“Stations of the Cross” and the Cinema of Sacrifice

The First Station: Maria (Lea van Acken) and the priest (Florian Stetter) in “Stations of the Cross.”

 

I think I should have been more ferocious in pursuit of the whale . . .  Ahab focused all his energies on avenging himself against the whale, but he was trying to penetrate the mystery of why we are here at all, why there is anything. I wasn’t mad enough, not crazy enough, not obsessive enough. I should have done more.” He paused, took a long breath, and added: “At the time, I didn’t have more in me.”[1]

–– Gregory Peck, discussing his role in Moby Dick

 

What Gregory Peck said about playing Ahab could be said about playing “fools for Christ.”[2] Are we crazy enough for the role? Do we have what it takes to trade the wisdom of the world for the folly of God? Just how seriously do we take the call to follow Jesus? Will we only try a few baby steps, or are we prepared to go “all the way, till the wheels fall off and burn?”[3]

In an unsettling essay about those who renounce ordinary human experience to explore the frontiers of the divine, Jean-Yves Lacoste stretches St. Paul’s image of the holy fool to the breaking point. Embodying in explicit practice the concept that the here and now of earthly life is not our ultimate destiny, the holy fool demonstrates that “life true to his essence cannot be lived without a literal refusal of all worldly dwelling.” His extreme form of ascetic renunciation manifests the essential homelessness of the human condition:

“The spectacular marginality of the human being who refuses possessions, a place to live, and so on, does no more than express in particularly concrete form the marginality that in any case affects anyone who wishes to subordinate his worldly being to his being-before-God.”

Understood in this way, spirituality is subversive and dangerous, putting not just our habitual complacency, but our fundamental at-homeness, into question. If we are finite beings making pilgrimage toward the Absolute, we are defined by non-possession. We don’t entirely belong to the here and now. To the world––and to many (or most?) believers––this is madness. We prefer a God who makes us as comfortable as possible where we are. But for Lacoste, the destiny of the fool in Christ “becomes intelligible only in the light of another destiny, that of the crucified one in whom and by whom God restores peace between humankind and himself.”[4]

In his 2014 film, Stations of the Cross, German director Dietrich Brüggemann literalizes this premise in the story of a 14-year-old girl, Maria, who comes to understand her own vocation as the sacrifice of her earthly existence for the sake of another. But Brüggemann and his sister Anna, who co-wrote the script, do not make it easy for us to accept or identify with Maria’s story, because on the surface it shows us a naïve adolescent misled by the bad theology of an abusive religion. We recoil at the reactionary teachings of the priest and the cold rigidity of her mother’s piety. We want Maria to make healthier choices.

Many critics have taken the film to be a critique or satire of fundamentalism and dogmatism, perhaps even an attack on belief itself, though many of the same critics also admit to being moved to tears. But the non-judgmental respect of the filmmakers for Maria, and the disarming purity of her passion for God, won’t let us dismiss the film as just a cautionary tale (“Kids, don’t try this at home!”). And, as the Bible’s less attractive stories have shown[5], God is sometimes known through means which transcend and overcome the given conditions of the narrative. As Rilke said, every story has God in it––even a story about religion gone wrong.

The formal structure of the film is part of its strange beauty. In 110 minutes, there are only 14 lengthy shots (no cutaways to different angles), each one corresponding to the devotional sequence of the Stations of the Cross. So Maria’s imitation of Christ’s passion is not simply an existential choice. It is a pattern to which she finds herself conformed by a power beyond her own devising (script, director, God). She does not define herself as a purely autonomous being; she is drawn and driven by an Other. She only exists to play this part, or to consent to let it play her.

The sense of inevitability is reinforced by the fixed position of the camera, which almost never moves (there are only three exceptions to this, each very purposive). The long takes (the first Station exceeds 15 minutes!) and unmoving camera not only induce a contemplative consciousness in the viewer, but make an ontological statement about the boundedness of the human condition: we operate within given limits of space, time and mortality, as well as the confines of our social constructions. Each of the film’s fourteen shots is a self-contained world. There is no cutting away to see something else. This conveys a sense of destiny, of givenness, while at the same time making everything within the fixed frame worthy of our utmost attention. Every word, look, gesture or action matters.

The First Station (Jesus is Condemned to Death) sets the course for the entire film. [Spoiler alert: If you want to view the film with innocent eyes, watch it before reading further. It is currently streaming on Netflix.]. Six young students in a Confirmation class are seated around a table in a tableaux evocative of the Last Supper. The priest stands in the center (Christ’s position in paintings) to deliver a kind of Farewell Discourse, a final pep talk before they go off to be confirmed.

The priest has youthful energy and conviction. He is no bloodless cleric boring a restless room of teens. He has their full attention. But the content of his teaching begins to make the viewer cringe: Vatican II was heresy, the pope has turned his back on the true faith, and most Catholics now live in mortal sin. “The devil has entered the church,” he says, “and strolls around in it whispering his lies.”

Given the sorry state of church and culture, the priest exhorts his charges to renounce Satan and all his works, including popular music with its demonic rhythms, the vanity of caring about your looks, and the trashy seductions of mass media. Be “warriors for Christ,” he tells them. Defend the faith, resist tempation, and save the souls of your schoolmates by word and example.

And the heart of Christian practice, he concludes, is sacrifice. Having asked his class to make a list of things which give them pleasure, he invites them to start letting them go, one by one, in a kind of perpetual Lent. When class is dismissed, Maria lingers to ask a question. “Can I make a sacrifice for someone else? Like, someone who is ill?. . . What if I wanted to sacrifice my whole life, like the saints?” Uh-oh. A good pastor would hear an alarm go off in such a moment, but this priest tries to defuse her question with generalities (“There are  many ways you can give your life to God”). However, the viewer senses that Maria is moving toward the abyss. She has been condemned to die to this world.

So she takes up her cross. On a walk in the country, she tries to sacrifice the beautiful view by closing her eyes. In gym class, she endures the mockery of her peers by refusing to exercise to rock music. She struggles against her feelings for Christian, a sweet Catholic boy who is drawn to her. She endures the cruel hectoring of her fanatically pious mother, renouncing the self-assertion of adolescent rebellion. But her most fatal sacrifice is her own body. She chooses to suffer the chill of winter by not wearing a coat. She descends into anorexia. Her health starts to fail.

The stages of her “passion” are correlated with the traditional Stations in striking ways:

Jesus falls for the first time (3): Maria lets herself become interested in Christian. The scene is innocent and charming, but there will be no room for teen romance as Maria walks her lonesome valley. She clearly is drawn to him, but later she will protest, “You live in a world of TV, Facebook, and people who’ve sold their souls, who are dead in the middle of life. . . . If you really like me, then go away.”

Veronica wipes the face of Jesus (6): After being horribly treated by her mother, Maria is weeping uncontrollably at the dinner table while her family pretends it’s not happening. Bernadette, the warm-hearted family au pair, is the only one who reaches out to Maria. She offers her a tissue, and the weeping subsides.

Jesus falls for the third time (9): Maria, kneeling for confirmation before the bishop, whose ancient face and gold vestments suggest a medieval painting of God the Father, faints. Her body falls out of the film frame into invisiblity.

Jesus is stripped of his garments (10): Maria, her back to us, sits on the examining table of a doctor’s office with her blouse removed. With drooping head, she remains passive as her mother stubbornly resists the doctor’s call for medical intervention. Maria’s frail and vulnerable figure, utterly still amid the battle of wills waging around her, is a heartbreaking image. Then Bernadette enters quietly to put a coat over Maria. She wraps her arms around the suffering girl like the father embracing his Prodigal Son in Rembrandt’s painting. The two girls remain in that pose––an icon of compassion––for the rest of the scene.

Jesus is nailed to the cross (11): Maria lies in a hospital bed, with Bernadette sitting beside her. A nurse brings food, but Maria refuses to eat. When the nurse leaves, Maria tells Bernadette that she has chosen to sacrifice her life so that her 4-year-old brother, Johannes, might get well (he has never spoken, and the doctors suspect autism). Bernadette says she is going to tell the doctors about Maria’s death wish, so that they will intervene. When she exits the room, Maria feels as abandoned as Jesus on the cross. “Don’t leave me!” she cries. There is no answer.

Jesus dies on the cross (12): After receiving communion in the presence of her mother and little Johannes (like the mother of Jesus and the disciple John at the cross), Maria flatlines. The medical team rushes in to attempt resuscitation, pushing priest and family aside. The camera follows the latter in one of its rare moves, so that we no longer see Maria, who dies outside the frame. She leaves the image, where she has been on camera for the length of every scene so far, just as she leaves the world. And the moment she dies, the mute Johannes speaks at last. “Maria! Where is Maria?” Is this the miracle that authenticates Maria’s sacrifice? The film doesn’t decide for us.

The body of Jesus is placed in the lap of his mother (13): In a funeral home display room lined with coffins, Maria’s parents discuss details with the funeral director. The mother begins to idealize her daughter, calling her a saint as if all her abusive scolding of Maria had never happened. And she insists that given the “facts” of Christian dogma, there is no reason to be sad. But suddenly all that certainty crumbles under the weight of grief and guilt. Her sobbing amid those stacked coffins becomes as unbearable as Magdalene’s hysterical weeping at the foot of the cross in Zefferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus is laid in the tomb (14): In a cemetery, a man operates an excavator to fill an empty grave. The mourners have departed. The noisy machine is indifferent to any resting in peace. Christian, whom Maria feared was an obstacle between her and God, enters the frame to stand at her grave. Then the camera makes its final and most dramatic move, craning up until it looks down upon Christian, the grave, and the excavator from above. After a minute, the boy tosses a flower into the grave, then walks to the far side of the cemetery to gaze upon a landscape of ploughed fields. The camera pans away from the grave to follow him, and then tilts upward, away from the cemetery, away from the earth itself, to gaze upon the sky. If there is anything up there, we cannot see it. A thick layer of clouds blocks our view.

A film is more than its story or the multitude of audio-visual and dramatic elements comprising its life on the screen. A film is also what happens to us as we watch and later reflect. A story which offers unacceptable models of human behavior may stiil exert a powerful spiritual force. Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the masters of religious cinema, put this as well as any:

“The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to the good.”[6]

In Stations, we see little we want to imitate or recommend. The priest’s teachings, the reactionary insularity and arrogance of his breakaway church, the mother’s abusive and unfeeling pietism, and Maria’s self-destructive behaviors are not things we want for our religion or our loved ones. Only Bernadette and Christian provide exemplary models for Christian living.

And yet, my soul was truly ploughed and harrowed by Maria, played so vulnerably by the gifted Lea van Acken. Maria lacked the language, the maturity, and the communal wisdom to fend off the religious extremism of church and family to find a more balanced expression of her desire for God. But like all saints, she was on to something and wouldn’t let it go.

Raymond Durgnat, writing about Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (1967), another film about an adolescent reaching for transcendence without really knowing how to do it, wrote something that I think illuminates Maria’s situation: “She still hasn’t found what she hardly knows she wants, and she fears she never will, but she still won’t settle for not having it. She rejects a soul-destroying future, so she’s damned; but in another sense, she’s saving her ‘divine discontent.’ So perhaps her rejection of a ‘soul-destroying’ future is the intention of saving her soul as best she knows?”[7]

Maria doesn’t quite know how to give herself to God, so she does it in what we consider a mistaken and tragic way. But there is no mistaking the authenticity of her desire and the purity of her will, which exceed all the distortions and limitations of her factual situation. For all the wrongness of her world and the choices she makes, her excessiveness is the quality which overcomes all the brokenness of her story.

The Fifth Station: Maria in the confessional.

 

In the Fifth Station, Maria is in the confessional. It is the only closeup of her in the entire film, but unlike most closeups, she is in profile, facing the grille between her and the priest, who remains unseen beyond the frame of the image. Maria gives an honest account of what her church considers sinful (“I had unchaste thoughts. I imagined Christian and me going to choir together, and him looking at me secretly and finding me beautiful.”) The priest listens carefully, but his responses are sometimes tarnished by a judgmental theology. However, the defects of the verbal exchange are overshadowed by the beauty of the visual image.

The intimate closeup of Maria gives us privileged access to her profound spirit of surrender. Like her Scriptural namesake at the Annunciation, she faces an invisible voice and responds with her whole heart. Whatever the priest says or thinks doesn’t really matter. He’s only a stand-in. The essential image is of a soul saying yes to the Mystery.

So is it enough to say I am moved by the intensity of Maria’s holy desire to reconsider the depth of my own spiritual life, without resolving the story’s problematic tensions between immanence and transcendence? Didn’t the Creator pronounce the goodness of the world? How much of it are we supposed to give up? How much self-emptying is enough? Something in me is drawn to the ascetic rigor of Lacoste’s fool in Christ, but in fact I live out the more Anglican way of loving this “sweet old world”[8] and not being so anxious to refuse it or leave it.

I have no plans to imitate Maria’s passion––or Christ’s, for that matter. But the questions about sacrifice posed by the Way of the Cross can’t be suppressed without losing something essential, as Nikos Kazantzakis reminds us in his parable about the boyhood of Jesus[9], whose restless and troubled spirit was a great worry for his parents. So they entrusted him to the care of the village sage, who met with him every day for a period of many weeks.

“What is troubling you,” the sage asked Jesus.
“I feel a pain I cannot explain. I roam the streets, wrestling.”
“Wrestling with whom?”
“With God, of course!. Who else?”

The sage gave Jesus medicinal herbs and taught him to calm himself with meditation. Every evening they had long talks about God. The sage assured the boy that God was not a consuming fire or an annihilating otherness, but a tender grandfather, with whom he could find loving support and a companionable peace of mind and spirit. God wanted only happiness for Jesus, not suffering or sacrifice. After a few months, Jesus was completely cured, and he grew up to become the best carpenter in Nazareth.

 

 

Related post: The Ten Best Religious Films

 

[1] 1998 interview, q. in William Grimes obituary for Gregory Peck, New York Times (6/13/03).

[2] I Corinthians 4:10

[3] Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard, “Brownsville Girl”.

[4] Jean-Yves Lacoste, “Liturgy and Kenosis, from Expérience et Absolu, in Graham Ward, ed., The Postmodern God: A Theological Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1997), 250, 261.

[5] The Binding of Isaac (Gen. 22: 1-18) is the prime example.

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

[7] Raymond Durgnat, “The Negative Vision of Robert Bresson,” in James Quandt, ed., Robert Bresson: Revised (Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Cinematheque, 2011), 560. Mouchette is a troubled teen trapped in an oppressive world. In the end she lets her body roll down a hill by a pond, like a game. The third time we see her roll out of the frame and hear a splash. Then we see ripples on the pond, but she is gone. The film was originally banned in France because on a literal level it involved teen suicide. But more astute critics have read the ending as a strangely positive image of transcendence, with the pond as a baptismal gate into a larger reality beyond the world’s horizon. It’s more like an “ascension” than an act of self-destruction.

[8] Lucinda Williams’ song to a friend who committed suicide: “See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world. . .”

[9] The parable is in Kazantzakis’ memoir, Report to Greco (1965). I have reconstructed it from memory. I read it 50 years ago and it has stayed inside me.

 

A Deep but Dazzling Darkness

Totality, August 21, 2017 (Photograph by Jim Friedrich)

There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear.
O for that night! where I in Him
Might live invisible and dim!

–– Henry Vaughan, “The Night”

I said to my soul, be still, and let the
dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.

–– T. S. Eliot, “East Coker”

 

The day before the August 21 solar eclipse, I drove south to Oregon, east of the Cascades, taking dusty roads through pine forests and rolling grasslands to a panoramic spot on the center line of the eclipse track, far from the madding crowd. Only eight of us had converged there––from California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska. A few more pilgrims joined our “Eclipse Camp” early next morning, but it remained peaceful and quiet as we awaited the mid-morning totality. It would be the first time for all but one of us.

Sunrise at Eclipse Camp, a few hours before totality (Photograph by Jim Friedrich)

Most people have never seen a total solar eclipse. It’s a rare thing, and often hard to get to. The sun is 400 times larger than the moon, but it is also 400 times further away from earth, making the two spheres roughly the same size in our sky. So why doesn’t the moon block the sun more often?

For one thing, the moon’s orbit around the earth is elliptical, making it larger or smaller to the eye depending on its varying proximity to earth. Only at its perigee––its closest point––does the moon appear large enough to cover the sun perfectly. Another limiting factor is that the orbital paths of earth and moon are not perfectly aligned. Since the plane of the moon’s path around the earth is tipped with respect to the plane of the earth’s orbit around the sun, the two orbits only coincide from time to time.

For this convergence of orbital planes to occur precisely during the new moon––the monthly phase when it sits between earth and sun––moon and earth must repeat a lengthy cycle of variations before everything lines up again. The average wait for a solar eclipse at any given point on earth is 375 years. Some places have to wait 4500 years for a recurrence!

Trying to comprehend all the variables of celestial motion makes my head explode. But picture the moon between earth and sun, casting a cone of shadow which culminates in a circular point just large enough to cover the sun in the eye of an earthling standing at just the right spot. If the moon isn’t at its perigee, the sun-sized point doesn’t quite reach the earth, so the eclipse, even if perfectly centered, isn’t quite total. A little bit of sun overlaps the edges of the moon in what’s called an annular eclipse. And if the moon’s orbital plane happens to be above or below that of earth’s orbit, as it often is, the cone’s shadow point misses the earth altogether.

In a total eclipse, the sun-sized tip of moon shadow sweeps across the earth at a speed ranging from 1000 mph at the equator to 2000 mph at the poles. The eclipse track is about 3000 miles long, varying in width from 167 miles to almost nothing. Since both moon and earth are in continuous motion, the shadow of perfect totality never lasts long: 7 minutes and 40 seconds at most, but usually much shorter. Where I stood in central Oregon it was 2 minutes and 5 seconds.

As both physical fact and potent symbol, the sun has long been associated with the divine: the life-giver and earth-blesser, “whose light divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning.”[1] For the premodern mind at least, this was not simply a matter of metaphorical resemblance. There was a perceived continuum between visible signs and invisible realities. Just as the physical sun illumines and warms the earth, so the heavenly sun (God) brings the light of knowledge and the warmth of love to a receptive creation. And anything in nature that produces wonder and love may be said to have something of God in it.

In such a worldview, writes Dante scholar Rocco Montano, “theologians started always from the assumption that there is a sustaining will and that in fact God operates in the world of nature as perfectly and unceasingly as in the world of grace.”[2] So it is not surprising that the sublimity of a total eclipse, registering so powerfully on the senses, has had an equal effect on religious sensibility.

The Bible contains multiple visions of eclipse-like phenomena: the sun goes dark and the moon turns to blood in prophecies of cosmic distress. And when Jesus dies on a Friday afternoon, a sudden darkness falls upon Jerusalem.

On a more existential level, John Donne, from his Anglican pulpit in 1624, described the human condition as “wintred and frozen, clouded and eclipsed, damped and benumbed, smothered and stupefied” until God should return “as the sun at noon, to illustrate all shadows.”[3]

Another 17th-century poet, Francis Quarles, employed eclipse imagery to convey his own experience of divine absence, which leaves him stumbling and lost in the dark.

Why dost thou shade thy lovely face? Oh why
Does that eclipsing hand so long deny
The sunshine of thy soul-enlivening eye?

Without that light, what light remains in me?
Thou art my life, my way, my light; in thee
I live, I move, and by thy beams I see. . .

My eyes are blind and dark, I cannot see;
To whom, or whither, should my darkness flee,
But to the light? And who’s that light but thee?[4]

The sense of eclipse can be cultural as well as personal. In the 20th century, Martin Buber famously lamented modernity’s secular disconnection from transcendence as the “eclipse of God.”

In his enigmatic 1962 film, L’Eclisse (“The Eclipse”), Michelangelo Antonioni never shows an actual eclipse, but in the last 7 minutes, just when you expect the story of two lovers to be resolved, the characters fail to appear at their usual meeting place. In fact, we never see Vittoria and Piero again. They don’t just go missing. They no longer seem to exist. All that remains, shot after shot, is their meeting place and its bleak surroundings, virtually stripped of human presence and completely devoid of narrative, as though not just God, but humanity itself has been eclipsed, leaving nothing but an unsettling absence. As Antonioni described this strange ending, a world of soulless objects “has devoured the living beings.”[5]

Totality with red solar prominences – towers of hot hydrogen gas (Photograph by Jim Friedrich)

But my own experience of total eclipse triggered no such negative resonance. It was, in fact, two minutes of pure wonder, like seeing the burning bush–– a visible experience in the physical world in perfect conjunction with a reality invisible and transcendent. For 125 seconds, when day turned to night and the solar disc, as in a film negative, became a black circle, I felt––well, pretty medieval, seeing God not only behind and beyond the natural world, but also embedded deeply within its material substance and temporal occurrence. What I saw seemed more than just a scientifically predictable conjunction of celestial bodies. What I saw was . . .

But here language fails me.

“O splendor of God,” wrote Dante after passing beyond the limits of space and time to gaze upon the eternal mystery, “grant me the power to tell of what I saw! (Paradiso xxx: 97, 99)[6] Whether the Dante who beheld the face of God was only the character “Dante” in his Commedia, or the poet himself reporting personal experience, is a never-ending debate among scholars. Whatever the case, his prayer rings true, not only for mystical adepts, but for everyone along the eclipse track who looked up with an open heart and a receptive mind to see the most awesome sight in the natural world.

How weak are words, and how unfit to frame
My concept––which lags after what was shown
So far, ‘twould flatter it to call it lame! (Paradiso xxxiii:121-23)[7]

When the last tiny sliver of sun slipped behind the moon, it was lights out. Although the ambient luminosity had been gradually diminishing into an eerie olive pallor during the hour prior to totality, the deepest dark arrived in an instant. Only the distant horizons beyond the shadow’s center retained a dusky glow, like a fading sky after sunset.

I recollect no thoughts from those two minutes, nor any awareness of duration. I can’t even account for my feelings, because my powers of observation were directed entirely, wordlessly, toward the pitch black circle––like the pupil of a great eye––with its mysteriously glowing corona. My camera was rigged to shoot automatically, leaving me free to gaze with my whole being. I remember shedding some tears, shaken by the overpowering, even numinous force of the experience. Until the sun peeked out again with a brilliant diamond flash, totality was a distinct interval of “absolutely unmixed attention.”[8]

Totality ends as the sun re-emerges with a flash. (Photograph by Jim Friedrich)

When it was over, what lingered was the overwhelming sense that I had experienced both immanence and transcendence in a single image, its roundness like a sacramental Host lifted above the altar of the world. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem too much to claim that within the visionary interval of totality my deepest longing was met by an answering Presence.

Am I just romanticizing––or theologizing––a purely sensory experience of the sublime? It may be medieval of me, but I regard the immanent as a gateway to the transcendent, not its dualistic opposite. Though the divine eludes and exceeds all forms of knowing, God is still a communicator, and wants to be known in ways which are accessible to finite beings. I believe there is no clear separation between matter and spirit, but rather a continuum where tangible, sensory experience can lead us deeper and deeper into something larger and more hidden.

The mystics, exploring the farthest reaches of spiritual experience, describe a “night of the senses,” a “deep but dazzling darkness” where our ordinary ways of knowing are obliterated by the overwhelming excess of divine Being. Metaphysical poet Francis Quarles likened his own spiritual capacities to a candle. When the sun shines, his little flame is overpowered by the immensity of divine radiance. “I am thy taper, thou my sun,” he wrote. “Yet if thy light but shine, my light is done.”

Thy sunbeams are too strong for my weak eye!
If thou but shine, how nothing, Lord, am I?
Ah! who can see thy visage, and not die![9]

We can’t stare directly at the sun without going blind. Nor can we look upon the face of God without the linguistic and sacramental equivalents of eclipse glasses. But there are moments, the Incarnation being the supreme example, when the divine radiance consents to be eclipsed in order to be fitted safely to the human eye. Then we may gaze confidently upon its veiled beauty with open and adoring eyes.

Giovanni di Paolo, Paradiso xxviii (c. 1445)

In the 15th century, Giovanni di Paolo painted exquisite illuminations for Dante’s Paradiso. In his image for Canto xxviii, Dante is kneeling to adore the divine radiance, with Beatrice floating behind him. One of the poet’s many terms for visual contemplation, vagheggiar, expresses perfectly my own engagement with the eclipse totality: “to gaze lovingly.” For Dante the sun is not veiled, nor does he wear special glasses. His is a uniquely privileged gaze. Nevertheless, each of us is invited to do the same: to gaze lovingly at the mystery of the world as our own capacities allow.

When the totality ended, I said farewell to my fellow pilgrims (passing the peace with hugs all around) and headed north on the long dusty road back to the highway. As with all transcendent experiences, “the night of meditation passes, the flesh revives, and the world’s day returns. . . The feeble spirit finds itself beclouded once again with dust.”[10]

My ride home (Photograph by Jim Friedrich)

 

[1] From “Collect for the Renewal of Life,” Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979), 99.

[2] Rocco Montano, Dante’s Thought and Poetry (Chicago: Gateway Editions, 1988), 372.

[3] John Donne, Sermon preached on the evening of Christmas Day, 1624.

[4] Francis Quarles (1592-1644), from “Wherefore Hidest Thou Thy Face,” in A Deep but Dazzling Darkness: An Anthology of Personal Experiences of God, eds. Lucy Lethbridge & Selina O’Grady (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2002), 76-77.

[5] Seymour Chatman, Antonioni: Or, The Surface of the World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 80.

[6] Paradiso trans. by Robert and Jean Hollander (New York: Doubleday, 2007)

[7] Paradise trans. by Dorothy L. Sayers & Barbara Reynolds (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Classics, 1962)

[8] Simone Weil’s memorable description of prayer.

[9] Francis Quarles, q. in R.A. Durr, “Vaughan’s ‘The Night’,” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 59, No. 1 (Jan. 1960), p. 36.

[10] Ibid., 39.

“Every common bush afire with God”

Weatherbeaten pines near the summit of Mt. Tallac.

Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries
And daub their natural faces unaware…

–  Elizabeth Barrett Browning

 

August 6th marks the Feast of the Transfiguration, that strange moment in the gospel narrative when the divine glory in Jesus is glimpsed by three disciples on the summit of a mountain. Scholars have puzzled over the strange mysticism of the story, an anomalous intrusion into the more historical tone of the gospel texts. Was it a misplaced post-resurrection story, or did the glory of heaven really blaze for a moment in an ordinary place on an ordinary afternoon?

Although some scholars locate the event on the higher, wilder summit of Mt. Hermon (9232’), tradition commemorates the story on the gently rounded crown of Mt. Tabor, a solitary knob rising 1500 feet above the Galilean plain. To the romantics among us, in love with the sublime majesty of high mountains, Tabor’s humbler setting seems an uninspired choice for a manifestation of the divine. Doesn’t the experience of divine presence require the less accessible, more transcendent heights of a Mt. Sinai, reached only with bleeding feet and gasping breath?

The lectionary readings for the Transfiguration don’t seem worried about the comparison. Sinai and Tabor are both remembered as summits where the divine presence was revealed to mortal sight. The gospel description of a cloud overshadowing the mount of Transfiguration is clearly meant to echo the theophany at Sinai. But the two mountains are in fact very different places.

Sinai is austere, barren, and forbidding, rising out of a desolate landscape that Deuteronomy aptly describes as “a terrible and waste-howling wilderness.” The mountain consists of 580 million year old red granite, overlaid by dark volcanic rock of more recent origin (ten million years ago).Travelers over the centuries have spoken of Mt. Sinai as “dark and frowning”, with its “stern, naked, splintered peaks.” One 19th century pilgrim said, “I felt as though I had come to the end of the world.”

For Moses and his people, its summit was wrapped in the Cloud of Unknowing, where human sight must become blind before it can see the divine light. It is a place apart, inhospitable to ordinary life and everyday knowledge. Its mystery remains hidden from the casual quest. “The knowledge of God,” said Gregory of Nyssa, “is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb.”

The Israelites were smart enough to know this. They stayed down in the valley where it was safe. Even there, the thunder and lightning around the peak made them shudder. The Exodus text says that just touching the edge of the mountain could kill you. So they were happy to let Moses go up alone. As one ancient writer put it, he “left behind every divine light, every voice, every word from heaven, to plunge into the darkness where the One dwells who is beyond all things.”

Medieval mystics said that on the summit, inside the cloud, Moses fell asleep in a supreme self-forgetfulness. Whatever he saw up there was beyond words, but the description of Moses descending is unforgettable: the skin of his face shone because he had been talking to God. The Israelites were afraid to come near him until he had veiled his face.

This is a story about the otherness of God, the one whose incomprehensible mystery is utterly beyond our world, beyond our knowing, beyond our grasp.

In choosing Tabor as the site to commemorate the Transfiguration, tradition has invoked God’s less forbidding aspect. Tabor is what geologists call a monadnock, a native American word for “mountain that stands alone.” Resistant to the erosion that reduced its surroundings to a low plain, its solitary rounded shape draws the eye from miles around. Set in a fertile portion of the Galilee, it is adorned with grasses, shrubs, and groves of pine, oak, and cypress. Where Sinai is fierce and forbidding, Tabor is gentle and welcoming, pleasant and hospitable. Its modest scale and cheerful greenness made me feel at home when I climbed it nearly thirty years ago.

The attributed setting of the Transfiguration is very different, then, from Sinai; but so are the details in the gospel text. Instead of a dark cloud, there is a clear, bright light. Instead of an unspeakable mystical experience by a solitary Moses, there is a describable vision to which several disciples are witnesses. And instead of requiring a long and arduous pilgrimage to a distant place, the Transfiguration takes place in the familiar geography of the disciples’ home turf.

In other words, this gospel story is about the immanence of God, the presence of the divine in the very midst of our stories, not just at their remotest edges. We don’t have to leave where we are in order to find God. God can be found right here, where we are living our lives. Epiphanies come in unexpected places. God may be found in the humblest dwelling.

Recently I climbed one of my own favorite summits––Mt. Tallac, which at nearly ten thousand feet towers above Fallen Leaf Lake in California’s Sierra Nevada. When I was a child, we took family vacations at the lake, spending a week every summer in a rented cabin. While we rarely ventured far from the water, Tallac always loomed above us like a beckoning power, and even as a small boy I felt its summons. I was about ten when I finally made it to the top, and I have returned a number of times since. As a young man, I went up by moonlight to watch the sun rise over Lake Tahoe. In middle age, I ascended at sunset to view a lunar eclipse.

This time, there was no celestial display, and certainly no mountaintop theophany. The only words I was given at the top came from a conversation between two young women who were starting back down. As they passed me, I only heard one sentence: “Was she drunk at the time?” What could I make of such an oracle? On this hike, all my mountain revelations would turn out to be nonverbal.

“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days,” exclaimed Sierran saint John Muir, “inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God.” And on my 12-mile Tallac pilgrimage,  there were many windows indeed.

The journey up the mountain begins gently, along the banks of Glen Aulin.

Checker-mallow halfway up Mt. Tallac.

Jeffrey pine west of Tallac.

Wooly mule ears, looking west from Mt. Tallac.

A marmot at the summit.

Lake Tahoe from the top of Mt. Tallac.

More than halfway down the steep side, a view of Fallen Leaf Lake and journey’s end.

Anglican poet-priest R. S. Thomas described a natural epiphany of his own in “The Bright Field.” At first it seemed a common enough sight: the sun breaking through clouds to illuminate a small meadow. The image quickly slipped from his mind as he went on his way. But in retrospect he realized that the gift of that moment had been “the pearl / of great price, the one field that had / the treasure in it.” If only he had been prepared to give it his full attention.

Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

If only we too would turn aside from our headlong forward rush to notice the illuminations strewn along our way. As I made my descent from Tallac’s summit, taking a steeper, shorter return route to Fallen Leaf, I was less prone to dally. There were snowfields and rockslides to cross, and I needed to reach Fallen Leaf Lake before sunset. Halfway down I spied a magnificent corn lily nested in a thicket about twenty feet from the trail. In my haste I almost passed it by. But then my soul stepped on the brakes, and I turned aside to behold the miracle of its beauty. I waded through the brush for a closer look. Was it “only” a corn lily, veratrum californicum, or was it, as the poets and mystics say, an epiphany “afire with God?”

Corn lily on the southern slope of Mt. Tallac.

 

Related posts:

The Light We May Not See: Thoughts on Dust and Transfiguration

The Woven Light: Reflections on the Transfiguration

I Must Decrease (And Why That’s Good News)

Seattle Midsummer twilight (10:05 p.m., June 22, 2017)

The 24th of June is, in the Christian calendar, the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. In Europe, it’s also known as Midsummer Day, marking the critical moment when the longest days begin the six-month journey toward the longest nights. Even though we still have months before us of warm weather and brilliant sunshine, the light is now (imperceptibly at first) beginning to slip away minute by minute. Thus in the old days, on the night before Midsummer––called Midsummer Eve or Midsummer Night––bonfires were lit to encourage the waning sun, and people were on their guard against any supernatural mischief. As we know from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s a good night just to stay home. Whatever you do, don’t go into that magic forest!

The ancient traditions may seem obsolete, but are we free of the anxiety they represent? This turning point in the sun’s journey is a metaphor for our own mortality. We are temporal beings––creatures of time. For us, nothing lasts forever. The very moment that we reach the peak of the Summer Solstice, savoring what the poet Wallace Stevens called “arrested peace, / Joy of such permanence, right ignorance / Of change…”, the sense of having all the time in the world starts to seep away––imperceptibly at first, as we enjoy our fun in the sun and the long unhurried twilights. As Stevens goes on to say in his great Solstice poem, “Credences of Summer”: “This is the barrenness / Of the fertile thing that can attain no more.” After the perfect moment, then what?

In a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, Calvin is running around in a frenzy, shouting, “It’s July already! Oh no! Oh no! What happened to June? Summer vacation is slipping through our fingers like grains of sand! It’s going too fast! We’ve got to hoard our freedom and have more fun! Time rushes on! Help! Help!”

Meanwhile, his friend Hobbes the tiger is watching Calvin’s panic with studious detachment. Then he says to himself, “I don’t think I want to be here at the end of August.”

My Minnesota relatives still have the summer house my grandfather built on a bluff above Lake Pepin, a scenic stretch of the Mississippi River that becomes a lake two miles wide and thirty miles long. About fifteen years ago, in late June, I walked down to the beach from the house, passing through a grove of maple trees and birdsong. When I emerged from the woods onto the sandy lakeshore, I saw one of the great spectacles of Midwest summer: a storm of mayflies.

Thick black clouds of insects with transparent wings whirled in the air above me. Millions more covered the willows and cottonwoods, darkening the summer greenery with their densely packed masses. It was an explosion of pure fecundity: “The feast and fairy dance of life,” as one naturalist has described it.

But this dance is oh so brief. After incubating for two long years in the mud of the lake bottom, the mayflies grow wings, float up to the surface and rise into the air to mate. Within 24 hours of this eruption into ecstasy, they fall lifeless back to earth. Roads and bridges covered with their greasy remains are too slick for driving, and must be closed until a cleanup crew arrives.

Is this not a sped-up version of the human condition––here today, gone tomorrow? As they sang in medieval England, “Merry it is while summer lasts; but now draws near the wind’s cold blast.” The Bible was equally frank about our radically transient status: “All flesh is grass . . . The grass withers, the flower fades.”

Contemporary poet Mary Oliver delivers the same message, lightened by a dose of whimsey:

For years and years I struggled
just to love my life. And then

the butterfly
rose, weightless, in the wind.
“Don’t love your life
too much,” it said,

and vanished
into the world.[i]

For me, this mortal life is like the fireworks on the Fourth of July. So glorious and wondrous––and so quickly over. Every year my wife and I walk a mile down to the local harbor to watch the display, and when it’s done, as we make our way home in the darkness, I always feel the melancholy of endings. The pyrotechnics of July 4––the American version of Midsummer Night––have come and gone. Only two weeks old, summer is already beginning to slip through our fingers! This is the barrenness of the fertile thing that can attain no more.

John the Baptist knew how the story goes. He knew that his given moment on the stage was coming to an end. Remember what he said about Jesus? He must increase, I must decrease. My time is passing, but Jesus’ time is coming. Thus at the Nativity of John the Baptist the days start to decrease, while at the Nativity of Jesus the days start to increase.

John the Baptist is rightly remembered as the voice in the wilderness, announcing that the Lord is come (let every heart prepare him room!) As his father Zechariah foretold when John was only eight days old, the Baptist was born to be “the prophet of the Most High…. to give knowledge of salvation to [God’s] people by the forgiveness of their sins.” In paintings, John is often seen pointing away from himself, toward Jesus, the “dawn from on high” who gives “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

Leonardo da Vinci, John the Baptist (1513-16)

John gave us expectant hearts. But he offered us another great gift as well. He taught us the art of letting go. Jesus must increase, I must decrease. That’s what he said, and what he did. It’s what we all do. As the old shape note hymn says with such brutal honesy, “Passing away, we are passing away.”

All flesh is grass––a melancholy thought at the dawn of summer. But wait; there’s more, and it’s good news. Though the grass withers and the flower fades, Isaiah tells us, the word of God will stand forever (Isaiah 40:8). And what is this “word?” Jesus is the word, the speaking of divine reality in human be-ing. And that divine reality, which we are made to mirror, is all about self-diffusive, self-forgetting love. God is a Trinity of persons, giving themselves over to one another in an eternal circulation of gifts offered and gifts received.

So the great secret at the heart of existence, the word that stands forever, is that it’s all about letting go instead of holding on. Jesus made that perfectly clear in his death and resurrection. And John the Baptist, who was martyred before he could see that first Easter Day, intuited this truth even before it was fully revealed.

He must increase, I must decrease. Less of me, more of Christ. More of God. And the Christian life is all about making that truth our daily practice, as individuals and as communities of faith. We learn to let go of things which are passing away––and of the stories which are no longer true for us––and to remain open and grateful for the new gifts we are about to receive. Welcome every gift, but hold on to nothing but God, who is not only the Giver of every gift, but is also the only gift worth having.

God is not a thing, an object, a commodity to be possessed. God is a dance we do. We become most truly ourselves only to the degree by which we participate in, and surrender to, the choreography of that dance: the eternal giving and receiving of self-diffusive love. Letting go, not holding on, is what completes us.

As Mary Oliver reminds us,

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.[ii]

 

 

Related post:

Sacraments of Summer

 

[i] Mary Oliver, “One or Two Things,” New and Collected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 122.

[ii] ibid., 178

A Land of Crippling Nonsense

Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Manhood, 1842 (National Gallery)

A mob cannot be a permanency:
everybody’s interest requires that it should not exist,
and only justice satisfies all.

––– Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Politics”

 

In my last post I suggested that the Christian understanding of God as Trinity––the self-diffusive love of interdependent communion––is incompatible with the manifestly unloving actions of America’s ruling party: “Pretty much everything the White House and the Congressional majorities are trying to do now is a grievous offense against the Divine Trinity whose very being is communion. Attacking immigrants, inflaming racism and violence, abusing women, starving the elderly, sentencing tens of thousands to early death by taking away their health care so the rich can get richer, poisoning the wells of public life, telling the planet to go to hell––the list of injuries to God’s desire grows daily.”

Some readers––not, I suspect, regular visitors to my site––did not find this a self-evident statement, and posted their bitter complaints on The Religious Imagineer Facebook page:

This sounds so anti-American. You people need to stop that crap. Get this in your head, climate change is a hoax, global warming was a hoax. Affordable Care Act was a hoax. Your site is a hoax.

You guys sound like communist [sic]. No thanks.

You people are sick. President Trump and the First Lady and families are Christians. Love the USA and want to protect it. How can you spew filth and lies and look at yourself in the mirror? God is watching you and you will have to answer to him. It will not go well for you! The Democrats lie and cheat and do not care because they do not believe in God.

President Trump and his voters are Christians who just want to save America from Islam so their children and grandchildren will be able to practice their religion freely.

Romans 13. All authority is appointed by God at the appointed time. Unfortunately, because of our Falling Away, God appointed Obama to weaken and divide America because God knew Obama would play his part. The truth is the US’s role is defined in Rev 12: to prepare and secure Israel’s place in Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount. Trump moving our embassy to Jerusalem will be a good start. I’ve often wondered how Europe, the Holy Roman Empire, the iron mixed with clay, would turn against Israel. Now we know. The Marxist Pope has fallen away and is preaching ecumenism aka interfaithism. He has fallen for the world’s message of Coexist. But if he truly understood Prophecy he would know that the lies of political correctness, tolerance, and diversity are Satan’s agenda to amalgamate the world to destroy Israel. We must resist Satan’s agenda, not Trump’s agenda of Nationalism and Capitalism so we can fulfill our God Given Destiny. Go Trump!!

Your site is a tool of Satan. God is not “a dance we do.” He is THE WAY, THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE.

You’re a liar.

Your [sic] nuts.

Although I did write in that same post, “we should be dismayed but not surprised by those who want to make America hate again,” I have to admit I was pretty surprised. In my accustomed insularity from the dark side of the American id, living as I do on a blue island in a blue state, and belonging to a church which both favors the biblical justice tradition and encourages critical thought­­, I rarely venture into the dark swamps of inchoate political rage. Reading these comments, I felt like Dante crossing the Styx in Delacroix’s painting, where tormented souls gnaw on the poet’s frail craft. It’s a pretty unnerving ride.

Eugène Delacroix, Dante and Virgil in Hell, 1822 (Louvre)

A recent poll gave Trump a disapproval rating of 60%––a record for a new president––but it also showed that 36% continue to approve his presidency. That’s still a lot of Americans giving a thumbs up to what I term “injuries to God’s desire.” So I have to wonder: How many of this 36% are cynics and hypocrites who tolerate Trump’s dark side in order to achieve a conservative agenda? How many are using a man whose defects they may detest as a club to bash a system which has left them behind? How many are simply unaware of the degree to which they have voted against their own self-interest, like the Trump voters who may soon lose their health care? And how many do, in fact––without any shame––embrace authoritarianism, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and planetary suicide as justifiable within their eccentrically constructed worldview?

Some of my angry correspondents merely lashed out like the childish bully they adore. Some asserted ‘alternative facts,’ because it is always easier to dismiss accurate information than surrender an entire worldview. But a couple of people did offer a kind of argument. One took the clash-of-civilizations approach favored by ISIS, making Trump the chief Crusader against an invading Islam. The other glorified “Nationalism and Capitalism” with a strange brew of Romans 13 (a favorite authoritarian text), Revelation apocalyptic, anti-papist tropes, and a little anti-modern nostalgia for the good old days when tolerance and diversity were not the norm. The Holy Roman Empire even made a cameo appearance! This kind of thing, once all the rage in mid-twentieth century Europe, belongs in the trash heap of history.

I deleted most of the angry comments from this blog’s Facebook page. Their ill-mannered tone didn’t seem to merit any permanence on my site. But they did make me wonder about the degree to which Christian teaching and formation have failed to counter the entrenched biases and practices of human sinfulness. Donald Trump is certainly not the first moral degenerate to be proclaimed a defender of the faith. And Christian history provides sadly numerous examples of WWJD (What would Jesus do?) receiving wildly incorrect answers.

We like to think that the baptized have made some progress in the historical quest to live a godly life. However, while Christians may no longer burn witches or practice slavery, there are still a lot of pious people whose politics are just as monstrous and cruel, even if well disguised as tax and health “reform,” rollbacks of environmental protection in the name of “freedom,” a system heavily rigged against the most vulnerable, and a profit-driven militarism making perpetual fear and violence good for business.

When someone votes or makes a policy decision, he or she may be acting in good faith, based on serious reflection and high principles. But the cumulative result of multiple decisions, however well reasoned, may turn out to be something unintended and undesirable. Sometimes we need to step back and say: Look where our choices have landed us. Is this where we actually want to be? Is this what God has in mind for human flourishing?

Civil War historian Bruce Catton once described this potentially ruinous process in his vivid account of the battle for Charleston’s Morris Island, which in 1863 became “the deadliest sandpit on earth. It was dug up by spades and high explosive, almost sunk by sheer weight of metal and human misery, fought for with a maximum of courage and technical capacity and a minimum of strategic understanding; a place of no real consequence, lying at the end of one of those insane chains of war-time logic in which men step from one undeniable truth to another and come at last to a land of crippling nonsense.”[i]

Sound familiar? We too are shocked to find ourselves in a land of crippling nonsense. A narcissistic, unstable ignoramus holds the most powerful office on earth. Economic inequality has reached insane proportions. Political norms and standards of truth are undermined with impunity. Discourse has devolved into rancorous discord. Racist and fascist tribalisms are on the rise. Even nuclear war is back on the table. And prominent in the insane chain of choices leading us to this moment are the votes of countless Christians who thought Donald Trump to be God’s chosen instrument for a divine agenda.

Can we argue those folks back into a more biblically faithful worldview with some serious Bible study or powerful preaching? The evidence so far is not promising. One Facebook respondent to my last post thought preaching on the difference between the ruling agenda and the Trinitarian imperatives of love would only be “alienating to a lot of people,” since his parish was “about 50/50 Trump Clinton.” He’s probably right, at least about his local situation. So then what? Should we say and do nothing, in order keep the peace? In a family, that’s called dysfunctional.

“Your nuts” is certainly a fatal opening for dialogue. But within faithful Christian communities, is it not possible to appeal to biblical norms of love and justice in a spirit of humility, mutual listening and prayer? However, merely pointing out the contradiction, say, in receiving the Bread of Heaven on Sunday and voting against Meals on Wheels on Monday, will only get us so far. Being called to account often produces more resistance than penitence.

It is insufficient––and often alienating––to teach or argue generalities and cherished ideas in the abstract. We need to tell the stories which enable us to grasp each other’s realities with compassion and respect. I don’t mean an open forum for crazy worldviews or hateful attitudes, but rather an attentive hearing for the authentic narratives of the “other.” If we truly desire a viable future for our common life, we must make space for the concrete specifics of storytelling and storylistening, in order to walk in each others’ shoes and see through each others’ eyes before we presume to advance our own perspectives. A mob cannot be a permanency. Only communion has a future.

Listen to the stories of those who are afraid or angry or deprived. Listen to the stories of the poor, the immigrants, the marginalized and stigmatized. Listen to the stories of believers from other faiths, and listen to those for whom belief is hard. Listen to the witness of the saints among us who labor in the hot zones as peacemakers and justicemakers. Listen to your neighbor. Listen to the stranger. Listen without interruption or judgment. And within all these stories––and in the prayers and silences that surround them––listen for the Holy Spirit. Churches are uniquely positioned to nurture such transformative story spaces, and I pray that more and more of them will take the initiative to do so.

And a little child shall lead them. My favorite American vision of a redeemed common life comes from Natalie, an 8-year-old Hopi girl, who described her recurring daydream to Robert Coles for his remarkable book, The Spiritual Life of Children:

All the people are sitting in a circle, and they are brothers and sisters, everyone! That’s when all the spirits will dance and dance, and the stars will dance, and the sun and moon will dance and the birds will swoop down and they’ll dance, and all the people, everywhere, will stand up and dance, and then they’ll sit down again in a big circle, so huge you can’t see where it goes, or how far, if you’re standing on the mesa and looking into the horizon, and everyone is happy. No more fights. Fights are a sign that we have gotten lost, and forgotten our ancestors, and are in the worst trouble. When the day comes that we’re all holding hands in the big circle – no, not just us Hopis, everyone – then that’s what the word ‘good’ means…and the whole world will be good when we’re all in our big, big circle. We’re going around and around until we all get to be there![ii]

 

 

Related post: Donald Trump and the Rise of Authoritarianism

 

[i] Bruce Catton, Never Call Retreat (New York: Doubleday, 1965)

[ii] Robert Coles, The Spiritual Life of Children (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990)

Ascension Day “Charade”? – The Puzzling Exit of Jesus

Ascension Day at the Episcopal Theological School, May 4, 1967 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

I first fell in love with Ascension Day in the seventh grade, when my Episcopal school in Los Angeles kept the day holy by giving us the afternoon off. When solemn high mass ended at noon, 350 boys raced out of chapel to make the most of a sunny spring day. I may not have had a keen grasp of the Ascension’s theological significance, but if it meant a half-day vacation, I was all for it. So how did I spend that free time? I went to see the Crucifixion.

My father, James K. Friedrich, priest and film producer, was shooting the last episode of a 6-hour miniseries on the life of Christ. I met my friend Ricky McGarry, whose Catholic school also observed a half-day, and we took a bus to Hollywood’s Goldwyn Studio to visit the set. The irony of going to “Golgotha” on Ascension Day escaped me at the time. Although it could be said that the Fourth Gospel sees as much glorification on Mt. Calvary as Luke sees on the Mount of Olives, this was not an argument a seventh-grader was prepared to make.

The Rev. James K. Friedrich on the set of “Crucifixion and Resurrection” (1956)

My most memorable––and notorious––Ascension Day came a decade later, reported under the title “Ascension Day Charade “ in The Christian Century magazine.

On Ascension Day, May 4, approximately 40 men and a few women and children gathered at a conspicuous place at noon and conducted a premeditated, burlesque celebration of the day of Christ’s “Glorification.” To one end of a long cord they had fastened several gas-filled balloons; to the other, a crude effigy of the Christ made of tissue paper and cardboard. As high noon approached, the crowd began a hilarious countdown beginning at 100. The volume of the shouting and the air of boisterous jollity heightened until with a mighty shout of “Zero” and “Blast-off” from the crowd the cord holding the balloons and the effigy was released. A naïve bystander did not realize what the raucous crowd was mocking until, as the balloons ascended dragging behind them the paper Christ, he heard one of the men quote Scripture: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

 

Who were these people? Were they Russian atheists or members of the Chinese Red Guard taunting Christians with their gibes? Were they “hippies” taking a trip on LSD or Black Muslims reviling Christianity? Where did this parody of the Ascension occur? It occurred on the campus of a highly respected seminary, and the men who contrived and conducted it were seminarians, studying for the office of pastor, prophet and priest in the high calling of Jesus Christ.

The unsigned editorial went on to shake its finger at such “profanations,” expressing “revulsion and pity,” and “a heavy sense of abiding sadness” over the “absurd and despicable” actions of those naughty seminarians.

On the day designated by the church and by generations of Christian people as a reminder of the exaltation of Christ, these people debased the Christ… What will they try next for thrills? The Black Mass?[i]

But another mainline publication, the Methodist Christian Advocate, jumped into the fray on the students’ behalf. It couldn’t resist needling the low church Century for fussing over a liturgical calendar item to which their liberal mainline constituency in fact paid scant attention. And it worried that the establishment’s “disturbing defensiveness about surface material” may signal that its symbols are already on the decline. In contrast, said the Advocate,

the seminarians who are able to deal so lightly with symbols of a previous day… are indicating a certain freedom toward their faith. Be reminded that they are seminary students, who presumably have some desire to serve their world through their church. Their lightness toward tradition may well reflect a desire to shake loose from dead forms in order to better serve the God who has called them.[ii]

Dear reader, it may not surprise you to learn that this controversial liturgical observance was cooked up in my seminary dorm room. A youthful Religious Imagineer, joined by two other first-year students at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was seeking a dramatic finish to a series of spontaneous “art actions” during a four-day gathering of major church leaders. The conference agenda was certainly serious and daunting––the reunification of ten American denominations. But the addition of news media and right-wing Christian protestors to the mix was too tempting to resist. It seemed a good time for some religious guerilla theater.

Our helium-powered ascension was not mockery but play, with precedents going back to the medieval practice of tying a rope to an effigy of Christ and pulling it up through a hole in the church ceiling on the Feast of the Ascension. But in the late twentieth century, the explicitness of a material ‘figure’ rising into an empty sky prompted some discomfort among the Christian modernists in the crowd. How much were they being asked to believe about the Ascension? What was really at stake in our ‘Ascension Day Charade?’

The four gospels describe the earthly life of Jesus, his death, and various appearances to his followers after the resurrection. But only Luke describes the moment the appearances ended. Matthew provides a farewell scene on a mountain, but we never see Jesus actually leave. Instead, he promises to be with us always, to the end of time. Mark concludes his account with three women being told by a mysterious figure that the risen Christ is “not here.” But if they go back to Galilee, they will see him there. It’s like the teaser in a season finale: To be continued. John, who devotes several chapters to a long and moving farewell speech at the Last Supper, ends his gospel with a another conversation over food––a picnic breakfast at the beach––but now the talk seems less urgent, as though Jesus and his friends have all the time in the world together.

Only Luke delivers the emotional image of seeing the Incarnate One go for good, like Shane riding off into the sunset. As I wrote in my 2014 post on the Ascension, “Where Did Jesus Go?”:

Luke might have had Jesus disappear around a corner, or over a hill.
Or the disciples might have looked away for a moment, or blinked,
missing the exact moment of vanishing.
But the cloud is a nice touch. Artists have always loved it.
In any event, Jesus is suddenly gone.

Christians ever since have been left with a number of questions? Where did he go? Is he still locatable in space and time, or is he only in a transcendent, placeless realm? What form did he take in order to be in a ‘place’ beyond embodied existence? What does it mean to say Christ is still present and in relationship with us? Does the Ascension tell us anything about our own future?

If Jesus exchanged the spatially locatable body of a first century Jew for the omnipresence we attribute to the divine, can we still say he is fully human, or did the Word “unbecome” flesh in the Ascension? Did it somehow reverse or cancel the Incarnation?

Martin Luther, insisting that the ascended Christ was not “a stork in a nest in a treetop,”[iii] argued for his ubiquitious presence in the here and now, but that still leaves the particularity of Jesus in question. As one contemporaray theologian has framed the dilemma, “Christ everywhere really means Jesus of Nazareth nowhere.”[iv]

One ancient solution was to understand the Church as the continuation in space-time of Christ’s incarnate presence. Jesus’ individual body was succeeded by the community of the faithful, the visible ‘Body of Christ’ in the world. As Ephesians says, “The Church is Christ’s body, the completion of him who himself completes all things everywhere” (Eph.1:23). But where is the church which has truly fulfilled this high calling, except in momentary flashes of grace? We may be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, but we are still not all that good at it, despite centuries of practice. The perfection of Christ is not contained within the ecclesia, though we may hope to meet it there.

It was easier to take Luke’s ascension imagery seriously when the cosmos was vertically arranged into earth below, heaven above. The heavenly realm might be invisible, yet it could seem nonetheless near enough to shed its influence on the world below. Indeed, many paintings of the Ascension show heaven to be, as the Celts say, only about a foot and a half above our heads.

Pietro Perugino, The Ascension of Christ (1495-98)

Recent centuries have abandoned such a dualistic cosmos. Heaven as a separate place in the old sense has receded into infinity––and beyond!––distant and remote, unengaged with the mechanisms, causalities and presences of this world. But a God who has nowhere to ‘be’ in space-time is a God without ‘existence.’ In modernity’s cosmology, it isn’t just Jesus who has ascended out of sight, but the entire Godhead. The question became not just ‘where is Jesus?’ but ‘where is God?’

Theologians have puzzled over the seeming ‘unthinkability’ or absence of God within the social imaginary of modernity. I won’t go too far into the weeds to catalog the rich variety of their responses here, but they include thinking of God not as a noun (an object among others) but as a verb (known through actions, situations or relations), or expanding the notion of transcendence to mean not only ‘beyond’ but ‘within’––the hidden inner source of every possibility which Gerard Manley Hopkins called ‘the dearest freshness deep down things.’ But whatever the approach to the mystery of divine presence and absence, language fumbles when it reaches beyond the senses. In the matter of the divine who, what, where, when and how, words fail.

The true God is the unknown mystery of the world whose holiness is violated as soon as God acquires a name. God is beyond being and nonbeing, belief and unbelief, theism and atheism. God is hidden, holy, mysterious, the ineffable source of revelation and grace.[v]

The Ascension epitomizes the dilemma of locating and describing ‘the unknown mystery of the world.’ We may catch a glimpse the disappearing feet, but if Jesus has indeed returned to God, where exactly is that? And how do we ourselves get there?

The Ascension of Christ, Limoges (Late 16th century)

A nineteenth-century Danish theologian proposed a temporal approach to the question of ‘where.’ Instead of looking for the ascended Christ in space, might we discern him within the unfolding of time, replenishing and perfecting the world ‘with the energies of the future’?

The presence of Christ in the universe must be looked upon, not so much as actual being, but rather as an essential becoming; it must be treated as a progressive advent, a continual coming, in virtue of which, by the growing development of his fullness, he makes himself the center of the whole creation; and the creation itself is thus being prepared and created anew as a living, organic, and growing temple of Christ.[vi]

To contemplate the mystery of the ascended Christ as a process, shaping the interrelated destiny of everything that is, may prove a way to collapse the infinite distance between earth and heaven into a nearness, a presence, which can be known and experienced even if not understood. Wherever Christ went, it was to prepare a ‘place’––or situation––where we all may become our truest selves, completed at last in Christ’s glorified and expanded body. Like Dante at the end of Purgatorio, through the mystery of ascent we become ‘rifatto … puro e disposto a salire a le stelle’ (‘remade . . . pure and ready for the stars’).[vii]

So the ultimate question for Ascension Day may not be ‘where is Jesus?’, but ‘where are we?’ And where do we need to go from here to be with Christ and in Christ? An old shape note hymn says it perfectly:

Then he arose, ascended high
To show our feet the way…

 

 

 

 

Related post: Where Did Jesus Go?

 

[i] “Ascension Day Charade” (unsigned editorial), The Christian Century, vol. LXXXIV, No. 21 (May 24, 1967), 675-76.

[ii] “Jesus in the Clouds,” Christian Advocate, vol. XI, No. 12 (June 15, 1967)

[iii] Douglas Farrow, Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology (Edinburgh, Grand Rapids: T & T Clark, 1999), 269.

[iv] Ibid., 12.

[v] Gary Dorrien, The Word as True Myth: Interpreting Modern Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 238

[vi] Hans Martensen, in Farrow, 192.

[vii] Purgatorio xxxiii.141-143.

End photo by Marilyn Robertson.

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

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

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

– Langdon Gilkey

The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas,
to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person
for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to the good.[ii]

– Andrei Tarkovsky

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lawren Harris, North Shore, Lake Superior (1926)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We do not need the obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated legend. We are creating images whose reality is self-evident and which are devoid of the props and crutches that evoke associations with outmoded images, both sublime and beautiful. We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life’, we are making them out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.[ix]

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

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

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

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

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

Roger Wagner, Menorah (1993)

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

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

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

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

Art and faith are, each in their own way:

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

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

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

Let the journey begin… [xvii]

 

Cirque du Soleil, Kurios (photo by Jim Friedrich)

 

Related posts

Do Not Fear: Reflections on the Venice Colloquium

“The artist formerly known as priest”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xiii] Spretnak, 40.

[xiv] Ibid., 102.

[xv] Ibid., 129.

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

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