The Beauty of Freedom

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One of the most creative and thoughtful novels in recent years is Yann Martel’s, The Life of Pi. It’s both imaginative and evocative. The novel explores our knowledge and wisdom about animals, while also reflecting on our knowledge and wisdom about God. Pi, the narrator, was a double major at the University of Toronto, in religious studies and zoology. Before that, he grew up in southeast India, where his father had run a small zoo.

Near the beginning of the book, Pi reflects on an unexpected reality about zoo animals. Most of us assume that zoos should be large open parks having extensive land preserves, with all the animals roaming about together. Otherwise, we think zoos are cruel, artificially propagated institutions, which have no genuine respect for fellow members of the animal kingdom. Pi challenges us with some interesting empirical observation. Zoo’s actually resemble our own houses, in a positive way! In prehistoric times, our ancient forebears had to roam, from cave to stream, and from animal habitat to places where fruit bearing plants could be found. Now, we have the modern equivalent of these things in a limited spacial structure we call our home. Animals in the wild face immense challenges: how to find food and water, safe places to rest, to mate and rear young, and free of predators. Usually this requires large tracts of land. But zoos, like the houses that serve us, provide these things in a limited compass, which actually contributes to animal contentment and well-being! Their enclosures provide the security of a known-place, which they feel is theirs. Like us, animals are territorial.

Pi tells us this: when animals happen to get out of their enclosures at a zoos—in what we are likely to call ‘escapes’—they most often go right back to their pens or cages, especially when they encounter anything that frightens them. Generally, they do not head out for the open and unknown! Pi then offers a critical insight: “I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.”

A modern notion of freedom has thoroughly permeated our culture. We assume that freedom is best defined in one way ~ ‘freedom is the absence of limits.’ Freedom is ‘no one getting in my way,’ no rules limiting me, and no constraints on what I want to do. So, we imagine that the same must be true for animals, and especially those in zoos. As exciting and liberating as this may sound, it is actually contrary to animal nature—and therefore, probably also to our nature.

Pi offers this observation: “An animal inhabits its space, whether in a zoo or in the wild, in the same way chess pieces move about a chessboard— significantly. There is no more happenstance, no more ‘freedom’, involved in the whereabouts of a lizard or a bear or a deer than in the location of a knight on a chessboard. Both speak of pattern and purpose.” But, ironically, this is the very thing we resist! We somehow assume that we are less than human when we go through life wedded to pattern and purpose, and when we adopt habits that shape our character in enduring ways. These are precisely the features of the modern mind, which make it so hard for us to hear what Paul says about freedom, in Galatians (For freedom, Christ has set us free). Our modern notions also separate us from our nation’s Founders, who were just as concerned with what freedom is for, and not simply what freedom is from.

 

Adapted from my homily for Sunday, June 26, 2016, which may be accessed by clicking here.

Temptation, and Beauty

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At Jesus’ Baptism, his Father in heaven speaks to him in the hearing of others: “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well-pleased.” Luke tells us that Jesus is at prayer in this moment, with his attention likely turned within. By contrast, in his temptation, the devil appears to him and speaks to him in his immediate presence, tempting him with things seen or imagined. Our Father in heaven speaks to him from above. But the one he calls ‘the father of lies’ speaks to him from his side, about the things of this world. It is in relation to this point that I find Eric Armusik’s perceptive painting of the Temptation of Christ so compelling.

Look at that sinister-looking hooded face, and that claw-like hand on Jesus’ shoulder. The tempter speaks in his ear, to turn his attention away from his mission. In the process, the tempter offers to Jesus what he might be tempted to desire. A dark brooding sky obscures the light from above, and accentuates the dark ground underfoot. Jesus looks resolute while yet affected by the experience of his temptation. Eric Armusik captures how Jesus is tempted in every way that we are, yet without sin.

We are likely, always, to hear this same voice in our own ears. Sometimes the voice speaks strongly and directly, and sometimes it is only a whisper. But the message is the same: ‘Look at this beautiful sight! Look at this wonderful thing. It could be yours! Yes, yours.’ And in that moment, we are likely to forget the words of the Psalmist, who reminds us how “the earth is the Lord’s for he made it; come, let us adore him!” In the moment of temptation, the Father’s voice from heaven seems less immediate than other things grabbing our attention. Instead, we give preference to the voice from the side, which says, “go ahead! It will be ok ~ after all, it’s ‘good’!” So, ‘when we see that the tree is good for food, and how it is a delight to our eyes, and that the tree is to be desired to make us wise, we take of its fruit and we eat; and we also give some to our families and friends, who are with us. And in that moment, we know we have sinned, for we experience our separation from our Father in heaven.

Whether we are considering the history-changing choice of our biblical ancestors, or whether we are thinking about our own choices, temptation has more than one reference point. The obvious one, is whether we choose the path toward sin ~ to accept the allure of appropriating some good or beautiful thing, but in a bad way, for our own ends. The other opportunity provided by temptation is the choice we might make for the good ~ to seek and follow God’s will, and live more fully into God’s ways for us. Temptation always has a benefit that we should never forget ~ whenever we are tempted, we can choose to live more nearly as we pray.

 

The Temptation of Christ, 2011, by Eric Armusik. The image is reproduced here with the artist’s permission. To see more of his fine paintings, click here. Also see the Temptation passage in Luke 4:1-13; Hebrews 4:15 (quoted above); and Genesis 3:6-7, which I have paraphrased. My reflections here are drawn from my homily for Lent 1, which explores the themes suggested by the Temptation of Jesus (click here).

The Beauty of Lent

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THE BEAUTY OF LENT

We are entering a season about which many of us are ambivalent. Lent often just happens to us.

I once heard someone say that change in our lives occurs in at least three ways: by default, through drift, or by decision.

Lent often happens by default—the church calendar simply clicks forward, one day or one week at a time. In its turn comes Lent, having arrived as a matter of course.

Sometimes we find ourselves drifting into Lent. When not aware of the liturgical season, and not quite regular in our worship attendance, we arrive one Sunday to find the interior of the church strangely transformed.

The best way to enter Lent is by decision. Though Lent may seem to happen to us, we can also be intentional and choose to engage this new season. And, on its terms!

Our choice here may parallel our choice to tithe. At first, we attend to what we are giving up or leaving behind. In other words, we focus on what we seem to lose. But we can also see giving ourselves and our financial resources as a gain. We gain through giving ourselves to God, and to others.

When I was younger, I often took a rigorous approach to this traditionally penitential season of Lent. Some years I fasted every weekday until evening, in a practice we associate with Ramadan. I learned from this practice, as I did from my subsequent celebration of Eastertide. Alternating feasts and fasts shape the liturgical year.

But I have discovered another way to approach Lent. I am now more likely to arrange my Lenten pattern so it anticipates how I want to live as an Easter-person. I used to experience a pendulum swing from a season of Lenten fasting to one of Eastertide feasting, followed by the more ambiguous ‘ordinary’ time of summer. Now, I try to live toward extraordinary time, all the time.

How I always want to live becomes the measure of how I try to live during Lent. I find great beauty in the simplicity and restraint of this holy season, a beauty which I always want to engage. Lent provides an opportunity to focus on this beauty, and to pare away all that impedes my apprehension of it.

 

Thanks to the website of The Gateway Church, at Des Moines, IA, for making available the neutral Lenten background image.

The Beauty of Mystical Union

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This painting by Niels Larsen Stevns, a relatively unknown Danish painter, strikes me as profound. I think he portrays the occasion in a way John the Evangelist would have liked. First, notice the huge stone basins, which by their placement in the painting occupy the center of our attention. These vessels exceed what we might imagine when we hear the English word “jars.” Yet John, who is consistently focused on mystical and symbolic themes, takes care to tell us how these ‘jars’ hold twenty to thirty gallons each. To put that in perspective, 24” of water in a standard bathtub equals roughly 24 gallons. And Jesus transformed six times that amount, for just one party!

After the large vessels, we notice next Jesus and his mother, the two main figures in this painting and in John’s story. In addition to their placement, we can tell who they are by their halo’s. While Mary stands fully graced by the glow of the late afternoon sun, the upper torso of Jesus is in shadow. I think this is for both pictorial and theological reasons, allowing the glow of his halo to be all the more radiant. At the same time, he is the only figure in the painting portrayed as praying. Very subtly, and faithful to John’s Gospel, Stevns depicts how the light shines in the darkness, and that the darkness has not ‘comprehended’ it. This moment is all about Epiphany, about the revealing of light in new and profound ways, for the benefit of all who long to see it. Water, set aside for the purification of the body, becomes wine that warms and gladdens the heart and soul.

The chief steward is just behind, being given an opportunity to apprehend and perceive the light. It comes in the form of a cup of wine, reckoned to be among “the best.” Also subtle is Stevn’s depiction of the two persons on the left side, who are in conversation. They appear to be discussing something whose meaning eludes them, reminding us of the two disciples later walking on the road to Emmaus. Like them, and like the chief steward, these two at Cana do not yet perceive what this is all about. Only in the background, under and through the low arches, do we see the wedding party, feasting together at the tables. Among many paintings of this scene, this may be among the most faithful to what John wants us to see, and to believe. This story, like the whole of John’s Gospel, is about the wedding of the human and the divine, in Jesus.

Many guests at this wedding probably noticed the sudden arrival of a batch of fine wine—but not where it came from, nor what it represented. Those at the table were likely focused on the bridal couple, while enjoying all the splendid things on offer. But those who stood nearby, at the edges of the scene, were in a position to notice something else. Of greatest significance at this event was not the hospitality provided by the wedding hosts, whose wine in fact ran out! Most significant was the abundant and mystical hospitality, revealed and provided by a higher source. In this gathering, God’s hospitality is extended not so much as it is in other Gospel stories, to people who are unique and different, and on the margins. Here, God’s hospitality embraces what is common and the same, our needy human nature. God shows us how the deficiency we all share is blessed, and then filled. The empty vessels of our souls are ‘filled to the brim’ with the living water of the Holy Spirit.

 

The Wedding at Cana by Niels Larsen Stevns (correct spelling! / 1864-1941), based on John 2:1-11. To see my homily, which explores this Gospel reading in relation to historical representations of it in art, click here.

The Beauty of Holy Imagination

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One of the most beautiful buildings in the world has survived twenty centuries since its construction during the great age of Rome. Replacing two earlier buildings lost to fire, this third one was built for the ages. After two thousand years, its coffered concrete ceiling remains the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world, and it still evokes awe and wonder among architects. The building is, of course, the Pantheon. Unlike some buildings of equal stature and antiquity, the Pantheon has survived because it was, in effect, ‘baptized.’ Having been a temple whose practices were anchored in pagan religious cults, its original Greek name suggests the building was dedicated to a multitude of Roman God’s. Indeed, many modern visitors know the building only by its classical name rather than by its later Christian one, even though the transition between the two occurred fourteen-hundred years ago!

Think about that for a moment. A pagan temple, apparently dedicated to a panoply of Roman deities, was consecrated as a church, and renamed to commemorate Christian saints. The building’s earlier purpose and meaning was not seen as dangerous to it being used for holy Christian worship! For many of us, that is unimaginable! A more likely outcome would have been for the building to have been razed, and its materials perhaps reused to build an entirely new building for Christ-inspired liturgies. This represents courage, the courage of holy imagination, turned loose to see what is good, positive and hopeful, even amidst a decaying or already dead civilization.

On Good Friday and at the Easter Vigil, we pray these words: “O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Who among us has not ever felt cast down, prematurely old, or just not worth much? Do we have courage, the courage to see that we are among all the things that are being brought to their perfection? Sometimes, among all the things God has made, it can be hardest to imagine ourselves as the objects of God’s unbounded creative and redemptive possibilities. Yet, because of our Baptism, we are among the saints who have already passed beyond death into new life. God’s redemptive possibilities are all about new life, and for us! We come to see this as we practice the virtue of holy imagination.

A photo of the interior of the Pantheon in Rome (creative commons license). This is adapted from my homily for All Saints Sunday, which can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of Shepherding

Sadao Watanabe, Good Shepherd

 

We live in a highly visual culture, where information is largely communicated through images. As a result, we often think with mental pictures. But are the images we commonly associate with biblical texts actually faithful to Scripture? Our most familiar image of the Good Shepherd may come from Tiffany windows showing Jesus carrying a lamb. Lushly colored, like much of late 19th century art, and romantic in expression, Tiffany windows remain popular and continue to be influential today. And yet, the Tiffany approach to the Good Shepherd may have more to do with the Luke parable about the person who goes in search of the one lost sheep than John’s presentation of Jesus’ words, where he identifies himself as the Good Shepherd of the flock.

Japanese Christian woodblock artist Sadao Watanabe made several prints of the Good Shepherd. This one is beautifully simple and typical of his hand-made cards. Looking over his life’s work, we can see significant parallels between his prints and historical European art. In particular, his portrayal of biblical people is influenced by medieval Christian stained glass and manuscript illustrations, as well as by Eastern Christian iconography. In this print, we see how an Japanese artist shares our Western tendency to see the Good Shepherd in terms of our Lord’s relationship with us as individuals.

Like familiar Tiffany images, Watanabe portrays the Good Shepherd who carries a single lamb. Less familiar are other elements of his print. The artist depicts a large vine laden with grapes, which represent at least two ideas. The promised land toward which God led Israel was filled with vineyards bearing abundant fruit. And in New Testament, the fruit of the vine gains eucharistic significance through our Lord’s cup at the Last Supper. Surrounding the shepherd figure, we see flowers, likely representing the passion flower, symbolic of our Lord’s saving death. Behind the main figure are large and small bands of white against a dark background. Though the symbolism here is not immediately clear, the artist may have had in mind the words of Psalm, 23, and the valley of the shadow through which the Lord safely leads us.

These distinctive aspects of Watanabe’s Good Shepherd do not necessarily set it apart from features of Tiffany Good Shepherd windows. But notice this subtle aspect of Watanabe’s print, which reflects the influence of Christian medieval art. Whereas Tiffany images of Jesus expressively portray his presumed personality and character, Watanabe’s Shepherd resembles traditional iconographic images, where the focus is more on the Lord’s action, and less on his personality. Along with the blank intensity of the eyes, the most strongly communicative aspect of the Jesus figure is his hands, and not his facial expression. Watanabe focuses on what the Good Shepherd does; and what the Good Shepherd does is devote himself to the sheep.

 

Sadao Watanabe, The Good Shepherd, 1968. See John 10:11-18; compare Luke 15:3ff. Click here for a link to my Sunday homily on the theme of the Good Shepherd, and on historical and artistic reflection which it has inspired.

The Beauty of Self-Acceptance

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It began with my nephew saying to his dad, “let’s go before we can’t.” My brother, Greg, who has been dealing with MS for a number of years, liked the idea. So, last summer, they walked the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain, to the Apostle James’ legendary burial place. The rigors of the trip required serious preparation for my brother. Hiking 500 miles in 28 days means averaging almost 18 miles a day, and a good bit of the Camino involves hills and mountains. I learned more about this during my brother’s recent visit, when we viewed his pilgrimage photos. We also watched The Way, Emilio Estevez’s fine movie about the Camino featuring his father, Martin Sheen.

I appreciate The Way for how it sensitively portrays our infirmity. Since ancient times, Christians have valued pilgrimages. Paths and journeys often provide metaphors for transition through life. For this reason, an intentional spiritual journey can be a microcosm for the whole of our life, and enable us to deal with enduring issues in a concentrated way.

“You don’t choose your life; you live it,” says a character in the movie. Yet, quite often, we perceive a conflict between the things we cannot choose about ourselves, and how we really hope to live. The Way traces a Camino made by four people, each carrying a burden not so easily set aside as a pilgrim’s rucksack. Two carry burdens of grief; the third seeks to lose weight; and the fourth fears losing a writer’s vocation. All four journey toward deeper and hidden parts of themselves, and over the pilgrimage, lighten their ‘loads,’ figuratively and literally. The most challenging part of the Camino proves not to be the Pyrenees or the Meseta. For them as for us, the hardest journey starts from how we see ourselves, and moves toward the self-acceptance for which we yearn.

The four hikers’ journey provides a meditation on this insight. But so does the Easter Gospel, though less obviously. The risen “Jesus himself stood among the disciples and their companions and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified…” Jesus then said words that may have been troubling rather than reassuring: “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see…”

Jesus did not spare the disciples their need to face themselves, and their own culpability in his death. Yet, by lovingly accepting them as they were, he enabled them to accept themselves. Accepting who Jesus really is, is interconnected with accepting who we really are. And accepting who we really are comes with accepting who Jesus really is. He has made himself one with dark things within us. Because of this, we can accept being made-one-with him, in his radiant light.

 

A photograph from The Way (accessed from the Media page of the film website).   Click here to view my Sunday homily exploring these themes in relation to Alanis Morissette’s song, “Thank U,” as well as the Sunday resurrection narrative from Luke 24:36b-48.

The Beauty of His Community

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I love how artists help us read and hear Scripture in new ways. Occasionally, they help us perceive aspects of biblical texts for the first time. Paradoxically, in one case artworks have nurtured a mis-hearing of the Gospel. For all the paintings of Thomas that I know refer to him as having doubt, and portray the resolve of that doubt as coming from his touching the side or hands of the risen Jesus. But look closely at John’s Gospel. In his visit to the room where the disciples have been hiding, the risen Jesus does not directly attribute ‘doubt’ to Thomas. Instead, and perhaps with his prior visit to the other disciples in mind, he merely tells Thomas not to doubt. Nor does John describe Thomas as taking up Jesus’ invitation to touch him. Jesus credits Thomas for believing after seeing him, rather than after touching him. He then encourages the kind of belief that does not rest upon seeing.

Notice how the other ten disciples are hiding in fear, rather than joyfully confident, when Jesus comes to where they have locked themselves in. They are described as rejoicing only after Jesus shows them his hands and his side. In other words, Thomas is not unique and different from the other disciples, and benefits from exactly the same experience that transformed them from people fearfully hiding into those who are rejoicing. Their joyful confidence is reflected in their words to Thomas when he later arrives. They say, “We have seen the Lord.” Their joy is the direct result of seeing Jesus’ hands and side, the very things Thomas says will be key to his own believing. So, the ten did not believe until they saw; and Thomas will not believe until he sees. What they received, he, too, will receive. As will we, who—like Thomas—were not initially in that room. The history of art obscures this important point.

Here are two safe things we can say and accept as true. The risen Lord continues to disclose himself with signs. And, the Lord reveals himself in community, and always for the sake of his community. For his community is fellowship within the new covenant of reconciliation. As John writes in his first Epistle, “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us.” Fellowship with this community, is fellowship in and with the Risen Lord.

 

James He Qi, The Doubt of St. Thomas (He Qi © 2014 All Rights Reserved); used with permission. I think of it as portraying the community faith of Thomas. See John 20:19-31, and 1 John 1:1-2:2. Click here for a link to my Sunday homily, which explores the impact of the resurrection upon the disciples.

Beauty Over Chaos

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The Resurrection of Jesus is all about grounded hope, and the strength to persevere in the face of adversity. Peter Koenig’s Good Shepherd Resurrection provides a compelling image of its power. The painting builds upon ancient biblical imagery of chaos manifest as a sea monster, and acknowledges how death, and resistance to the will of God in the order of Creation, pervade the world. The painting is brilliant in its conception, precisely because it is so counter to our culture-bound world of Easter bunnies, daffodils and pastel-colored candy.

The Resurrection of Jesus is not mainly about hopeful feelings, a positive attitude and self-improvement, even though it can enable these things. His Resurrection is really about the defeat of evil and death, and triumph over pain and suffering. We may not immediately experience that defeat and triumph in our every moment of need. But, we live by Easter faith, and not by Easter feelings.

Peter Koenig risks showing us the Risen Lord stepping out of the mouth of a sea monster. The fresh water from his side recalls his crucifixion, and also the water from the rock in the wilderness. Both give us fresh water that fulfills genuine human need, as compared with the inhospitable salt water in which the dragon finds its abode. Every one of us is the lamb, held safely upon his shoulders, as he carries us out of the jaws of death into the new life where he is preeminent.

To me, this is real hope. Precisely because it is hope that deals with where we are now, rather than hope for something that might be, some day, somewhere. Both you and I want the kind of hope that squarely addresses all the things we’ve been worried about this last month. We all want hope that squarely confronts all the things we fear might go wrong in the coming month. And that is the kind of real hope that God brings to us in Jesus’ resurrection.

 

Peter Koenig, Good Shepherd Resurrection. Click here to visit the website where this and other paintings by him may be viewed. To see my Easter homily from which this is adapted, please click here. For background, see Revelation 12 and or do an internet search for biblical texts related to the words dragon, Rahab (i.e., Job 26:12-13 & Isaiah 51:9-10), Leviathan (i.e., Job 3:8, Psalm 74:13-14 & Isaiah 27:1), the deep, etc.

Our Beauty in His Eyes

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We are accustomed to looking up at him on the cross. Good Friday may prompt us, at least for a moment, to allow a reverse in the direction of the gaze.

For we are the objects of his attention, and of his love. If we discern anything about the meaning of Holy week, and the events within it, it is this: He acted for us, and not for himself. And God was in him, as he did so.

James Tissot pictures Jesus’ view from the cross on that dark afternoon, two thousand years ago. Just below his feet, he saw Mary Magdalene, prostrate with grief, showing her love for him. Just behind her, cloaked in dark blue and white, is his mother, hand across her heart, experiencing the sorrow it had been predicted she would endure. And to the left of Mary, in Jesus’ vision, we see the beloved disciple, John, in a white outer cloak over a green tunic. These three, and the two others behind Mary, are sympathetic figures. They have come to be by him in his darkest hour.

Others in Jesus’ field of vision may vary in their sympathies with his suffering. The Roman soldier cloaked in red could be the centurion, about whom we read in the Passion narratives. Standing by the cross, Tissot depicts him with a pained look on his face. He is beginning to realize that Jesus was innocent of the charges brought against him. By contrast, the two other soldiers near him appear either puzzled or disgusted by the whole situation.

As we survey this scene portraying Jesus’ field of vision from the cross, we cannot miss the group of men on horseback in the middle-ground. They are Scribes or Sadducees, those with power and wealth in the city, who had argued for his crucifixion. Some are shown taunting him. Some appear self-satisfied. And at least one is looking up at the darkening sky, which is already putting the upper edge of the scene in shadow.

He has acted for all these people, and especially for the ones who have turned against him. He looks upon them with love, and with a plea for God’s forgiveness. He knows what is in people’s hearts. What we so often forget is that he knows us better than we know ourselves. We may not understand how he knows us; but we do know that he knows us. We know that he loves us. And this is enough.

This is not a time for us to ponder the unknowability of God. This is a time to focus on our vulnerability, and our total knowability in God’s eyes. It is a time in which to contemplate the complete self-revealing of God, by Christ, for us. And to remember that he did this on a cross.

 

James Tissot, What Our Lord Saw From the Cross. For a link to my Good Friday homily, from which this is adapted, please click here.