Farewell to a Decade. And then?

Raphael, The Agony in the Garden (c. 1504). “Keep a fire burning in your eye, and pay attention to the open sky: you never know what will be coming down” (Jackson Browne, “For a Dancer”).

On New Year’s Eve, 1969, I was twenty-five years old. I had begun the Sixties as a high school sophomore, and was ending it as a freshly-ordained minister in the Episcopal Church. A decade marked by so much historical drama and cultural transformation deserved a memorable farewell, but I found myself stuck at a tedious party with strangers and small talk in a Los Angeles suburb.

I slipped away and drove to the sea, arriving at the edge of the continent an hour before midnight. The big parking lot for Santa Monica’s popular public beach was deserted. I pulled up close to the sand, about a hundred yards from the surf. A “baptismal” immersion at the turning of time was my plan. But first, in the decade’s last hour, I would list in my journal the personal highlights for each of the last ten years: 

Three graduations and one ordination, my first guitar, my first romance, my first grand tour of Europe, an apartment fire consuming my theological library, two mystical experiences, one miracle, and the death of my father. And, a month before decade’s end, rolling over six times at sixty miles an hour in a Volkswagen bus––and walking away unbroken, intensely aware of the gift of futurity. I had been given more time to do whatever I was here to do. It was like being born again into a world glowing with possibility and presence. 

As I was writing these things down, a police car pulled up next to me. A young man parked by himself in an empty lot late at night was an object of suspicion under any circumstances, but the authorities at the time were on the lookout for the Zodiac Killer, who had been terrorizing California with a series of ghastly murders. Could this be the policeman’s lucky night?

He got out of his car and walked over to mine. I rolled down my window. When he asked what I was doing, I told him I was remembering the Sixties in my journal. He wondered if I would let him see what I was writing. It was very first draftish, but I handed it over willingly. My first reader! He scanned the pages, mumbling aloud my poor words along with a few inserted quotes:

“There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief…” (Bob Dylan)

“The world of the past is gone. Behold, I make all things new.” (Revelation 21)

Fortunately, this did not strike him as serial killer material, so he wished me a Happy New Year and bid me goodnight. I walked down the sea in time to make ritual welcome to the 1970s.

The 2010s will depart less dramatically. There will be a backward glance with photos and stories­­––gratitude for the gifts, lament for the losses­­––along with expressions of astonishment at the accelerating speed of our allotted span in these latter days. At midnight we will stand on our porch blowing kazoos and train whistles, banging gongs and beating drums, to drive away the spirits of gloom. Then we’ll return inside to greet the New with dancing and champagne by the Christmas tree.

As the American Civil War broke out in the spring of 1861, Henry David Thoreau, known for his outspoken opposition to slavery, wrote nothing about the conflict in his Journal. Rather, he continued to record his curiosity and delight over specimens and experiences of the natural world. A friend asked him how he could ignore “the Leviathan of Slavery” threatening to swallow the country like Jonah. Thoreau replied that refusing to let our attention be consumed by the hypnotic gaze of chaos “is just the most fatal, and indeed the only fatal, weapon you can direct against evil.” [i]

I know people who will spend this evening in prayer and vigil, aware that we are on the verge of an apocalyptic year, when the fate of this country and the fate of the planet are at stake as at no other time in living memory. 2020 promises an immense struggle requiring the best of us, and I am grateful for those who plan to welcome the New Year with their most prayerful attention, keeping their eye on the Light rather than being transfixed by the dark abyss of malevolence. 

I will join the fight on the morrow. But for tonight, by dancing and making merry, I will continue to remember and affirm a future beyond the battle, the new heaven and new earth where the tears are wiped from every eye and God’s beloved people rejoice once more in the light of hope and human flourishing. 

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Thank you, as always, dear reader, for the gift of your attentive reading and generous sharing of what I post here. Time is a precious commodity, and I appreciate your choice of spending some of it with The Religious Imagineer. I wish you a most happy––and redemptive––New Year. 

I began this blog halfway through this decade, and have posted a reflection on time, memory and hope every New Year’s Eve since 2014. You can find those writings at the following links:

The Angel of Possibility (2014)

Tick, Tock: Thoughts for New Year’s Eve (2015)

Foolishness and Hope on the Eve of 2017 (2016)

At the Mercy of the Future (2017)

On New Year’s Eve, My Inner Clown is Full of Hope (2018)


[i] Laura Dassow Walls, Henry David Thoreau: A Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 479-80. I commend this book highly. It is a beautifully written, richly informative, and quite moving narrative of one of America’s most remarkable figures. 

The Gathering Storm

Jerome B. Thompson, The Belated Party on Mansfield Mountain (1858), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

The painter gazes with speechless, loving wonder, and I whisper to myself: This is the pathway home to an immortality of bliss and beauty.

–– The Rev. Louis L. Noble (1859)

Do you observe how [God] intended that there should be moral meaning in the face of Nature, and that we should derive instruction therefrom? . . . And as I sat and looked today at the meadows and the trees, I thought within myself, “What message have they for me of my God, and from my God?”

–– The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (1860)

 

Nature has always exerted a powerful influence upon the American imagination, whether it was seen as a howling wilderness to be tamed, a vast resource to be exploited, or a sacred gift to be treasured. Before much of this country was settled and cultivated, its unspoiled landscape was deemed a new Eden. But by the mid-nineteenth century, primeval landscapes were already in retreat, and many feared America was becoming Paradise Lost.

Landscape painting offered a powerful response to this anxiety, fostering and preserving a sense of Nature as a divine Scripture, “opening a thousand windows to show us God.”[1] Even as rapacious expansionists were subduing the continent “with the plough and the railroad,”[2] artists were giving a kind of prayerful attention to what Nature, undefiled by human interference, was showing and saying to the receptive mind and heart. As one art historian noted in 1849, “numerous modern painters are distinguished by a feeling for nature which has made landscape, instead of mere imitation, a vehicle of great moral impression.”[3] And the impression registered by painters like Albert Bierstadt or the Hudson River School was a sense of Creation as a shower of blessings suffused with divine presence, requiring of humanity both reverence and care.

Albert Bierstadt, Merced River, Yosemite Valley (1866), Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But in the 1850s, darker elements began to disturb the blissful images of America’s Eden. A beautiful landscape might include the forlorn stumps of a logged forest; the distant smoke of a steam engine would register the intrusion of human technology. But westward expansion wasn’t the only trouble in Paradise. In his study of Hudson River painter Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), Franklin Kelly writes that “no other period in the nineteenth century was so indelibly marked by complex national issues, mounting turmoil, and increasing doubt about the destiny of the American nation.”[4] The turmoil and the doubt began to find expression in the representations and intuitions of both literature and painting. As Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick (1851):

“Oh! time was, when as the sunrise nobly spurred me, so the sunset soothed. No More. This lovely light, it lights not me; all loveliness is anguish to me, since I can ne’er enjoy. Gifted with high perception, I lack the low, enjoying power; damned most subtly and most malignantly! damned in the midst of Paradise!” [5]

In a similar vein, the newly invented pigment of cadmium red, so dramatically applied by Frederic Church in Twilight in the Wilderness (1860), did more than document a sunset’s color with greater accuracy. To a country on the eve of war, it also conveyed a warning: There will be blood. Damned in the midst of Paradise indeed.

Frederic Edwin Church, Twilight in the Wilderness (1860), Cleveland Museum of Art.

Church’s crepuscular scene has been called “a stained glass window burning with the intense power of divine light.”[6] But when the very future of the country was most in doubt, this silent moment just after sunset became an icon of a nation in crisis: in a time of passing away and growing darkness, could we still hope for a bright new morning? Louis Noble, Church’s Episcopal rector and close friend, saw in Twilight “that narrow, lonesome, neutral ground, where gloom and splendor interlock and struggle.” Darkness and light, like Jacob and the angel, “now meet and wrestle for mastery.”[7]

In the previous year, another Episcopalian, Martin Johnson Heade, painted an even more foreboding image of imminent calamity in Approaching Thunder Storm (1859). Over the next decade of Civil War and its aftermath, stormy weather would be a common theme not only in American landscape painting, but in political and religious rhetoric as well.

In 1863, the aptly named Noah Hunt Schenck, rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Baltimore, lamented that the “thousand miseries of our fraternal strife . . . so charge the air with gloom and roll their black clouds overhead, as to leave us bowed with sorrow and groping in the dark.”[8] As the original owner of Heade’s painting, Schenk must have looked upon it the day he wrote those words.

Martin Johnson Heade, Approaching Thunder Storm (1859), Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I recently visited Heade’s painting at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, and spent a long time peering into the ominous blackness of clouds and water. The warm tonality of the foreground shore and the jutting pair of grassy spits, glowing with an eerie intensity at odds with the surrounding gloom, only increased the unsettling sense of unreality. The extreme contrasts of dark and light, hot and cool, suggest tension and instability verging on the apocalyptic. And yet the human presences––the rower on the water, the watcher on the shore––seem strangely calm. Do they not see what the painter sees––an imminent doom?

Although the preeminent role of landscape painting in the production of national identity and spiritual meaning has long since declined amid vast changes in art, culture and religiosity, Approaching Thunder Storm seemed to me as relevant to our current situation as any of the edgy political works I had seen at the Whitney Biennial a few days earlier. In fact, as the climate crisis deepens, the symbolic trope of catastrophic weather is being strangely literalized. Climate is no longer just a vivid metaphor for the threats on our horizon. It is itself becoming as grave a danger as any other.

The crisis of these times may prove to be as devastating in its way as the events of the 1860s. But whether our storm clouds be the madness of presidents, the rise of fascism, or nature gone off the rails, the American body politic continues to sit passively on that broken plank––whether by ignorance, complicity, or despair, it matters little––inexplicably unable to rise, with whatever courage and hope we possess, to shout our protest to the gathering darkness:

“No more! Be still.”[9]

 

 

 

 

 

[1] John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (1869, rev. 1911). Long after American landscape painters had abandoned the confident spirituality of the mid-nineteenth century, Muir translated the vision of an Edenic wilderness into political action, becoming a major voice in the movement for national parks.

[2] James Russell Lowell (1849), q. in Franklin Kelly, Frederic Edwin Church and the National Landscape (Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988), 55.

[3] Henry T. Tuckerman, Sketches of Eminent American Painters (1849), q. in Kelly, 22.

[4] Kelly, 116.

[5] Ibid., 102.

[6] Ibid., 120.

[7] Louis L. Noble, After Icebergs with a Painter: A Summer Voyage to Labrador and Newfoundland (1861), q. in Kelly, 119. 108.

[8] Noah Hunt Schenck, in “Songs in the Night,” a sermon preached on Thanksgiving Day, 1863, q. in Sarah Cash, Ominous Hush: The Thunderstorm Paintings of Martin Johnson Heade (Fort Worth, TX: Amon Carter Museum, 1994), 44. Schenck’s Baltimore parishioners were divided in their political sympathies. When prayers were said for President Lincoln, supporters of the Confederacy refused to kneel. After the war, he was glad to take a parish in New York.

[9] Cf. Mark 4:39, where Jesus rebukes the storm, and the wild sea grows calm. Weathering our own gathering storm may indeed require divine aid.