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.”

Foolishness and Hope on the Eve of 2017

Tarot card designed by Pamela Colman Smith

Tarot card designed by Pamela Colman Smith

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

– Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“God is alive, surprising us everywhere”

Advent moon 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Related post

Ten Ways to Keep a Holy Advent

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

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

7 Spiritual Practices: A To-do List for the Time of Trial

Chi-Rho, ancient monogram for Christ (wall of Greek monastery in Meteora)

Chi-Rho, ancient monogram for Christ (wall of Greek monastery in Meteora)

And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us;
we will not fear, for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us;
the prince of darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo! his doom is sure,
one little word shall fell him.

— Martin Luther

Save us from the time of trial . . .

— The Lord’s Prayer

 

Last week’s question was, What happened? This week, we are beginning to ask, What now? After the tears and the shock, the heartache and the nausea, how do we pull ourselves together and begin to resist the downward spiral of hate, fear, and planetary suicide?

As I was refilling the birdfeeders in our backyard on 11/9, choruses of chickadees and juncos signaled their pleasure. The beauty of the natural world provided welcome solace on a grim morning, and for a moment I imagined myself an insular neutral in a remote Swiss valley during World War II, or a cloistered monk during the Dark Ages, quietly tending my little Eden while chaos raged somewhere far away.

But retreat isn’t really an option. It’s not just love of country that makes me unwilling to concede our future to “the power of the dog” (Psalm 22:19). The fate of the entire world is at stake. This country has enormous influence and impact. If the American heart gets painted black, the suffering will be universal.

A friend in Virginia sent me a Mexican proverb after the election: “They thought they’d buried us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.” Exactly! We carry the power of springtime within us, to outlast the darkest winter and “restore earth’s own true loveliness once more.”[i]

Thinking about where to begin, I have reflected on seven verbs of spiritual practice. It’s a small offering to our ongoing collective conversation, and comments, arguments, and shares are welcome.

Pray

When evil threatens and courage fails, prayer remembers a greater power, the life-giving Source enabling us to endure and flourish. Both privately and in community, let us make daily intercession for our country, its leaders, and all who work to make it better. Let us also ask for the strength, patience, wisdom and courage to navigate the next four years. Our fiercest energies, anxieties, longings and passions are cries that will pierce the heavens. God support and save us!

But the prayerful life is not just a matter of words and devotional practices. It is a way of being, an all-consuming relationship of deep trust in the infinite and unconquerable Love who loves us. Even in times of suffering and doubt, the prayerful ones speak as if they are being heard. “Thy will be done,” cry the prisoners of hope. And, as Scripture promises, God provides.

If we are seeds, faith makes the best soil. We are not alone. It’s not entirely up to us. God will outwit our worst failings. Resurrection has the last word.

Fast

I have had to fast from the news since the election. The awfulness of the presidential appointments, the childish tweets, the widespread outbreaks of bigotry and bullying, the sneering of the haters and the fears of the vulnerable—it is all so ugly and maddening. Many of the discussions on social media are equally distressing. So many trolls, so much ignorance and bitterness. If I drink too much of the stuff, I’m soon spinning down the rabbit hole into a dystopian Wonderland. Curiouser and curiouser, to say the least.

But the peace of my soul is not the only reason for a news fast. Evil is like Medusa’s face. Gaze too long and you turn to stone, transfixed by horror. How do we hate hate without becoming hateful ourselves? The rage provoked by repugnant beliefs, bad behavior and delusional assertions can become addictive. It feels good to denounce the rascals and villains. It’s even entertaining to watch others do it. We think we are resisting evil, only to discover we are actually increasing its power as we succumb to its mesmerizing grammar.

Of course we need stay informed if we are to resist effectively. But bad news, whether fact or fiction, is like a plague. We should be mindful of its infectious toxicity. Remember to fast from evil and feast on goodness.

Repent

Every day ought to include honest self-examination: Where and how have I impeded or ignored the divine project of transforming lives and sanctifying the universe? How can I change my life to cooperate more fully with Love’s unfolding future?

Righteous indignation is natural right now, but it is also dangerous, because it may fail to “include itself in the problem against which it reacts. It judges in a divisive way, pitting ‘me’ against the rest . . .”[ii]

It is very tempting to point fingers and call people names, but that is not a constructive path to addressing the pain and anger festering in the American psyche. I’m not sure exactly how to pursue that path in a divided nation, but believe that the repentance of the “righteous” is an important step. Whatever injustices, slights, resentments or pathologies may underlie this election, we all have all played some part, even if only by passivity and default. However noble our intentions or wishes may be, we are all participants in a society where suffering is unequally distributed and great damage to people and planet is done every day in our name.

As Simon Tugwell writes in his book on the Beatitudes, even the “innocent” and the “good” are implicated in “the whole situation of wrongness, in which we and everybody else are caught up from the very moment of our birth.”

The saving image that comes to mind for me is the scene in The Brothers Karamazov when that dysfunctional K family is arguing and posturing in the monastic cell of Father Zossima. Their loud bickering, as bullying and shameless as a Trump rally, is especially shocking in the presence of such a holy and gentle man. The elder remains silent, making no attempt to intervene. Then, suddenly, he stands up, steps forward to one of the brothers—the one he intuits to be suffering the most—and kneels before him. Bowing his forehead to touch the ground, he says, “Forgive me! Forgive me, all of you!”[iii]

Prophesy

The practice of forgiveness and compassion does not mean we remain silent about what is wrong, unjust, or destructive in our common life. And we must never allow Trump’s behavior or crazy talk to be normalized. His promised actions, from mass deportations to torture to environmental destruction, are not the customary swing of the pendulum. And his proto-fascist attack on democracy has no precedent in our history. Such things are evil-minded folly, “leading us straight to tragedy.”[iv]

Like the biblical prophets and their American successors like Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and the Berrigans, we must denounce evil, confront the powers, envision the good, and exhort the better angels of our nature. Over the next four years, the unemployment rate among prophets should reach an all-time low.

That a majority of white Christians voted for Trump does raise troubling questions about the efficacy of religious teaching. As Clarence Jordan said fifty years ago, the biggest lie told in America today is, “Jesus is Lord.” But God is surprisingly resourceful, and the Trump years may be a refiner’s fire, forging a more faithful witnessing Church out of the flames. In any case, Jesus’ friends do not have the luxury of an uninvolved, privatized religion. We are being called most urgently to raise our voices, practice our faith, and minister to the vulnerable in the public square, whatever the cost.

As Thomas Merton wrote when the national conscience was being seriously tested in the 1960s, Christians must either “face the anguish of being a true prophet” or “enjoy the carrion comfort of acceptance in the society of the deluded by becoming a false prophet and participating in their delusions.”[v]

Love

In times of great calamity or loss, the need to connect intensifies and conversations multiply. In recent days, many of us have engaged with friends and strangers over coffee, on social media, at worship and in the streets, seeking comfort, encouragement, shared concern and collective wisdom. As labor activist Joe Hill told his supporters just before he was murdered by the state of Utah, “Don’t mourn. Organize!”

But Love won’t let us stay huddled in circles of the like-minded. In a 1969 BBC production of the gospel story, many are bewildered when Jesus commands them to love their enemies. They start to grumble at such a hard teaching. “It is easy to love only those who love you,” Jesus tells them. “Would I come to tell you easy things? Do you want me to tell you easy things?”[vi]

How do I love my enemies even as I reject and resist the harm they inflict? As hard as it may be to cross the divide between ourselves and those who offend or outrage us, God will not let us do otherwise. There is no “us” and “them” in the Kingdom. Simon Tugwell puts this as well as any:

“It is theologically and philosophically disastrous to envisage heaven and hell sitting side by side forever, each bearing witness to the failure of the other . . . According to the classic Christian ascetic tradition, it is always futile to squander our anger on one another. That is a waste of anger. Anger is made to be directed against the demonic, not against our fellow men and women.”[vii]

Let it begin with our crazy relative at Thanksgiving dinner, but eventually, like it or not, we’ll have to work our way up to loving Steve Bannon and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as well. Unimaginable? Jesus never said it would be easy.

Serve

In the Book of Common Prayer, the newly baptized commit to a lifetime of service, to “persevere in resisting evil … to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself . . . to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”[viii]

In all my post-election conversations, my friends have expressed a fresh resolve to be changemakers, to take on some new commitment that will make a difference. Episcopal priest Bill Teska, a friend in Minneapolis, offered a longtime activist’s suggestions on Facebook:

“It is time to get busy. Go to meetings. Go to demonstrations. Give whatever you can to organized non-violence resistance. I would say that qualifies as almsgiving, because the end is the defense of the poor and helpless.”

And another priest-friend, Gary Hall, posted this on his blog:

“We must, like the earliest Christians, be prepared to present ourselves as a counter-force and counter-culture to imperial values and norms… As alienated as we may now feel, we will find our antidote to depression in civic engagement on behalf of the gospel, confident that a new day is coming to be born.”[ix]

There are countless ways to light candles in this darkness. Find yours.

Hope

 Last weekend many of us were wondering how the first post-election Saturday Night Live would find anything funny in what America had just done. But instead of the expected opening comedy skit, the brilliant Kate McKinnon simply sang Leonard Cohen’s aching lament:

… And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Thanks be to God, history’s outcome is not up to us. Whatever follies we commit in sin or ignorance, God’s kindnesses are never exhausted. Should heaven and earth pass away, the Love who loves us remains. Kill the Author of life and she will rise again. This is our radical, wild hope. It is why we sing Hallelujah even at the grave. Even in the deepest hell.

Practice this hope every day, every hour. And pass it on.

 

 

 

[i] From an Advent hymn, “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry”, words by Charles Coffin, tr. Charles Winfred Douglas after John Chandler. The Episcopal Hymnal 1982, #76

[ii] Simon Tugwell, The Beatitudes: Soundings in Christian Traditions (Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1985), 87

[iii] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, tr. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Classics, 1991), 74-5

[iv] Marty Kaplan,” Taking Our Country Back,” Moyers and Company website, Nov. 15, 2016: http://billmoyers.com/story/taking-country-back/

[v] Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence (68), q. in The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 374

[vi] Son of Man (BBC Television, 1969) With an interesting script by Dennis Potter, this can be found on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9atVsTh4C-0

[vii] Tugwell, 87-9

[viii] Rite of Holy Baptism, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (New York: (Oxford University Press, 1979), 304-5

[ix] Gary Hall, “Responding to the Election” (Nov. 15, 2016): http://figbag.blogspot.com/2016/11/responding-to-election-paper-for-madres.html

“The artist formerly known as priest”

Text:Robert Bresson; Calligraphy: Br. Roy Parker OHC

Text:Robert Bresson; Calligraphy: Br. Roy Parker OHC

We are all artists, we are all storytellers. We all have to live by art, it’s our daily bread… And we should thank the gods for great artists who draw away the veil of anxiety and selfishness and show us, even for a moment, another world…. and tell us a little bit of truth.”

— Iris Murdoch [i]

In the strict sense, of course,
We invent nothing, merely bearing witness
To what each morning brings again to light:
Gold crosses, cornices, astonishment
Of panes, the turbine-vent which natural law
Spins on the grill-end of the diner’s roof,
Then grass and grackles ….
All these things
Are there before us, there before we look
Or fail to look.

— Richard Wilbur, “Lying” [ii]

My friend and sometime colleague Mark Harris has been an Episcopal priest for half a century. Now in his seventies, with his days of institutional church employment behind him, he devotes much of his time to making art. One of his friends recently designated him as “the artist formerly known as priest.”[iii]

The Prince reference made me laugh, but I also resisted the concept. Priest and artist are not contradictory vocations. Both draw back the veil between seen and unseen; both bear witness to a depth, a meaning, a beauty, or a Presence which is ever before us whether we “look or fail to look.”

Of course the priest is committed to a particular story about the world, and is accountable to some form of ecclesiastical authority, while the artist has no such constraints. In fact, it has been a commonplace of modernity to depict religion as antithetical to artistic freedom.

After a “shameful and distressing” conversation about the subject with T.S. Eliot in 1928, Virginia Woolf wrote to her sister: “He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was really shocked. . . I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.”[iv]

Similarly, a collective manifesto in 1948 declared art’s absolute independence from religion:

“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, our of our own feelings.”[v]

The modern narrative of art history, at least in western civilization, describes the messy divorce between art and religion. Art drifted away from sacred stories and theological themes to focus on the human being, the natural world, material objects and daily life. Then it stripped away all manner of content until its only subject was art itself, the pleasure of pure form and color unburdened by any external meaning.

In her persuasively argued book, The Spiritual Dynamic in Art, Charlene Spretnak refutes this narrative, documenting the deeply spiritual perspectives expressed by many of the iconic figures in modern art. For example, Van Gogh understood his revolutionary style as reinterpretation rather than rejection of a religious worldview: “I want to paint men and women 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.”[vi]

Writing “On the Meaning of Painting” in 1939, Joan Miró insisted that the artist’s vocation was to “endeavor to discover the religious essence, the magical significance of things,” rather than “merely add to the sources of stupefaction.” Recalling his first drawing class as a youth, he said, “That class was like a religious ceremony for me; I washed my hands carefully before touching the paper and pencils. The implements were like sacred objects, and I worked as though I were performing a religious rite.”[vii]

Spretnak cites many more such examples. But the rich and complicated relationship between art and religion is too vast for a single post, so for now let me return to my original argument. Priest and artist, for all their differences, share some essential common tasks:

To make visible what might otherwise not be seen.
To integrate life’s incompatible elements within a harmonizing vision.
To facilitate our encounter with a life-changing Presence.
To perform ritual interventions for the creation of community.

I am aware that many would define priesthood more narrowly, or art less religiously. Nevertheless, I am proud of the company I keep in this matter.

Seventeenth-century Anglican poet/priest George Herbert grounded his poems in a word or an image, morphing it into a multiplicity of resonant meanings. As one critic has put it, “he breaks the host of language” as the one becomes the many. This was more than clever wordplay. It was a worldview: one thing becomes another, like bread becoming God. Or a poet becoming a priest.

Contemporary Catholic poet Les Murray makes a similar connection between his verse and the Eucharist. Both involve “the absolute transformation of ordinary elements into the divine.”[viii]

The Orthodox composer John Tavener (d. 2013) described his music as “liquid metaphysics.” Acknowledging that his call was not to prove God’s existence but only to witness to his own experience of Presence, he said, “I cannot clearly demand belief in what I believe in, but I can ask for an openness, or certainly an acceptance that another level of reality exists beyond this commonplace one.”[ix]

Whether ordained or not, such artists perform a priestly function, inviting us to attend to the mystery of the world, in which “things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new.”[x] Or as I once heard arts innovator Peter Sellars put it, “The purpose of art is to wake people up who are sleepwalking, to grab them and say, ‘You cannot pass this by. This is your life!’”[xi]

Daniel A. Siedell, who has focused his critical attention on art and religion, makes an eloquent case for the priest/artist connection:

“There is a sacramental and liturgical presence in contemporary art, in which artists explore the potential of banal materials and gestures, in defined spaces, to embody and serve as a vehicle for profound meaning and experience. The liturgical dimension of contemporary artistic practice, which incorporates and re-performs the power of sacred space, ritualized gestures, and sacramental objects that testify to what philosopher William Desmond calls ‘the porosity of being,’ requires more expansive and richly-nuanced notions of both ‘art’ and ‘religion’ than those offered by modernist critics.”[xii]

Chiharu Shiota, "The Key in the Hand", Venice Biennale 2015 (photo by Jim Friedrich)

Chiharu Shiota, “The Key in the Hand”, Venice Biennale 2015 (photo by Jim Friedrich)

Chiharu Shiota is a Japanese artist living in Berlin. Her haunting installations are inspired by religious sites and rituals which evoke “strong emotional reactions. I think those reactions are sacred, but not necessarily the objects. It is similar with my art work. It’s the emotions that are sacred.”

For her work, “Key in the Hand,” she collected 180,000 old keys from all over the world, suspending them with 250 miles of red yarn over two old boats at the Venice Biennale in 2015. The keys represent the memories and treasures we lock away until we choose to entrust their custody to others. Shiota states that keys “protect important people and spaces in our lives. They also inspire us to open the door to unknown worlds.” [xiii] The yarn evokes blood and the interconnectedness of relationship. The boats, like an immense pair of hands, “catch” the rain of memories falling from above.[xiv]

Is Shiota’s work not sacramental, employing tangible objects to manifest hidden realities and touch our own deepest places? Does not its breathtaking beauty feel like a hint of the transcendent splendor toward which all being tends?

Chiharu Shiota, "The Key in the Hand", Venice Biennale 2015 (photo by Jim Friedrich)

Chiharu Shiota, “The Key in the Hand”, Venice Biennale 2015 (photo by Jim Friedrich)

Six years after Hurricane Katrina, the African-American artist William Pope.L invited residents of struggling New Orleans neighborhoods to donate photos in response to two questions:

When you dream of New Orleans, what do you dream of?
When you wake up in the morning, what do you see?

The collected photographs were to be projected onto a rear screen attached to the back of an old ice cream truck painted entirely in black. And one night in October, 2011, this 8-ton truck, with its engine shut off, was hauled through the city by a team of strong bodies from sundown to sunrise.

The artist imagined the black truck as the weight of our “collective darkness,” all those regrets and fears and demons we drag behind us. Countering the darkness, the back of the truck was illumined by projections from the inside of all the light collected from their lives and their dreams.

“I am asking people,” he said, “to show the fragility of their bodies as a collective and then go for a walk with others who are dragging the same old dreams down the same ole corridors and to take time out to wonder about that.”[xv]

Is this not priestly work? Using common materials and ritual actions, Pope.L. was the presider/curator for a “work of the people” which employed many of the elements of Christian liturgy: narrative (the photographs as “stories,” and the journey of the truck), symbol (darkness and light), time (a night passage framed by the setting and rising of the sun), and community (facilitating connections among the photographers, performers, and the neighborhoods through which they made ritual procession).

Pope.L acknowledges a “priestly” association: “Like the African shaman who chews his pepper seeds and spits seven times into the air, I believe art re-ritualizes the everyday to reveal something fresh about our lives. This revelation is a vitality and it is a power to change the world.”[xvi]

Critic and poet Donald Kuspit says that “being an artist is about being a certain kind of subject, not just about making certain kinds of objects,”[xvii] while Iranian/UK installation artist and sculptor Shirazeh Houshiary defines an artist as “someone who is capable of unveiling the invisible, not a producer of art objects.”[xviii] It seems that such artists as Shiota and Pope.L have brilliantly intuited this implicit artist/priest connection.

What I wonder, as an artist/priest myself, is whether those officially ordained by traditional Christian communities, such as my own Anglican tradition, fully understand the implications of this connection for our own work. Do we bring to our own priestly vocation the same degree of passion, creativity, imagination, curiosity and daring displayed in the work of the artist?

We may have much to learn.

 

Related Posts

Do Not Fear: Reflections on the Venice Colloquium

Sweet Miracle of Our Empty Hands

Heart Work and Heaven Work

Tending the Lamps of Holy Imagination

Note: The image at the top of this post was made for me by the wonderful calligrapher and Episcopal monk Br. Roy Parker OHC. For information on his work:  http://www.holycrossmonastery.com/calligraphy

[i] Iris Murdoch, Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues, 1986, p. 62-3, q. in Theological Aesthetics after von Balthasar (Ed. by Oleg V. Bychkov & James Fodor, Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008), 162

[ii] Richard Wilbur: Collected Poems: 1943-2004 (New York: Harcourt, 2006), 83

[iii] Some of Mark’s work may be seen here: http://www.preludiumarts.net/ One of his poems is found in the Related Posts link to “Tending the Lamps of Holy Imagination”

[iv] London Review of Books, 10/23/14

[v] Originally published in Tiger’s Eye (Dec. 1948), q. in The Sublime, ed. Simon Morley, Documents of Contemporary Art (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2010), 27

[vi] Charlene Spretnak, The Spiritual Dynamic in Art: Art History Reconsidered: 1800 to the Present (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 40

[vii] ibid., 102, 100

[viii] Missy Daniel, “Poetry is Presence: An Interview with Les Murray”, Commonweal 119, no. 10, 1992, 10), q. in Between Human and Divine: The Catholic Vision in Contemporary Literature, ed. Mary C. Reichart (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 217

[ix] John Tavener, ed. Brian Keeble, The Music of Silence: A Composer’s Testament (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), 163

[x] The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 291

[xi] From my personal notes on a “The Arts: A Catalyst for Change,” a forum at the Stanford University Centennial Weekend, October 1991

[xii] Re-Enchantment (James Elkins, David Morgan, eds., New York & London: Routledge, 2009), 234

[xiii] http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2015/05/the-key-in-the-hand/

[xiv] Interview with Shiota: http://2015.veneziabiennale-japanpavilion.jp/en/project/

[xv] Glenn Harper and Twylene Moyer, eds., Artists Reclaim the Commons: New Works/New Territories/New Publics (Ed., (Hamilton, NJ: isc Press, 2013), 247

[xvi] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Pope.L

[xvii] Artforum (1984), q. in Daniel A. Siedell, God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 124

[xviii] Interview with Stella Santacatterina (1994), q. in The Sublime, 93

 

Requiems and rainbows

An era was over and a new Europe was being born. This much was obvious. But with the passing of the old order many longstanding assumptions would be called into question. What had once seemed permanent and somehow inevitable would take on a more transient air. . . Europe’s future would look very different—and so would its past. . . Whatever shape Europe was to take in the years to come, the familiar, tidy story of what had gone before had changed forever.

— Tony Judt[i]

In the introduction to his magisterial Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, Judt was writing of Europe’s rise from the ashes of World War II as a continent of some 46 countries sought to overcome a long legacy of division and conflict. His book was published in 2005, and Judt himself died in 2010, but his words could have been written after the Brexit vote. Europe remains a very untidy story, unsettled and full of questions.

When the European Union was hammering out its constitution a dozen years ago, there was considerable discussion about the status of Europe’s Christian heritage in a secular and pluralistic age. Of course, a return to a “Christendom” was neither possible nor desirable, but Scottish theologian David Jasper suggests that the noblest aims of the European Union could trace their roots to the (often neglected) Christian understanding of self-giving love rather than authoritarian power as the divine principle at the heart of reality.

A political life governed by love rather than naked power, he argues, would be “voluntary, willed, and deliberate, a working through of our diversities in totally conscious acts of friendship pursued in love and charity with our neighbors.”[ii] It would build bridges instead of walls.

It remains to be seen which kind of story will prevail, not only in Europe and the UK, but in the United States as well, where many “longstanding assumptions” about social harmony and progress have been cast into doubt by the disturbing resurgence of nativism, bigotry and racism.

image

I took this photo on the Seattle-Bainbridge ferry on June 24. The Brexit vote had been announced the night before, on “Midsummer Night,” when, in olden times, mischievous spirits were said to be abroad, and bonfires were lit on British hilltops to aid the sun in its long decline toward winter.

I am not qualified to judge how much mischief and decline can be attributed to the Brexit vote, but the uncertainties of which Judt had written were much on my mind when I happened to see this rainbow, a biblical sign of promise. I snapped the photo on the fly without really composing it, but then I began to see things in it..

The woman seems representative of America as a land of immigrants. She contemplates her own image, like Venus with her mirror. Who am I? How did I get here? She is framing herself against the rainbow. She herself is part of the American rainbow. Is she surprised by what her screen is showing her? Does she register delight at existing in a world of rainbows? Will she turn to see the rainbow itself and not its image only?

We can’t see the face of the young man in the hoodie. He is a mysterious blank, the stranger from God knows where, a veiled presence destabilizing the scene with some unspoken question. His head is turned toward the rainbow, but his hands remain in his pockets. They are not extended in wonder or blessing. His thoughts and feelings are opaque to us. He is shut within the monastery of his dark clothing. Does he see promise in the sky? Is he sad, lonely, aloof, indifferent? Is he experiencing prayerful or poetic rapture?

We could compose a multitude of narratives about these two voyagers, but the only thing we know for sure is that they sail together on the same ark, and though the horizon seems dark, the shadows are illumined with the biblical sign of promise. This boat’s bound for glory, even if rough seas lie ahead.

Last night, at the Oregon Bach Festival, I heard the world premiere of A European Requiem, by Scottish composer James MacMillan. It is an astonishing work of complex sonorities, dramatic colors, and exquisite textures. Although it was composed before Brexit, its title and theme feel particularly resonant now. Do we live in a time of requiem or rebirth?

I was particularly struck by the work’s sublimity, that unnerving blend of fear and wonder generated in the presence of transcendent, overpowering mysteries. MacMillan seemed to suggest that the passage into whatever lies beyond our old familiar life is not altogether smooth and blissful. Hammering percussion and dissonant brass were anything but “rest eternal.” First the soul must be buffeted and broken open as the abyss of nonbeing widening before it. Only then can it hear the consoling chorus welcoming it into paradise.

But while MacMillan’s music allowed us to hear rapturous echoes from the “other side,” it did not take us across the divide. Instead, it concluded with the solemn sounds of the death bed. High, raspy strings whispered the last few breaths of mortal life. And after that, only the slow heartbeat of a bass drum, fading into silence.

Had the Requiem’s heavenly elements been merely a beautiful illusion, destined to vanish with every mortal thing? Or can we put our trust in something beyond the processes of dissolution and ending? Whether we are considering the fate of the world or the fate of the soul, it’s the question on which all else depends.

 

+

 

On a lighter note, you can find my new photo essay on the spirituality of summer here.

 

[i] Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York: The Penguin Press, 2005), 1-2

[ii] David Jasper, The Sacred Community: Art, Sacrament, and the People of God (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2012), 127