Fathers, we must part

Joe Golowka at 93

Joe Golowka at 93

Still, if it is a dream, let us indulge it a moment longer. Let us believe that some things last,
and some places and some people are not touched by change.

– Virginia Woolf[i]

When anyone spends nearly a hundred years on this earth, their departure hardly feels untimely. But it leaves a hole which is hard to get used to. They were always there––and now they’re not. When my mentor and fatherly friend Joe Golowka died in his sleep around dawn yesterday, a month before his ninety-ninth birthday, I knew it was coming. But I still felt the shock of sudden absence.

I first met Joe six years after losing my father. Heart attack, 62 years old. Fatherless in my twenties, I needed considerably more mentoring, and Joe supplied it with gentleness and warmth. His family welcomed me as one of their own, and I cherish many happy memories of hanging out at their house for barbecues, swimming and cheering on the Dodgers and Lakers. I had a priestly role in two family baptisms and a wedding, and the whole clan drove a thousand miles to celebrate my own marriage. Whenever I visit them, I don’t need to knock before entering.

Joe enjoyed many things, but his love for the California mountains was our closest bond. He started teenage backpacking adventures in the Sierra for the Episcopal dioceses of Los Angeles and San Diego, and we first met in 1972 when he recruited me to be chaplain for his annual excursions. I possessed a little backpacking experience at the time, and had been training my eyes and heart for nature by reading Thoreau and John Muir. But Joe soon became my best teacher in the physical and spiritual dimensions of wilderness walking.

He gave a master class in the art of paying attention. Don’t race down the trail. Take your time. Stop and look. Wait patiently for nature to show itself. Get down on the ground, climb a tree, try a different angle. From the tiniest orchid to the grandest sunset, he wouldn’t let you miss anything of what John Muir called “these vast, calm, measureless mountain days … opening a thousand windows to show us God.”[ii] Joe’s voice––Don’t forget to look!––still keeps me company when I hike alone. And hundreds of his other trail companions would tell you the same.

There is a Zen story about a monk who was meditating by the window of his mountain cabin when a thief broke in. The monk did not react, but just kept on meditating. His eyes were not on the thief, but on the full moon passing between the pines. The thief took what little there was, then slipped back into the night. “Poor fellow,” said the monk. “I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.” Joe was like that monk. He gave us the moon, and so much more.

In 2003, I planned an eight-day solo hike in the eastern Sierra. Since I would finish many miles south of my starting point, I needed to leave my car at the hike’s terminus (the bottom of a 9-mile, 6000’ descent to high desert from 12,000’ Taboose Pass), and then get myself 17 miles up the highway to the trailhead at Big Pine Creek. As it happened, Joe was on a fishing trip in the area, and he offered to provide my shuttle ride.

In his mid-eighties at the time, Joe had reluctantly given up mountain hiking a few years before. But during his fishing trips in the Owens Valley east of the Sierra, he would sometimes visit his favorite trails, walking a short stretch to bid them farewell. So when I began my walk, Joe kept me company for the first mile, until we reached a bridge below a grand cascade. We stood on the bridge for a while, leaning on the railing in wordless contemplation of the roaring falls. Then we crossed to the other side, where the trail began a steep ascent into a forest of incense cedar and Jeffrey pine. Joe had gone as far as he could. He looked down at the trail for a moment, and offered his regrets. “I wish I could come with you”, he said. It wasn’t just me he was addressing, but the trail itself. How hard to surrender something you love so much.

To live in this world you must be able to do three things, says Mary Oliver.

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.[iii]

Nine days ago, my wife’s father, Art, died peacefully in hospice at his home, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. When his body began to give out last fall, he did not talk much about what lay ahead, but once his last days arrived, he seemed to know exactly what to do. His attention began to shift from this world to the next as he went inward, responding less and less to the empirical world in which he had lived and moved for 87 years. He was letting go. Going home.

I’ve almost gained my heavenly home,
My spirit loudly sings.
Behold, they come, the holy ones,
I hear the sound of wings.[iv]

In Art’s last hours, his family laid hands on him as I said the Last Rites: Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world . . . Then my wife Karen, wearing a stole she had just brought back from a Holy Land pilgrimage, anointed her father with oil. As evening fell he breathed his last, and departed in peace.

It is no denial of grief to mark the holiness of such a dying. Absent the tragedy of an untimely death, or the anguish of a painful one, we may glimpse even through our tears what a solemn and beautiful mystery it is to pass from the temporal to the eternal.

Jerusalem, my happy home,
When shall I come to thee?
When shall my sorrows have an end,
Thy joys when shall I see?[v]

Jeffrey pines, Sierra Nevada

Jeffrey pines, Sierra Nevada

When Joe and I parted at that Big Pine Creek trailhead, he blessed me with an affectionate hug, and I began my long climb. As I trudged upward, he called out after me, giving the same admonition I’d first heard in his gruff voice thirty years earlier: “Don’t stare at the trail! Your feet can see the trail just fine. Look around, see everything, enjoy everything.” Then he turned and started back toward the trailhead. I stopped to watch until he disappeared into the trees.

In the space of eight winter days, I have lost two fathers. Joe’s departure was like Art’s––peaceful, in his own bed, surrounded by family. When I got the news by phone, it was snowing outside. Suddenly the power went off and the call dropped. It felt like Joe’s final message to me: Hey Jim, get off the phone and go outside. This snowfall is too beautiful to miss!

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Virginia Woolf, The Second Common Reader (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1960)

[ii] John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), Chapter 2, June 23, 1869, p. 35

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

[iv] “Angel Band,” text by Jefferson Hascall (1860), tune by William Batchelder Bradbury (1862). This is one of the songs we sang at Art’s bedside.

[v] c. 16th century, The Episcopal Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1982), #620

Dreading and Hoping All: Thoughts about Halloween

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Nor dread nor hope attend
A dying animal;
A man awaits his end
Dreading and hoping all.

— William Butler Yeats[i]

The Lord is my light and my rescue.
Whom then should I fear?

— Psalm 27:1

 

When children assume alternative identities to roam the streets on All Hallows Eve (Halloween), they are performing an ancient ritual of interaction between the realms of the seen and the unseen, the living and the dead. The proliferation of characters from pop culture may have diluted the otherworldly explicitness of the more traditional ghosts, monsters and witches, but the strangeness remains. Whatever the costumes may be, for one night an entire generation disappears into a procession of fantastic and otherworldly beings, disturbing the settled normality of our neighborhoods.

The American Halloween traces its origins to Samhain (“summer’s end”), the Celtic New Year marking the end of harvest and the onset of winter. As the zero point between an exhausted past and time’s renewal, Samhain (pronounced SAH-win) was considered a critical moment for both nature and humanity. Life itself hung in the balance (would Spring ever return?), and the boundary between the visible world and whatever lay beyond it grew thin and porous. Spirits, fairies, and even the human dead were thought to be abroad at such a time, because everything was at stake and everyone wanted a vote in whatever happened.

The ancient Celts were ambivalent about the disruptive presence of so many immigrants from the Other Side. They lit fires and carried jack-o-lanterns to guide and warm the spirits in the autumnal night, but also to ward them off. They set out food and drink not just for hospitality but also for appeasement. They wore masks and costumes to imitate and honor the uncanny beings, but also to scare them away, or prevent them from recognizing and harming the vulnerable humans behind the masks.

In their uneasy relationship with the mysteries of death and transcendence, were the Celts so unlike ourselves? We sense in otherness both threat and gift. It stirs both dread and hope.

I know that some Christians, both past and present, have fretted about the “paganism” of seasonal rituals, as though deep attention to the rhythms and patterns of cosmos and psyche will deform rather than enrich our collective wisdom. But I think we would do well to consider the gifts of ancestral experience in the matter of living harmoniously with time and nature. How might we use pre-Christian dimensions of All Hallows Eve, for example, to take us deeper into an authentic spiritual practice of embodied, earthly existence?

Many years ago, as liturgical artist-in-residence at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, I designed an All Hallows Eve ritual incorporating the Halloween themes of mortality, anxiety and the otherworldly into a eucharistic celebration for All Saints’ Day. The luminosity of saintly lives would shine even brighter, I thought, against the deepest black of our mortal uncertainty and fear.

Our publicity described the event as “an autumnal ritual to mark the season of darkening with ancient customs, wherein life and light are reaffirmed. We will conclude with a festival eucharist for All Saints’ Day.”

Many participants came dressed as their favorite saint (broadly defined to include such non-canonical moderns as John Muir, Emily Dickinson, Mark Rothko, Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day). Those without costumes were provided with a symbol to carry, such as a lantern (truth-seeker), book (theologian or writer), musical instrument (musician), or protest sign (activist). Everyone wore a mask to help us disappear for the moment into an anonymous collectivity.

Some 200 strong, with drums, kazoos and other noisemakers, we processed outside, around the block, behind a large papier-maché sun, which would soon enact for us the season’s decline into winter. When we finally made our way into the church, our only light was the flickering glow of a few dozen jack-o-lanterns scattered around the interior.

Once everyone was inside, with the sun symbol lifted high at the head of the nave, the presider said:

As the sun departs from us, depriving us of light and warmth, call to mind the things which make you afraid or anxious, the things which darken your own lives and turn your hearts cold. Consider as well all the forces and follies which threaten the health of this planet and the well-being of God’s creatures.

And when the sun has gone, take off your mask, and face the darkness with all the trust and faith that is in you. We are not alone. The true Light of the world remains, hidden within the deepest night.

Audio of flowing electronic drones began the fill the vast Romanesque space as the sun made its slow way back down the nave and out the door. Once it had disappeared, the music faded out, and with thoughtful solemnity we all began to remove our masks. Our true faces revealed at last, we simply waited in the quiet darkness with prayerful attention.

Several minutes passed.
Then an unaccompanied singer, somewhere in the dark, broke the silence:

For all the saints,
who from their labors rest,
who thee, by faith, before the world confessed.
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, alleluia.[ii]

This initiated a series of theatrical blackouts depicting the saints. A spotlight would come on to show a performer employing words, music or movement to represent a particular saint. When the spot switched off, another saint was illumined in a different part of the church. There were nine saints in all.

After the final blackout, all these saints, now robed in white and carrying candles, converged toward the altar as an unseen narrator read from Revelation 7:

After that I saw a huge number, impossible to count,
from every nation, tribe, people and language,
standing before the throne and before the Lamb . . .

The saints were all standing together at the altar when the reader concluded:

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more . . .
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Then the saints all raised their candles high and shouted with one voice: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!” The organ began to play variations on Vaughan Williams’ great hymn for All Saints as our own hand candles were lit by the saints moving among us, until everyone was joined in a luminous refutation of eternal darkness.

The eucharistic feast of the redeemed had begun,

and God, as promised,
proves to be mercy clothed in light.[iii]

 

 

 

 

[i] “Death,” q. in Sandra M. Gilbert, Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), 127

[ii] Text by William Walsham How (1823-1897), in The Hymnal 1982 (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation), 287

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

Leaves

October leaf, Newfane, Vermont (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

October leaf, Newfane, Vermont (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

Can all men, together, avenge
One of the leaves that have fallen in autumn?
But the wise man avenges by building his city in snow.

– Wallace Stevens

For the past week, I have been exploring the back roads of New England with my wife as we fill our eyes and hearts with October color. There have been cloudy days when the leaves have glowed like embers in the somber light, and days of utter brilliance when the sun made them shine like stained glass.

What Wallace Stevens called the “auroras of autumn” is one of the glories of the year. It is also, inevitably, a masque enacting the narrative of mortality in which we all play our part. As I wrote in “A Tender Doom,” a 2014 post, the “leaf falls, the year dies, the heart submits to processes beyond its control.”

This week I have watched leaves of gold and scarlet fall upon ravaged 18th century gravestones, and drop into ever-rolling streams which bear them away to God knows where. I have received news of a dear friend slipping out of this world as her husband of 71 years finished reading her the last rites from the Book of Common Prayer. I have also read the faithful witness of another friend, facing chemo, binding himself to the love that casts out fear in a time of anxious unknowns. He is a wise man who does not confuse the fight to live with a fight not to die, lest he turn living “into something less spiritually interesting.”

To paraphrase a line from poet William Stafford:

What the leaves say,
that is what I say.

 

 

Summoning the Sanity to Scream

Painting by Richard Stott (June 13, 2016). Used by permission of the artist.

Painting by Richard Stott (June 13, 2016). Used by permission of the artist.

Investigators at the scene were overwhelmed by the sounds of endlessly ringing phones coming from the bodies, as people continued to call, hoping for their loved ones to answer.

— CNN

We rise and fall and light from dying embers
remembrances that hope and love last longer,
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love
cannot be killed or swept aside.

— Lin-Manuel Miranda[i]

 

The Orlando massacre is the 179th mass shooting so far this year in the United States of America.[ii] It will not be the last. There’s too much madness, too many guns, too much hate to hope otherwise. We are angry and we are sad, but then what? Gun worship seems the most powerful religion in America. From presidents to schoolchildren, the blood of countless victims stains its altars. And however much we rage and moan we feel powerless to stay the hand of sacrifice.

Each time it happens, causes are discussed, solutions proposed, and we cry, ‘Never again!’ The pundits wring their hands, the NRA and gun-makers pause briefly to reload, Congress turns a blind eye, and then rat-a-tat-tat! More bodies strewn across our public spaces. The cycle repeats itself endlessly.

Why? Mental illness, social pathologies, alienation, racism, resentment, homophobia, hate, terrorism, profiteering by gun-makers, violence as entertainment, social media copycats, an American predilection for the quick fix and the fast draw—probable causes multiply exponentially.

Songwriter Dan Bern summarized the search for answers in his powerful “Kids’ Prayer,” written after the Springfield, Oregon school shooting in 1996:

And all the world descends to offer up their condolences
And offer up their theories what went wrong
And who and why and when and how:

It’s all the killing day and night on television
It’s all the movies where violence is as natural as breathing
It’s guns and bullets as easily obtainable as candy
It’s video games where you kill and begin to think it’s real
It’s people not having God in their lives anymore
Or it’s all of it, or none of it, or some of it, in various combinations …

As a hate crime directed against the LGBT community, Orlando adds a disturbing new dimension to the plague of gun violence. Whatever blend of madness and calculation drove the killer, he didn’t invent homophobia. He just fed off of it. It is still, sadly, in plentiful supply.

Decades ago, James Baldwin, who was both gay and black, wrote about the American capacity for self-delusion as to the extent of its own sickness. Facing up to our social pathologies, whether racism, bigotry, nativism or gun violence, would endanger the national myth of innocence. Better to remain silent and pretend everything is fine.

“But if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (I John 1:8). A sin unconfessed only makes us sicker. In a 1961 conversation with Malcolm X, Baldwin said:

If I know that any one of you has murdered your brother, your mother, and the corpse is in this room and under the table, and I know it, and you know it, and you know I know it, and we cannot talk about it, it takes no time at all before we cannot talk about anything. Before absolute silence descends. And that kind of silence has descended on this country.[iii]

In a gesture of protest, a Connecticut Congressman has vowed to abstain from the “moment of silence” which seems to be the only Congressional response to mass shootings. “Our silence does not honor the victims; it mocks them,” said Rep. Jim Himes.[iv]

Or in the words of Dan Bern, how many Orlandos will it take before we “summon up the sanity to scream?”[v]

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Note: The Pieta image is by British painter and Methodist minister Richard Stott, a member of last October’s Venice Colloquium. He painted it in response to Orlando. Thanks to Ric for letting me use it here. Check out his website, “I ask for wonder.”

Related Posts

Is the American Dream a Con Game?

How Far Can We Sink?

We are the singers of life, not of death

 

 

[i] Miranda delivered his “sonnet” during the Tony Awards, the night after the Orlando shooting.

[ii] Mass Shooting Tracker

[iii] “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel,” in Nobody Knows My Name, quoted in Nathaniel Rich, “James Baldwin and the Fear of a Nation,” The New York Review of Books, May 12, 2016, p. 42.

[iv] @jahimes, 5:45 pm, June 12, 2016

[v] Dan Bern, “Kids’ Prayer”

A Voice to Raise the Dead

Lucas Cranach the Younger, Raising of the Son of the Widow of Nain (detail, 1569)

Lucas Cranach the Younger, Raising of the Son of the Widow of Nain (detail, 1569)

I’m writing from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where I’ve been among some amazing people to reflect together on the deep connections between art and spirituality. The fruit of those conversations will find their way into future posts, but meanwhile here is what I’m preaching this morning from the pulpit of Hattiesburg’s Trinity Episcopal Church, based on the gospel text from Luke 7:11-17. 

Watch out! There’s going to be a collision.

Here comes a funeral parade, with a dead young man, his grieving mother, and a whole crowd of mourners, weeping and wailing and gnashing their teeth.

And from the opposite direction, pretty as you please, here comes the Jesus parade: the holy man everybody’s talking about, along with his passel of disciples and a whole bunch of folks who’ve just seen Jesus cure the centurion’s slave in the blink of an eye and who want to see what in heaven’s name he’s going to do next.

The Jesus people are all laughing and talking and telling stories, but suddenly Jesus raises his hand and they all stop, because he’s seen the widow, he’s heard her crying—they can all hear her crying—and Jesus is so moved by her tears, his heart just fills up and overflows with compassion. and whatever he was on his way to do no longer seems all that important.

He knows that moments like this are why he came into the world. So he heads straight across the town square to meet that funeral procession, with all his folks trailing after him, wondering what’s going to happen.

What is going to happen, in the middle of that dusty little country town, is a great cosmic showdown: the parade of death running smack into the parade of life. And here’s how it goes.

Jesus reaches out to touch the coffin, and the pallbearers come to a dead stop. Everybody gets real quiet. Maybe the widow recognizes Jesus. Maybe she’s heard stories about his miracles. But she’s not asking for any help. Her son is dead. She knows his story is over. Nothing Jesus can do about that, she thinks. She’s long since resigned to her grief.

And the only thing Jesus has to say to her is, “Do not weep,” because it’s her son that he wants to talk to. Then Jesus speaks the words he has been given the power to say:

Young man, arise!

And the dead man sits up, opens his mouth, takes a breath, and words start to spill out, words of wonder and joy, and he is alive again. Then Jesus gives him back to his mother. And all the people standing round don’t know whether to be scared or whether to start shouting “Glory to God! Glory to God!”

And as for all of us who listen to this story today,what do we do with the strangeness of it in a world where too many young men and women die and parents weep and there is no resurrection parade that shows up to make everything all right again?

Can we still take hope from this story, or is being snatched from the jaws of death only for the lucky few, like winning the lottery, while the rest of us can only dream of such a happy fate?

This would be a cruel story if it were about a blessing which most of us will never know. But what Jesus did that day in the village of Nain wasn’t a promise that we all now get a free pass to escape the human condition. Jesus didn’t really go around raising up everybody who died. It only happens three times in the gospels. Jesus didn’t come to give everyone a few extra decades of earthly existence. That’s not why he was here.

He was here to show us God, and to show us how humanity is made to become like God—not by grasping power and glory, but by embodying compassion, which is one of the dearest of God’s names.

It wasn’t God’s plan that Jesus spend all his time putting funeral directors out of business. But on that particular day in Nain, Jesus couldn’t help himself. He felt compassion for the widow, and as the incarnate Author of Life, he returned the widow’s son to the sensory world of dust and sunshine just so death wouldn’t get too uppity. Sometimes death needs to be reminded that it never gets the last word.

But Jesus didn’t mean for us to place our own hope in such temporary reprieves. The resurrection of the dead is a mystery more ultimate and profound than what happened to the widow’s son. Dying and rising are inseparable partners in the same transformative dance. It’s the way the story goes, and we just have to live with it. That is why, even at the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

So what does this gospel story want to tell us today, wherever you and I happen to find ourselves on life’s journey in the year of grace 2016? I’ll tell you what I hear.

The first thing is, our God is compassionate. Our God is moved by our tears. And in the end, as poet Jane Kenyon said before her own untimely death, God will prove to be “mercy clothed in light.”

Secondly, I am struck by the power of the voice of the Divine Beloved, the voice of Jesus, speaking to us the word of life: Arise. And I don’t think we have to wait for the Last Day to hear it, either.

We are being called back to life every day, every moment, if we only have ears to hear. On her wonderful website, The Painted Bird, Jan Richardson has posted her poem inspired by this gospel. “Blessing for the Raising of the Dead.” tells us that ‘while this blessing / does not have the power / to raise you, /  it knows how to reach you. / It will come to you, / sit down / beside you, / look you / in the eye / and ask / if you want / to live.’ You can read the whole poem here.

Finally, I hear this gospel telling me one more thing. It is not enough simply to hear the voice that blesses and revives. I believe, now that the tongues of Pentecostal fire have settled on our own heads, that you and I are called to speak that voice as well, to be ourselves the voice that blesses, the voice that calls the dead back to life—dead hopes, dead neighborhoods, dead dreams, dead souls.

The word of life is not something we ourselves possess, but God has empowered us to speak it nonetheless: to be Christ’s voice for those in need, to be Christ’s voice to a broken and longing world—

the voice which speaks the word
uttered for all eternity
in the heart of God:

Arise, it says. Arise.

 

 

Bill Viola’s “Martyrs”

image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[iv] From the installation’s explanatory text.

[v] Wisdom of Solomon 3:6

Memento mori

Wall relief in Castrojeriz on the Camino de Santiago

Wall relief in Castrojeriz on the Camino de Santiago

I tell my pupils to live each day as if it were their last… I don’t want children to fear death; I want them to respect life… It’s good for children to confront the idea of death, and… of their own mortality. Sometimes a child feels squeamish about death… skulls and skeletons. When this happens, I tell my pupils to touch themselves. “Why are you afraid?” I ask, “when each of you owns a skull and skeleton. We all carry death within us.” They feel themselves, and they say: “Yes it’s true, we too are made of bones.”

– María Antonieta Sánchez de Escamilla, a kindergarten teacher in Mexico (The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico, Elizabeth Carmichael & Chloë Sayer)

No leaves, no flowers, no light, no warmth, November. The eleventh month, as the year begins to slip away, evokes mortality like no other. Though it begins with the festivity of All Saints Day, celebrating the friends of God now radiant with the light of heaven, it immediately shifts to the more shadowy realm of All Souls, the Day of the Dead. Death itself, rather than what lies beyond it, becomes our focus. We visit graves, light candles, speak names, gaze at old photographs, tell stories of vanished presences.

In Mexico, death is playfully treated in comic skeleton images and candy skulls, but it is not mocked. A resigned acceptance of mortality pervades the festivities. The living remember not only the dead, but the skeleton inside themselves. They too are “made of bones.”

In American culture, we are not so adept with death. We always seem a little surprised by it. We avoid speaking its name. Memento mori is not a common spiritual practice. Few of us keep skulls on our desk, or sleep in coffins while we still have breath.

Forty-five years ago this month, I had my closest brush with death. I was sleeping in the back of a Volkswagen bus hurtling down a New York thruway at 65 miles per hour. A friend and I had been traveling all night, and it was my turn to rest. Suddenly the bus went out of control and flipped sideways, rolling over and over six times until finally coming to a stop upside down on the grassy median.

I remember two things about that long roll. My mind sped up to make everything appear in slow motion. It was like being inside the giant rotating barrel at an old amusement park. It carries you up and up until gravity kicks in and you are dropped back to the bottom to begin all over again. Slide up, drop. Slide up, drop. But slowed down, so I could observe it all in detail. Meanwhile, guitars, suitcases and croquet balls were flying around in similar motion experiments.

The other thing I remember is how familiar death seemed. I was not thinking, “This can’t be happening.” I was thinking, “Oh, so this is where we finally meet.” I’m sure the words were not so precise in the moment, but the sense of recognition was. When the rolling finally stopped, I lay face down on the ceiling of the inverted bus. I probably blacked out for a moment. Then I heard a voice, “All you all right?” I wasn’t sure how to answer – not until I actually tried to move. What if I couldn’t? I hesitated a moment, delaying the verdict. At last I tested my hands; my arms; my legs. They still worked. I rose slowly to my feet. Thankfully, nothing was broken. My friend was unharmed as well. Life was never so sweet.

The bus itself was totaled, and one of the guitars, my grandfather’s Gibson “Roy Smeck Stage Deluxe” Hawaiian guitar from the 1940’s, was pretty smashed up as well. Its broken body still hangs in our garage, my own memento mori.

In the predominant secular imaginary, a peek through death’s door finds no stairway to heaven, but only darkness. Termination. Void. A terrible forgetting. Emptiness.

This is a reasonable outlook, especially after the charnel house of the past century, but it’s not much to live by. And it is no more provable than belief’s alternative. None of us knows for sure. It’s a gamble either way.

In the 1950’s, Sylvia Plath summarized the modern formulary in her journal:

You don’t believe in God, or a life-after-death, so can’t hope for sugar-plums when your non-existent soul rises… Cats have nine lives, the saying goes. You have one; and somewhere along the thin, tenuous thread of your existence there is … the stopped heartbeat that spells the end of this particular individual which is spelled ‘I’ and ‘You’ and ‘Sylvia.’

John Donne, who himself never took death lightly, saw the outcome differently:

All mankind is of one Author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated.

Just a month before his death from cancer in 1631, Donne preached his final sermon, Death’s Duell, at St. Paul’s, London. “That which we call life is … spent in dying,” he wrote, but “a gate into heaven I shall have.” Then, though weak from illness, he posed for a sketch that would be used to make the sculpture for his tomb. After having a fire lit in his study (it was February), he stripped naked and wrapped himself in a burial shroud with only his face showing. Rather than lie down in the traditional sleeping position, he stood erect for the sketch. The resulting statue, the only monument to survive the Great London Fire of 1666, resides in the south choir aisle of St. Paul’s. Donne is standing to greet the resurrection. His eyes are not yet open, but he is smiling with expectant delight. His epitaph reads:

He lies here in the dust
but beholds Him whose name is Rising.