Kieslowski’s Decalogue: A Masterpiece of Religious Cinema

 

Pawel (Wojciech Klata), Decalogue 1

Pawel (Wojciech Klata), Decalogue 1

If I had to formulate the message of my Decalogue, I’d say,
‘Live carefully, with your eyes open, and try not to cause pain.’

– Krzysztof Kieslowski[i]

The late Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue (1988), one of cinema’s great religious masterpieces, had its origins in the depressing bleakness of Polish life in the mid-1980s. “Chaos and disorder ruled . . . everywhere, everything, practically everybody’s life,” wrote the filmmaker. “Tension, a feeling of hopelessness, and a fear of yet worse to come were obvious. I sensed mutual indifference behind polite smiles and had the overwhelming impression that, more and more frequently, I was watching people who didn’t really know why they were living.”[ii]

Driven to explore the questions of why we suffer and how we live, Kieslowski collaborated with Krzysztof Piesiewicz (not a writer but a great talker) to develop a series of scripts based on the Ten Commandments, which he then directed as ten one-hour episodes for Polish television. Subsequent theatrical screenings of the 584-minute series brought him instant international acclaim. A beautiful new restoration is now available on Blu-ray, but if you ever get a chance to see it on the big screen, don’t miss it. I’ve done the full immersion twice––in the nineties, and two months ago­­––and each time I exited the theater deeply affected, as though emerging from an all-night liturgy.

To call this work “religious” may seem a misnomer to those who think religious art requires explicit messaging, dogmatic certainty or a happy resolution of narratives. Decalogue offers neither clear answers nor divine fixes. Instead, it combs the landscape of doubt and anguish for the elusive traces of a power or presence which we might call grace, or even “God.”

Kieslowski’s given name, Krzysztof, means “Christ,” but he staunchly resisted religious labels and institutions. He was, he said, an “agnostic mystic,” a searcher attuned to something beyond the immanent and empirical. In exploring the idea of the Commandments as transcendent guides for living, he argued that “an absolute point of reference does exist … it’s something which is lasting, absolute, evident and is not relative… especially for people like me, who are weak, who are looking for something, who don’t know.”[iii]

The Commandments are not so much about the dictates and prohibitions in themselves as they are about relationships. In setting limits on human failings––violence, acquisitiveness, exploitation, idolatry, etc.––they create a safe space to flourish in just relation with one another, while at the same time binding human community in a covenantal relationship with a transcendent “point of reference.” As they prod us toward love of God and neighbor, the Commandments foster the deep interconnectedness which theologians call the image and way of divinity.

Decalogue’s characters are no saints. They are as weak, muddled and lost as the rest of us. The ten films don’t show us how to keep the Commandments; they show us what happens when we break them––damage and suffering, yes, but possibilities of grace as well.

All the stories involve the residents of a single apartment building, an oppressive concrete high-rise where joy is a rare commodity. Many of its occupants are lonely, broken or suffering. No one smiles much. Since we see little interaction of its inhabitants with a wider socioeconomic environment, it feels like a closed world, a laboratory for experiments in human nature, with God and the film viewer as the only outside observers. The actors themselves were not always sure which commandment applied to their story, since correlations between story and commandment were not always clear in the scripts. And a single story might actually involve multiple commandments.

But even if what to do or how to live may not seem clear to either the characters or the viewers who watch their stories, Decalogue gives us people for whom choices clearly matter. As Kieslowski put it, they “live carefully.” Even when they make a bad choice, it is the product of thought, not just careless impulse. And they convey the sense that even in seemingly small decisions, souls may be won or lost.

The stories are varied and often unexpected in their narrative twists and turns. Every situation centers on family issues: parenting, childhood, conflict, rivalry, infidelity, reconcilation and loss. I won’t spoil the pleasure of anyone’s first viewing by describing the plots, but subjects range from Christmas, ice skating, and stamp collecting to voyeurism, incest, kidnapping, suicide, murder and the holocaust. The totality is less grim than it sounds­­––humor, kindness and even redemption play a part––although Decalogue 1 will break your heart (even as it reveals divine compassion in an unforgettable image), and the murder in Decalogue 5 is almost unwatchable (as is the capital punishment which mirrors the original crime). Kieslowski sought God even in the abysses of human experience. His films are like the homeless drunk in Decalogue 3, dragging a scrawny tree through the streets on Christmas Eve, caroling in a slurred voice, “God is being born.”

If God is really being born, where is the birthplace? How on earth do we find it? German theologian Eberhard Jüngel says that the primary God question for modernity is not “whether God is” or “what God is,” but “where God is.” Before we argue existence or essence, we need to locate divine presence in the stories and places we ourselves inhabit.

Kieslowski looked for it through cinema. His faithful doubt gives Decalogue an honest authenticity. What he finds is not overdetermined by prior theological conviction. As critic Joseph G. Kickasola writes, “There is no evidence that Kieslowski ever felt that he concretely found that Transcendent hope, but his films stand as a testament to the integrity of his search and his longing.”[iv]

How do you show the Divine on film? God’s immanent manifestations may certainly be glimpsed in moments of human forgiveness, reconciliation, healing and liberation. But how might God’s elusive and ineffable transcendent dimension be represented? One way is through film style, using abstraction, reflections, filters, lighting, color, music, sound, and editing to dislodge the eye from habitual perceptions and suggest the possibility of less empirical realities. Decalogue abounds with such visual epiphanies. It is a world full of signs, once you start looking for them.

Another cinematic means of representing invisible Reality is to show one thing while allowing it simultaneously to mean something else. In Decalogue 9, a man lies in the hospital after a bungled suicide attempt. His wife, reading his suicide note, thinks he is dead. A hospital nurse dials her number, and holds a phone to the immobile husband’s ear. His wife answers. “God, you’re there!” she says. He responds, “I am.” It’s a very human moment of reconciliation, but in the context of the story, one cannot miss the dual meaning of this exchange. The object of deepest longing (“God”), thought to be gone forever, has not only been found (“you’re there”), but it answers the seeker with the divine name (“I am”). Fade to black.

In Decalogue 1, a man who has suffered unspeakable loss enters a candlelit church. Angry at a God whose existence he doubts, he overturns an altar beneath a large icon of the Virgin. A candle on top of the icon tips over, spilling its hot wax, which then drips slowly down the Virgin’s cheek. For this viewer at least, this is not simply a mediating image of divine compassion. It feels like direct experience. I know it’s just wax sliding down a painted surface. I know I am watching a film. But still: I see God weeping for our sorrow.

Another indicator of transcendent reality is the recurring sense of fate or destiny suggested by compelling coincidences, as if some intentional, benevolent design is trying to assert itself amid the happenstance of human affairs. There are many such uncanny connections in Decalogue. But such evidence is inherently ambiguous. As Slavoj Žižek wonders, “Is this the final answer of the Real, the proof that we are not alone, that ‘someone is out there,’ or just another stupid coincidence?”[v]

And then there is the enigmatic stranger who neither speaks nor acts. Appearing in every story but one, he witnesses but never intervenes, though at one point we see him wipe away a tear. Like the three strangers in Abraham’s tent, or the one who wrestled all night with Jacob, he suggests divine presence in anonymous human form.

In Decalogue 1, his first appearance is next to a fire, evoking the burning bush. He always seems to possess a secret knowledge of the heart, indicated by his knowing gaze. He turns up, as if omnipresent, at key moments of decision or crisis. Whether he is a powerless divinity who can sympathize but not save, or a mysterious agency which bends human causality, however subtly, toward positve outcomes, remains indeterminate throughout the Decalogue. But crucial changes or differences sometimes follow in his wake.

The script simply calls him “the young man.” The actor, Artur Barcis, thought of him as the Christ. Kieslowski told the actor to play him “as if you were five centimeters off the ground.” One critic compares him to an icon, “materially bearing [God’s] presence and eternal gaze in the broken, desolate community and reminding us that the commandments have always been perceived (by the faithful) to have a living, transcendental dimension.”[vi]

Each time I watch, I am moved by the stranger, so perfectly expressive of God’s ineffable oscillation of presence and absence: a transcendence which cannot be possessed or summoned, though it will never truly abandon us. But perhaps Decalogue’s supreme revelation––an incarnational, unambiguously human image of the divine––is found in an exchange between Pawel, an eleven-year-old boy, and his aunt Irena. Pawel has a great curiosity about God, which his single-parent father, an unbeliever, cannot satisfy. So Pawel takes his questions to his devout Catholic aunt.

Pawel: Do you believe that God exists?
Irena:  Yes.
Pawel: What is God?

Irena puts her arms around Pawel and pulls him close.

Irena:  What do you feel now?
Pawel: I love you.
Irena:   Exactly. That’s what God is.

 

 

Related post:   The ten best religious films

 

[i] Annette Insdorf, Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski (New York: Hyperion/Miramax Books, 1999), 124

[ii] ibid., 69-70

[iii] Monica Maurer, Krzysztof Kieslowski (North Pomfret, VT: Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2000), 13

[iv] Joseph G. Kickasola, The Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski: The Liminal Image (New York: Continuum, 2004), 89

[v] Slavoj Žižek, The Fright of Real Tears: Kryzysztov Kieslowski Between Theory and Philosophy (London: British Film Institute, 2001), 123

[vi] Kickasola, 165-6

The Monks Have No Sadness

Mount Calvary Monastery, Santa Barbara, California

Mount Calvary Monastery, Santa Barbara, California

To almost all the questions that might be asked about you the answer would be “perhaps.” Shall you have a large fortune, great talents, a long life? “Perhaps.” Will your last hour find you in the friendship of God? “Perhaps.” After this retreat, will you live long in a state of grace? “Perhaps.” Shall you be saved? “Perhaps.” But shall you die? “Yes. Certainly.”

– Ignatius of Loyola

I spent last night at Mount Calvary Monastery in Santa Barbara. During dinner I asked one of the older monks, whom I hadn’t seen for a while, how he was doing. “Oh,” he said, “I’m biodegrading on schedule.” Later, at Compline, he chanted in a faltering voice,

I will lie down in peace,
and sleep comes at once;
for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.

Earlier in the day, on the plane to California, I had been reading Tracy Daugherty’s riveting biography of Joan Didion, The Last Love Song, which is suffused with the subject of mortality: not just the death of individuals, but the demise of our collective narratives as well. Even the best stories we tell about our lives and our world tend to unravel over time.

Didion’s late writings have explored the grief of private loss- the death of a husband, the death of a daughter- but they also connect with her lifelong attempts to make sense of the country and culture she inhabits. Didion has always been a keen observer and distinctive storyteller, but there have been times, like 1968 and 9/11, when she could no longer “believe in the narrative and the narrative’s intelligibility.”

Whether writing about her own physical decline and the pain of outliving those you love, or documenting the demise of a recognizable public world, Didion gives voice to the laments within us all. As Daugherty writes, “She helped us admit things we intuited but rarely aired: the fragility of our national myths and the constant nearness of death.”

Lately I find myself preoccupied with the coincidence of private and public loss. A friend and significant mentor lost his eldest child to cancer this week, just three months after losing his beloved wife of 71 years. Members of my own family have also had recent occasion to contemplate “the constant nearness of death.” Meanwhile, “the fragility of our national myths” has become all too clear. When President Obama described a lofty vision of democracy in his moving farewell address, it felt like the eulogy at America’s funeral. We wept not just for the noble beauty of his subject, but because we were feeling the loss of it so keenly.

Dragon tree, Mount Calvary Monastery

Dragon tree, Mount Calvary Monastery

After any profound loss, we wonder how we can go on. But we do. And we do it with “quiet confidence,” as the Book of Common Prayer says in the Burial Office, because death is never the end. From the dry bones of our shattered narratives, God will begin to construct a new and better story.

Yes, we’re all freaking out as January 20 draws near. How awful can it get? How do we survive? How do we resist? I’m looking for the same answers you are. But over the last 24 hours, it has been both consoling and empowering to keep the hours with the monks, chanting the psalmody which puts everything in a larger perspective:

Those who dwell in the shelter of the Most High
and abide in the shade of the Almighty
say to the Lord: “My refuge, my stronghold,
my God in whom I trust. (Psalm 91)

The Lord is my light and my help…
Though an army encamp against me,
my heart would not fear.
Though war break out against me,
Even then I would trust. (Psalm 27)

In the shadow of your wings I take refuge
till the storms of destruction pass by…
My heart is ready, O God,
my heart is ready.
I will sing, I will sing your praise.
Awake, my soul!
Awake, lyre and harp!
I will awake the dawn. (Psalm 57)

Faith is not an exemption from struggle, mortality and loss. God’s own self walked the way of the cross. But for the ready heart, enduring all things in quiet confidence like the old monk “biodegrading on schedule,” even the downward path will be the way up. And what St. Chrysostom said about monastics should apply to all:

“The monks have no sadness.
They wage war on the devil
as though they were performing a dance.”

Our Revels Now Are Ended

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Old Christmas is past,
Twelfth Night is the last,
And we bid you adieu,
great joy to the new.

– Welsh carol

For now the time of gifts is gone­–
O boys that grow, O snows that melt,
O bathos that the years must fill–
Here is dull earth to build upon
Undecorated; we have reached
Twelfth Night or what you will…

– Louis MacNeice[i]

Christmas ends tonight. That may surprise those who thought it done by December 26th, or with the final New Year’s game. I do get funny looks when I utter “Merry Christmas on days 2 thourgh 11. But for those who keep the traditional Feast of the Incarnation, it is best when savored the full twelve days. With the gathering, gifting and communal celebrations mostly behind us, the last days of Christmas can be a peaceful inbreathing of wonder before ordinary time resumes. The angels have returned to heaven, but the starry nights are no less radiant. The shepherds have returned to their flock, but we still linger in the stable, desiring to adore the newborn Mystery just a little longer.

Poet Mary Oliver, experiencing an intuition of charged significance at a New England pond, wrote, “oh, what is that beautiful thing / that just happened?”[ii]– Her question perfectly expresses our devotional response to the Nativity. The event itself is but a moment, but its meaning generates a lifetime of reflection and adoration. So in these last days of Christmas I have continued to carol with guitar, bowed psaltery and hammered dulcimer, read the poems of Incarnation, contemplated the crèche by the light of the decorated evergreen, and gazed in attentive silence at our candlelit icon of Madonna and Child. Oh what is that beautiful thing that just happened?

 But tonight, it’s all about to end. A few savvy churches may observe the playful but largely forgotten Twelfth Night revels tonight, and tomorrow we will make some fuss about the arrival of the Magi to worship the holy Child, but then our retreat into festive space/time will be over and done. The Holy Family’s Christmas concluded that way: abruptly, with a quick exit to escape Herod’s swords. So too will ours, as we resume not only our private travails but also the current dismal prospects of our public life, so well described by W. H. Auden in his “Christmas Oratorio”:

The evil and armed draw near;
The weather smells of their hate
And the houses smell of our fear …

There’s no escaping history. We can’t stay dreaming forever in holy and silent nights. “Well, so that is that,” Auden wrote. “Now we must dismantle the tree, / Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes … The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory…”

But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.

As for the Christmas revelation of Incarnate Love, will it also fade away in the glare of the everyday, after being too briefly entertained as only “an agreeable possibility?”[iii]

Joseph Pieper, writing about the way we wish each other well at Christmas, says that “the real thing we are wishing is the ‘success’ of the festive celebration itself, not just its outer forms and enrichments, not the trimmings, but the gift that is meant to be the true fruit of the festival: renewal, transformation, rebirth.”[iv]

Renewal. Transformation. Rebirth. Were these among the gifts you received this Christmas? And if so, what are you going to do with them? How will your life be different, now that you have seen the Child of Bethlehem? How will your world be different?

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Thirty-five years ago, on the Ninth Day of Christmas, I was running on the beach in Santa Monica, California, when I saw four young men standing along the shore, gazing out at the vast Pacific. They wore sweatshirts printed with their school name: IOWA. They had come west for the Rose Bowl, held the previous day. Their team had lost to Washington, 28-0, but now they were discovering the real reason for their journey: the sea.  It was perhaps the first time they had ever seen it. They were standing quite still, not talking, transfixed by its boundless liquid infinity. Wonder shone from their faces.

Earth and sky had been washed clean by a pre-dawn storm. Cumulus billows erupted along the horizon, while the morning sun, having won its battle with the longest nights, blazed above us in a pure blue heaven. It was one of those days when the world seemed freshly made.

I continued running down the beach, but when I returned twenty minutes later, the Iowans were still there, staring at the sea, taking all the time they needed to absorb so much wonder.

I thought to myself: When they return to Iowa, will they carry that bright ocean with them? Would we someday hear about puzzled farmers who swore they’d heard waves roaring in their cornfields?

And when you leave Christmas behind, heading home to your Nazareths, or fleeing to distant Egypts, will you carry its bright immensity with you? Will the people you encounter ever hear its roar?

 

[i] “Twelfth Night,” q. in William Sansom, The Book of Christmas (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968), 187

[ii] Mary Oliver, “At Blackwater Pond,” New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 226

[iii] W.H. Auden, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976): “The evil and armed” is in Advent section, 272; the rest is in “The Flight into Egypt,” 307

[iv] Joseph Pieper, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity, trans. Richard & Clara Winston (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965), 30-31

Foolishness and Hope on the Eve of 2017

Tarot card designed by Pamela Colman Smith

Tarot card designed by Pamela Colman Smith

The free animal has its decrease perpetually behind it,
and God in front.

– Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies

150 years ago, German immigrants in Philadelphia fired guns out their windows at midnight on New Year’s Eve. “Murdering the old year,” they called it. At the end of such a crazy and dispiriting year, we may envy them. Preparing for our own New Year, we abandon the wreckage of 2016 with little regret. But is there any appetite for what lies ahead in a country poised on the brink of insanity and ruin? The Zero card in the Tarot’s Major Arcana provides a vivid image of our situation, but take note: the Fool himself does not share our fear.

He is festively attired, holding a bright flower beneath a happy sun. The precipice holds no terror. The abyss seems not even to exist for him. His attention is instead on the open sky, and his expression is calmly expectant. He walks in trust as a child of the Light. In the eyes of the world he is indeed a fool, advancing heedlessly toward nonexistence. But to people of faith his foolishness is the wisdom of Christ, who has been defying gravity ever since the resurrection.

We too would do well not to be mesmerized by the abyss, but to focus on the greater power already and always at work amid the blind sufferings of history. God neither causes nor prevents those sufferings, but divine ingenuity always outwits them in the end. I realize that is a big claim in the face of history’s unspeakable horrors, and I do not mean to trivialize their enormity, but the alternative is nihilism or despair. If we belong to a story of life not death, then we must insist on its narrative truth, even in our darkest hour.

No one can say exactly where and how the divine work of repairing the world will manifest itself in 2017, but I have already seen it coming to birth in a widely shared desire to get involved in the work of resisting evil, protecting the vulnerable, and advancing the common good. Yesterday’s Episcopal prayer for the Feast of Holy Innocents states our agenda perfectly: to “frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish [God’s] rule of justice, love, and peace.”

May we all, boldly and joyfully, do that holy dance, even on the edge of the precipice, not in terror of the abyss, but trusting in the love that enfolds us in every moment. What better way to celebrate and embody the Christmas feast, which declares the generative power of God pouring itself into the particulars of human experience? As Thomas Merton reminds us, “we exist solely for this: to be the place God has chosen for his Presence. If once we begin to recognize, humbly but truly, the real value of our own self, we would see that this value was the sign of God in our being, the signature of God upon our being.”

As we adore the great mystery of Incarnation–“the signature of God upon our being,”–let the beauty of this primal truth be the Star that guides us out of the old year into the new.

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At year’s end, allow me to thank you, dear reader, for taking the time to reflect on the writings posted here, and for sharing them with others. Your attention, comments and supportive sharing are deeply nourishing and greatly appreciated. My New Year’s prayer for you is expressed in these lines from Edward Pusey, a nineteenth-century priest:

God ripen you more and more. Each day is a day of growth.
God says to you. “Open thy mouth and I will fill it.”
Only long…the parched soil, by its cracks, opens itself
for the rain from heaven and invites it.
The parched soil cries out to the living God.

Oh then long and long and long, and God will fill thee.
More love, more love, more love.

Caroling in the Dark: A Christmas Meditation

"And a little child shall lead them." (Isaiah 11:6)

“And a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Herod then with fear was filled.
(Medieval carol)

The first Christmas Eve, in the old legends, was “so hallowed and so gracious” a time that flowers bloomed in the Bethlehem snow, kindly beasts knelt to warm the Child with hay-scented breath, the birds of dawning sang all night long, and angels bent near the earth to sing of peace.

Oh that it were so again! Desperate to exit the gloom and foreboding of the present time, “we too would thither bend our joyful footsteps”–to see the birth of New Possibility, to welcome the marriage of heaven and earth, to recover hope for what we might become. But the Christmas story is not about escaping this broken world. It is about repairing it.

The Incarnation began with unconditional acceptance of the human condition. To know our griefs and carry our sorrows, God began mortal life as a refugee from political violence and ended it as a victim of torture and capital punishment. Risk and violence were not confined to the latter days of Jesus. They were there from the start.

That is why, only a few days after singing “Silent Night” at the holy manger, the Christian calendar insists that we take time to remember Herod’s slaughter of Bethlehem’s children. We are allowed no illusions about how the story goes: Love is born into the world, and the powers try to kill it.

Only Matthew’s gospel records Herod’s monstrous act. Its clear parallel to the Exodus story, where Pharoah’s slaughter of the Hebrew children fails to eliminate the child of destiny, suggests some narrative invention. There are no other historical accounts to corroborate Matthew’s tale. But who cannot testify to the truth it contains? The powers will stop at nothing to achieve their ends. That, too, is part of the Christmas story.

Julia Hartwig, a Polish poet, gives a harrowing account of the massacre. It seems haunted by memories of Auschwitz, but reading it today I think of Aleppo.

While the innocents were being massacred who says
that flowers didn’t bloom, that the air didn’t breathe bewildering scents
that birds didn’t rise to the heights of their most accomplished songs
that young lovers didn’t twine in love’s embraces

But would it have been fitting if a scribe of the time had shown this
and not the monstrous uproar on a street drenched with blood
the wild screams of mothers with infants torn from their arms
the scuffling, the senseless laughter of soldiers
aroused by the touch of women’s bodies and young breast warm with milk

Flaming torches tumbled down stone steps
there seemed no hope of rescue
and violent horror soon gave way to the still more awful numbness of despair

At that moment covered by the southern night’s light shadow
a bearded man leaning on a staff and a girl with a child in her arms
were fleeing lands ruled by the cruel tyrant
carrying the world’s hope to a safer place…[1]

And the good news? The coming of God means the shaking of the powers. Even as a baby, the incarnate God struck fear into the hearts of rulers and oppressors. And when Jesus grew up and began to bear witness to the purposes of God, he made it impossible for the powers of this world to claim divine sanction for their monstrous behavior. They still try. Even “pious” rulers can do terrible things, as we know all too well. But the incarnate God has torn the mask from power’s face. By dying at its hands, like all the other victims of hatred, violence, and abuse, the Word made flesh has made absolutely clear which side God is on.

Like the women of Bethlehem weeping for her children, we are not easily consoled in the face of so much human suffering. And yet, even in the worst of times, we must never forget the kind of story we are in. It is, ultimately, a story of mercy and possibility:

I am going to tell of God’s kindness to the people of Israel… All of God’s deeds of mercy… All of God’s many acts of faithful love. (Isaiah 63:7)

Isaiah wrote these encouraging words in his own darkest hour. His people were in exile from the land of promise. Hope was dead and gone; their story had reached its bitter end. And yet, said the prophet, it is precisely in the place of desolation and loss that we are called to make our song. It is how we resist.

Sixty-three years ago, such a song was composed on a scrap of paper in a Soviet labor camp by a Latvian prisoner, one of 50,000 Latvians condemned to exile and imprisonment in Siberia under Joseph Stalin, a twentieth-century Herod, after the Second World War.

When the Kings College choir was touring Latvia in the summer of 2007, singer Emma Disley spotted the carol, scrawled on its original piece of paper, in a museum. She transcribed it and brought it back to England, where it was arranged for four-part choir and sung, in Latvian, in that year’s worldwide Christmas Eve broadcast.

The text was by a Latvian writer in exile, Valda Mora. As for the woman who composed the tune, we know neither her name nor her fate. All we do know is that she wrote it down on a scrap of paper as a handmade Christmas card for a fellow prisoner, Marta Zalaiskalnson, on Christmas Day 1953. Marta, who had been in the labor camp since 1945, sewed the paper into the lining of her dress so that her Soviet guards wouldn’t find it.[2]

The history of this carol has a lot to teach us about faith and hope. Born in a time of terrible darkness, it concedes nothing to the powers. Instead, calmly and assuredly, it sings of only one thing: the Light which has come into the world, a Light which the darkness can never extinguish.

On this holy night earth and heaven shine,
On this night the heart and stars commune,
And enmity fades, each loves the other,
And o’er the stillness warm wings hover.

On this night your footsteps glimmer;
This night transfigures doubt to hope;
This night must banish every sorrow,
And teach you to forgive and love.

On this holy night, in this holy night,
On this holy night, each loves the other;
On this holy night, in this holy night,
On this holy night, each loves the other.

On this night the gates of heaven open,
Above earth’s darkness arc the burning stars,
And softly on each person’s head this night
The Lord in blessing lays His loving hand.

 

 

 

 

Photograph adapted from an uncredited image of a demonstration against an Islamophobic national registry. Source: MoveOn.org email 12.22/2016.

[1] “Who Says,” by Julia Hartwig, trans. Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

[2] Translation by Mara Kalnins. The carol was arranged by Stephen Cleobury. The 2007 Lessons and Carols bulletin is at http://www.kings.cam.ac.uk/sites/default/files/chapel/festival-nine-lessons-2007.pdf

“God is alive, surprising us everywhere”

Advent moon 2014

I know people who can’t stop crying. America has gone mad. Those who “love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking the truth” (Psalm 52:3) are the new normal. Democracy’s traditional safeguards­–checks and balances, constitutional law, vigilant journalism, the Electoral College, the voices of principle, factual empiricism, and a healthy sense of shame–are being undermined or ignored with impunity. “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” (Rev. 13:4)

That cry of despair in the Book of Revelation is answered by heaven itself: “Look, I am making all things new.” (21:5) The world of evil and suffering will not stand forever. The world of God is being born, and we are invited to make our home in it. That does not mean we get to exit cleanly the dying world for a more perfect one. History consists of both worlds messily mixed like the wheat and the tares. We interact with both simultaneously. But we can still decide which world claims our allegiance: the world of death or the world of life, the world of hate or the world of love.

The Scripture, hymns and prayers of Advent are cognizant of the old broken world and the damage it can do. This prophetic season, mindful of time’s arc bending toward justice, calls every believer to engage evil not just as critics but as activists, resisting it wherever and however we can. But Advent also reminds us that the powers we contend with are neither ultimate nor lasting. The best way to resist the darkness is to be a bearer of the light. Don’t fixate on the dying world, granting it more seriousness than it deserves. Live in the coming dawn, even before you can see it. Be a prisoner of hope.

For most of us, such hope is sustained less by awesome displays of divine power than by small moments of daily grace, the merest hints of benevolent Presence bathing the ordinary with a holy light. Advent spirituality–the poetics of hope–is mostly a matter of paying attention. And while I wish I could report a grand vision of the beast and his minions being cast into a lake of fire, my own Advent revelations this year have been small and personal.

The first was ten days ago, when I was taking a bus to the Roman Catholic cathedral in Seattle for a concert by the Medieval Women’s Choir. I struck up a conversation with a homeless woman who was on her way to a women’s shelter at a local Episcopal church. When we got off the bus, I offered to haul her rolling suitcase for her, since we were going in the same direction. As we walked, she shared her story. Now 72, she had to stop working years ago due to a variety of illnesses. She now has colon cancer. She hopes to get into a housing project soon. Her conversation was articulate and insightful. When we parted, I gave her some money to see her through the weekend. “Give me your hands,” she said. She took them into hers, and began to pray for me and my ministry with eloquent, heartfelt words. Whatever I may have given her, this impoverished woman bestowed upon me far greater riches.

Later, at the concert, the women’s choir sang a 13th century English carol that made a lovely Latin pun about Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary:

Verbum bonum et suave
Pandit intus in conclave,
Et ex Eva formans ave,
Eve verso nomine.

The good and sweet word
Spreads through the room
Forming “ave” out of “Eva”
By changing Eve’s name.[1]

Forming “ave” out of Eva. As I listened, it occurred to me that the “good and sweet” words the woman had prayed over me had transformed her from “Eva”–a mortal woman of the Seattle streets–into a kind of angelic messenger. Had Gabriel himself appeared to utter an “ave,” I could not have been more sure of the divine presence behind that chance meeting.

My second Advent revelation also involved a concert, this time by the Seattle Pro Musica, whose exquisite renderings of seasonal choral music from many centuries moved me to tears more than once. It wasn’t simply that the pieces, ranging from Dufay and Praetorius to contemporary composers like Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre, were sublime marriages of text and music, flawlessly performed. It was that such perfect beauty was being offered up in the gloom of the post-election nightmare. That is why I wept. Those superb voices, expressing everything that is best within the human heart and soul, seemed so brave and yet so vulnerable as we sink deeper and deeper into the American abyss. When the powers of hell have done their worst, what will be left of such beauty? Will all of it, human and divine, just be swept away?

One of the carols they sang, an e.e. cummings text in a setting by Joshua Shank (b. 1980), provided the answer I sought:

mind without soul may blast some universe
to might have been, and stop ten thousand stars
but not one heartbeat of this child; nor shall
even prevail a million questionings against the silence of his mother’s smile
–whose only secret all creation sings.[2]

My third Advent revelation began with a dream the following night. A woman (my soul?) asked me why I liked living in this place. I said I enjoyed the balance of nature and culture. You can hike in a mountain wilderness and attend a symphony on the same day. “Is nature where God has gone?” she asked, perhaps echoing my recent immersion in Thoreau studies. “God is alive, surprising us everywhere,” I told her, aware that it was not exactly a reply to her question. But that’s what came out of my mouth.

Then I awoke. Bright moonlight shone through the window. Though it was only 3 a.m., I felt impelled to go outside for a better view before the big moon disappeared into the Douglas-firs. Small masses of low cumulus clouds raced across the lunar face, veiling and unveiling its brightness. Orion stood watch on the moon’s right. Faint barking of distant seals. A coyote’s cry. Winter cold. Silence. What did the night want to tell me?

God is alive, surprising us everywhere. The message of a dream, intimating something more real than language. But what? Not an idea in my mind. A feeling in my body. I tried briefly to give it words. Nearness. Urgency. Strength. Presence. Then I let the words go, and rested in whatever it was. In times so dark and dangerous, it felt . . . consoling. Heaven and earth may pass away, but this Presence will not. We are not alone. Perhaps, even loved.

 

Related post

Ten Ways to Keep a Holy Advent

[1] Missus Gabriel de celis is a late 13th century chant for the Solemnity of Mary (Jan. 1). English translation by Ginger Warfield & Ali Corbin

[2] Text from “from spiralling ecstatically” by e.e. cummings. Joseph Shanks’ piece is called “Winter”

The World’s End (An Advent Manifesto)

Standing Rock police assault Water Protectors with fire hoses.

Standing Rock police assault Water Protectors with fire hoses.

Advent is not just a season of quiet waiting.
It is also a time of protest and vision.

As the election consequences unfold, Advent seems less a ritual preparation for Christmas than a realistic description of where we find ourselves in a darkening world. Pitting hope against despair, Advent calls us to “cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” My last post proposed 7 Spiritual Practices for the Time of Trial. I want to follow that by revisiting a post from November 2014, an Advent manifesto which seems even more timely today. 

When I was 8 years old, I read in LIFE magazine that in so many millions of years, the sun would burn out and life on earth would cease. This worried me, so I asked my parents, “If the world is going to end, how come we say “world without end” when we pray?” And they told me what the Bible says, that heaven and earth may pass away, but God remains. That relieved some of my anxiety, but I still wasn’t sure I liked the idea of the world ending, even if God was in charge.

Of course the world ends all the time. When I moved from California to Puget Sound in the 1990’s, my first Northwest winter felt like a biblical apocalypse: the sun was darkened and the moon gave no light.

Who among us has not seen their world end? Adolescents exiled from childhood. Black teenagers robbed of their future. Elders deprived of their health. Unemployment …retirement …divorce … the death of a parent, a spouse, a child — in every one of these, a world comes to an end.

For anyone who has known serious loss, this is more than metaphor. The experience of grief can be so total and unrelenting that you can’t see anything beyond it. You can’t imagine the future. It feels like the end of the world.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good. [i]

W.H. Auden was invoking apocalyptic metaphors to express personal loss, but shared, public worlds also come to an end. As in 1789, or 1914. The Holocaust. Hiroshima. 9/11.My Lord, what a morning, when the stars begin to fall.

But why bring up such dreary stuff on this first day of the new Christian year? Shouldn’t we be breaking out the party hats, blowing horns and shouting “Happy New Year?” The wisdom of the Advent season is that it never begins with “A Holy Trinity Production,” or “The Creator of the World Presents.” No, it always opens with “The End.” Advent knows that every beginning involves some kind of ending. In this season’s Scripture, preaching and prayers, the present arrangements of collective and personal life are judged and found wanting. God’s imagination is far too rich and fertile to settle for our barren and diminished versions of human possibility.

Selfishness, greed, consumerism? Fear, racism and violence? Poverty, militarism, war, environmental degradation? That’s the best we can do? Really? God must be saying, “Come on, people. I made you a little lower than the angels, and this is what you came up with?”

George Eliot said “it is never too late to become what you might have been.” But to get to that “might have been” requires an Exodus into the wilderness beyond the way things are; an Exodus beyond even the best we can imagine for ourselves, into a place of unknowing, where only God possesses the language to speak our future into being.

So much of what we hear and pray and sing in Advent is profoundly disruptive. Bob Franke’s great Advent song, “Stir up your power,” gets right to it in the first line: This world may no longer stand. We are meant to be unsettled, to be driven beyond our narrow boundaries, our constricted realities, toward a beckoning horizon. The Christian life is a perpetual series of departures for a better place.

The world as it is – the world of racial hatred and toxic violence and economic injustice and perpetual war and addictive consumerism and pollution for profit and all the other evils which poison our common life – this world has no future in the emergent Kingdom of God.This world may no longer stand.

But the story doesn’t stop there. In my end is my beginning.[ii] Even when we have gone far astray, even when our story seems over, God remains deeply present in the processes of creation, tenderly leading and luring us into newness of life, making a way where there is no way, opening doors that none can shut.

Advent people do not just wring their hands or shake their heads over the latest news from Ferguson or the Middle East. We work and pray for something better. What we can do on our own is limited, but when we offer our priorities and energies to the larger purposes of God, Love will have its way with us.

As the Christian mystic Hadewijch put it in the thirteenth century:

Since I gave myself to Love’s service,
Whether I lose or win,
I am resolved:
I will always give her thanks,
Whether I lose or win;
I will stand in her power. [iii]

It is not always easy to stand in Love’s power and keep the faith. In some situations it is almost unimaginable. Forty years ago the African-American author James Baldwin wrote:

To be an Afro-American, or an American black, is to be in the situation, intolerably exaggerated, of all those who have ever found themselves part of a civilization which they could in no wise honorably defend – which they were compelled, indeed, endlessly to attack and condemn – and who yet spoke out of the most passionate love, hoping to make the kingdom new, to make it honorable and worthy of life. [iv]

This passionate mixture of protest and love sounds a lot like the Old Testament prophets who permeate our Advent lectionary, making their prophetic plea for history to be broken open by divine justice:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down …
to make your name known to those who resist you,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence! [v]

Advent is not just a season of quiet waiting. It is also a time of protest and vision. Advent announces an insurgency against the way things are, a revolution to scatter the proud, cast down the mighty, raise the lowly, gather the lost, free the captive, and bind up the brokenhearted. Advent re-imagines the world as paradise restored, a new heaven and new earth suffused with the peace of God.

this is the day of broken sky
this is the space of conflagration-breath
speaking border-trespass
this is the feathered swoop of heaven
on the wing of now …
forking lightning into language …
breaking god into prison …
breaking the truth from jail! …

This is the fire-tongued fork of holy-ghost howl
making love on the tongue …
spitting flames of reconciliation
in the sky of war
making messiah-praise out of the air itself!

this is pentecost in your head
like becoming what you never dared
for the first time and forever

This ecstatic prophecy is from a poem by Jim Perkinson. [vi] He was talking about Pentecost, but his theme fits Advent as well:

“the day of broken sky”
the earth in conflagration
God breaking into the prisons
the truth being set loose at last
and “the fire-tongued fork of holy-ghost howl
making love on the tongue …
making messiah-praise out of the air itself!”

And each of us, all of us, becoming what we never dared.

When Jesus tells us to stay awake, he is warning us not to sleep through the day of God’s coming. Stay alert. Pay attention. Don’t miss it! Become what you never dared. Shake off the sleep of complacency, the sleep of complicity, the sleep of despair. Awake and greet the new dawn.

Jan Richardson describes this dawning reality in her beautiful poem, “Drawing Near.” [vii]

It is difficult to see it from here,
I know,
but trust me when I say
this blessing is inscribed
on the horizon.
Is written on
that far point
you can hardly see…

Richardson accurately expresses the sense of distant horizon that prevents the dominant reality of the moment from closing in on us and locking us in. That reality wants to be believed as fixed and final, permanent and stable. But the horizon calls every finality into question, disrupting its stability with the boundlessness of divine possibility. The horizon draws our attention from what is given to what may yet be. Keeping our eye on the horizon, feeling its pull, is the spiritual practice of Advent. Richardson’s poem expresses the deep longing produced by the distance between the already and the not-yet.

And then the poet discovers what every pilgrim knows: the goal of our long journey is something that has already been inscribed deep within us even before our journey began. Even before the day we were born, we were marked as God’s own forever.

And that is where Advent ultimately leaves us – finding that the thing we have been seeking so long has been with us all the time – within us, and all around us. While we have been walking our Camino to the Promised land, our feet have already been on holy ground, every step of the way. And the God of the far horizon turns out to be the path as well, keeping us company as we stride deeper and deeper into the world.

So when Advent people talk about the end of the world, we are speaking about end in the sense of purpose rather than termination. The word “apocalypse” means “unveiling,” and the apocalypse in our future will not be an annihilation, but a revealing of the world’s ultimate purpose and destiny.

Yes, all the inadequate, incomplete versions of world will come to an end (some of them kicking and screaming!), but creation as it was intended will be restored, not discarded. Like a poet who creates a new language out of old words, Love will remake the ruins and recover the lost. And the Holy One who is the mystery of the world will be its light and its life forever.

This Advent faith is expressed memorably in a short story by British writer Carol Lake, “The Day of Judgment.” On the Last Day of the world, God sails into England aboard a new Ark. But instead of bringing history to a close and pronouncing judgment on everyone, God leaves the Ark to enter the city of Derby. Heading for the run-down inner city neighborhood of Rosehill, he joins the crowd at a local pub, a multi-ethnic mix of the working poor and the unemployed. And there God gets so caught up in being with these people that he loses track of time, and the Ark sails away without him, heading off for the horizon of eternity. As the story describes it:

The Ark is on the edge of the horizon now, its destination the heartlessness of perfection. Most of the inmates already know what they are going to find – endless fruit, endless harmony, endless entropy, endless endless compassion, black and white in endless inane tableaux of equality. It sails off to a perfect world; the sky has turned into rich primary colors and in the distance the Ark bobs about on a bright blue sea.” [viii]

Meanwhile, God is still in that Rosehill pub, in the very heart of imperfection. If you had walked in there, you would have had a hard time picking him out. He blended right in. But if you were paying attention, you might notice that there was now something different about Rosehill. The old non-descript streets and dilapidated buildings had taken on a strange beauty. Maybe it was the warm slant of afternoon light, but people were beginning to see their neighborhood in a new way. And their own faces, too, seemed to glow with an inner radiance, as if they were carrying a wonderful secret, tacitly shared with everyone around them, as if they suddenly knew there was more to life than meets the eye.

They were still poor, the world was still a mess, but something new was in the air, a spirit of change was awakening. And from that day on, the people of Rosehill found themselves becoming what they’d never dared, for the first time and forever.

 

[i] W.H. Auden, “Twelve Songs (ix)”, Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (NY: Random House, 1976), 120

[ii] T.S. Eliot, “East Coker,” Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 1974), 191

[iii] Hadewijch: The Complete Works, trans. Mother Columba Hart, Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), 213

[iv] James Baldwin, No Name in the Street (NY: Dell, 1972), 194

[v] Isaiah 64:1-2

[vi] Jim Perkinson, “tongues-talk,” q. in Catherine Keller, On the Mystery: Discerning God in Process (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 157-8

[vii] Jan Richardson, “Drawing Near” (http://adventdoor.com/2012/11/25/advent-1-drawing-near)

[viii] Carol Lake, Rosehill: Portraits from a Midlands City (London: Bloomsbury, 1989), 119