No time for words this week, only images. I’ve been editing the parish Christmas pageant as well as our Christmas Eve liturgy stream. With COVID cautions in place, I sent a shot list to the parents, who sent me back wonderful clips of their little angels, shepherds and Holy Family, all shot in their bubbles as if interacting with characters who weren’t there. The joy and beauty they brought to the Nativity story has been a great Christmas gift to me in this strangest of Christmastides, and I pass it on to you. Merry Christmas, dear reader! May this holy season take you ever deeper into the Mystery of God-with-us.
This is the third in a series on the canonical hours, the ancient Christian practice for living a mindful day. The first, “Reclaiming My Time,” gives a general introduction, with a list of helpful resources for your own practice of prayer and meditation. This third reflection concerns Lauds and Prime, the hours when day begins.
From dust I rise,
And out of nothing now awake,
These brighter Regions which salute mine Eys,
A Gift from God I take.
The Earth, the Seas, the Light, the Day, the Skies,
The Sun and Stars are mine; if those I prize …
Into this Eden, so divine and fair,
So wide and bright, I come His Son and Heir.
— Thomas Traherne [i]
New every morning is the love
our wakening and uprising prove;
through sleep and darkness safely brought,
restored to life and power and thought.
— John Keble [ii]
Do you believe in miracles? There is at least one every day: God says, “Let there be light!” And behold, night and nothingness flee away; the visible world appears miraculously before our eyes. We may sleep through this miracle, forget to notice, or take it for granted. But every morning is like the first morning of the world—a divine gift to be honored with astonishment, delight, gratitude and praise.
The victory of light over darkness is one of the most ancient and natural religious tropes. For mortal beings, whose temporal span is a long day’s journey into night, the recurring dawn is a sign of unconquerable life. “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light,” says the prophet Isaiah, finding the narrative of salvation in dawn’s daily parable. The Song of Zechariah, whose son, John the Baptist, would herald the true Light of the world, elaborates this image at every Morning Prayer:
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1: 78-79)
It’s a shame that most of us see many more dusks than dawns in the course of our life. Might we be more joyful people if we devoted greater attention to the daybreak hour? Even early risers may succumb too quickly to their tasks, duties and worries to greet the dawn with attentive stillness.
“The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you,” says Rumi. “Don’t go back to sleep.”[iii] The medieval Sufi mystic counsels us to cherish the liminal hush between night and day, sleep and waking, when the mind still drifts in tranquility. “Take the first moments when emerging from sleep to be still,” says Elizabeth Yates in her Book of Hours, “to let waking come gently, to cherish the thoughts that are hovering, to let the idea that may soon need to be acted upon gather fullness.”[iv]
Whatever your work may be, whatever your schedule demands, find a way to spend contemplative time with the dawn—if not daily, then weekly. The birth of the day is a great and mighty wonder, not to be missed. As Thomas Merton suggests, “the most wonderful moment of the day is that when creation in its innocence asks permission to ‘be’ once again, as it did on the first morning that ever was.”[v]
In the daybreak liturgy of Lauds—the term means “praises”—the opening sentence breaks the night’s Great Silence with an invocation: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise” (Psalm 51:15). Begin your day not with coffee or screens, but with praise, and notice the difference! Some of us may be reluctant risers, but daybreak is no time for slumber. It’s too beautiful and holy to miss. “Rise and shine,” says the prophet, “for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you (Isaiah 60:1). The Psalmist responds with gusto: “Wake up, my soul; awake, O instruments of joy; I myself will waken the dawn (Psalm 57:8). Sing the day into being!—it’s a lovely practice. Try it sometime on a mountain summit, lakeshore, or back porch.
When I was a chaplain for teenage backpacking camps in California’s High Sierra, our venerable leader, Joe Golowka, was always the first one up. The rest of us, still snug in our bags, tried to postpone the shock of cold mountain air, but Joe would wander among us like a biblical watchman. “Don’t miss this beautiful dawn!” he’d say, echoing the Psalmist: This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it (Psalm 118:24).
There are many beautiful hymns and prayers for the observance of Lauds, but a measure of wordless attention is also required. If we can simply listen without thought, the silent dawn will speak to us, as it did to Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“I see the spectacle of morning from the hilltop over against my house, from daybreak to sunrise, with emotions which an angel might share. The long slender bars of cloud float like fishes in the sea of crimson light. From the earth, as a shore, I look out into that silent sea. I seem to partake in its rapid transformations: the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind.”[vi]
In Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day, Benedictine Macrina Wiederkehr praises the dawn as an hour of healing and renewal.
Moment before dawn
quietest of all quiet moments,
good medicine for the soul,
make plans to be there.
Set the clock of your heart,
breathe in the rays of dawn,
raise high the chalice of your life,
taste the joy of being awake. [vii]
Wiederkehr’s eucharistic image is apt. Taste and see. Dawn is indeed a sacramental hour. A hymn sung by Camaldolese monks imagines it as a baptism of light:
Dawn’s radiance washes over earth;
refreshed and rested from the night
the world is rinsed baptismally
as all are bathed anew in light. [viii]
Not only is the natural world “rinsed baptismally” each new day; so, to some degree, are we. “I dwell in possibility,” says Emily Dickinson, “spreading wide my narrow / Hands — / to gather Paradise.[ix]
However many past projects, burdens, and sorrows we drag with us into the present moment, the new morning is an invitation to set them down and “dwell in possibility,” receiving the gift of “now” as a fresh opportunity, an empty canvas, like Eden before the Fall. As John Muir learned from spending countless dawns in the roofless wild, we can breathe the air of Paradise in nature’s daily Lauds:
“I used to envy the father of our race, dwelling as he did in contact with the new-made fields and plants of Eden; but I do so no more, because I have discovered that I also live in ‘creation’s dawn.’ The morning stars still sing together, and the world, not yet half made, becomes more beautiful every day.” [x]
The new day not only reenacts the creation of everything. It is also a drama of resurrection: we rise from the “death” of sleep, startled by the return of our conscious self from the night’s oblivion. “Rise, heart; thy Lord is risen,” says the priestly poet George Herbert. For every day, when truly perceived and welcomed, is the day of resurrection:
Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever. [xi]
However, rolling out of bed can become so habitual that we forget the wonder of it, forget the miraculous givenness of our existence. Sometimes a dramatic reminder may be necessary. Forty-nine years later, I still can feel the utter joy and relief of seeing one particular sunrise in the Smoky Mountains. Having just endured a terrifying night of lightning on an exposed summit, I felt delivered into newness of life. And who has not experienced equivalent inner dawns, when “the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.”[xii] One of Charles Wesley’s morning hymns employs the physical sensations of sunrise to convey the spiritual gifts we are offered with each new day:
Dark and cheerless is the morn unaccompanied by thee;
joyless is the day’s return, till thy mercy’s beams I see,
till they inward light impart, glad my eyes, and warm my heart.
In Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life, a quartet of allegorical paintings, “Childhood” is imbued with morning spirituality. The Adamic child, newborn and joyful, emerges from a dark cave into the roseate dawn of a happy world. A protective angel holds the tiller of the child’s golden boat as it drifts down the stream of time. As Cole reminds us in the quartet’s later paintings, troubled waters lie ahead in every voyage, but though Paradise be lost, it may yet be regained every time we greet a new day with thanks and praise. In the words of Kathryn Galloway’s morning hymn:
We receive God’s graceful moment
While the day is fresh and still,
Ours to choose how we will greet it,
Ours to make it what we will.
Here is given perfect freedom,
Every hope in love to fill. [xiii]
Prime (after sunrise)
The trivial round, the common task,
will furnish all we ought to ask;
room to deny ourselves; a road
to bring us daily nearer God.
— John Keble [xiv]
Prime, the “first” portion of daylight following sunrise, is the period of transition from contemplation and praise into the onward flow of the day’s tasks and needs. In the monastic tradition, it is when work assignments are distributed, and the community asks a blessing upon their labors. Sounds begin to punctuate the silence: footsteps, voices, the opening of doors. Before things get too busy or muddled in my own working hours, can I pause for one minute—or twenty—to pray the day’s questions? What is this day for? What is being asked of me? What might I do better? Whom can I serve? How can I love? What can I change? Will I entertain angels unaware? Will I pause to notice a burning bush? Can I spend this day wholeheartedly receptive to the fullness of time?
The daily office for morning in the Book of Common Prayer expresses Prime’s focus on the day before us:
We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight.
So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you.
Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that, having done your will with cheerfulness during the day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks.[xv]
This last prayer is my favorite, and I say it every day. It assumes that we are capable agents, that we can be shaped by divine intention, that this day holds immense potential for us. We may not make it to nightfall without lapses major and minor. The cheerfulness may fail us more than once. We know this. Perfection is a process, not a possession. But to begin each day by offering it to sacred purpose—the Divine acting in us and through us—this is the energizing spirit of Prime.
Lord, I my vows to thee renew;
disperse my sins as morning dew;
guard my first springs of thought and will,
and with thyself my spirit fill. [xvi]
The video of “Bright morning stars are rising,” a traditional Appalachian spiritual first recorded in the field by Alan and Elizabeth Lomax, is sung by the author, accompanied by his photographs: Mt.Rainier seen from an airplane in a late-winter dawn (2015); Holy Saturday dawn on the Camino de Santiago east of Burgos (2014); Summer Solstice sunrise in Puget Sound, Washington (5:26 a.m., June 21, 2015); October sunrise in 2011 from the former site of Mt. Calvary Retreat House in Santa Barbara, an Episcopal monastery tragically destroyed by fire three years earlier; sunrise on the Dordogne River in France, a few days after the Autumn Equinox in 2018.
[i] Graham Dowell, Enjoying the World: The Rediscovery of Thomas Traherne (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1990), 92. Traherne, a 17th-century Anglican poet, priest and theologian, was truly a morning person, naturally disposed to “enjoy” the world with wonder, love and praise.
[ii] John Keble (1792-1866), “New every morning is the love,” Episcopal Hymnal (1982) #10. Keble, one of the founders of the Oxford Movement, was a poet-priest. Many of the poems in his popular collection, The Christian Year, became widely used hymns.
[iii] Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (1207-1273), cited in Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2008), 47.
[iv] Elizabeth Yates, A Book of Hours (Norton, CT: Vineyard Books, 1976), 15.
[v] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, cited in Kathleen Deignan, Thomas Merton: A Book of Hours (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2007), 46. A variation on this lovely image is in Merton’s Turning Toward the World: The Journals of Thomas Merton, vol. 4): “The first chirps of the waking birds—le point vierge of the dawn, a moment of awe and inexpressible innocence, when the Father in silence opens their eyes and they speak to Him, wondering if it is time to ‘be?’ And He tells them ‘Yes.’ Then they one by one wake and begin to sing ….” (The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia, Orbis 2002, p. 363).
[vi] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” (1836), The Annotated Emerson, ed. David Mikics (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012), 48.
[vii] Wiederkehr, 57.
[viii] Hymn #199, Monday Lauds in Camaldolese Monks O.S.B., Lauds and Vespers (1994).
[ix] Emily Dickinson, “I dwell in Possibility” (J657, Fr466).
[x] Cited in Linnie Marsh Wolfe, ed., John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979), 72.
[xi] George Herbert, “Easter,” in Helen Wilcox, ed., The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 139-140.
[xii] Samuel John Stone (1839-1900), “The Church’ one foundation,” Episcopal Hymnal (1982) #525. Stone, a poet-priest in the Church of England, responded to a “night of weeping” in the life of his Church (“by schisms rent asunder”) with 12 hymns inspired by the 12 articles of the Apostles’ Creed. This hymn celebrates article 9: “the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints.”
[xiii] Kathryn Galloway, “God’s Graceful Moment,” Iona Abbey Hymn Book #44.
[xiv] “New every morning is the love,” Episcopal Hymnal (1982) #10.
[xv] Collects for Morning Prayer, The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 100-101. For more on the third collect cited, see my post, “Grace me guide”: https://jimfriedrich.com/2015/03/20/grace-me-guide/
[xvi] Thomas Ken (1637-1711), “Awake my soul,” Episcopal Hymnal (1982) #11. Ken, an Anglican bishop, had a great influence on the development of English hymnody.
Live long enough, and a single word can acquire a multitude of associations. Pick any word in Kenneth Patchen’s poem, for example. What images and narratives does it summon from your memory? What feelings does it unlock? I’ll get us started with the five large words.
Moon: Since the day of my birth, 912 full moons have risen into the evening sky. Whenever I am able and the sky is clear, I find an open view to the east and wait for its appearing. The moon’s predictability has never dulled the thrilling instant when its bright curved edge breaks the horizon. Over the four weeks of waning and waxing that follow, its slow dance of vanishing and renewal attunes us ever so gently to the temporal flow. The diurnal sequence of sunrise and sunset seems rushed in comparison.
I’ve had my eye on the moon since I was old enough to notice the sky. I remember specific moons the way one remembers luminous conversations: the Wyoming moon sparkling the fresh powder in a midnight ski run down Teton Pass; the Minnesota moon rising beyond the Mississippi River as we warm ourselves by a driftwood fire; the Florida moon shining down on the circus tent where 400 Episcopal collegians celebrate Epiphany all night till dawn; the Los Angeles moon traversing the sky behind a 7-hour performance of Indonesian shadow puppets; the glowing tip of a rising crescent climaxing a night of falling stars in the High Sierra; the lunar eclipse stunning three priests with wonder on a Northwest beach; the many moons lighting the way on mountain trails and desert dunes; and last year’s spectacular birthday moon, rising on the 50th anniversary of humanity’s first trip to the lunar surface.
When the full moon first appears, silence is best. It resembles the host of the Blessed Sacrament, a white disc lifted up before our contemplative eyes. The only words I can specifically recall from a moonrise were spoken by an American woman on the Scottish isle of Iona. “You know,” she said, “I’m 55 years old, and I’ve never seen the moonrise before.”
Sun: The sun is a perennial symbol of life-giving energy and joyful radiance. And while climate change has certainly complicated both its literal and metaphorical meanings, we still welcome its warmth and light after a freezing night or a long winter, we still feel uplifted by its brilliance after a dreary stretch of sunless days. Even as we address the growing imbalance in our weather and our seasons, we remember to treasure in every moment the blessings we struggle to preserve.
A benevolent sun still has the power to cheer us, and the rhythms of night and day remain foundational for an embodied and temporal spirituality. Embrace each morning as the gift of creation’s new-made world, make each evening a vesper song of thanks. And in between, let us live as children of the light. Love whatever is good and beautiful and true, and work to transform whatever is not.
Sunlight, like our own breath, is easy to take for granted. Without it, life would be impossible. Even when night comes and goes, the transitions are gradual enough to ease the shock of the sun’s disappearance. We never experience the sun being abruptly switched off, except during a total eclipse. Watching the sun become a black disc, which can be viewed with the naked eye, is pure wonder, one of this world’s most unforgettable experiences. But the sudden disappearance of light from earth and sky is eerie and unsettling—so sudden, so absolute, like an apocalypse. Its return is equally swift, like the first moment of creation: Let there be light.
I shot this video clip of an Oregon landscape during the 2017 solar eclipse. I was gazing directly at the sun, of course, but the camera recorded what was happening on the earth. The shot is in real time. It only takes about 30 seconds for the darkness to vanish.
Sleep: In 1979, after several days of sleep deprivation, I grabbed a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to New York to visit my brilliant friend Bob Sealy, a critical mentor to me in cinema, theater, the art of conversation, and all things New York. I arrived in Manhattan around 8 a.m., utterly exhausted. Bob was busy with revisions of his new play at Café La MaMa, and had arranged a place for me to nap while he worked––a windowless storage room in a seedy building reminiscent of Forties film noir. I stretched out on a dingy couch. When Bob closed the door I was left in total darkness, and soon fell into a dreamless sleep.
Hours later, the door swung open, awakening me from the depths of slumber into a confused state of mental fog. The room was still so dark. A faceless silhouette loomed in the doorway. For a moment, I didn’t know where I was, who he was, or what I was doing there. It was a nightmarish scene straight out of Fritz Lang. Then Bob switched on the light and my stupor began to fade. He led me out to the daylight world, the realism of city streets. But I had not entirely quit the darkness. The noirish image of that moment lingers to this day.
“Don’t watch the story,” Bob once told me about the movies. “Watch the image.” The story will go on its way toward a conclusion, but a vivid and suggestive image can detach itself from the plot to call up something deep and enduring in the psyche. Where is that dark room inside me? Who is at the door?
Birds: As we shelter in place until the pandemic passes, our only regular visitors are the birds––robins, goldfinches, juncos, pine siskins, red-winged blackbirds, black-capped chickadees, spotted towhees, red-breasted nuthatches, golden-crowned kinglets, house and purple finches, varied thrushes, cedar waxwings, sparrows, wrens, ring-necked pheasants, and a pair of mallards. More rarely, a bald eagle may perch atop a Douglas-fir, or a blue heron land on the grass.
But the specific bird that came to mind when I first looked at Patchen’s poem was a mountain chickadee in the summer of 1973. While backpacking in California’s Desolation Valley near Lake Tahoe, I had paused to stretch out in a green meadow, leaning back on my elbows with my knees sticking up. I was in no hurry, and had settled into the stillness of reverie when the little bird landed on my right knee. It perched there calmly for some time. I like to think it was being sociable, signaling across the gulf between species the underlying kinship of all created beings. Perhaps it just mistook me for a log. But I have never forgotten our brief communion.
Live: My great-grandfather, John Michael Friedrich, immigrated to Red Wing, Minnesota, in the 1860s. He died young, only 47, and for his male descendants, longevity has been in limited supply. John Michael had two sons, Charles Edward (died at 67) and John Harry (34). Charles Edward had four sons: John (72), Edward (20), my father James (62) and his twin brother Louis (8 months). John had two sons, Jack (50) and Brad (75). I am currently the oldest living male of the line, and today I become the first to reach 76. It is a humbling milestone, and I feel my ancestors cheering me on.
In these latter days, to borrow a line from Blade Runner, I want “the same answers as everybody else: Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got?” But meanwhile, more moons! More suns! More birds! More sleeping and waking! As long as God gives me breath.
And then? For the pilgrim, the road goes ever on and on, in this life and the next.
O Root of Jesse,
coming to flower in Jesus,
who in turn bears fruit
in all who are grafted
into the royal line of God’s family.
Come: let us never be severed
from the roots and branches
that nourish us in every moment.
The “Tree of Jesse,” a frequent motif in Christian art since the 11th century, is Jesus’ family tree, linking him to the Davidic line (Jesse of Bethlehem was David’s father). The genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke span 28 and 43 generations respectively, but the number of figures shown on the tree is usually far less due to spatial constraints.
The prophet Isaiah wrote, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1), and most artists have provided a literal version of that image. The Tree of Jesse thus affirms Jesus’ pedigree as the heir of divine promises given to David, as well as Abraham and others before him.
But the larger meaning of the root and branch image is that Jesus did not come out of nowhere, disconnected from the long course of human history. He was rooted in an ongoing spiritual evolution of humanity since the dawn of consciousness. His appearance, the product of nature and culture as instruments of the Holy Spirit, was the first flowering of creation’s immense journey toward union with its Creator.
The New Testament says that Jesus is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith”
(Hebrews 12:2). In the 20th century, the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin expressed this developmental image in terms of a cosmic evolution: “the presence of something greater than ourselves moving forward within us and in our midst.” We are all destined to be blossoms and fruit on the Jesse Tree.
If we are all truly grafted into the royal line of God’s family, how shall we then live––and grow––accordingly? Let us never be severed from the roots and branches that nourish us in every moment.
This is the third of seven in a daily series on the O Antiphons for the last week of Advent.
I think that art is a wound in a dance with love.
And if the wound and the love are the same size,
they can dance well.
–– Sean Scully
At the 2019 Venice Biennale, “May You Live in Interesting Times,” nearly 200 artists from around the world engage and illumine the human condition and the historical moment in a multitude of creative and challenging ways. By the time you complete a multi-day journey through two large exhibition spaces as well as dozens of installations in churches, palazzos and warehouses throughout Venice, you will have been repeatedly delighted, deepened, bewildered, provoked, amused, annoyed, educated, bored, enriched and inspired.
“Perhaps art can be a kind of guide for how to live and think in ‘interesting times,’” says Biennale curator Ralph Rugoff. “It invites us to consider multiple alternatives and unfamiliar vantage points.” And the meaning of art, he adds, does not reside principally within a given work, but in the conversations which the artist’s intuitions and labors bring into being.
I visited Biennale a couple of weeks ago (it runs from May to November), and found a wealth of imagination, conviction, and––even in these dark and troubled times––beauty and hope.
Lorenzo Quinn’s “Building Bridges” (pictured above), with its six pairs of arms reaching across a watery divide, is a powerful monument to connection and communion in a world obsessed with borders and uncrossable difference. Its immense scale, dominating both the eye and the public space, registers as playful and celebratory rather than gigantically repressive. And with no two hands meeting in the same way, there is union without uniformity.
A contrastingly somber approach to boundaries is an untitled kinetic work by Shilpa Gupta: a residential security gate swings back and forth, slamming into a wall every 30 seconds. Gupta, who lives in Mumbai, uses her art to address the dehumanizing divisions between nations, ethnicities, religions and classes. The wall makes it a gate to nowhere, but over the seven months of the exhibition the wall is gradually being broken down. Is this a metaphor for pointless violence, or the persistent and patient work of liberation?
Gupta’s other installation at Biennale, For, in your tongue, I cannot fit, has rows of metal spikes, each one piercing a piece of paper with the names and words of 100 poets, from the 7th century to our own time, who were imprisoned for their works or their politics. A microphone is suspended above each of these pages, as though waiting for the poets to speak again. These microphones have been turned into speakers, so that we hear a multitude of the silenced voices, filling the dimly lit room with poetic speech and protest.
Some of the texts were anguished, but many of the poets refused to mirror the violence they suffered. “Sing, Tar, sing,” wrote Musefig from his cell in 1937. “How can they forget you once they’ve heard you sing?” Of all the lines I read, my favorite was this by Dennis Brutus (detained 1963): “But somehow tenderness survives.”
In such a damaged social imaginary as ours, art which is unapologetically beautiful and/or spiritual may suffer critical suspicion, but Murielle Argoud’s ravishing canvases offer a persuasive––and deeply moving––reacquaintance with the transcendent. Using an “alchemical” mixture of oil, sand, lava and gold leaf, Argoud strives to convey both the world’s liquid materiality and the hidden depths within it. On her website she describes her art practice as a search for the beginning of everything, an opening of the heart to receive the mystery of the world. In a poem accompanying her Biennale paintings, she says:
Where words cannot touch, the life of colour can
merge with the heart of the beholder. . .
Creating stillness for the song of the painting
to become audible.
Creating stillness for deeper contemplation ––
no wish to analyse or understand. . .
Mario Basner’s haunting photographs of a 19th-century tuberculosis sanatorium, now an abandoned ruin south of Berlin, are infused with his deeply personal response to the spirit of place: “This is a place where people faced life and death, love and loss, hope and despair; it was a structure where people fought for their utter existence.” The elegant beauty of the building reflected a compassionate respect for the dignity and worth of its patients. Their struggle for life was honored by the nobility of the architectural design.
To see that grandeur in decay moves us twice over, not only by memorializing the aspirations and ministrations of a vanished age, but also by imaging temporality so tenderly. The room in the photograph is full of human absence. The floor––littered, wet and muddy––indicates long neglect. Like the pool of water in the middle, the room seems cut off from life. The space is suffused with the pastness of things left behind.
And yet the room is not utterly dead or devoid of beauty. The light from outside is soft and comforting. The watery floor, like the moist and dripping interiors in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, is a richly ambivalent symbol. It can indicate stagnation and decay, as nature begins to erase the structures of human habitation. But it can also be a maternal sign of life-giving power, a source which sustains and nurtures. The triptych of windows resembles a church, with the central bay the chancel and the lone cot the altar. The pool of water, like a baptismal font, suggests purification and rebirth.
The Icelandic artist known as “Shoplifter” (Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir) takes us to a place of pure happiness, a technicolor cave made of synthetic hair. The artist describes the riot of color as “euphoric kinetic synesthesia.” Deeper into the cave, more soothing whites and pastels replace the neon hues to make “a fluffy heavenly nest that cradles you into a sense of serenity and sublime gentle bliss.” You can’t spend time in here without smiling.
Alexander Sokurov’s installation inspired by Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son, was my most powerful Biennale experience. It will be the subject of my next post, so I only mention it in passing here.
Environmental degradation is a recurring subject at Biennale, but Federico Uribe’s Plastic Reef is unique in its whimsical approach, using recycled plastic items to make a playful undersea world.
When you enter the gallery, filled with lighthearted ambient sound, your initial reaction is delight. Then you look more closely, and the irony hits home. The plastic parody of marine life prophesies the potential collapse of the earth’s largest ecosystem. 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the sea every year, and there is now more plastic than plankton in our oceans. The joy with which you entered begins to seep away.
American artist Elizabeth Heyert critiques contradictory (male) gazes of women in her pairing of close-ups of old Marian statues from southern Spain with “bad girl” images from American pop culture. When I showed this particular example to a priest friend, he wondered how the meaning might change if the quote came from the saint instead of the actress.
This hellish imagery from Raoul Rodriguez mimics the genre of Catholic altarpieces, with saints replaced by grotesque figures who worship a swine-like beast hovering above them. The beast’s halo is made of bullets, and his throne is the crushed form of one of its victims. Some of the figures are harming themselves––doing the beast’s work for him––while another takes a selfie of his own agony, unable to envision any alternative. I couldn’t help seeing this horrifying canvas as a portrait of Trump’s America––that evil carnival of absurdity and self-destruction.
Even more disturbing was Daniel Pesta’s video of eight men seated around a table in a deserted factory, their hands and forearms thickly bandaged. They are as still as monks at prayer, inexpressive and wordless, bound together by some secret purpose. Then the man at the head of the table holds one hand over a candle until his bandage bursts into flame. This fire is passed from hand to hand around the table until all their hands have become torches. Finally, they beat their hands on the table, an infernal drum circle, until the flames are at last extinguished.
A group of white men with torches immediately conjures the collective madness of Nazis past and present, but here the hands themselves are the torches. Hands are supreme emblems of individual will––reaching, touching, making, choosing, taking, receiving––but at this table of demonic communion the hands are surrendered to a terrible force which consumes human freedom. Pesta wanted to depict the mindless dynamic of totalitarian societies whose “servility, weakness and desire to allow themselves to be controlled, testifies as to how far a person is prepared to go in pursuit of his own humiliation or self-destruction.”
Had I had enough of hell by now? Not quite. Accompanied by fellow artist/priest Neil Lambert, an English vicar and kindred spirit I first met in a Prague beer hall, I went in search of In Dante Veritas, a multi-media experience of the Inferno by Russian artist Vasily Klyukin. Using sculpture, video, sound, and a wide variety of materials and objects, Klyukin reimagined Dante’s nine circles of hell in terms of environmental collapse amid the chaos of misinformation and malignant desire. Through his vivid presentation of a world gone wrong, he poses the question, “Are we capable of change?”
The installation was said to be in a huge warehouse at the edge of Venice’s old shipyard, the Arsenale. Neil and I made a circuitous journey by boat and on foot (there are few direct routes in labyrinthine Venice), but when we finally reached the entrance to hell, it was locked. We peered through a crack in a curtained window. The vast space was totally empty. Hell had gone out of business. Or moved to a new location.
Abandoning all hope of experiencing Klyukin’s vision, we wandered the byways of Castello, one of the quietest and emptiest parts of Venice, conversing as we went. At one point I was describing to Neil a film I made years ago about a man assigned by a modern-day government to investigate a potential troublemaker named Jesus. As he hears about Jesus from various people whose lives have been touched and changed by him, the investigator becomes intrigued. But before he can ever meet him, Jesus is executed.
Distraught, the investigator goes to the soup kitchen where Mary Magdalene works (we shot this at the Catholic Worker on L.A.’s skid row). “I so wanted to meet Jesus,” he tells her. “You will,” she replies, and takes him to an upper room where Jesus’ friends are sitting around a table sharing bread and wine. The film ends with one of them offering the investigator a piece of bread.
This film was made to create conversation in church settings, but congregations with minimal sacramental life complained that there was no risen Christ at the end. Sacramental churches, on the other hand, embraced the image of the offered bread as a satisfactory sign of the Resurrection.
And at that precise moment in my story, we were passing a little church with a bronze plaque by the door. We stopped to read it: “The Church of Christ the King. Adoration of the Eucharist daily.”
Inside, the Franciscan Sisters of Christ the King had begun their daily adoration of the Blessed Sacrament just minutes before. We had arrived at the right place at exactly the right time. Unable to gain admission into hell, we had stumbled on heaven instead––whether by accident or grace I cannot say. We slipped inside the small church. A dozen nuns in white robes sat in silence before the monstrance displaying the consecrated Host. One of the sisters looked around when we opened the door, casting a stern glance to warn off heedless tourists. When we knelt to pray, she relaxed, returning her attention to the Host.
Earlier that day, we had seen Tintoretto’s great Last Supper painting which flanks the altar of San Giorgio Maggiore. The very air in that painted upper room seems charged with angelic energy and Godly presence, manifesting the infusion of divinity into matter which Christ and his eucharist are all about. Tintoretto’s painting represents the present as well as the past. The world continues to be charged with the grandeur of God, and every eucharist makes this explicit. The Host we adored in that little church of Christ the King was a sure sign of continuing presence, but not exclusively so. For the attentive soul, the signs are everywhere.
But divine presence is elusive, and the social imaginary of our secular age makes it especially difficult to perceive. We can spot hell easily enough, as so much of Biennale attests. Heaven, however, can be harder to find. But spiritual longing, however sublimated or misdirected, remains. And Sean Scully’s “Opulent Ascension,” a temporary installation in the same church as the Tintoretto, expresses that longing perfectly.
Inspired by Jacob’s dream of a ladder to heaven (Genesis 28:12), Scully’s stack of colored slabs rises more than ten meters toward the luminous dome of Palladio’s Renaissance church. Amid the subdued grays and whites of the interior, the miraculous colors exude the vitality of spiritual aspiration, like spring flowers renouncing winter’s drabness. But such faith in a welcoming and obtainable transcendence is not universally shared.
Another Biennale installation, Alexander Bircken’s Eskalation, posits Jacob’s dream as ladders to nowhere. Forty figures, made from calico dipped in black latex, are scattered from floor to ceiling on rungs and rafters. Their collapsed and lifeless forms bear witness to the futility of the ascent.
This solitary figure at the base of one ladder is an indelible image of spiritual death. Its back is turned to the ladder, as if rejecting even the dream of transcendence. The ladder of ascent no longer holds any meaning. It has become illegible. The figure slumps into despair. No, not even that. Despair requires hope, a memory of paradise lost. Here we have sunk deeper than despair, into the abyss––absent all traces of desire.
Let us counter this bleak image with Scully’s Opulent Ascension. Does this juxtaposition set before us a strictly binary choice between utterly separate narratives, or is the human condition more complicated than that? Scully says that art is a wound in a dance with love. So, perhaps, is life.
I’ve written more about Advent than any other season of the Christian year. It’s like a Mahler symphony, densely packed with vivid contrasts, complex themes, cosmic grandeur, dark abysses and sublime radiance. It begins with the cymbal crash of an exploding world, and concludes with the tender adagio of a baby’s first breaths. Advent haunts our complacency, stirs our longing, and lights a brave candle in the dark.
My ten previous Advent posts, divided into the categories of theology, worship and practice, can be linked directly from last year’s summary compilation, “How long? Not long!––The Advent Collection.” Whether you love the season as I do, or are wondering what it’s all about, I hope you will find in those ten posts some words to connect with your own journey toward the dawn.
Meanwhile, here is something new: a set of intercessions I composed for this year’s Advent liturgies at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church on Bainbridge Island, the local parish where my wife Karen Haig is the rector. You may recognize specific borrowings from tradition, such as the ancient O Antiphons or the Book of Common Prayer, but it all comes from a lifetime of Advents, soaking up the language and embracing the themes of this transformative season.
I offer these prayers for both liturgical and private use. And if they prompt you to explore your own devotional language of longing and hope, so much the better.
Intercessory Prayers for Advent:
God of many names, God beyond all names; the beginning and the end of every story, the meaning of every life; infinite Mystery both hidden and revealed:
Hear us when we pray to You.
Blessed are You who join us together in the communion of Christ’s Body. Renew and energize your holy Church, in this parish and throughout the world, that we may be a resurrection people, manifesting your steadfast love in our common life of praise and service.
Hear us when we pray to You.
O perfect Wisdom, direct and rule the hearts of the leaders and shapers of society, raise up prophets of justice and peace, and empower your people for the holy vocation of repairing the world. May we entrust all our labors to the work of Providence.
Hear us when we pray to You.
O Deliverer, You unlock every door and make a way where there is no way. Set free all who are afflicted or distressed in body, mind or spirit. Resurrect their hope, grant them peace and refreshment, and restore their joy.
Hear us when we pray to You.
O compassionate One, hold us in your mercy: heal the sick, mend the broken, protect the vulnerable, shelter the refugee, strengthen the weary, rescue the lost, and give courage to all who struggle.
Hear us when we pray to You.
O Morning Star, bright splendor of the light eternal, illumining all things with your radiance: Come, enlighten all who sit in darkness, and those who dwell in the shadow of violence and death. Grant us your peace, and teach us to live in the dawn of your unfailing promise.
Hear us when we pray to you.
O Lover of souls, when we wander far away, lead us back to You; when we refuse your embrace, do not give up on us; when we forget You, do not forget us.
Hear us when we pray to You.
O Desire of every heart, the answer to every longing: You are the strong force that draws us into the mystery of love divine. Forgive us those things which distract and delay us, and lead us ever deeper into the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Hear us when we pray to You.
God who has come, God who does come, God who is yet to come: Make us an Advent people, ready and alert to welcome and receive You in the stranger’s face, the loving act, the moment of grace, the presence of healing, the birth of possibility, the gift of wonder. Let every heart prepare You room.
Hear us when we pray to You.
O Emmanuel, God-with-us, You show us the face of divinity and reveal the fullness of our humanity. Come: renew your creation, restore us all in Christ, and enable us to become who we are, your faithful and loving people. We pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.
At the beginning of this century, the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago asked me to compile texts of the immigrant experience for a public reading in celebration of America’s rich diversity. In this shameful time of immigration bans and brutal deportations, may these voices remind us of our common origins as strangers and sojourners. In a country beset with what Canadian scholar Henry A. Giroux has called the “violence of organized forgetting,” remembering is a crucial act of resistance.
Sing to me, call me home in languages I do not yet
understand, to childhoods I have not yet experienced,
to loves that have not yet touched me.
Fill me with the details of our lives.
Filling up, emptying out
and diving in.
It is the holy spirit of existence, the flesh, the blood,
the naked truth that will not be covered.
Tell me everything, all the details – flesh, blood, bone.
– Lisa Kahaleole Chang Hall
From Asia, you crossed a bridge of land,
now called the Bering Strait, now swallowed
in water. No human steps to follow,
you slowly found your way on pathless grounds…
Travelers lost in time – walking, chanting, dancing –
tracks on mapless earth, no man-made lines,
no borders. Arriving not in ships, with no supplies,
waving no flags, claiming nothing, naming
no piece of dirt for wealthy lords of earth.
You did not come to own; you came to live.
– Benjamin Alire Sáenz
America is also the nameless foreigner,
the homeless refugee,
the hungry boy begging for a job,
the illiterate immigrant…
All of us, from the first Adams
to the last Filipino,
native born or alien,
educated or illiterate –
We are America!
– Carlos Bulosan
She is the woman hanging from the 13th floor window
in east Chicago…
She sees Lake Michigan lapping at the shores of
herself…She sees other
women hanging from many-floored windows
counting their lives in the palms of their hands
and in the palms of their children’s hands.
She is the woman hanging from the 13th floor window
on the Indian side of town…
crying for the lost beauty of her own life.
– Joy Harjo
I am not any of the faces
you have put on me america
every mask has slipped
i am not any of the names
or sounds you have called me
the tones have nearly
made me deaf
this dark skin, both of us have tried to bleach…
– Safiya Henderson-Holmes
I know now that I once longed to be white.
How? you ask.
Let me tell you the ways.
when I was growing up, people told me
I was dark and I believed my own darkness
in the mirror, in my soul, my own narrow vision.
when I was growing up, my sisters
with fair skin got praised
for their beauty and I fell
further, crushed between high walls.
when I was growing up, I read magazines
and saw blonde movie stars, white skin, sensuous lips,
and to be elevated, to become
a woman, a desirable woman, I began to wear
imaginary pale skin.
when I was growing up, I was proud
of my English, my grammar, my spelling,
fitting into the group of smart children,
smart Chinese children, fitting in,
belonging, getting in line.
– Nellie Wong
These men died with the wrong names,
Na’aim Jazeeny, from the beautiful valley
of Jezzine, died as Nephew Sam,
Sine Hussin died without relatives and
because they cut away his last name
at Ellis Island, there was no way to trace
him back even to Lebanon, and Im’a Brahim
had no other name than mother of Brahim
even my own father lost his, went from
Hussein Hamode Subh’ to Sam Hamod.
There is something lost in the blood,
something lost down to the bone
in these small changes. A man in a
dark blue suit at Ellis Island says, with
tiredness and authority, “You only need two
names in America” and suddenly – as cleanly
as the air, you’ve lost
your name. At first, it’s hardly
even noticeable – and it’s easier, you move
about as an American – but looking back
the loss of your name
cuts away some other part,
something unspeakable is lost.
– Sam Hamod
I am Marilyn Mei Ling Chin…
Of course, the name had been changed
somewhere between Angel Island and the sea,
when my father the paper son
in the late 1950’s
obsessed with some bombshell blonde
transliterated “Mei Ling” to Marilyn…
and there I was, a wayward pink baby,
named after some tragic
white woman, swollen with gin and Nembutal.
– Marilyn Chin
“This is my country,” we sang,
And a few years ago there would have been
A scent of figs in the air, mangoes,
And someone playing the oud along a clear stream.
But now it was “My country ’tis of thee”
And I sang it out with all my heart…
“Land where my fathers died,” I bellowed,
And it was not too hard to imagine
A host of my great uncles and -grandfathers
Stunned from their graves in the Turkish interior
And finding themselves suddenly
On a rock among maize and poultry
And Squanto shaking their hands.
– Gregory Djanikian
If I am a newcomer to your country, why teach me about my ancestors? I need to know about seventeenth-century Puritans in order to make sense of the rebellion I notice everywhere in the American city. Teach me about mad British kings so I will understand the American penchant for iconoclasm. Teach me about cowboys and Indians; I should know that tragedies created the country that will create me.
– Richard Rodriguez
Names will change
faces will change
but not much else
the President will still be white
still speak with forked tongue…
still uphold the laws of dead white men
still dream about big white monuments
and big white memorials
ain’t nothin’ changed
ain’t nothin’ changed at all.
– Lamont B. Steptoe
My dream of America
is like dà bính lòuh
with people of all persuasions and tastes
sitting down around a common pot
chopsticks and basket scoops here and there
some cooking squid and others beef
some tofu and watercress
all in one broth
like a stew that really isn’t
as each one chooses what she wishes to eat
only that the pot and fire are shared
along with the good company
and the sweet soup
spooned out at the end of the meal.
– Wing Tek Lum
we will not be invisible nor silent
as the pilgrims of yesterday continue their war of attrition
forever trying, but never succeeding
in their battle to rid the americas of us
convincing others and ourselves
that we have been assimilated and eliminated,
but we remember who we are
we are the spirit of endurance that lives
in the cities and reservations of north america
and in the barrios and countryside of Nicaragua, Chile
Guatemala, El Salvador
and in all the earth and rivers of the americas.
– Victoria Lena Manyarrows
We are a beautiful people
with African imaginations
full of masks and dances and swelling chants
with African eyes, and noses, and arms,
though we sprawl in gray chains in a place
full of winters, when what we want is sun.
We have been captured,
brothers and sisters. And we labor
to make our getaway, into
the ancient image, into a new
correspondence with ourselves
and our black family.
We need magic
now we need the spells, to raise up
return, destroy, and create. What will be
the sacred words?
– Amiri Baraka
Living on borders, and in margins,
keeping intact one’s shifting and multiple identity and integrity,
is like trying to swim in a new element…
There is an exhilaration in being a participant
in the further evolution of humankind.
– Gloria E. Anzaldúa
We are connected to one another in time and by blood. Each of us is so related, we’re practically the same person living infinite versions of the great human adventure.
– Maxine Hong Kingston
When both of us look backward…we see and are devoted to telling about the lines of people that we see stretching back, breaking, surviving, somehow, somehow, and incredibly, culminating in someone who can tell a story. (Louise Erdrich)
I am a woman who wants to go home but never figured out where it is or why to go there…I have lost the words to chant my bloodline. (Lisa Harris)
We are the sum of all our ancestors. Some speak louder than others but they all remain present, alive in our very blood and bone. (Lisa Kahaleole Chang Hall)
I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews, and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just took off and caught a freight (they say). He’s discussed each year when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness in the clan, he is an empty space. My father’s mother, who is 93, and who keeps the Family Bible with everybody’s birth dates (and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is no place in her Bible for ‘wherabouts unknown.’ (Etheridge Knight)
When the census taker, a woman of African descent…came to my door, I looked into the face of my sister….She did not ask me my racial background but checked off the box next to Black American/African American/Afro-Cuban American/Black African….
I met her eyes and said, “I’m not Black; I’m Other, Mixed, Black and White.” …She did not smile, smirk, or frown, but checked the box marked “Other,” and lifted her eyes quickly to mine again. I wanted to see her erase “Black.” She did not do so in my presence….
I had been focused on my personal freedom, on my right to define who I am, on my responsibility to my sense of self. The dignity of the census taker was not a part of my mental equation…
She thanked me. But the price of my self-definition had been the wall I felt I’d built between us before I ever closed the door. (Sarah Willie)
I am not African. Africa is in me, but I cannot return…I am not european. Europe lives in me, but I have no home there. I am new. History made me….I was born at the crossroads and I am whole. (Sarah Willie)
Auntie Raylene, an accomplished chanter and dancer, told us about the necessity of remembering and honoring where we come from….During the question-and-answer session, a worried West African immigrant brother asked her, “But…what if our parents and grandparents refuse to tell us anything? They don’t want to talk about the old days. They are afraid. Or they don’t remember.”
She looked at him with great love and said, “Then you go back further, to the source,” and her hand swept back with assurance to the beginning of time, to the birth of life.
– Lisa Kahaleole Chang Hall
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth….
Remember that you are all people and that all people are you.
Remember that you are this universe
and that this universe is you.
Remember that all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember that language comes from this.
Remember the dance that language is, that life is.
– Joy Harjo
Related post: Remember
We the People art images are available here as free downloads. The texts are drawn from several wonderful collections: UA:Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry , ed. Maria Mazziotti Gillan & Jennifer Gillan (Penguin,1994)… N: Names We Call Home: Autobiography on Racial Identity, eds. Becky Thompson, Sangeeta Tyagi (Routledge, 1995) … and another anthology which has vanished from my library and my memory, though I have traced original sources for most of its selections. In order: Hall (N 241), Sáenz (Calendar of Dust), Bulosan (http://bulosan.org/in-his-words), Harjo (UA 29-30), Henderson-Holmes (UA 60), Wong (UA 55), Hamod (UA130), Chin (UA 134), Djanikian (UA 215), Rodriguez (source unknown), Steptoe (UA 250), Lum (UA 322-23), Manyarrows (UA 330), Baraka (UA 155), Anzaldúa (Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza), Kingston & Erdrich (third anthology), Harris (N xv), Hall (N 241ff.), Knight (The Essential Etheridge Knight), Willie (N 276, 278), Hall (241ff.), Harjo (She Had Some Horses)
Where once Thy churches prayed and sang
Thy foes profanely rage…
– The Sacred Harp
In the year 390 the populace of Thessalonica rose up in revolt against the local Roman authorities to protest the arrest of a popular charioteer. The Roman emperor Theodosius, known for his thin skin and quick temper, was swift to respond. He sent a letter ordering troops to punish the inhabitants, which they did by means of a terrible ruse. They invited the whole town to attend a special sporting event. Once the stadium was packed, the soldiers locked the exits and slaughtered the entire crowd. The notoriously erratic Theodosius, meanwhile, had cooled off and changed his mind, sending another letter to contradict his original order, but it was too late. Seven thousand Thessalonicans were already dead.
Bishop Ambrose of Milan, where the emperor had his official residence, condemned the massacre, refusing to say mass in the presence of Theodosius until he repented his crime. Van Dyck’s painting (above) depicts the bishop barring the emperor from entering the cathedral. It was an unprecedented example of the Church speaking truth to power. The bishop explained his position in writing:
“What could I do? Should I not hear?… Should I remain silent? But then the worst thing would happen as my conscience would be bound and my words taken away. And where would they be then? When a priest does not talk to a sinner, then the sinner will die in his sin, and the priest will be guilty because he failed to correct him.”
Sadly, there will be no bishop to bar the Father of Lies and his minions from the National Cathedral in Washington this Saturday. The inaugural prayer service, a tradition since FDR’s inauguration in 1933, will go on as usual despite fierce protests from the many Episcopalians who regard such normalization of the president-elect to be at best a foolish mistake and at worst a desecration of sacred space.
The diocesan bishop, Mariann Budde, has cited two “spiritual principles” to justify the cathedral’s decision. The first is inclusiveness: Episcopal churches, she says, “welcome all people into our house of prayer.” She is aware that Trump is not a model citizen. “Welcoming does not mean condoning offensive speech or behavior; it does not mean we agree with or seek to legitimize.” But I think she fails to acknowledge the critical difference between opening our doors to notorious sinners and letting them dictate the content and flavor of our worship.
Bishop Budde’s second principle is that “in times of national division, the Episcopal Church is called to be a place where those who disagree can gather for prayer and learning and to work for the good of all.” This reflects the noble Anglican ideal of church as family. We may not always agree or get along, but we don’t stop gathering or trying to love each other anyway. We recognize truth not as the fixed possession of a single faction, but the product of a dialectic exchange, where we each contribute our incomplete perspectives to a process of mutual listening and collective discernment. This process is ongoing and never finished.
But a commitment to communal harmony has its price. At the time of the Civil War, the Episcopal Church maintained its structural unity by declining to make an official condemnation of slavery. As a result, it was spared the North-South splits of other denominations. While many individual preachers, parishes and dioceses spoke out against slavery, the church at a national level remained silent on the gravest moral crisis of the 19th century, lest they endanger the principle of welcoming all people.
The Bishop of Washington hopes that the inaugural prayer service will, at a time of intense national conflict, “offer a few moments of spiritual solace and the healing gift of transcendent beauty.” As a priest, liturgist and artist, I am a great believer in the value and necessity of providing sacred space and time, where sin and strife are hushed and we may encounter the world of God, not only in our minds and hearts but also with our senses. However, that should not mean losing touch with the imperatives of justice and love. Worship isn’t just to soothe and bless. It must also challenge, unsettle and transform.
As I understand it, the inaugural service will do none of these things. Preaching (always a risk) has been forbidden by Trump’s people, who are tightly controlling the whole order of “worship.” Judging from everything the president-elect has said and done over the years, we may expect no prayers of repentance for racism, misogyny, or xenophobia, or petitions that God may frustrate the designs of evil tyrants. Trump is no more submitting to the norms of Christian worship than he is to the norms of our democracy. He is essentially renting the spectacular Gothic edifice to bathe his authoritarian persona in a faux-religious glow. To allow such a charade threatens the integrity of the cathedral’s essential mission while abetting the fascist tendencies of Trumpworld. All glory be to the Leader.
At least one member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has bravely refused to sing at the inauguration. “It would be like throwing roses to Hitler,” she says. The National Cathedral choir, however, has agreed to participate. As the cathedral dean explains, “We do not pray or sing to bless a political ideology or partisan agenda…We sing to honor the nation.” But is it really the church’s business to honor the nation?
Despite our roots in the Church of England, the Episcopal Church is not a state church. It is time to shed all pretensions of being an indispensable cornerstone of civil religion. Our job is not to bless the status quo or national interests, but to proclaim and embody the gospel. Instead of praying for the president as if the soon-to-be-degraded office earns him any special attention, let us pray for everyone in the world who wields power, that they may do no harm and nurture the common good. Let us pray not just for the leaders of the nations and economies of the world, but for the prophets who speak to power and the activists who work for change. Less elitism, more democracy in our prayer life. Less nationalism, more globalism as well. Such an expanded range of attention retains the Anglican commitment to engage public affairs rather than flee them, while rejecting the fiction of American exceptionalism.
Concurrent with the controversy over the inaugural prayer service is a lively debate over prayers for the president at any public worship. Are we praying for the man, the office, or good governance? For those of us who may be his victims, are we praying for an enemy? If so, what is the aim of such prayer? And if we mention him by name, do we risk polluting worship with a rush of negative associations?
All this bears close consideration, but it is not really pertinent to the question of whether the National Cathedral should host the inaugural prayer service, to which the answer should be an unequivocal no. It is one thing to pray for our enemies. It is quite another to let them dictate what happens within our sacred spaces. Bishop Ambrose regrets that he cannot attend on Saturday. Is there anyone who will take his place at the cathedral door?
Now welcome, Summer, with thy sunne soft …
That hast this winter’s weather overshake
And driven away the longe nightes black.
A few minutes ago, eight of us stood in the middle of a labyrinth outside an Episcopal church to sing these lines from Chaucer at the moment of Summer Solstice, 9:39 Pacific Daylight Time. It was not part of the Sunday liturgy, just one of my personal rituals to welcome my favorite season, and I found a few willing recruits to join in. Another of my Solstice rituals is to read Wallace Steven’s “Credences of Summer,” an eloquent tribute to the longest day when “spring’s infuriations are over,” summer mind enjoys a refuge from time’s flow and “the roses are heavy with a weight / Of fragrance and the mind lays by its trouble.”
With Charleston, climate change and endless war, not to mention the relentless pressures of a 24/7 culture, how do we lay by our troubles for a season, a day or even a moment? Adam Gopnik, in an old New Yorker essay, dismissed the idyllic summer images of unhurried pleasure as a national mythology. “We make up in symbolism what we lack in spare time. Summer in America is another place, to be dreamed of rather than remembered … Summer is about longing for summer.”
So is summer – or even the idea of summer – under threat of extinction? Or can we preserve and nurture a summer mind, a summer practice in ways both large and small? Can we take time to savor the gifts of the moment, kissing the joy as it flies? Can we give all our attention, now and then, to the “eternal foliage” of being?
It’s like prayer and meditation. Make time for it, and the quality of everything else is transformed. And what Rabbi Abraham Heschel said of the Sabbath applies equally to summer:
To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence from external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow human beings and the forces of nature – is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for human progress than the Sabbath?
On the shore of Minnesota’s Lake Pepin, where my father enjoyed many mythological summers in his youth, the Friedrichs who live there now fly a flag from May to September. Its motto reads: “Doing nothing is always an option.” Can I hear an ‘Amen?’
May your summer days, your summer moments, your summer places be many. May you and your people sustain a golden habitat for this glorious season.
And in these first hours of summer, what better invocation than James Wright’s poem, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”:
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
Tomorrow I take a trail into the Beartooth Mountains, just north of Yellowstone, for a 6 day backpack, so my blog will be silent for a little while. Meanwhile, here is what I know about the high country, in the words of one of my favorite saints:
Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest ! Days in whose light every- thing seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day ; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.” – My First Summer in the Sierra”, John Muir (1911)