where the human and the known are overwhelmed by the transcendent and the unknowable. Whether you are Moses enveloped in Sinai’s stormy cloud or a tourist gawking at Niagara Falls, you feel a sense of shock and awe in the presence of a wild uncontrollable force. For a moment, at least, the stable coordinates of the humanly constructed world are blown away. The tourist may escape with merely a pleasant shudder, but the saint is swept into the divine abyss.

The Sublime is the annihilating negative which questions, disrupts, challenges a world too narrowly constructed in our own image. It is the vast unknowable desert that lies beyond our maps; the nameless voice that asks ‘Why?” and “Why not?”; the apocalypse that rejects the finality of empires. It is the dark night of the soul where language fails and silence speaks; the radically other, ungrasped by imagination; the formlessness prior to every making. It is the ending that births the beginning.

Artists have long attempted to convey the transcendent through sensuous means and materials, but only in the last century have some of them tried to do it without using recognizable images or narratives. Color, shape and texture in themselves would be sufficient to make visible the underlying essence of reality, according to pioneers of the abstract like Kandinsky. As Barnett Newman said in a 1948 manifesto, “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.” An abstract canvas could provide direct revelation through pure sensation, unmediated by stories or symbols or replications of the material world.

Whether the “abstract sublime” actually put the viewer in closer touch with the deepest reality, or was just another form of representation as “fictional” in form as a biblical scene or a landscape, has been widely debated. Can any image be identical to what it portrays? And is form only something that exists in the perceiving mind, and not a quality inherent to the universal flux? If deepest Reality, or God if you will, is unrepresentable, how can you make a picture of it? Can you stand before of the saturated hues of a Rothko and believe you are in the presence of the transcendent? Some have. I have.

Most artists today are reluctant to make overt claims for their work as spiritual events between viewer and the transcendent, as deep speaking to deep. In the postmodern play of signifiers, there is no divine Voice, no Reality trying to communicate with us from a realm beyond finite language. As atheist philosopher Richard Rorty reductively put it, “the world does not speak. Only we do.”

That is not my experience. Nature has spoken to me. Sacrament has spoken to me. Christ in my neighbor has spoken to me. And art, both figurative and abstract, has spoken to me, most recently in the paintings of Morris Graves in a revelatory exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum, Modernism in the Pacific Northwest: The Mythic and the Mystical.

The exhibition makes a case for Seattle as the birthplace of modernism in American art. Mark Tobey’s “white writing” paintings, where thin lines of white paint permeate scenes like an energy field binding all things together, have been credited with the invention of gestural painting, which Jackson Pollock would adapt and make famous. Both Tobey and Graves, imbued with the art and the spirituality of Asian and Northwest native cultures, approached their work with a mystical sensibility that impressed East coast critics and artists alike. Even when the New York School veered away from the spirituality of art into pure painting free of “meaning,” the Northwest painters continued to make substantial connections between art and spirit.

I was particularly moved by Graves’ World War II work. Jailed for refusing to fight, Graves was profoundly troubled by the madness and destruction of the conflict, what he called “the death of all reason.” When he was released in 1943, he began to paint feverish visions of a monochrome night world on the verge of ending, as darkness and deluge swirled all around. There were forms – a crow, a minnow, a waning moon – which resisted the devolution into utter chaos. These few were signs of resistance and grace. Graves wrote of the minnow:

Silvery minnow-moment of awareness flash-gleaming in the depths, now seen, now gone … when crisis occurs, the minnow voluntarily comes into view – to renew faith and give direction.

But Graves’ wartime paintings never showed more than brief glimmers of hope in a world of threat and horror. It was not until the war ended that Graves could fill a canvas with light, in his depiction of a brilliant lotus flower in bloom. This Buddhist symbol of meditation and enlightenment could be seen as a victory of light over darkness, but some have noted the bloom’s resemblance to a nuclear cloud. As with the August 6th coincidence of Hiroshima Day with the Feast of the Transfiguration, the struggle between life and death is far from done.

Graves believed that art has a profoundly meaningful task, and something Theodor Adorno said might well be applied to Graves’ own work:

Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light.

Art can reveal the poverties and distortions of the world.
Can it also enable us to stand in the “messianic light?”
Are there indeed showings of the divine in color, form and light?

On the day after the Feast of the Epiphany in 1956, Sylvia Plath wrote a postcard to her mother, describing her visit to the Matisse Chapel on the Riviera. The entrance was shut when she arrived. The chapel only opened twice a week, and on the other days not even rich tourists waving large sums of money could gain admittance. Plath was “desolate” at her bad timing. She wandered glumly around the walls enclosing the chapel, “feeling like Alice outside the garden.” Then she returned to the locked gate and stood quietly.

I began to cry. I knew it was so lovely inside, pure white with the sun through blue, yellow and green stained windows.
Then I heard a voice. ‘Ne pleurez plus, entrez,’ and the Mother Superior let me in, after denying all the wealthy people in cars.

I just knelt in the heart of the sun and the colors of sky, sea and sun, in the pure white heart of the chapel. ‘Vous êtes si gentille,’ I stammered. The nun smiled. ‘C’est la miséricorde de Dieu.’

It was.

Behind the veil

When you arrive in Santiago de Compostela, they say, then your real Camino begins. Or continues, since the vast traverse between where we’ve been and where we’re headed is ongoing, never finally completed – not even by death, say the theologians. We are always “on the way,” deeper and deeper into the mystery of the world. Just so, this blog will itself travel on, exploring the permutations of that mystery within the wide categories of God, Nature, and Art, which are my three great passions. The subjects will be diverse, but all will pursue my guiding theme: where the fire and the rose are one.

This richly suggestive phrase, the last line of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, harmonizes seemingly incompatible energies: the wild, consuming flame, the serene, soft and self-possessed bloom. As traditional symbols of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, they recall the fruitful incongruity of the Incarnation, but even without this theological overlay, on a strictly sensory level, their union comprises a highly charged coincidence of opposites. The interplay of radically different entities – matter and spirit, sensation and meaning, fact and imagination – and the expanded sense of reality that such unlikely dance partners can produce, will be the subject of my inquiry. John Muir, rhapsodic apostle of the California mountains, described nature as “opening a thousand windows to show us God.” The Religious Imagineer exists to look for those windows – not only in nature, but also in the arts, literature, cinema, theology, and ritual practice. The terrain is immense, my maps are few. But like Wordsworth, I pray that “should the guide I choose / Be nothing better than a wandering cloud / I cannot miss my way.”

So let me begin my new “camino” with Bill Viola, whose video art installations explore big questions: Who am I? Where am I? Where am I going? I have admired his work for years, and was delighted that the first retrospective of his work in France coincided with my arrival in Paris en route to the Camino in April. The notes to the exhibition related his aesthetic to religious contemplation: “For the artist, the camera is that second eye that ‘re-teaches us how to see’ and addresses the world beyond, or beneath, appearances.” And in fact the multiple rooms of the gallery, cave-like spaces lit only by the high-definition images projected on large surfaces, seemed more church than museum. People stood or sat on the floor in rapt attention to the visions unfolding all around them.

I was struck by one room in particular, where the four walls were covered by simultaneous projections of five different 35 minute scenes of mortality and resurrection. One of these was a fixed wide shot of a man dying in a tiny house perched on a bluff (a cutaway wall lets us see inside) as a boat is loaded with household goods on the beach below. When the man dies, we see him appear on the beach (while his lifeless body remains in the house) and get into the boat, which ferries him slowly across the wide expanse of water toward an unknown shore. In another scene, a rescue crew is packing up at the edge of receding floodwaters, while a distraught mother keeps watch in the desperate hope that her drowned son might still be rescued. After a long vigil, mother and paramedics, exhausted, fall asleep on the shore. It is only then that the son’s resurrected body rises out of the water and into the sky beyond the frame. The sleepers miss it, but the viewer is given a privileged glimpse of the crossing between this world and the next. Water dripping from the man’s ascending feet turns into a downpour once he is out of sight. The sleepers are awakened by the deluge, and they exit the scene, never suspecting the rain to be a sign connecting earth and heaven. The mystery of resurrection remains hidden from them, though not from us. The largest image, covering the entirety of a long wall, was an endless procession of people, seen from the side like a Parthenon frieze, moves in slow single file through a forest. As Viola intended, these walkers, wrapped in a silence that seems neither anxious nor eager, suggest souls who have left this world, on their way to whatever world awaits them. I would recall this image a few days later, when I took my own place in the Camino’s great procession of pilgrims, all making our way toward God knows where.

It would be hard to imagine a casual encounter with this installation, whose title was Going Forth By Day (a term for dying taken from the Egyptian Book of the Dead). It seemed too concerned about our own fate for us to pass it by with only a glance. Viola’s work always invites us deeper, soliciting, in his words, “faith in that other thing, that something else dimly felt behind the veil of daily life.” (David Morgan, “Spirit and Medium,” in The Art of Bill Viola, p. 101)

We could use more of such conviction – and poetic persuasiveness – in the rites and imagery of our churches, which sometimes seem at a loss in the task of making the sacred tangible or even thinkable in a culture saturated by secular assumptions. I was delighted to hear that St. Paul’s cathedral in London recently unveiled a permanent Viola video installation in its Martyrs chapel. You can find images of this new work at http://www.billviola.com/

You can view a short montage of excerpts from Going Forth by Day here: http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=Bill+Viola+Going+forth+by+day&FORM=VIRE1#view=detail&mid=38964FC4118E53E2F6B938964FC4118E53E2F6B9

You can also watch an excellent lecture which I heard Viola give at UC Berkeley in 2010. It is 90 minutes long, includes examples of his work, and is well worth it for his discussion of “technology and revelation.” The link is at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0RCkNugozU

Viola flood res