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)

“You say goodbye, I say hello”: A Requiem Sermon

Joe and Phyllis Golowka (1940s)

I’ve brushed the dew on Jordan’s banks, the crossing must be near.

– Jefferson Hascall, “Angel Band” (1860)

This winter, my dear friends Joe and Phyllis Golowka died five weeks apart in their 71st year of marriage. I was privileged to preach the sermon today for their Requiem Eucharist at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Cambria, California.

In his younger days, Joe Golowka led teen backpacking trips in California’s Sierra as part of the camping program for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. I had the joy of being the chaplain on those hikes. At some point time caught up with Joe, and he decided to let a younger generation take over, but not before taking one last big trek. We made it a good one: a 10-day traverse of the Sierra Nevada, ascending the western slope along the Middle Fork of the Kings River, crossing two high passes at the crest of the range, and descending the steep eastern escarpment to the Owens Valley. It was one of those revelatory walks which, as John Muir once put it, open a thousand windows to show us God.

On our sixth day, we stopped around noon to make camp along a stream, Palisades Creek, so we wouldn’t have to make a steep climb to our next lake in the heat of day. Instead, we would get up at 4 the next morning, walk by the light of the full moon and a rosy dawn, and reach the lake at sunrise.

With the rest of the day suddenly free, Joe went fishing. He wandered down the stream until he found a pretty good spot, but after a while he got restless, and went looking for some place better. But the second place also failed to satisfy his longing for that holy grail of fishermen: the perfect fishing hole.

As the fairy tales teach us, the magic is always found in the third place––in this case, a slope of smooth granite where the stream rushed down into a quiet, shaded pool. As Joe approached, he saw golden trout leaping out of the pool into the cascade, only to be swept backward by the swift volume of water. Over and over again, the fish threw themselves against the stream’s powerful flow. But none of them could breach the crest of the cascading whitewater.

As Joe watched this spectacle of fierce desire, so thwarted yet so relentless, he felt the call to intervene on life’s behalf. He cast his barbless hook into the deep blue pool, and almost immediately, a trout tugged on his line. He pulled it out, slipped it unharmed off the hook, and tossed it upstream, beyond the cascade, where it could continue its hero’s journey. Again, Joe cast his line, and the same thing happened. Over and over, a trout would bite almost immediately, surrendering to Joe’s saving presence. It was as if the fish somehow understood that the fatal hook would prove to be the instrument of life, not death.

In the space of forty minutes, Joe caught and released thirty-four golden trout. Overcome by the sheer wonder of it, he finally had to stop. Miracles send a lot of voltage through your body. You need to step away and recover. He returned to camp shaking. When he finally shared his story at the evening campfire, it struck me that he had been privileged, for a moment, to share the work of our Creator and Redeemer–– rescuing the hopeless from the depths, casting living seeds into the future, turning a dead end into a gate of life.

And now, forty years later, Joe himself has gone through that gate, with his beloved Phyllis right behind him. They are in glory now, but what about us? Who will wipe the tears from our eyes?

Joe and Phyllis walked this earth for nearly a century. A presence we always took for granted has suddenly been withdrawn. The empty chair, the empty room, startle us with absence, and trouble us with longing.

There Is a time to be born and a time to die––this is the inescapable human condition––but acknowledging our mortal nature does not lessen our grief. Indeed, grief is the price of love, whenever that time comes when we must take the parting hand.

How we wish it were otherwise. Couldn’t we have had them just a little longer?

There’s an Irish song called “The Parting Glass.” They sing it in pubs at closing time. Its minor key and wistful words express the sorrow of ending the evening’s camaraderie as people go their separate ways into the night––a sorrow which feels like a rehearsal for the end of life itself:

Oh, all the comrades that e’er I had,
Are sorry for my going away.
And all the loved ones that e’er I had
Would wish me one more day to stay.
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not,
I’ll gently rise and softly call,
“Goodnight, and joy be with you all.”

I love that last line. The singer doesn’t just say farewell and disappear. He pronounces a blessing upon those who remain: “Joy be with you all.” Yes, we honor our dead by the tears we shed. We honor them even more by embracing the joy they wish for us.

The Bible describes the company of heaven as a great cloud of witnesses, cheering us on from above. The novelist George Eliot called the departed “the choir invisible whose music is the gladness of the world.”[i]

Give your sadness all the time it needs, but remember to hold a space in your heart for the ways the departed will return to you––the choir invisible whose music is the gladness of the world.

For the absence of a loved one in a bodily and temporal form
is succeeded by new forms of presence.

I once asked a group of high school students to write their own epitaph, and this is what one seventeen-year-old girl proposed for her imaginary tombstone:

You say goodbye,
I say hello.

The people who matter have a way of sticking around. Although death changes the relationship, it doesn’t end it. The dead continue to occupy our thoughts. They remain present to us in stories, memories, emotions, DNA (in some cases), and whatever else they left us with.

Our beloved Joe and Phyllis are no longer in one particular place. They are in every place we remember them. They are present when their voices echo in our ears, or in those places where we shared special times together. They are present whenever we think of them, or speak of them, or tell the stories that were their lives.

When C.S. Lewis wrote about the grief process after the death of his wife, he said that as the acute sense of loss began to fade, he wondered whether he was starting to forget her by being happy again, or whether he might betray the rich complexity of her being by reducing her to a fixed set of memories.

But once he just stopped worrying about it, he found that, as he put it, he “began to meet her everywhere.” It wasn’t a voice or an apparition, or even a big emotional experience. It was, he said, “a sort of unobstrusive but massive sense that she is, just as much as ever, a fact to be taken into account.”[ii]

Michael Smith, a folksinger from Chicago, described a similar sense of presence in a song about his late father.

I brought my father with me
I hope that you don’t mind
I couldn’t find it in me
To make him stay behind…

There are some ways I’m just like him
Some ways he was just like me
And sometimes when the mirror’s dim
His face is clear to see
Tonight the winds of heaven
Blow the stars across the sky
I brought my father with me
I couldn’t say goodbye [iii]

We have all  brought Joe and Phyllis with us this morning. And they will remain with each of us in countless ways. I can’t go on a hike without hearing Joe’s voice, telling me to pay attention, to take in the beauty offering itself in every moment. Don’t just stare down at the trail! Look around!

We carry Joe and Phyllis with us. But we also grieve their absence. They’ve been a presence in our lives for so long, It’s hard to believe they are gone. Our hearts go out to their family, especially to their children. Losing one’s parents is one of the hardest things we ever do, no matter how old they were or how old we are. There is great sorrow in that. It is a time to weep.

But it is also a time to dance.
We lament today, but we also praise.

Thank God we had Joe and Phyllis in our lives for so long.
Thank God that Joe was what only Joe could be,
that Phyllis was what only Phyllis could be.
Thank God for what Joe and Phyllis could only be together.
Thank God for what they gave us.
Thank God for the ways they loved and mentored and befriended us.
Thank God for the ways they blessed us.

Joe and Phyllis will live on in memory and story, and we take great comfort and pleasure in that. But we also make a deeper claim here. Joe’s life, and Phyllis’ life, are not just something we remember––because their journey is not over and done. They still have a future––with Christ and in Christ in the company of heaven. God loses no one.

Death is not the last word, the final chapter. It is, rather, the passage into the unimaginable fullness of unending life in God.

Death, be not proud. though some have called thee 
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; 
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow 
Die not . . .
One short sleep past, we wake eternally 
And death shall be no more . . .[iv]

So said John Donne, 17th century Anglican poet and priest, because he knew how the story goes: Love wins and death dies.

This is the story that God’s friends stake their lives on:
God has loved us into existence.
God sustains us every step of our life’s journey.
And even after our bodies give out,
God loves us too much to let us go.

This Requiem eucharist is above all a celebration of resurrection. In our hymns and our prayers we proclaim the God of life who has made death into the gate of heaven.

Everything we sing and pray today comes down to this: We are here to celebrate the entrance of Joe and Phyllis into the land of light and joy.

Some of you know how I love American shape note hymns. They were written at a time when people with shorter life expectancies had to look death in the face every day, and they still managed to proclaim the victory of life. Even at the grave, they made their song:

Why do we mourn departing friends,
Or shake at death’s alarms?
‘Tis but the voice that Jesus sends
to call them to his arms.[v]

Filled with delight, my raptured soul
Would here no longer stay,
Though Jordan’s wave around me roll,
Fearless, I’d launch away.
I am bound for the Promised Land,
I am bound for the Promised Land![vi]

Farewell, my friends, adieu, adieu,
I can no longer stay with you;
My glitt’ring crown appears in view,
All is well, all is well.[vii]

About the same time those hymns were written, Henry David Thoreau was on his deathbed in Concord, Massachusetts. A few days before he died, a family friend said to him, “You seem so near the brink of the dark river that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.”

And Thoreau, who had spent his life carefully observing and describing what he saw in the fields and woods around Walden Pond, replied simply, “One world at a time.”[viii]

However curious we may be about what it’s like across that dark river between the worlds, we can’t see it from here. But I would venture to say that heaven is not so much a place as it is a relationship. We live in God and God lives in us. And that is true on both sides of the river. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.

If you want more details, the Scriptures provide so many vivid images of what it means to be in God’s presence:

Isaiah says that wherever the oppressed begin to hear good news, and the prisons go out of business, and the tears of the brokenhearted are replaced by the oil of gladness, heaven is already happening. (Isaiah 61:1-3)

St. Paul assures us that nothing––neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor presidents, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing. Not now, or ever. (Romans 8:38-9)

Today’s Epistle declares: “God will dwell with mortals, and they will be God’s family… Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

And Jesus our Brother tells us, “It is the will of the One who sent me that I shall lose nothing of all those entrusted to me. . . and I will raise them up on the last day.” (John 6:39-40)

By the way, when I think of the Last Day, I imagine it’s something like the shock of your first morning on a backpack with Joe. You’re in a peaceful sleep, snug in your down bag, content to postpone the shock of the cold mountain air.

Then, as sudden as the angel’s resurrection trumpet, a hand shakes you awake, and a voice shouts, “Rise and shine! Come out of that fluffy cocoon. This is the day which God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!” Those may not have been Joe’s exact words, but some of you were there on those mornings. You know what I’m talking about. The Day of Resurrection!

In a few minutes, we will collectively perform our central image for life in God:
We will gather around a table where Love bids us welcome,
to be richly nourished by the food of heaven.

There’s a place for everyone at God’s feast.
No one is excluded or banned or forgotten.
As they say at heaven’s gate, “Weary pilgrim, welcome home.”

One last thing.

Joe and Phyllis were both blessed to die at home, in hospice care, with family keeping vigil. My father-in-law, Arthur, did the same at the end of January, and I found a strangely beautiful grace in those last days. The soul’s departure is an awesome and holy thing to witness. It is life’s profoundest mystery.

When the time comes, people seem to know exactly what to do: their body gradually letting go as their attention shifts from this world to the next.

And as they depart from us, this is how we pray for them:
Receive them into the arms of your mercy,
into the blessed rest of everlasting peace,
and into the glorious company of the saints in light.[ix]

The contemplative monk Thomas Merton said that death is not something that just happens to us as passive recipients. It is, rather, something we do, an act of self-offering, what Merton called “the last free perfect act of love which is at once surrender and acceptance.”[x]

In other words, in the act of dying, we let everything go
and give ourselves over completely into the hands of God.
That is what Joe has done; that is what Phyllis has done.
And one day, you and I will do the same.

And God, as promised, will prove to be “mercy clothed in light.”[xi]

O glorious day! O blessed hope!
My soul leaps forward at the thought:
When, on that happy, happy land,
We’ll no more take the parting hand.
But with our blessed holy Lord
We’ll shout and sing with one accord.[xii]

 

Related post: Fathers, we must part

 

 

 

[i] From her poem, “O May I Join the Choir Invisible,” q. in All in the End is HarvestL An Anthology for Those Who Grieve, ed. Agnes Whitaker (London: Darton, Longman, & Todd, 1984, 1995), 83

[ii] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, q. in All in the End, 105

[iii] Michael Smith, “I Brought My Father With Me,” on his album Time, 1994

[iv] John Donne, Holy Sonnets X in John Donne, The Complete English Poems, ed, C.A Patrides (London: Everyman’s Library, 1991), 440-1

[v] “China” in The Sacred Harp 163b (Bremen, GA: The Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 1991)

[vi] “The Promised Land” in ibid., 128

[vii] “All Is Well” in ibid., 122

[viii] Malcolm Clemens Young, The Spiritual Journal of Henry David Thoreau (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009), 8

[ix] Ministration at the Time of Death in The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 465

[x] From posthumous publication, Love and Living (1979, p. 103), q. in The Thomas Merton Encylopedia (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 107

[xi] Jane Kenyon’s sublime image is from her poem, “Notes from the Other Side,” in Jane Kenyon: Collected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005), 267

[xii] “Parting Hand” in The Sacred Harp, 62

Solitude Revisited

img_7459

Aloha! I’m taking a break in Hawaii at the moment, but will be back with a new post next week. Meanwhile, here are a couple of posts from February 2015 about a rather more serious – and more rigorous- getaway from civilization.

Solitude (Part 1)

Solitude (Part 2)

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

Kieslowski’s Decalogue: A Masterpiece of Religious Cinema

 

Pawel (Wojciech Klata), Decalogue 1

Pawel (Wojciech Klata), Decalogue 1

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

– Krzysztof Kieslowski[i]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irena puts her arms around Pawel and pulls him close.

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

 

 

Related post:   The ten best religious films

 

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

[ii] ibid., 69-70

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

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

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

[vi] Kickasola, 165-6

The Monks Have No Sadness

Mount Calvary Monastery, Santa Barbara, California

Mount Calvary Monastery, Santa Barbara, California

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

– Ignatius of Loyola

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dragon tree, Mount Calvary Monastery

Dragon tree, Mount Calvary Monastery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Revels Now Are Ended

img_7265

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

– Welsh carol

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

– Louis MacNeice[i]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_7267

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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