“Seek ye first”—Scenes from the Camino de Santiago

A 500 mile pilgrimage led me to the Cathedral of Santiago (May 11, 2014).

Today is the Feast of St. James, whose tomb in Galicia has drawn countless pilgrims to trek across Spain for 13 centuries. I walked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago in 2014, and this blog began with my dispatches along the way. It was, as every pilgrim will tell you, an indelible experience, and you can read about my own journey in the links below.

It took me 33 days, averaging 15 miles a day, but now you can do it in about 2 minutes.

For tomorrow’s segment of the virtual liturgy streaming on Sundays from our parish during lockdown, I combined images (in sequential order) from my Camino with a pre-COVID  recording of the parish choir singing “Seek Ye First.” It seemed a fitting way to honor the saint on his feast day.

The pilgrimage begins with a rainy day in the French Pyrenees, and ends inside the Santiago cathedral with the spectacular censing at the daily “Pilgrims’ Mass.”

Buen Camino!

 

Blog posts from the Camino de Santiago

The First Day (April 8)

Pamplona (April 10)

Cherish Every Step (April 11)

Palm Sunday (April 13)

Semana Santa (April 14)

Small Steps (April 15)

Jesus’ Bakery (April 17)

Christ is Risen! (April 20)

Hospital for the Soul (April 24)

By the Numbers (April 25)

Walking (April 29)

The Third Phase (May 1)

A Mountain Day (May 2)

The Movement of Hearts and Souls (May 7)

Surrender (May 9)

Songs to Sing and Tales to Tell (May 10)

Arrival (May 11)

The End of the World (May 15)

 

Words and Memories: Recollections on My Birthday

Kenneth Patchen, “Moon, Sun, Sleep, Birds, Live.”

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.

Full moon rising on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch (July 16, 2019).

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.

The most recent full moon rises over Puget Sound on the Fourth of July.

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.”

The sun sets over “the edge of the world” at Finisterre, the western terminus of the Camino de Santiago.

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.

Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang, 1944)

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?

A goldfinch in our peach tree. They arrive at Easter and depart in the fall.

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.

A blue heron drops in for a visit.

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.

The author at the family plot in Red Wing, Minnesota (June 2006).

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.

The road goes ever on and on … (Camino de Santiago, Galicia, 2014)

Fourth of July 2020: Last Rites for a Dying America?

The burning of Washington, 1814.

“The country is on fire. It is in flames. We cannot stomp it out.
And the rest of the world is looking on in horror.”

— Chris Hayes [i]

 

I was born between D-Day and the liberation of Paris, and for the first time in my life, the Fourth of July will not be a celebration. Even when our country had gone astray in Vietnam or Iraq, even in the shameful eras of segregation or government-sanctioned torture, it still seemed possible to make ritual remembrance of America’s ideals and renew our collective hope in the better angels of our nature. Not this year.

For 1260 miserable days, we have endured a relentless assault on Constitutional principles and democratic norms by an authoritarian president, with a Congress and political structure either too paralyzed or too corrupt to resist. An unending stream of atrocities has made us so numb that even Trump’s despicable (and treasonous?) betrayal of American soldiers in Afghanistan is not sufficient to force his resignation. But as it turns out, the erosion (and potential demise) of our democracy will be of no concern for hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of U. S. citizens. By the next Fourth of July, they will be dead.

It’s not entirely Trump’s fault. Our healthcare delivery system is not well-suited to the conditions of pandemic. Neither is an economy which forces many workers into close proximity. And then there are those lockdown rebels, defiant to the end: “Give me liberty AND give me death.”

But there’s no denying the conclusion that Trump’s well-documented incompetence, unpreparedness, and criminal neglect have already caused, by some estimates, 60% of the U.S. deaths from COVID-19. As of today, we count 78,000 Americans whose lives were lost because the White House was incapable of a timely and well-managed response.[ii] And it is only getting worse. As we surpassed 50,000 new cases per day on July 1, Trump was still preaching magical thinking: Pretend there’s no problem and it will soon go away.

“How long can we live with this President?” is no longer a figure of speech. For the most vulnerable among us, it has become existential. Is it hyperbole to call Trump a mass murderer? Do the math. Sixteen 9/11s in a single day. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, that could soon double. Thank you, Mr. President.

In a sobering Atlantic article, “The 3 Weeks That Changed Everything,” James Fallows compares the United States to an airplane being flown into a mountain. “At least in an airplane cockpit, the first officer can grab the controls from a captain who is steering the aircraft toward doom.” But our politics don’t work that way. A veteran intelligence official quoted in the article sums up the problem exactly: “Our system has a single point-of-failure: an irrational president.” [iii]

In his classic study, The American Adam [iv], R. W. B. Lewis examines fresh starts and new possibilities as the dominant tropes of American myth-making: a new Eden, the land of the free. This has required the repression of certain facts. North America was not an uninhabited space for the taking. “All men are created equal” was written by a slaveholder. The degree to which these tragic ironies have been balanced by substantial instances of liberation, justice and human flourishing continues to be contested.

But in any case, America identity—e pluribus unum—is a construction of fact and myth, (selective) memory and metaphor, aspiration and ideal. As one scholar puts it, “America has to be thought in order to be lived, but for both to happen, it had to be written.… America was invented, not discovered.”[v] We trace our nation’s birth to a rhetorical scripture, “for the truth of which,” as Thomas Jefferson put it, “we pledge a faith as yet unsullied by falsehood.” [vi]

Independence Day celebrates a radical break from the past, a casting off of the old order for the new. In “Earth’s Holocaust,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fable of revolution written in 1844, a great crowd gathers on a vast prairie to make a bonfire of everything humanity needs to renounce: the trappings and symbols of repressive institutions and economic inequality—all the “outworn trumpery” (!) of the world. The unprecedented scale and duration of the Black Lives Matter protests is a vivid enactment of this trope, evoking America’s most radical premise: We are not bound to our past; we can reinvent the social order.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing institutions, communities, and individuals to reimagine how we live and move and have our being. When the pandemic passes, will we resume the old ways, or insist on something better? In another of his stories, Hawthorne proposed a state of perpetual renewal:

I doubt whether even our public edifices—our capitols, statehouses, courthouses, city-halls and churches—ought to be built of such permanent materials as stone or brick. It were better that they should crumble to ruin once every twenty years or thereabouts, as a hint to people to examine and reform the institutions which they symbolize.[vii]

Whether collective and personal transformation will come through purifying fire or the gentler urgings of wisdom and spirit, it will unmask our illusions and disturb our slumber. As David R. Williams reminds us, the sin of “profound unknowing” cannot endure:

We imagine we are awake and aware of what we are doing, but in fact we are walking in our sleep. We live in a constructed illusion of sounds we call words, and ideas we think we believe, and sights that at least seem to have reality. Most of the time, the illusion holds. But, as Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards warned …, “we walk over the pit of hell as on a rotten covering, and there are places in that covering so rotten that they will not bear our weight, and these places are unseen.” [viii]

So no, not a normal Fourth of July this year. In the worst case scenario, it could be our last, if our democracy continues to implode. As a member of what Emerson called the Party of Hope [ix], I do not foresee that happening. But I do worry that my country is ill-prepared—emotionally or spiritually—for apocalypse of any kind. Even should the sun go out and the moon turn to blood, some will still be shouting, “Fake news!”

In 1957, a ten-year-old Stephen King was watching a movie matinee of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, a sci-fi film about alien invaders from outer space.

“[J]ust when it was reaching the good part, with Washington in flames and the final, cataclysmic interstellar battle about to be joined—the screen suddenly went dead. Well, kids started to clap and hoot, thinking the projectionist made a mistake or the reel had broken, but then, all of a sudden, the theater lights went on at full strength … then the theater manager came striding down the center aisle, looking pale, and he mounted the stage and said, in a trembling voice, ‘I want to tell you that the Russians have put a space satellite into orbit around Earth. They call it Sputnik. … ’ There was a long hushed pause as this crowd of fifties kids in cuffed jeans, with crewcuts or ducktails or ponytails, struggled to absorb all that; and then, suddenly, one voice, near tears but also charged with terrible anger, shrilled through the stunned silence: ‘Oh, go show the movie, you liar!” [x]

 

Related posts:

Fourth of July

July 4th and the Pursuit of Happiness

“Your celebration is a sham” — Independence Day in an Age of Cruelty

 

[i] Chris Hayes, from his MSNBC program, All In with Chris Hayes, July 2, 2020.

[ii] https://trumpdeathclock.com

[iii] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/06/how-white-house-coronavirus-response-went-wrong/613591/?fbclid=IwAR34gDXbfiSeHF-WEnBx5mR-g-sJBkkgskC29rSIY2NH_UdZBBuwgf9RYC0

[iv] R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955)

[v] Geoff Ward, The Writing of America: Literature and Cultural Identity from the Puritans to the Present (Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2002), 17.

[vi] This line from Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence would be deleted by committee, but it expresses the document’s Edenic spirit (“as yet unsullied by falsehood”). Cited in Ward, 28.

[vii] Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables (1850), cited in Lewis, 19.

[viii] David R. Williams, Searching for God in the Sixties (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2010), 204.

[ix] Ralph Waldo Emerson described a duality in American culture as a schism between the Party of Memory (tradition, or reverence for a “sacred” past or origin) and the Party of Hope (dedicated to rebirth and new possibilities). These are not, of course, to be confused with specific political parties, and most of us belong to both (except, perhaps, for members of a third party, the Party of Irony). See the discussion in Lewis, 7.

[x] Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller (eds), Bare Bones: Conversations on Terror with Stephen King (New York: New English Library, 1990), p. 22, cited in Ward, 119.

Time to Welcome Summer (and refuse the darkness)

The author watches the Solstice sunset from Friedrich Point on Lake Pepin, Minnesota.

For 150 years, James Thomson’s The Seasons was one of the most widely read books in the English-speaking world. Its ornate classical style and lack of emotional inwardness fell out of favor in the Romantic era, but it still sits on my shelf along with other great ruminations on the circle of time, like Edwin Way Teale’s quartet of road trips through the American seasons, the “spiritual biographies” of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter compiled by Gary Schmidt and Susan Felch, and the four diminutive volumes of seasonal poetry selected by Robert Atwan.

Essential summer reading.

Thomson’s Summer begins:

From brightening fields of ether fair-disclosed,
Child of the Sun, refulgent Summer comes . . .
Hence let me haste into the mid-wood shade,
Where scarce a sunbeam wanders through the gloom,
And on the dark-green grass, beside the brink
Of haunted stream that by the roots of oak
Rolls o’er the rocky channel, lie at large
And sing the glories of the circling year.

But the poet’s encyclopedic survey of the world beneath the summer sun is not simply an inventory of its pleasures and beauties, for Nature is not uniformly benign. Storms, floods, drought and earthquakes are part of the mix. Et in Arcadia ego. Thomson’s description of a plague (“the great destroyer”) feels ripped from current headlines. Pandemic mutes “the voice of joy,” sickens human communities and empties public spaces. People shelter in place, hoping to escape the “awful rage” of pestilence, as “o’er the prostrate city black Despair / Extends her raven wing.”

The sullen door,
Yet uninfected, on its cautious hinge
Fearing to turn, abhors society:
Dependents, friends, relations, Love himself,
Savaged by woe, forget the tender tie,
The sweet engagement of the feeling heart.

Who among us is not “savaged by woe,” cut off as we are from tender ties and seasonal rituals? But the poet, trusting the Providence “of powers exceeding far his own,” does not leave us there. He envisions the evils of this world subdued within a larger harmony, and even in the time of trial faith knows, impossibly, that all shall be well. “Nature from the storm / Shines out afresh; and through the lightened air / A higher lustre and a clearer calm / Diffusive tremble;  while, as if in sign / Of danger past, a glittering robe of joy, / Set off abundant by the yellow ray, / Invests the fields, yet dropping from distress.”

Summer 2020 does not arrive robed in joy. Tonight’s dark and deadly Trumpist rally in Tulsa, a demonic parody of traditional Summer Solstice affirmations of light and life, seems to augur a summer of darkness. But we must not succumb to the pestilence without­­­­––or the pestilence within. We must live as children of the light, refusing the gloom and resisting the storm. Already, voices are rising across our tormented country, demanding “a higher lustre and a clearer calm.”  And each of us, in ways both great and small, must continue to welcome the light, and to remember our joy.

Enough for us to know that this dark state,
In wayward passions lost and vain pursuits,
This infancy of being, cannot prove
The final issue of the works of God,
By boundless love and perfect wisdom formed,
And ever rising with the rising mind.

 

 

Poetry excerpts are from James Thomson, Summer (1727), part of his quartet, The Seasons (1730).

Black Lives Matter Mural: More Than a Stunt?

When Washington D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser had BLACK LIVES MATTER painted in gigantic yellow letters on 16th Avenue near the White House, America’s racist-in-chief displayed his predictable rage. But the local chapter of the Black Lives Matter Global Network voiced their own objections to the street mural.

“This is a performative distraction from real policy changes,” they tweeted. “Bowser has consistently been on the wrong side of BLMDC history. This is to appease white liberals while ignoring our demands. Black Lives Matter means defund the police.”

I am not familiar with the relationship between the mayor and the activists, and as a white liberal I am hardly qualified to weigh in on the passion or the politics behind that tweet. I am aware that many D.C. residents, longing for concrete change, are calling the mural a meaningless stunt. But as a long-time liturgist, I would argue that symbolic “performance” need not be a substitute for or distraction from social change. Public art can produce transformative effects.

The problem with living within a particular “social imaginary” is that alternative ways of constructing our common life are not just utopian, they are literally inconceivable. Systemic racism, like so many other social ills, has long cast its spell of inevitability. But as events of the last week have shown, the spell can be broken. It may be only for a moment; America may yet resume its slumber. But an alternative future, by showing itself however briefly, can never again be unseen.

“Insurrectionary art” is not a distraction from prophetic vision, but a powerful means of making a new world visible. It does not inhibit concrete change; it anticipates it. The mass protests themselves are performance art, symbolically showing a new social order––where solidarity dances with diversity, and God’s new song breaks open the tombs of death and despair.

Four years ago, in the dark night of post-election depression, I wrote “Insurrectionary Imagination and the Art of Resistance,” citing many creative examples of prophetic art designed to awaken and empower. And I argued that symbolic or ritualized enactments of the “not-yet” are not only useful, but essential:

“In dark times, we can, we must, still live as children of the light—the custodians of hope—enacting rituals and images, as well as daily practices of kindness, solidarity and justice, to express and anticipate the emergent world of divine favor and human flourishing. As for the powers, God laughs them to scorn, and God’s friends, thankfully, are in on the joke.”

This is why I believe that those three words painted on 16th Street––words of revolutionary power pointing like an arrow at the heart of the beast––may now be counted as one of our capital’s greatest monuments––not to past glories and aspirations, but to a better future, cresting like a wave that wants to crash on the shore of the Now.

Words are not just descriptions; they are events. Language and action have been inextricably bound together ever since God spoke the world into being. By speaking, we make the unsaid suddenly conceivable. We begin to “make it so.”

e.e. cummings imagined the world’s creation this way:

when god decided to invent
everything he took one
breath bigger than a circustent
and everything began

The dying world wants to rob us of that breath. It wants us to believe that we can’t breathe something better into existence. But the divine Breath animating all existence cannot be choked. It blows, blasts, breaks forth in words that shatter, contradict, imagine, make new.

And the Word becomes actual, and dwells among us. 

Related posts

Temporary Resurrection Zones

Insurrectionary Imagination and the Art of Resistance

Beautiful Trouble: A How-To Book for Creative Resistance

Beyond Punch and Judy: The Art of Nonviolent Resistance

Come, Holy Spirit

Gerard David, Annunciation (detail), 1506

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the
life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there.

–– St. Macarius

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist––slack they may be––these last strands of man
In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

––– Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

Even in the midst of immense and alarming crises, we remember to celebrate the Holy Spirit, who even now––especially now––broods over “the bent world. . . with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” There is much more to be said, but for now, on this Whit Monday, let me simply share a video prayer I prepared for our parish Pentecost liturgy stream, combining the ancient supplication, Veni Sancte Spiritus (Come, Holy Spirit), with the biblical account (Acts 2:1-11) of a wondrous day when a power beyond all knowing dissolved the boundaries of separation and otherness, and a diverse crowd gathered in the streets experienced a oneness they had deemed impossible.

Easter Wings: An Ascension Homily

All the other Distance
He hath traversed first –
No new mile remaineth –
Far as Paradise –

 His sure foot preceding –
Tender Pioneer –
Base must be the Coward
Dare not venture – now –

 –– Emily Dickinson, “Life is what we make it”

 

“He ascended into heaven. . .” We say this every time we recite the Creed. But what does it mean? Why do we say it, and what are we being asked to believe? Is it an embarrassing myth, a problematic metaphor, or an inexplicable fact? Many Christians would prefer to hurry past the doctrine of the Ascension, as if it were not something we should examine too closely. Nothing to see here, folks, just keep moving.

But maybe wondering what we do with the story isn’t the right question. What we really need to ask is: What is the story going to do with us?  Where does it want to take us? How might it change us?

John Calvin, the great Reformation theologian, called the Ascension “one of the chiefest points of our faith.”[i] Really? Compared to the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Savior’s disappearance into a cloud seems a relatively minor part of the story. How much does it matter for Christian faith and practice?

Let’s begin with three things that the Ascension is not. First of all, it is not the end of Jesus’ presence in the finite and temporal world, the world of human experience. In the sixth-century Ascension hymn by Romanos, the disciples express their anxiety about being abandoned:

Are you leaving us, O Compassionate?
Parting from those who love you?
You speak to us like someone going on a journey. . .
Do not take yourself far away from those who love you. [ii]

We know that feeling. In a secular age, sometimes is seems that all divinity has just up and left this world without a trace. But if the Ascension was the end of one kind of presence, it was the beginning of another. Jesus is still here, but in a different way.

Secondly, the Ascension is not the Incarnation in reverse, as though God was briefly one of us, and now he’s not. A human life is finite, vulnerable, dependent and particular. It’s radically different than being the infinite God of power and might. But when, as the Bible puts it, Jesus ascended to “the right hand of the Father,” he didn’t leave his humanity behind. He took it with him into the heart of God.

Finally, the Ascension is not just about Jesus.
It’s about us as well.
If we are in Christ, then wherever Jesus goes, we go too.

Let’s look at each of these themes more closely. First, the question of presence and absence. The unique particularity of Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century Jewish male who lived and died like one of us, could only be experienced the way every finite existence is experienced: in its own place and time. If it’s here, it can’t be there. If it’s then, it can’t be now. Once Jesus was laid in the tomb, he could no longer be one object alongside all the other objects in the world. That physical walking-around-the-neighborhood Jesus was gone for good.

When Jesus rose from the dead, his identity and presence were no longer bound by the rules of time and space. His risen body could be both here and there. And the reason the resurrection stories lack the chronological realism of the Passion narratives is because they occur outside historical time. Encounters with the risen Christ were not additional chapters in the life and times of the earthly Jesus. They took place outside of history, at the border between our spatiotemporal world and whatever lies beyond it.

If Easter is not a historical narrative following the rules of space and time, then Ascension was not the next thing that happened after the resurrection appearances, because things don’t happen in sequence outside of time. So instead of thinking of the Ascension as another event in time, think of it as another dimension of resurrection. In his Easter appearances, the risen Jesus assured his friends that he would be with them always. In the Ascension, however, he made it clear that his presence would now have to be experienced in new ways and different forms. First there is Jesus. Then there is no Jesus. Then there is.

Ever since the resurrection,
seeing Jesus has required an act of recognition,
a moment in which we ask, “Jesus, it that you?”

Discerning the myriad forms of Christ’s presence is a fundamental practice for God’s friends in these latter days. We find Christ in sacrament and community, prayer and Scripture. We find Christ through forgiveness and reconciliation, compassion and service, justicemaking and peacemaking. Christ meets us in our neighbor and in the stranger; in solitude and solidarity; in church and on the street. Christ hangs on every cross, and returns in every resurrection.

As Jesus said before he left,
“I am with you always, even to the end of time” (Matt. 28:20).

But if Christ now tends to appear incognito, quietly “as One unknown,”[iii] what do we make of the Ascension’s theology of exaltation, celebrating the Christ “whose glory fills the skies?”

Hail the day that sees him rise,
Glorious to his native skies;
Christ, awhile to mortals given,
Enters now the highest heaven. [iv]

Charles Wesley’s familiar hymn is one of many envisioning the enthronement of Christ as the governor of the world. And we all appreciate the theological irony: the humiliated and rejected one turns out to wear the crown. But such a dramatic reversal risks undoing the Incarnation, as though the finite and vulnerable humanity of Jesus were only a temporary thing, given back after Easter like a rented costume. But that’s not what happened. The Incarnate word came to stay.

Yes, divine and human are radically different. Infinite and finite are radically incommensurate. Creator and creature can never be confused. And yet, without God ceasing to be God or Jesus of Nazareth ceasing to be human, heaven and earth have been joined in holy union, never to be put asunder.

The understanding of Christ as the divine Word, the shaping power of love through whom all things are created and sustained in their being, is not a theological footnote. It is key to the story of redemption that our Savior not only has the whole universe at his back, but that his way, the sacrificial way of self-diffusive love, is the very truth of God, and therefore the truth of how things are meant to go in the world which God has made. To be in Christ is to conform to the most fundamental reality, and the Ascension imagery of divine enthronement celebrates this crucial fact. Christ is the way, the truth and the life. Self-diffusive love is the law of the universe.

However, too much of this and we risk highlighting the divine at the expense of the human in the story of Jesus, as if more of one means less of the other. If we fully embrace our humanity, is there less room for God? Or if we are to be more like God, must we diminish or abandon our humanity because it is essentially incapable of receiving and containing divinity?

Jesus answers these two questions with “no” and “no.” In the self-emptying act of becoming flesh, God lost nothing of the divine nature, for the essence of God is love: the ceaseless mutuality of giving and receiving that constitutes the Holy Trinity. As for human beings, whose very existence is dependent upon, and constituted by, the reception of God’s gifts of life and breath and Spirit, our creaturely nature was never more itself than when Jesus managed to receive divine fullness with an open heart.

In other words, God was never more like God than in the act of giving Godself away. And humanity was never more perfectly realized than when Jesus exercised his created capacity to receive that gift in a finite way. Communion with God does not obliterate our humanity. It fulfills it.

Irenaeus, one of the first great theologians, said in the second century that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”[v] And this fullness of creaturely life is attained, he said, not by “a casting away of the flesh, but by the imparting of the Spirit.”[vi] God loves us just the way God made us: finite, vulnerable, embedded in the absorbing and messy narratives  which comprise human be-ing. And what God desires is for us to live into our creaturely capacity to receive every gift, every blessing, and ascend into the divine communion which is our true and lasting home.

And this brings us to my final point. Ascension is not just about Jesus. It’s about us as well. As members of Christ’s body––with Christ and in Christ––we too are being drawn up to dwell in the vivifying presence of the Holy One––to enjoy God forever.

We call Jesus the Word made flesh because he showed, in the language of human flesh and earthly story, how the divine life could be translated into finite form as a life for others. From birth to death, Jesus was pro nobis: for us. And his Ascension was for us as well, to take us heavenward with him. Jesus did not abandon us. He went on ahead, as the “Tender Pioneer,”[vii] to prepare a place where we may join him.

John Calvin explained the Ascension’s shared, collective dimension in this way:

“Christ did not ascend to heaven in a private capacity, to dwell there alone, but rather that it might be the common inheritance of all the godly, and that in this He has also, by the power of the Holy Spirit, made it possible for us to share in the divine presence [viii]. . . . “Ascension follows resurrection: hence if we are members of Christ we must ascend into heaven.” [ix]

If we are members of Christ, we must ascend. This is the pattern of the Christian life: moving Godward. When I walked the Camino de Santiago, pilgrims encouraged one another with a wonderful word for this Godward movement: Ultreia!, which means Beyond! We are all pilgrims to the Beyond. Growth is our vocation. Transformation is our vocation.

But we can only advance with Christ and in Christ. No wings of our own can defy the gravity of our situation. The sins of the world weigh us down––all that heavy baggage that Thomas Merton called “the contagion of [our] own obsessions, aggressiveness, ego-centered ambitions and delusions.”[x] And in a time of pandemic, fear, illness and grief pile on their own crushing load.

Only the rising and ascending Christ can deliver us from so much gravity. Only Christ can give us what Anglican poet-priest George Herbert called “Easter Wings.” In his poem of that name, in which the words on the page are arranged in the shape of angels’ wings, he admits he can only fly “if I imp thy wing on mine.” He borrowed that peculiar term from falconry: to “imp” means “to engraft feathers in a wing to restore or improve its power of flight.”[xi] In other words, if we want to ascend, we need the help of Christ’s own feathers. If we’re going to fly, we need Easter wings.

As Herbert prays,

With thee
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories.

If you’ve ever heard an English lark, ascending high into the sky as it utters its ecstatic song, you will appreciate the charm of Herbert’s metaphor. A century after Herbert, hymnwriter Isaac Watts wrote my favorite Ascension lyric.

Thence he arose, ascended high,
to show our feet the way.
Up to the Lord our souls shall rise,
on the great rising day. [xii]

Of course, heaven is not susceptible to prepositions: “above,” “beyond,” or even “within” do not tell us where heaven is, since anything beyond space and time has no spatial dimension, and therefore no location. Neither heaven nor God are a place on any map. Still, by God’s grace we may discover their nearness even so, and breathe their atmosphere, in both this world and the next.

For physical and directional beings like ourselves, the imagery of ascending into the sky feels true enough. “Seek the things that are above,” St. Paul tells us (Col. 3:1). “Lift up your hearts,” says the priest at every mass. We don’t have to deny astronomy to know what these things mean. We feel the upward pull.

It’s not a matter of leaving creation behind, or shedding our bodies to become immaterial beings. “Behold, I make all things new,” says the Holy One. All things––not just our souls. The whole creation is being drawn higher and higher, further and further, deeper and deeper into God. Let everything that has breath shout “Glory!”

 

Related posts:

Ascension Day: Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

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

 

[i] John Calvin, Commentary on Acts 1:9, cited in Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), K1249 (The Kindle edition has no page numbers, so I use the Kindle location numbers). Canlis’ rich and thoughtful book is a great read, and has increased my appreciation of Calvin immensely. My other invaluable sources for this essay were Christ the Heart of Creation (Rowan Williams, Bloomsbury 2018) and The Word Made Flesh: A Theology of Incarnation (Ian A. McFarland, WJK 2019).

[ii] Romanos, “Kontakion on the Ascension” in Kontakia: On the Life of Christ, trans. by Archimandrite Ephrem Lash (Harper Collins, 1962).

[iii] This phrase is from a famous passage by Albert Schweitzer: “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who He is.”

[iv] Charles Wesley, “Hail the Day That Sees Him Rise” (1739). The prolific 18th century writer composed over 6000 hymns, at least 10 of which are on the Ascension. However, his brother John, who gave some 40,000 sermons, never preached on the topic.

[v] Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 202), Adversus Haereses IV.20.7, cited in Canlis, K2246.

[vi] Adversus Haereses V.8.1, in Canlis, K1960.

[vii] Emily Dickinson, “Life – is what we make it.” I quote the last 2 stanzas in the epigraph.

[viii] Calvin, Commentary on John 14:2, in Canlis K1218.

[ix] Calvin, Commentary on Colossians 3:1, in Canlis K991.

[x] Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action, p. 158, cited in Martin Laird, An Ocean of Light (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 11.

[xi] Helen Wilcox, The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 148 n.19.

[xii] Isaac Watts, “Why do we mourn departing friends” (1707). Set to a shape note tune by Timothy Swan in 1801, it is #163b in The Sacred Harp (Bremen, GA: Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 1991). A powerful version from the 2nd Irish Shape Note Convention (2012) can be heard here: https://youtu.be/7mCFMKNJIAg

 

“Water the earth with the tears of your joy”: An Earth Day Reflection

Marilyn in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Felton, CA, 2016 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

That’s the trouble with people, their root problem. Life runs alongside them, unseen. Right here, right next. Creating the soil. Cycling water. Trading in nutrients. Making weather. Building atmosphere. Feeding and curing and sheltering more kinds of creatures than people know how to count.

A chorus of living wood sings to the woman: If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning.

The pine she leans against says: Listen. There’s something you need to hear.

–– Richard Powers, The Overstory

 

Toward the end of the last century, I sat in a circle of religious environmentalists in a California wilderness. Each of us wore a mask we had made to represent a species or element of the nonhuman world: bear, eagle, butterfly, elephant, whale, mountain, river, redwood, maple leaf, wind, ocean, wetland, desert––some part of Creation which had “chosen” us to speak for them in a Council of All Beings.[i]

We began by describing our particular existences, what it was like to be whatever we were.  Then we shared our worries and our sorrows over the harm being inflicted upon us by the human race. At some point, two volunteers removed their masks, resuming their human identity in order to receive the complaints of their fellow creatures––complaints so often unheard or ignored.

Listen. There’s something you need to hear.
If your mind were only a slightly greener thing,
we’d drown you in meaning. [ii]

The Council spoke its anger as well as its hurt. Afterward, participants in the exercise seemed both surprised and shaken by the surges of fierce emotion in such a playful exercise. It was a foretaste of the Last Judgment: humanity has a lot to answer for. But judgment was not the last word. Before the Council adjourned, each of its nonhuman members was asked to give the humans one of its own attributes to assist them in the healing of a wounded Creation. The mountain gave patience. The butterfly, transformation. The bear, strength. The river, ceaseless flow. The leaf: letting go. Renewed by such generous wisdom, we departed in peace.

On the 50th annual celebration of Earth Day, despite decades of progress in both awareness and behavior, the wellbeing of “all creatures great and small” remains under grave threat. Climate change, mass extinctions, degradations of air, water and soil, destruction of habitats, deforestation, deregulation. . . who can count the ways? And the incapacity of our political and economic systems to respond justly, rapidly, or effectively is disheartening at best, fatal at worst.

In the United States, we can certainly point to the unfettered greed, stupidity, and maliciousness in White House and Senate as deplorable accelerants of environmental conflagration, but the problem goes deeper than the heartless actions of particular villains. Our entire culture has an attitude problem. Or rather, we have lost track of the narrative. We have forgotten what kind of story we are in.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world and all who dwell therein. (Psalm 24:1)

Who believes this anymore? Fewer and fewer. And even the faithful among us find ourselves deeply embedded in the systems and premises of secularity, where nature is not divine creation or sacred web, but an exploitable resource, valued primarily for the usefulness it provides or the pleasure it gives. Drained of its inherent sacredness, it no longer commands reverence. Its value is entirely contingent on human needs and desires.

Erazim Kohák, Czech philosopher and environmentalist, frames this epistemic crisis in the starkest terms:

“If there is no God, then nature is not a creation, lovingly crafted and evolved with purpose and value by its Creator. It can only be a cosmic accident, dead matter contingently propelled by blind force, ordered by efficient causality. In such a context, a moral subject, living his life in terms of value and purpose, would indeed be an anomaly, precariously rising above it in a moment of Promethean defiance only to sink again into the absurdity from which he rose. If God were dead, so would nature be––and humans could be no more than embattled strangers, doomed to defeat, as we have largely convinced ourselves we in fact are.” [iii]

Fifty years ago, the first Earth Day initiated an impressive legacy of awareness and action on behalf of the earth and all that is in it. And I pray that today will be a time of renewal and rededication to the immense labor of protecting, preserving and nurturing the natural world. But our work must not be limited to the scientific, the political and the economic. It must also, I believe, include the spiritual––the recovery of the Sacred in our collective awareness.

Christian ethicist Richard L. Fern has written, “the experience of living in an ‘enchanted world,’ a place of belonging where personal and communal destinies matter all the way down, depends, not surprisingly, on the adoption of a religious point of view.”[iv] But what would that look like? And how might we get there?

I have no idea. Maybe we begin by entering a forest, or sitting by a lake, becoming still enough to listen, letting our mind become “a slightly greener thing.” Perhaps then the earth may whisper its forgotten secret.

Thrush song, stream song, holy love
That flows through earthly forms and folds,
The song of Heaven’s Sabbath fleshed
In throat and ear, in stream and stone,
A grace living here as we live . . .

–– Wendell Berry, “Sabbaths, 1982––IV”

May each of us, in our own unique way, realize the grace of belonging to the “holy love that flows through earthly forms.” And may our collective awareness likewise awaken to the mystery of the world. And then . . . ?

In The Brothers Karamozov, the young monk Alyosha, suddenly filled with grace after a spiritual crisis, falls prostrate on the bare earth to kiss it, just as the Orthodox do reverence to holy icons. This scene has raised theological eyebrows, but Rowan Williams interprets Alyosha’s dramatic gesture to mean that “the earth is another defaced icon, whose inner and nonnegotiable dignity is secured only when its relation to the creator is acknowledged.”[v] In other words, when the earth is understood as a created reality, a material expression of divine intention and divine love, it becomes, like an icon, a window into the eternal reality in which it lives and moves and has its being. Dostoevky’s description[vi] of Alyosha’s revelation is one of literature’s most ecstatic moments:

The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars. . . Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth.

He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages. “Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears. . . ,” rang in his soul. What was he weeping for? Oh, in his rapture he wept even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss, and “he was not ashamed of this ecstasy.” It was as if threads from all those innumerable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, “touching other worlds.” He wanted to forgive everyone and for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself! but for all and for everything. . .

Comet Falls, Mount Rainier National Park, July 2005 (Photo by Jim Friedrich/Karen Haig)

+

The divine power that sustains the universe has been described as an immeasurable flow or fountain of energy, and in celebration of Earth Day’s semicentennial, I offer this video pairing of Charles-Marie Widor’s exuberant Toccata for organ, played by Paul Roy, with footage of three western rivers I shot over the last two summers. May it be an icon of the divine energeia, pouring ceaselessly through the life of the world.

 

 

 

[i] The Council of All Beings is a communal ritual developed by Joanna Macy. https://www.rainforestinfo.org.au/deep-eco/Joanna%20Macy.htm

[ii] Richard Powers, The Overstory (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018), 4. See epigraph above. Powers’ extraordinary novel takes the reader into a new way of seeing the natural world and one’s own place in it.

[iii] Erazim Kohák, The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature, 1984, p. 5), cited in Richard L. Fern, Nature, God and Humanity: Envisioning an Ethics of Nature (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 120. Kohák died at 86 on Feb. 8, 2020.

[iv] Fern, 121.

[v] Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (London: Continuum, 2008), 225.

[vi] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. by Richard Pever & Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Classics, 1990), 362.

Lost at Sea: Retelling the Flood Story in a Pandemic

Row on, row on, another day
May shine with brighter light.
Ply, ply the oars, and pull away,
There’s dawn beyond the night.

–– Traditional sea shanty

 

At the Easter Vigil, we light a fire in the dark and tell our sacred stories. One of them is the saga of the Flood from the Book of Genesis. Tonight, as we stream the Vigil liturgy from our living room for our local parish, this is how it wants to be told. 

When we wonder about things, we tell stories.  One of our oldest stories describes a great flood that sweeps away everything in the world until there is nothing left but an endless sea. Some people say it’s a story about God getting fed up with the world’s violence and greed and wanting to start over. Others say the story is about everything being thrown out of balance by human sin––the harmonies break down, and God’s beautiful creation is swallowed up by chaos.

But tonight, when a new kind of flood is sweeping across the earth, washing away the world we know, maybe the story needs to be about the ark. We’re all in this boat together, hoping and praying we can survive the raging sea until the storms are over and we can anchor in some safe and peaceful harbor.

That’s where we are now, in the middle of the story––cooped up in this ark with a bad case of cabin fever, wondering if the flood is ever going to subside so things can get back to normal. It’s not easy, being stuck in this boat. It’s strange and stressful for us. Meanwhile, the sea gets rougher, the storms wilder.

It’s like that Psalm we say in Holy Week:

Save me, O God! The waters have risen up to my neck.
I am sinking in a deep mire. The waves wash over me.
Do not let the flood swallow me up! (Psalm 69)

That’s how it feels, here in the middle of the story, in the middle of the flood. We have our fears. We have our doubts. We have our losses. And frankly, some of us are getting sick and tired of this stupid ark. Been in the storm so long, Lord! How long? Too long.

But this isn’t where the story ends, with us lost at sea, sinking into oblivion. The One who made us will not forget us. The One who loves us will not forsake us. Already, God is imagining a future for us. Maybe it will be something better.

God never said we won’t be afflicted.
God never said we won’t be disquieted.
God did say we shall not be overcome.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not thee overflow,
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

Dancing with Death: Mortality in Cinema

Caravaggio, St. Jerome Writing, 1605-06

In the midst of life we are in death.

–– Burial Office, Book of Common Prayer

It is life that is the danger.

–– Pascal Garnier, C’est la Vie

 

Many of us are not accustomed to thinking about mortality on a daily basis. There’s no skull on my desk as I write. But the pandemic has changed a lot of things. A single sneeze or a stranger’s touch is now a memento mori. Death lurks everywhere––the supermarket, the subway, the street. Where can we go to flee from its presence?

While sheltering in place, I took a break from virtual choirs and amusing videos to screen a pair of films where death draws near during a pandemic: Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) and Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971). In each film, death is an embodied figure to whom the protagonist is inseparably bound. However, for Bergman’s medieval knight death’s visage is terrible and stern, while for Visconti’s ailing artist the gaze of death is youthful and alluring.

Death (Bengt Ekerot) in The Seventh Seal

Tadzio (Björn Andresen) in Death in Venice.

The Seventh Seal takes place during the Black Death of the 14th century, when bubonic plague killed as many as 200 million people in just five years. Antonius Block is a knight who has just returned home from the Crusades only to find Death waiting for him there. Whether by war or by plague, the knight’s fate is inescapable. He is doomed no matter what he does. It is not accidental that this film was made in the wake of the Second World War, and in the shadow of nuclear annihilation.

Another medieval knight, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, blames God for the injustice of the human condition:

How is mankind more blessed by you
Than sheep who cower in the field?
For slain is man just like the beasts,
Locked in prison cages, and given sickness
And great adversity, often for no good reason.
What governance is in this prescience,
That thus torments guiltless innocence? [i]

But Bergman’s knight isn’t even sure God exists. Death appears to him, but not the Divine––at least not in any way he recognizes. Although Bergman was an atheist, believers will discern God in the traveling players: Jof, Mia and their baby, a “holy family” who embody the life force carrying on despite every mishap. God may also be seen in the sacrificial act of the knight, who helps the players escape Death even when he himself cannot. And in the sweetest moment of this anguished film, the family share their strawberries and milk with Block, who receives it like a sacrament, a taste of unconquerable life:

“I shall remember this hour of peace: the strawberries, the bowl of milk, your faces in the dusk, Michael asleep, Jof with his lute. I shall remember our words, and shall bear this memory between my hands as carefully as a bowl of fresh milk. And this will be a sign and a great content.”

 

Antonius Block, the knight (Max von Sydow), plays chess with death.

As Block makes his way toward the refuge of his castle stronghold, he sees Death at work everywhere, working furiously through both plague and human cruelty. The knight tries to postpone the inevitable by engaging Death in a chess match. Death is amused, but not outwitted. Always the supreme ironist, he lets the knight get all the way home before finally taking his life. No one gets out of here alive.

And yet, in the famous dance of death at the film’s end, six of the film’s characters are missing. The “holy family” still wander the earth, untroubled by death because they belong to grace. And three who died (a woman executed for witchcraft, Jof’s wife, and an enigmatic maid) are also absent from Death’s chorus line, perhaps because they had chosen acceptance over fear when their end came.

The Dance of Death in The Seventh Seal.

Death in Venice, adapted from Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, follows a German artist, Gustav von Aschenbach, to Venice, where he hopes to restore his health and sooth his nerves. In the book he is a writer, but Visconti makes him a composer, modeled after Gustav Mahler, whose Third and Fifth symphonies amplify the film’s luscious imagery and deep feeling.

While enjoying the Belle Epoque luxury of the Grand Hotel des Bains, Aschenbach becomes obsessed with the beauty of Tadzio, an adolescent boy on holiday from Poland with his family. Mann aestheticizes the composer’s forbidden desire into a metaphor for immortal beauty and perfection, comparing the boy to the finest Greek sculpture. But in the cinematic version, the explicitness of a visible gaze is hard to defuse with metaphorical rationalizations, and the film was indeed controversial when it came out fifty years ago.

But as I watched through quarantined eyes, I could not escape the idea of the comely boy as the angel of Death, drawing Aschenbach out of himself toward a kind of oblivion. For the artist, mortality means incompleteness. There is never enough time to reach perfection, to say everything that wants to be said. So Tadzio’s evanescent, unattainable beauty mocks the artist’s failure to find a lasting container for the longings of his heart.

The story’s title and content support this interpretation. Death––the sense of an ending––is everywhere in Venice. A plague of cholera is approaching from the east, and despite official assurances that everything is fine, tourists have begun to flee, leaving a kind of ghost city behind. Aschenbach’s heart is beginning to fail. And Venice itself, ever threatened by rising seas, suffers the melancholy of a diminishing future.

In the film’s final scene, Aschenbach is sitting in a beach chair, watching Tadzio wade into the bright sea beneath a declining sun. From a distance, the boy looks back at him, then points off toward a formless blur of light, as though only the infinite can receive the fullness of our longing. As Mann put it, “To rest in what is perfect (ideal, complete in itself) is the longing of those who strive for what is excellent, and is not nothingness itself a form of perfection?”[ii] If the angel of death mocks our incompleteness, does it not also invite us into an ultimate wholeness beyond our imagining, what Mann calls “an immensity full of promise?”[iii]

Tadzio points to “an immensity full of promise.”

We see Aschenbach struggle to stand up, reaching a desperate hand toward the sea, Tadzio, infinity, God. Then his heart fails; he falls back lifeless into the chair. Visconti then cuts to a long shot of the beach. Aschenbach is now barely noticeable on the wide expanse of sand. Hotel attendants carry his body away. What happens to him after that, God only knows.

When a monk composed the chant, Media vita in morte sumus (In the midst of life we are in death), it was on a New Year’s Eve early in the 14th century. Little did he know that a few decades later, a third to a half of Europe would perish in the Black Death. But I doubt he would have changed a word to sound more comforting. Whatever our fate––calamity or blessing––Death keeps us company every step of the way. Can we learn to live with that?

My friend Bill Coats, theologian and priest, recently wrote:

“It is hard for us not to put life first. We live longer, we are healthier, our medical system assumes and acts as if we can live forever. But a pandemic, even with a plethora of scientific and medical information is, in the last analysis, about death. Of course, in a pandemic not all will die, indeed the vast majority will live even if and when the virus strikes them. Yet the environment in the meantime is open to fear and is predicated on the nearness of death. Our generally optimistic culture is hardly prepared for this.”[iv]

 

Bengt Ekerot and Ingmar Bergman on the set of The Seventh Seal.

Death is near. It has always been so for mortals. We can’t change that fact, but perhaps it is time to rethink our relationship. I like this photo of Bergman talking with Death on the set of The Seventh Seal. They seem so companionable. No one is threatening, no one is afraid. They look like friends. Maybe it will be like that, in the end.

 

 

Related post: The Weight of These Sad Times

 

[i] Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Knight’s Tale,” 440-451, Canterbury Tales.

[ii] Thomas Mann, quoted in Philip Kitcher, Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 174.

[iii] Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, trans. Clayton Koelb (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994), 63.

[iv] The Rev. William Coats, personal correspondence, March 2020.