A Thoughtful Place by the Sea

Three views of Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute

 

With two large and significant projects, Louis Kahn had more than one opportunity to craft a plan for a complex network of laboratories. The first was his commission to design the Richards Medical Research Laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania (1957-1965). A striking set of buildings involving multiple towering uprights interspersed with stacks of windowed cubes, this project was much praised. The noted architectural historian, Vincent Scully, described it as “one of the greatest buildings of modern times.” Despite the accolades the building received, those who pursue research in these laboratories often find the spaces within them less than conducive to their work. Budget cuts affecting materials and fixtures played a role, as did Kahn’s less than satisfactory engagement with the department heads and scientists who would eventually populate the building.

The second project was much more successful and remains an iconic example of Louis Kahn’s genius for handling materials in relation to a setting. It is the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California (1959-1965). Built to house a research institute for his client Jonas Salk (who is credited with the polio vaccine), Kahn collaborated with Salk to produce one of the most beautiful contexts for the advancement of scientific studies. When I learned that both men were the offspring of Russian Jewish emigres, and that Kahn had something of a mystical temperament, I felt affirmed in my regard for the spiritual and humanistic qualities of Kahn’s final design influenced by Salk.

Because God fully inhabits time and space {especially in the Incarnation}, we should not be surprised to see evidence in our own human creative work of how nature is infused with grace. In this respect, Kahn’s attention to the importance of aesthetic beauty, in a work environment created for biological researchers, stands out. I.M. Pei, a master architect and admirer of Kahn, spoke of the spirituality evident to him within the masterpiece represented by the Salk Institute buildings.

A lay understanding of biomedical research often includes an assumption that people engaged in such pursuits are narrowly focused on lab projects involving minute detail at the expense of attention to the world around them. It is therefore presumed that such projects involve elaborate technical equipment, controlled artificial lighting and other highly regulated laboratory conditions. If there is merit to these assumptions about what may be common conditions for laboratory research, how uplifting it is to see the buildings Kahn provided for those who work at the Salk Institute. His design envisioned that every lead scientist at Salk would have a private study with a generously sized window facing the Pacific Ocean. The predominant use of poured concrete as a building material is carefully balanced with the use of wood. In addition, the concrete was mixed with volcanic ash, giving it a warm appearance, while the attractive weather-resistant wood chosen for the cladding of the ‘window wall assemblies’ is teak. Throughout, access to natural light from the outside graces this set of buildings, just as it does most of Kahn’s work.

The central plaza between the buildings is surely the ‘heart’ of the project, as it was finally structurally realized. The Salk Institute’s inviting central plaza reminds me of the grand piazza in front of the basilica of San Marco in Venice. Each one of these places is so much more than ‘a negative space’ formed by a wide gap between buildings, which provides a movement corridor from one place to another as well as a sight line to the water beyond. Each plaza is ‘a positive space’ formed for gathering and lingering, for meeting with others, and thus for interaction and creativity. These plazas prompt us to be here, rather than simply let us go there. As Louis Kahn put it, “Architecture is the thoughtful making of space.”

And a thoughtful place it is, where Kahn has provided an evocative space for rest and reflection. Generously sized marble benches allow opportunities for people to pause for contemplation and creative imagining.The private spaces formed by the individual study rooms are counterpointed by the public space of the central plaza over which those study rooms look. Through the plaza, a stream-like linear fountain runs the length of this gathering space toward the horizon and the sea. It suggests at least an unconscious association with the biblical idea of the river of the water of life – an apt symbol for an institute dedicated to biological research.

A memorable video exists of the architect’s son, who was 11 at the time of his father’s death. He can be seen on his ‘pilgrimage’ visit to Salk, in-line skating back and forth over the linear fountain and plaza stones, perhaps as a living metaphor for his gradual reconnection -heart to heart- with his father through Louis Kahn’s beautiful buildings.

 

Notes: A moving introduction to the life and work of Louis Kahn is provided by the documentary made by his son, Nathaniel Kahn, My Architect: A Son’s Journey (nominated for an Academy Award, and available on DVD). The personal testimonies to Kahn offered by fellow architects (e.g., I.M. Pei) within this video are compelling. I found the Louis Kahn quote about the “thoughtful making of space” in Matthew Frederick’s informative book, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School. The biblical theme of the river of life can be found in Revelation 22, based on imagery present in the book of Ezekiel (in chapter 47) and Zechariah (14:8). An excellent Getty Center video exists providing insight concerning conservation issues related to the Salk Institute wooden window wall assemblies  as well as other preservation challenges (click here for a link).

A Canopy of Light

 

 

In his visually stunning documentary on Frank Lloyd Wright, a Welsh architect named Jonathan Adams visits some of Wright’s finest buildings. Upon entering the ‘great workroom’ of the S C Johnson (Wax) Company headquarters building, he gives voice to what is surely a very common response to that amazing space – ‘this may be the most beautiful room in America.’

Among the several features of this sublime interior that evoke praise are the lithe columns supporting the large expanse of pyrex glass tubing, the warmly colored horizontal flow of the brick balconies and walkways, and the architect’s complementary attention to the color of the furniture and carpeting, the originals of which were all designed by Wright. As we see in so many of his buildings, ‘Cherokee’ (or iron oxide) red as well as limestone-reminiscent cream and ochre are primary features of his color palette.

Wright had in mind the vertical strength of tree trunks when designing the columns, and the large disc shaped platforms at their top combine to suggest a canopy of trees between which filtered daylight descends. At the same time, he also spoke of the columns as being like lily pads rising to the surface of a pond, to receive the nourishing light above. Although both of these metaphorical references seem apt to me, the interior of this expansive space is evocative of the great gothic medieval cathedrals and their clerestory windows, especially in connection with Wright’s profound sensitivity to the power of natural light. The priority he gave to natural light, as well as to its spiritual significance, is evident in his design for one of his earliest public buildings, Unity Temple, in Oak Park, Illinois. How wonderful it is that Wright can help us celebrate the experientially redemptive abundance of light, even on a dark winter day.

In a prior blog post I referred to how our engagement with the appearance of, and the spaces within, a building can have the effect of uplifting our souls and of enlarging our view of the world. By this, I was reflecting on how encountering great works of architecture can enrich our sense of community, as well as our regard for the pursuit of beauty, goodness, truth and other recognized virtues. Primary among these is joy.

Our contemporary sense of the word joy is often limited to a feeling that happens to us. But, as Thomas Aquinas is remembered to have observed long ago, “joy is the noblest human act.” Yes, we can feel joy. But we can also rejoice at the presence of sublime beauty, whether divinely created or humanly made. As a prayer to God for the newly baptized puts it, “Give them… the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”

Virtues like beauty and goodness can also be described as ‘natural authorities.’ This is because they help make our responses to these qualities in things and people, and our subsequent actions, intelligible. For example, we enter and behold a profoundly beautiful space like the ‘great workroom’ at the Johnson Wax building. Our encounter with its beauty ‘authorizes’ or makes intelligible our response to it as we experience and express joy and wonder. Our encounter with this beauty can also prompt an appreciative regard for how our lives in community can be enhanced. Here, the experience of human-created beauty evokes our joyful apprehension of the beauty of our Creator, and of our Creator’s handiwork all around us as well as within us. Most appropriately, we rejoice at what we behold.

 

Notes: The SC Johnson company headquarters building in Racine, Wisconsin (1936-39), is typically referred to by its original common designation, the Johnson Wax building and tower. The company welcomes visitors and offers tours. The F.L. Wright-designed furniture that is seen on these tours was manufactured by the Steelcase company in Grand Rapids, MI. Wright’s Unity Temple dates back to 1905-08 and is still in use for congregational worship today. The prayer for the newly baptized is found on p. 308 of The Book of Common Prayer. Oliver O’Donovan’s book, Resurrection and Moral Order, is the source for my use of the concept of ‘natural authorities.’

Beauty in Architecture for Public Places

 

By 1964, as Tokyo prepared for that summer’s Olympic Games, I had been in Japan for five years. Our family lived not far from the stunning Olympic Pool building designed and being built by the Japanese architect, Kenzo Tange. I remember seeing it on our Sunday train journeys to church. Some 60 years after construction on it began, the lyrical design of this timelessly modern building continues to awe visitors. No longer housing swimming and diving pools, the building has been designated for use as a gymnasium during the (now postponed) 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Tange’s Olympic Pool has long been one of my favorite works of architecture. Walking or driving around its perimeter provides an experience akin to walking around a large Alexander Calder stabile or one of Henry Moore’s more abstract sculptures. I think it is due to the building’s long arcing lines, made possible by structural cables employing catenary curves. These elements continue to give the 1964 Olympic Pool building a very contemporary appearance. More subtle are the distinctively Japanese features of the building, which are less obvious to western observers. The protruding portion of the two principal vertical columns, the horizontal panels between them mimicking a formal roof cap, as well as the upward curve of the outward edge of the roofline, bear an affinity with aspects of the nearby Meiji Shrine. Note the small but significant wing-like flares adjacent to the twin upward columns in Tange’s design.

I reflect on this building when I think of what might best be called public architecture. By this, I mean public buildings such as airport concourses, courthouses and even hospitals. The debate on federal architecture generated by the recently-leaked draft executive order has had at least one benefit. The evolving discussion has raised the profile of our consideration of beauty in relation to buildings intended to serve, and perhaps also to enhance, our common life as fellow citizens. Whatever one may think of that draft executive order’s commendation of classicism as a design criteria for high costing federal buildings (those over $50 million), we can surely agree that striving for beauty is of significant value within our communities, however that quality may be defined.

Think of the last time that you felt your soul uplifted and your view of the world enlarged by your engagement with a building’s facade, and your movement through its interior space. By this, I am referring to an experience that transcends one of marveling at the scale and complexity of some architectural achievement, and the intellectual pleasure such an encounter might provide. Instead, I am pointing to the way that works of architecture can enhance our sense of community, as well as our regard for the pursuit of beauty, goodness, truth, and other recognized virtues. We might expect these qualities to be evident in buildings designed for public worship. But do we also expect them to be features of our encounter with a government or publicly-funded new courthouse, airport terminal or sports arena? I think it is right that we should.

 

The photos featured here are creative commons licensed photos of Kenzo Tange’s beautiful building designed and built for the swimming and diving pool events at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games.

The Beauty of Fly Tying

 

In the last few years I have begun to explore the allure of an art about which I have been curious for a long time. It is the art of tying flies. Many people tie flies as part of their love of fly fishing, especially during the winter ‘off season’ in northern climes. Others, who might never be found stream-side waving a stick, pursue this art for its own sake.

Traditionally, while developing fly fishing skills, many fishers have sought a basic knowledge of entomology, the study of insects. This usually involves learning about the life-cycles of insects that provide food sources for fish. “Match the hatch” has been a common way to commend presenting ‘flies’ to fish based upon the insects that are observed or thought to be present in a particular situation. For those who fish according to this approach, fly tying involves seeking to mimic as closely as possible the appearance of these insects.

Another approach to fly fishing, and therefore to the preparation of flies for it, is less interested in imitating the actual appearance of specific insects that are observed or anticipated. Instead, this alternative approach aims more generally to suggest characteristics of the appearance or behavior of feeding material that might be found in such waters. In line with this second approach is the traditional Japanese art of fly tying and fly fishing known as Tenkara, about which I hope to share more in the future. A remarkable exponent of this lack of concern for ‘matching the hatch’ is Dr. Hisao Ishigaki, who advocates using one fly for almost every situation. He ties these flies with ordinary black sewing thread from a dollar store along with some cheap brown rooster feathers, and is very successful fishing with them.

For the moment, I would like to express my appreciation for an American approach to fly tying that has an affinity with the historically Japanese approach. The fly depicted above is a ‘Pale Olive Flymph,’ tied by Pete Hidy. It took me some time to appreciate this hybrid creation. For Hidy blended features of a traditional surface dry fly with those of a sinking nymph imitation, thereby creating a ‘flymph.’ Flies of this kind are intended to be presented below the surface, to attract the interest of fish feeding in the lower level of a stream ~ just as a Japanese Tenkara fly might be fished.

Having discovered this photo a few years ago, and then having used it for my iPhone screen background, I have looked at and reflected on Hidy’s fly for some time. Eventually, when wanting to try and tie the same fly myself, I began to search for where I first found it. This involved writing to several fly magazine editors and fly shop managers. And then, I remembered where I had encountered this image ~ in Morgan Lyle’s book, Simple Flies.

It was this book (and one or two others) that first drew me to begin to explore and learn about various aspects of fly tying. It is an humbling art, while yet being immensely rewarding for the newcomer. The fly depicted here, in overly large detail, is actually quite small, probably well under an inch all around. And yet, notice the detail, the sensitivity to light, color and texture. One might be a committed vegan and still seek to tie flies like this, never intending to tempt fish with them but only to admire their beauty. For the beauty of such flies reflects not only the skills of a practiced fly tyer. They reflect the handiwork of the Creator from whose ‘hands’ come all that delights our senses.

With increased sensitivity to our impact upon the beauty and order of Creation, it is worth noting that most fly tiers and fly fishers now choose to buy and use ‘barbless’ hooks (differing from the one depicted above). This creates more challenge for the fisher and likely less injury to the fish that choose to ‘bite’ such flies.

 

Depicted above is a ‘Pale Olive Flymph’ tied by Vernon S. “Pete” Hidy, in my photograph of one by Lance Hidy. The original is found in Morgan Lyle’s interesting book, Simple Flies, which helps introduce fly tying and Tenkara. If you sense an interest in this art, and especially what I describe as a Japanese approach to it, I recommend Daniel Galhardo’s very accessible introduction in his book, tenkara: a complete guide… (widely available, and on his company website, tenkarausa.com).

The Beauty of ‘Wright’

Exterior and plan of the Lykes house in Phoenix

Before my conversion to following a greater ‘master,’ I have been devoted since at least 8th grade to the alluring architectural vision expressed in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. In Wright’s buildings, drawings, and writings, I have found a compelling, nature-shaped understanding of how we might best engage the challenge of inhabiting this world. As expressed by Wright, flourishing as a human being means consciously living in accord with the order and beauty of what believers refer to as Creation. In connection with this vision, FLW may have been the first to use the phrase, ‘an organic architecture.’

Exterior and interior of David Wright house, also in Phoenix

An old adage reminds us that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and imitate Wright I did. In my desire to become an architect through the traditional route of apprenticeship leading to licensing, I began developing basic drafting skills in junior high and designing house after house. All the while, Wright’s life and work became my principal reference point. Just as many of my schoolmates memorized the career statistics of favorite baseball or football players, I could quote a parallel set of statistics related to Wright’s major projects, such as the height, diameter and weight-bearing capacity of the columns in his internationally recognized Johnson Wax building in Racine. Perhaps it was the influence of having visited his Imperial Hotel in Tokyo while growing up in Japan, as well as having a compatible aesthetic temperament. Yet, whatever the source, from my earliest appreciation for Wright’s buildings to this day, I have simply loved his architectural work. To me, Wright’s vision almost always seems ‘right.’

I state this fully aware of the perceived and actual shortcomings of many of ‘the master’s’ most well-known buildings. A favorite story is attributed to Mr. S.C. Johnson, owner of the company building mentioned above as well as of a stunning large estate home designed for him by Wright, “Wingspread.” Apparently, at a dinner hosted by Johnson for several distinguished guests, the roof over the dining room began to leak (a notorious feature of some of Wright’s structures), causing a drip onto the host’s head. Johnson is remembered for having telephoned the architect at that moment, complaining about the leak. Wright responded by saying, “well, Sam, move your chair!”

The realization of Wright’s stunning architectural vision, expressed in such things as curved walls, daring roof lines, and dramatically extended cantilevered terraces, often relied upon the patronage and funding provided by wealthy clients. Throughout history, great artists have depended upon the same. But we should not overlook Wright’s committed pursuit of the opportunity to design and build beautiful-yet-affordable homes for clients with ‘ordinary’ incomes (e.g., the “Usonian” houses). Not only do we find many of these homes preserved and valued in our communities, but the design principles evident within them have influenced countless examples of contractor-designed homes of lesser architectural interest.

The pursuit of human flourishing within the beauty and order of God’s Creation is a wonderful thing to behold. As Irenaeus put it centuries ago, ‘the glory of God is the human person fully alive.’ And the human person is most fully alive when flourishing within the beauty of God’s handiwork, and within our creative tributes to it.

 

 

 

 

The Beauty of ‘the Question’

 

Having experienced and embraced an adult conversion to the Christian faith, I transferred to a new institution of higher education for my third year of college. This allowed me to switch my ‘major’ from art to classics and medieval studies. In the process, I benefited from the teaching of several professors trained primarily in philosophy. My favorite among them frequently called attention to a large sign placed high above a nearby freeway. The sign said this: “Jesus is the answer.” In relation to it, our professor would ask, “but what is the question?”

Later, when I was pursuing doctoral studies in philosophical theology, I became aware of the dialectical relationship between two theological ways of understanding Jesus. Each of these two approaches to understanding Jesus’ life and ministry can be summed up in a phrase:  ‘Jesus is the answer to all our best questions;’ and or, ‘Jesus is the question that prompts all our best answers.’

From an historically Anglican-Catholic perspective, we can say that recognizing Jesus as both ‘our best question’ as well as ‘our best answer’ enhances our spiritual growth.

Henry Ossawa Tanner captures the spiritually dynamic moment of one of my favorite passages in the Bible. It is Jesus’ night conversation with Nicodemus on an upper terrace.* In it, John’s Gospel presents us with a conjunction of compelling personal narrative interposed with mystical spiritual reflection. How can we not wonder about how the venerable and trusted Nicodemus approaches the upstart rabbi in the safety of the nighttime darkness? And how can we not remain thoughtful about Nicodemus’ challenging questions, as well as how artfully Jesus turns them back upon the man who appears to ask them so sincerely?

An aspect of the historic rabbinical tradition within Judaism is its respect for the power of previously unanticipated questions. As applied to Scripture, the generative power of such questions may surpass the importance of our previously arrived-at ‘answers.’

Tanner’s painting of John’s evocative scene prompts us to consider the power and beauty of questions posed by Jesus’ teaching. Questions help us to grow. Asked and pursued with integrity, they lead us to discernment and learning. Recognizing that new insights can be gleaned from them, we begin to realize the potential within us to perceive greater beauty, live into more genuine goodness, and know fuller truth.

A contemporary approach to personal and organizational development, Appreciative Inquiry, complements this emphasis upon the positive power of questions to help us see, live well, and know what is real. The artist, Reinhold Marxhausen, as well as the photographer, Dewitt Jones, exemplify this approach in their engagement with the world around us. Marxhausen is remembered for having constantly encouraged his students to look for and then see beauty in everyday life, even in contexts like factories, side-alleys, and in ‘ordinary places’ like a nearby farmyard. Dewitt Jones, a former National Geographic magazine photographer, encourages the same approach through his videos and published material. Celebrate What’s Right with the World is both the title of one of his videos, and also a persistent theme in his advocacy for being open to finding new and unseen possibilities in ‘what is there,’ all around us. David Cooperrider’s book, Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change, provides a succinct and helpful introduction to how asking better questions can help us to see, live, and know better!

 

*See John 3:1-15 in context. More about the art and approach to life of Reinhold Marxhausen as well as Dewitt Jones can easily be found through a google internet search. See, for example, the Marxhausen Wikipedia article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reinhold_Marxhausen); as well as Dewitt Jones’ TEDx Talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gD_1Eh6rqf8), and his teaching project, The Habit of Celebration (https://celebrate-whats-right.teachable.com/p/the-habit-of-celebration1). My 2017 homily reflection on the Nicodemus conversation in John can by accessed by clicking the following link: (Lent 2 A 17_PDF).

 

Attending to Beauty

 

It is easy to recognize how beauty can be understood as ‘being in the eye of the beholder.’ As such, we think of it as a feature of our ‘subjective’ perception and experience. So, a concept of beauty may be ‘in here‘ (between my ears) as a component of my consciousness. Yet, beauty may also be important to me because it is first ‘out there‘ as an object of my subjective experience. For beauty is ‘there’ to behold, in the world around us, and is not simply something we project outwardly upon the face of Creation.

One way to discern this is to reflect upon art that is representative, especially landscape paintings the beauty of which grabs our attention. As with Monet’s painting, The Magpie (above), we view and are affected by an artist’s rendering of something he or she observes in nature. At first, an aspect of Creation captures the painter’s awareness. The painter then offers what she or he sees, for us to appreciate. Something which was ‘there’ for the artist is also ‘there’ for us, even if it appears differently as a result of its representation. This is beauty that we recognize, rather than merely something we imagine and or synthesize.

Within our broader cultural tradition, beauty can be thought of as the first of the three so-called ‘transcendentals’ ~ beauty, goodness, and truth. These three, considered in this sequence, are associated with the thought of the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard.

In common human experience, many of us are at first most attentive to the phenomena of beauty, to things in our perception that summon our positive regard and give us pleasure. As we mature, the concept of goodness —especially as manifest in human acts— also arouses our interest and our concern.

Attentive reflection upon beauty and goodness can lead us to ask significant questions about them. Such as, where do they come from, and why are they part of the world? Why are they important to us? Asking such questions may then lead us to pursue the concept of truth, and to begin to appreciate this third transcendental in relation to the other two. Indeed, in a way that is parallel to the Christian concept of the inter-relationship between the members of the Holy Trinity, our appreciation for beauty, goodness and truth gains depth when we consider them in relation to one another.

Sensing that beauty is real, and something with which the order of Creation is imbued, becomes a doorway to appreciating the reality of goodness and truth. This reality is not dependent upon our acts of perception and imagination. Scripture provides support for this, and for recognizing how beauty exists as an aspect of Creation and as a quality of the Creator. With the Psalmist, we can pray these words: “One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD… (Ps. 27:4).” Or, “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth (Ps. 50:2).” Or with Isaiah, “You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord… (Is. 62:3).” These words are fulfilled as we live in Christ.

In Morning Prayer, we say, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: Come let us adore him (based on Psalm 96:9, KJV).” We do so because “honor and and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are his sanctuary (Ps. 96:6).”

Attending to beauty in ‘the book of nature’ is like attending to the revelation we find in ‘the book of Scripture. Both have the same ‘author,’ and there is much ‘there’ for us to find and discern in each.

 

The image above is of Claude Monet’s painting, The Magpie. A thoughtful reflection upon its significance, in connection with a quote by Henry David Thoreau, can be found in Christophe Andre’s book, Looking at Mindfulness: 25 Ways to Live in the Moment Through Art.

The Beauty of Light

 

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” John states this forthrightly in his Gospel (1:5). Light draws our attention, particularly when set against contrasting darkness. Our inclination to seek light seems to be a near-universal aspect of human nature. Notice how often people are drawn to well-lit rooms and sunlit places to sit or work.

This truism, discerned in natural human experience, is paralleled by a similar phenomenon in our experience of the sacred and of divinity. We often speak of these encounters by employing the metaphor of illumination, of ‘seeing the light.’ A popular contemporary hymn, based in part on imagery from the book of Revelation, has this refrain: “In him there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike. The Lamb is the light of the city of God. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.” These are biblically-inspired, and faith-shaped, prayerful words.

Our created natural humanity is therefore disposed to seek the light, both physically and spiritually. We yearn to discern, to see and to know. And in so many ways, light is the key to perception. Light enables us to discern physical presence from absence; things that are large as compared with those that are small; things that are near as compared with things that are far; and, perhaps most experientially significant, the panoply of color as compared with the mere difference between light and dark. (This is one reason why I buy full-spectrum light bulbs, such as halogen bulbs).

Eugene Peterson’s wonderful translation of part of Matthew 5 prompted me to think along these lines. He renders Jesus’ familiar words, “You are the light of the world,” in this way: “You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.”

Having shared his vocation with his disciples and first followers, Jesus shares his calling with us. In part, it is rooted in the prophet Isaiah’s vocation. When Israel was called to be a light to the nations of the world, Isaiah found that he was called to be an exemplar of this role. We know from history that neither Isaiah nor God’s people were able to fulfill that lofty and sacred summons. Jesus then accepted and fulfilled the same vocation. As members of his Body, he shares it with us, with all its holy responsibility.

Jesus’ sense of his vocation may have been founded upon his appreciation for several texts from Isaiah:

I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations… (Is.42:6)

I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (Is. 49:6)

And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. (Is. 60:3)

Matthew appears to have understood this, and quotes Jesus in this way:

No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Mt. 5:15-16)

Luke confirms this same understanding of Isaiah’s words when he reports on Paul and Barnabas at Antioch. In Acts he portrays Paul as contending for the mission to the Gentiles while applying Isaiahs words to Barnabas and himself:

I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth. (Acts 13:47)

Though we often seek the gift of light for ourselves, for our own sake, God gives light for the life of the world.

 

The image above is by Isaak Levitan, Near Savvino-Storozhevsky Monastery. The hymn, “I want to walk as a child of the light,” can be found (among many other places) in The Hymnal 1982 (#490).

Subject and Object

(James Tissot’s painting, Jesus Looking through a Lattice)

I continue to be fascinated by the distinction between subject and object. That is, between being the subject of the act of seeing, and being the object of someone else’s attention.

Typically, we act as if God and divine revelation are objects of our attention. Notice the way that we often speak about how people ‘seek God’ with the hope of ‘finding’ the divine presence. And yet, of course, God is not ‘lost;’ only we are! So, I think what we really seek is the experience of being ‘found,’ not only by someone who becomes a friend or a lover but most especially by God.

As Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep and his portrayal of the father in the story of the prodigal remind us, God seeks us. We can trace this idea back to the first chapters of Genesis where God seeks our primeval forebear by asking, “where art thou?”(KJV) From the beginning of Creation, we have been the object of God’s subjectivity long before we became personally conscious of it.

In two evocative paintings, James Tissot visually explores this inversion of perspective. These and many of his other 19th century watercolors curiously anticipate modern theatrical approaches to creating ‘scenes.’ His skill in this regard is most dramatically evident in his painting, What Our Savior Saw from the Cross (below). Portraying what we often think of as the decisive moment in salvation history, Tissot doesn’t show us Jesus as he suffers on our behalf. Instead, Tissot depicts the Lord’s loving regard for others who suffer because of their love for him. He who is so often the object of our devotional regard is represented as the subject of God’s attentive concern for us.

Much more subtle, yet equally significant I think, is his delightful painting, Jesus Looking through a Lattice (image at the top). I believe that this apparently whimsical image by Tissot actually embodies a profound spiritual and theological insight. For why does Tissot portray Jesus as looking at us, the viewers of this painting, peering at us through a lattice? Taking the image both literally and figuratively, has Jesus gone in to an inner chamber where he awaits us to join him? Or, have we gone out into the garden of our own pursuits while yet remaining within his view? Is he being coy, ‘spying’ on us (as we might say)? Or are we the ones who prefer to be somewhat hidden? Though both are possible, our usual instincts lead us to assume the former. Even though we are always the objects of divine loving regard, whether we are aware of it or not.

May we continue to experience the joy of being found by God.

 

The images above are by James Tissot ~ Jesus Looking through a Lattice, and What our Lord Saw from the Cross. Both water color paintings are featured in the exhibit, “James Tissot: Fashion and Faith,” at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco. After February 9, 2020 the exhibit moves to Paris.

The Beauty of the Word

 

A medieval monk depicts the Lord creating the cosmos while employing a builder’s compass. The Creation is no sudden or random act. God proceeds with intention and purpose, and according to pattern. As a result, the pattern of Creation reflects the pattern of divine rationality. Given how we live at a time in history when ‘feelings’ tend to be privileged, this illuminator’s image may be particularly significant.

As John’s Gospel puts it, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being (John 1:1-3).”

Surely, the monk who painted this image had John’s words in mind, as well as a rich appreciation for their meaning. Though this painting is sometimes referred to as “God the Father Measuring the Universe,” another title given for it, “God the Geometer,” may be more accurate. For the image presents a figure in human form that resembles many depictions of the incarnation of the Word, the second person of the Trinity. And so, the identity of the agent of Creation in this image may be secondary to the action of the agent.

In Sister Wendy’s view, “God created out of his own pure goodness; his only motive was to share what he was.” And so the artist depicts a “majestic and beautiful face… wholly concentrated on making the world as good as it can possibly be.” We see “God himself… supremely ordered, a beautiful God in the artist’s imagination… slowly and carefully fashioning a beautiful world.”

Here, in human form, we see the beauty of the divine being. As the Scripture-shaped Tradition of spiritual Reasoning teaches us, we see this beauty in the face of the one who became the Word made flesh.

Several biblical texts come to mind in relation to this image of the divine architect of the cosmos. In citing them, I want to point to how they illustrate this embodied vision of God’s creative handiwork.

Among these texts is Colossians 1:15-17: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible… all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Or consider Hebrews 1:3: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” Among the things that have come into being through him, and which are sustained by his word, is the nature of our humanity. We embody the same human nature as that in which the Word became flesh. The same pattern of divine rationality that is imprinted upon the form of the cosmos is imprinted upon us. Therefore, the Creator and Redeemer intends that the ‘microcosm’ who each one of us is should reflect the macrocosm of the universe, especially as it was beautifully created by the divine Architect. It is no accident that this painting was made at the same time that the great cathedrals in Europe were being built according to the same vision.

Yet, this is not the ‘full story.’ Though I have been made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-28), like all others I have the strange capacity -even the inclination- to be in rebellion against the One for whom and through whom I was made.  In response, God challenges the proclivities of our fallen human nature. This challenge is memorably expressed in God’s rhetorical question to Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding (Job 38:4).”

Yet, God’s final, and non-rhetorical response to our folly is filled with promise and a restatement of purpose. We find this response at the end of John’s Revelation (21:5-6): “See, I am making all things new… It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” We are among those ‘things’ made new. And God’s redemptive work transforms both space and time.

John Keble expressed this vision in the beautiful words of a poem for Epiphanytide: “When souls of highest birth | Waste their impassioned might on dreams of earth, | He opens Nature’s book, | And on his glorious Gospel bids them look, | Till by such chords as rule the choirs above, | Their lawless cries are tuned to hymns of perfect love.”

The Book of Nature has the same ‘author’ as the Book of Scripture. And the nature I inhabit has the same designer as does the Scripture that helps me know and love him. “The earth is the Lord’s for he made it: Come, let us adore him!”

 

The image above is sometimes titled “God the Geometer,” from The Bible Moralisee, ca 1220. Some homilies of mine, on which prior several prior blog posts were based, may be accessed by clicking here. The quote by Sister Wendy is from her book, Sister Wendy’s Bible Treasury. The verse from the poem by John Keble is found in The Christian Year.