Author: Stephen Holmgren

I have been an Episcopal priest for thirty eight years, having served in parishes and in academia. My interests include art and theology, liturgy and spirituality, and I love to go sailing whenever I can.

Beauty Springeth Out of Naught

The Queen’s coffin is borne into St. George’s Chapel, Windsor

 

Once again, to my delight, the Robert Bridges’ text, “All my hope on God is founded,” set to Herbert Howells’ tune, Michael, was a musical selection for the Committal Service for the late Queen, this time as part of a liturgy in the more intimate setting of  St George’s Chapel, Windsor. This is a hymn tune and text that might deepen your spiritual life. It certainly has had this effect upon me.

One of the striking lines in Bridges’ remarkable hymn text, sung by the whole congregation at the Queen’s Service of Committal, is this: “God’s great goodness aye endureth, deep his wisdom, passing thought: splendour, light, and life attend him, beauty springeth out of naught.”

That line wonderfully honors the biblical account in Genesis of God’s creation of the vastly beautiful universe out of nothing, as well as the glory of the Lord’s resurrection after crucifixion from an empty tomb. It provides an encouraging reminder that even when we feel most empty, or when circumstances seem most unpromising, God brings light in the darkness, and creates beauty where ugliness seems to prevail.

Bridges’ compelling hymn text complements all that has been said in honor of the late Queen’s reliance upon her faith, her life of duty and service, and self-sacrifice. Indeed, the role of faith in her life, and her unhesitating devotion to it, are the kinds of attributes that later lead those who propose additions to the Church’s calendar to consider someone like Elizabeth II for such a fitting remembrance.

For all her hope on God was founded, and she exemplified the beauty of a well-lived public life. She might well have protested that it was an apparent ‘beauty sprung out of naught,’ but the recent fortnight of observances and demonstrations of respect show that most think and believe otherwise.This fits with how -as a sincere Christian- she truly believed that Grace provides where human limitations fall short.

Here is the full text of the hymn. Verse 2 was omitted at the Queen’s Committal service, perhaps out of sensitivity regarding her solemn commitment to upholding the institution of the monarchy. But I very much doubt that the Queen had any hesitation about the generic point of those words.

All my hope on God is founded;
he doth still my trust renew.
Me through change and chance he guideth,
only good and only true.
God unknown,
he alone
calls my heart to be his own.

Human pride and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray his trust;
what with care and toil he buildeth,
tower and temple, fall to dust.
But God’s power,
hour by hour,
is my temple and my tower.

God’s great goodness aye endureth,
deep his wisdom, passing thought:
splendour, light, and life attend him,
beauty springeth out of naught.
Evermore
from his store
new-born worlds rise and adore.

Daily doth th’ Almighty giver
bounteous gifts on us bestow;
his desire our soul delighteth,
pleasure leads us where we go.
Love doth stand
at his hand;
joy doth wait on his command.

Still from earth to God eternal
sacrifice of praise be done,
high above all praises praising
for the gift of Christ his Son.
Christ doth call
one and all:
ye who follow shall not fall.

Based on its inclusion in the September 9 Service of Remembrance (along with an anthem setting by Howells), and it having been featured again at the September 19 Committal service, this hymn was surely one of the Queen’s favorites. For we are told that she selected all the music and other liturgical and ceremonial details for these recent services. With its lyrical melody, and its positive and faith-stirring text, so fitting to the Queen and her life, “All my hope on God is founded” is another treasure among works offered for Anglican worship and liturgy.

 

The photos above are screen capture images from the Royal Family’s YouTube channel recording of the Committal Service for Her Majesty The Queen.

The Truth Within Beauty

 

There is something remarkable about traditional English and Anglican choral music. We hear it in the sustained notes sung without vibrato, and the full throated melodical willingness almost to shout out the most stirring words in beloved anthems.

For me, this was most movingly displayed in the recent Service of Prayer and Reflection on the Queen’s Life, broadcast from St Paul’s Cathedral, London, following the televised address by the new King Charles.

The beautifully lyrical Herbert Howells tune, Michael, set for the processional hymn, was a most appropriate way to begin this liturgy remembering Elizabeth. Especially with its text, so meaningful for the occasion (“All my hope on God is founded…”). And then, to my further wonder, the first anthem was also a stirring setting by Howells, and sung in the most inspiring way by the cathedral choristers.

Having lived almost six years in England, all of it at Oxford, with the opportunity to hear Evensong sung by equally gifted choirs on a daily basis during term, has surely disposed me to a particular bias. English Anglicans can do liturgy and ceremony in the most superior and yet also spiritually evocative way, especially when it is non-politicized. We have much to learn from them on this side of ‘the pond.’

Perhaps it is first a willingness – by some of the most reticent people I have lived and worked with – to reach for and grasp at transcendence. And then, to express that desire and its fulfillment in worship, in a way that is so compelling for many. Witness two thousand seats filled on short notice in a first come, first served way for the Prayer and Reflection service for Queen Elizabeth. Many of those among the congregation appeared moved by the experience though it was also apparent that not all were familiar with Anglican hymns or forms of worship.

I would suggest that it was, and will remain, in large part the capacity of music – and music well-composed and well-prepared – which draws people into the power of beauty, and which also creates experiences of transcendence and of truth. Yet it is also the power of the word, both in the form of the words of the liturgies as well as in the Word as presented in Scripture. Well-chosen and well-presented biblical and liturgical texts, as well as those prepared for proclamation, allow people unfamiliar with the Christian faith and its customary practices to find themselves stirred. For this preparation and these practices invite others to be curious about the transcendent motivation behind and accounting for these remarkable occasions of public worship.

I have no doubt that the Queen’s upcoming funeral will provide no less of such an experience.

 

The above photos are screen captures of images from the UK’s Sky News streaming rebroadcast of the Service of Prayer and Reflection on the Queen’s Life, from St. Paul’s Cathedral, London (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KgOridFp7Do). Here is a link to the full text of that service (C ofE_Anglican_service_of_prayer_and_reflection_1)

I offer this with grateful thanks for the music ministry of John Hamersma, Mary Hamersma Baas, and Benita Woltersdorf-Fredlund, whose ministries have not only enriched my life and those of many others, but also have changed and affirmed our lives forward in a most positive way.

Patio Project Near Completion

 

And just in time. My brother’s return flight to Seattle has loomed on the calendar, along with the daily weather forecasts. We have been most fortunate, keeping on track with the former while dealing with the latter. The photo above shows the basic work done: poured concrete edging well set; foundation for pavers put in; and the pavers themselves set in place. Two further photos may help show how this was far from a simple process.

Here we see the packed gravel foundation for the patio, with sand above it, between the concrete edge surround on the left, and a wooden frame on the right. Below is a photo of an ingenious wooden framing-tool my brother created, which first helped us level the gravel, and then assisted us to achieve a level, packed sand surface for the pavers.

Careful attention to two things at this point made a huge difference. The first was to attending to old fashioned geometry – making sure everything was square. Because if we were not attentive to this point from the placing of the first square, all else would have been difficult and possibly compromised.

Also critical at this stage was leveling the sand, assisted by hand-holds of sand, a shovel, and a very handy 6″ spackle blade. With my brother’s home-made framing tool (depicted above), laying the pavers on a flat but slightly sloped surface was (as some might say, perhaps wrongly) ‘a piece of cake!’

Here we are after the first few rows. We did all of them in about 5-6 hours. Though we have some edging work left to do, and putting some very fine sand between the pavers, as well as between them and the concrete edging, we have essentially achieved our goal.

Here is how it looked before we started!

 

 

A Patio Project by My Brother, with a Good Neighbor’s Help

Building the frames for the concrete edging

 

The project continues, as does the seemingly ceaseless rain! Living near the Gulf of Mexico in the summer brings the possibility of lingering low pressure cells, sometimes dropping inch-an-hour rain. We have entered that middle stage of a project where we have done enough so far to prevent turning back, and yet not far enough along to have confidence about the intended result.

80 pound bags of Quikrete are not easy to lift and move around, and are far more challenging to handle than individual stone pavers. And three cubic yards of ‘gravels and fines’ (perhaps about 5 tons!), brought here to south Louisiana by barge, must be moved from the driveway out front to the new patio out back. In the midst of these considerations, a 9″diameter trunk magnolia had to come down because its roots had already compromised the prior patio. We accomplished that mostly by using a handsaw, but the providential appearance of a neighbor with a chainsaw helped us take care of the hardest and last part of that task.

The magnolia on its way down! (the debris in the roof valley is coming down, as well)

Another confidence-building point has been the kind help provided by our thoughtful next door neighbor, who volunteered to drive his Bobcat small tractor to assist us. In the process of helping clear the area for the new patio, as well as to move the gravel around to the back, we made a discovery. A very large, 80-100′ ancient pine tree had also intruded roots under the whole area of the old patio, and needed to be removed. Below is a photo of the guy who climbed that tall old tree to achieve its removal.

Having cleared the trees and roots, we have continued to deal with the challenge of almost daily heavy rains. Though my brother very carefully provided a packed gravel base for the new patio, heavy rain flooded the area. His good work enabled him to put in a wooden framework for the concrete edge of our intended project, and has allowed us to begin pouring new cement into it.

My brother’s self-taught knowledge of landscaping has helped him know how to prepare a proper foundation for pouring cement in this way, including how to handle rebar. The photo below shows how he has carefully anticipated a pour that we intended to make this afternoon.

As we began to pour fresh cement, the rain (of course) began again:

More to follow!

The Beauty of a Brother’s Skills

Before: a patio needing to be replaced!

 

Having planned to be away to be with her sister for a week, my wife suggested that I might invite one of my brothers to visit during this time. Greg lives in the far Northwest on Puget Sound, and is an adept self-taught home landscaper as well as builder. The opportunity for a visit coincided with an opportunity to address a need. We have a patio that has become compromised by tree roots as well as a lack of a durable foundation.

Attracted by the beauty of a new patio, but daunted by the prospect of achieving it, I wondered. But Greg not only came for a good visit, he brought his cement finishing tools with him. Ok – game on! If you have been fortunate to have one or more siblings like I have, you may appreciate how wonderful it is to have someone with whom you have grown up be a continuing part of your journey toward wholeness.

This week I would like to share with you the beauty of my own experience of having a sibling who is more skilled at doing some things that I only imagine, and wish I could do myself. Yes, sibling relationships may sometimes be complicated. But there are certain treasures to be found in those relationships that friendships with others can fall short of discerning or attaining.

The former patio flagstones and pea gravel removed

What I marvel at is my brother’s ability to conceive of the broad parameters of a project, from the initial stage outward to the desired result. A couple of outings to nearby large-box hardware and supply stores provided me/us with needed tools, materials, and a slight boost in confidence (for me). We all want dream results, while most of us don’t really want to pay for them!

But the real boost in confidence came with the next step. A good friend of one of my sons recommended a vendor for varieties of landscape stone. This was somewhat unexpected in our part of south Louisiana, where all the soil that exists is essentially alluvial, and where no natural or native stone is generally found. Here, we live upon the deposit of thousands if not millions of years of transposed and deposited soils from Montana (via the Missouri), Minnesota (via the Mississippi), the states between them, along to the rivers’ combined outlet in the Gulf of Mexico, just south of us. And so, we found these attractive paving stones (below) in the discount area of a local vendor, where large pallets of multi-sized pavers had been picked through, and where – perhaps- enough leftover pieces for our smaller project might be found. They were!

Some of the new ‘pavers’ adjacent to the removed flagstone

Having priced the general market for such stones, we had found a deal. But beyond that welcome result, I find myself most grateful for my brother’s discernment about which blocks on the ‘discount’ pallets were worth obtaining, and those which might not meet our expectations for final appearance quality.

The project continues despite frequent and heavy Louisiana summer rains!

The Beauty of a Mini Canal Boat

Beulah, based on Philip Thiel’s design, Escargot

 

For many of us the words “beauty” and “boats” naturally go together. A compelling example comes from the work of former Seattle-based architect and boat designer, Philip Thiel. He produced an elegantly simple and shortened canal boat design called Escargot that can be built in a standard garage by a person with average carpentry skills. Just over 18′ long, and 6′ wide, the resulting boat is trailerable, and reasonably economical to build. Multiple versions with unique variations have been constructed, as the photos here display.

I have long admired the simplicity of Escargot’s design as well as its evident functionality. I am equally appreciative of Escargot’s sister designs, in particular the larger Joli Boat. Below is a French adaptation of Escargot, named Caracole. She is shown under propulsion by a sculling oar.

Above are the basic plan details for Escargot, built with sheets of 4′ x 8′ plywood and standard lumber such as 2 x 4’s.

It is the shallow draft and relative compactness of the Escargot design that permits boaters manually to propel her, whether by oars and paddles, and or by pedal-powered propellers, and into more intimate waters. The cockpit of a European pedal-propelled Escargot is pictured below.

Beulah (above) features an elegant modification of the interior plan with a raised roof to create greater headroom. As compared with that unique approach to the interior, below are two more traditional interpretations of Thiel’s plan for living arrangements.

 

 

Study plans for Escargot, as well as full working drawings, can be obtained from The Wooden Boat Store website ( https://www.woodenboatstore.com/products/phil-thiels-escargot-study-plan-digital).

Hokusai and Mt Fuji

 

Hokusai (1760-1849), Fine Wind, Clear Morning (or Red Fuji), as it may appear at sunrise

 

One of the most well known Japanese wood block print artists, Hokusai, has left a large legacy of much admired prints almost as well-known in the West as in Japan. He was a master of the medium and could produce some incredibly detailed images. Hokusai may be best known for his series of prints, Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji, several of which I am featuring here. Having grown up in Japan, in Tokyo and Yokohama, seeing Fuji-San, as the Japanese refer to the (inactive) volcano, was a frequent and pleasing sight in good weather.

Among his Mount Fuji series, Hokusai’s image of The Great Wave off Kanagawa (below) is perhaps his most famous.

What strikes me about many of Hokusai’s prints was his willingness to produce a graphic simplicity that now looks distinctly modern, especially when depicting Fuji, even though many of his prints are 200+ years old. Unlike his Red Fuji (top image) he often decided to portray the mountain in a diminished scale or in a secondary way relative to the wider context depicted in some of his prints.

Here, above, is an example featuring a graphically simple rendering of the volcano. It is titled The Inume Pass, from the same Mount Fuji series. The image below is another from the set, once again illustrating his juxtaposition of attention to sometimes complex visual details alongside an appealing, almost flat or two dimensional simplicity when depicting Fuji. Hokusai’s portrayal of the contrast between white snow cover and the dark volcanic rock of the mountain is just how I remember it, with the dappled overlap between its upper and lower regions.

One of my favorite prints captures what appears to be an evening view of men in a boat (below), afloat above wind or current-stirred waves, with a great arching bridge and Mount Fuji again standing serenely in the distant background. With the sun having set in the west, the foreground of the mountain is in shadow – in this, the land of the rising sun.

 

More on Contrast and Continuity

The School of Athens, and The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, by Raphael

 

Prompted by an article by William Least Heat-Moon, I reflect once again on two interrelated frescoes by Raphael. On his sometime-ago trip to the Yucatan, Least Heat-Moon was accompanied by his Mayan translator, Berto. There, the author encountered a destroyed Mayan temple. Regarding the temple’s relation to a later Christian cathedral occupying the same site, he quotes his translator.

“Many stones come from a Mayan temple that was long ago on this hill,” [said Berto, who] regretted this destruction. Yet to him, the broken stones imparted an additional dimension to the church because ancient Mayas usually did not destroy an earlier structure, instead building over it to layer meaning and power.

What an insight regarding contrast and continuity.

With that in mind, consider how visitors entering the Vatican Raphael room do so facing the fresco in the lower of the two images above. They behold a painting depicting an altar in a church space, surrounded by the Holy Trinity and famous saints and biblical figures. Turning around in that same space, visitors see the fresco in the upper image. It depicts great persons from the classical world, with Plato and Aristotle in the middle. Tour guides typically present these two paintings, which face each other, in terms of the contrast between them, saying things like: “Here, on this wall, we have the best minds of the pagan world. But, on the opposite wall, we see great saints of the Bible and the Church.”

We can look at these two interrelated paintings in another way. We might also see the continuity between them, even if the content of the two paintings seems rather different. For example, notice how the two frescos are composed with the same elements: similar colors and textures; the same arch over each image; and that the two spaces in which the figures walk or sit may be in the same building. And how the perspective or vanishing point in each painting mirrors that of the other.

Further, visitors who enter this room walk forward in the same direction as do Plato and Aristotle, who therefore share company with their contemporary pilgrims. Together, they and their later newcomers walk forward, approaching an altar surrounded by many saints! As a result, Raphael’s two paintings provide a splendid reflection on the theme of continuity.

Perceiving points of continuity between pre-Christian cultures and central themes in Scripture and in Western Christian theology has historically been more typical of the broader Catholic tradition, which includes not only Roman Catholics but also Anglican as well as some Reformed theologians, poets, and hymn writers. A contrasting parallel is provided by a historic tendency among many Protestant writers, preachers, and theologians, who have stressed a discontinuity not only between a Christian and a pagan view of the world, but often a perceived antithesis between them. This may caution us about making an ‘either/or‘ of what some may perceive as being a ‘both-and.’

Some who commend Celtic spirituality offer a compelling observation about Christian holy places in Ireland. Celtic crosses can often be found in or among pre-Christian places of worship. To the extent that this is so, we discern an openness to perceiving continuity. That is, a continuity between a place previously associated with a pre-Christian form of religion, and a later Christian willingness to pray and worship at the same location. Here, we should note a significant distinction.

Continuity does not imply sameness nor equivalence. There may be similar elements between what was before and what may come after. Such similarities do not obviate the potential newness and difference of what arrives later. Yes, the ‘new’ may bring change by covering over and even by replacing what came before, an approach typically characterizing contrast and discontinuity. Yet, the ‘new’ may bring change positively, by building upon what came before while also including and transforming it. No finer example of this exists than the Pantheon in Rome, also known as Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs.

All this has implications not only for the Christian transformation of places but also for how we view the baptismal transformation of people.

 

The images above are of two of Raphael’s paintings, traditionally titled The School of Athens, and The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament. My prior blog post on these paintings may be found here: https://towardbeauty.org/2019/09/28/the-beauty-of-contrast-and-continuity/ . That post is based on my homily for Sunday, September 22, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum

 

The Guggenheim Museum, 5th Avenue, NYC (1959)

 

What a wonder it is, sitting there so apparently out of sync with its neighboring buildings. Instead, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum seems to reach out toward the great park across the avenue. Critics sometimes lament the museum’s apparent disconnect with its context. Yet, others – I among them – rejoice at that discontinuity, given its so many linear, box-like surrounding buildings. When commissioned to add a companion tower adjacent to Wright’s spiral masterpiece, rather than compete with it, Gwathmey Siegel & Associates produced an astute counterpoint in a large rectangular structure with a neutral limestone facade. The tower beautifully keeps our focus on the lyrical curving form of the original museum, as well as expresses continuity with nearby buildings.

Like many, I find when visiting this building a remarkable refreshment of spirit, and experience within it an enhanced sense of life. For the museum provides a context fitting our inclination toward what is spiritual, not merely to what is material. As with the earlier precedents of Wright’s Unity Temple, Oak Park, and the Johnson Wax headquarters, Racine, it surely has to do with Wright’s attention to natural illumination from skylights. Whether or not one walks from the top level down at the Guggenheim, as Wright envisioned, or from the ground level up, the visitor’s eyes are drawn up within the swirling interior space to the light above, gracing the whole through the great oculus of the circular skylight.

An evident facet of this highly sculptural building stems from its late 1950’s time of construction – how the exterior walls of the concrete spiral ramps reveal a degree of unevenness in their outward surfaces (top photo). This was and is a humanly made building, reflecting our highest aspirations in terms of design while also some of the limits of our historic craftwork with materials.

Wright’s Guggenheim Museum is appropriately ranked among examples of world-class architecture. Both lauded and criticized at the time of its opening, it has taken decades to be matched by the work of another master of the medium, Frank Gehry, architect of the Bilbao Guggenheim in Spain. Like Wright, he could envision and then design structures exploring the plasticity of modern materials and building methods. It is well to recall that Wright was in his 70’s when he began to create the plan for the Guggenheim (in 1943), and near his 92nd birthday when it was completed in 1959, delayed by the postwar recession.

Guggenheim Museum, Interior View (note the red Calder mobile)

Paul Horgan, while reflecting on the buildings of John Gaw Meem, offered words I find so fitting to Wright’s achievement on Fifth Avenue. “As one of the only great arts to offer physical shelter not only to [our] works but also to [our] spirit, architecture can convey directly the sense of an enclosing confirmation of [our human] desire to believe in a sustaining power beyond [ourselves].” With the Guggenheim, Wright not only achieved a magnificent context for the display of art, but also created what has become “a temple for the human spirit” (a phrase used in the terms of his commission).

This building does not stand alone. An amazing aspect of Wright’s architectural career is not only that he had the visionary imagination to conceive of so many remarkable structures, the audacity to commend them to potential clients, and the providential support for his proposals from so many well-funded benefactors.

With the Guggenheim, beauty ‘incarnate’ is embodied in construction materials and in a form that transcends what we typically expect now in architecture. Here we encounter a building that nurtures aspiration for what may be next in life. It may even prompt an unexpected experience of hope and joy for what it means to be human.

 

Meem and Territorial Revival Style

La Quinta, Interior Courtyard and Pool, 1938

La Quinta, Exterior

John Gaw Meem’s appreciation for and promotion of the Spanish Pueblo Revival approach to architectural design is closely associated with what many call the Santa Fe Style. Yet, as early as the late 1920’s, Meem is also credited with initiating another style, Territorial Revival, which also became prevalent in the city and region. While continuing to use wall surfaces and color tones suggestive of adobe, Meem and his associates began to introduce into their building designs some Greek Revival features that date back to the late 18th and 19th centuries. As we see in the photos of La Quinta, above, among these features are a return to an evident employment of symmetry, the specification for lintels above windows and doorways, and often with triangular pediments. Also, instead of untreated wood or dark stained columns we find Meem choosing whitewashed uprights matching a similar choice for window trim as well as for the doors.

A good example of Meem’s transition to this Territorial Revival style can be seen in the details of the porch area of  the 1928 Conkey Residence (below). Though painted a teal color, the windows have received their triangular pediments, and we see ornamental detailing on the shutters as well is in the scrollwork forming a porch rail. These features, as well as those noted above, characterize a move away from his more imitative Pueblo style and indicate a preference, likely influenced by some clients, to incorporate architectural elements suggesting an increased formality and an evident dialogue with earlier and classically inspired design.

Meem’s first public building employing this style was the Federal Emergency Recovery Act building (below, 1934), funded by the Depression era Works Project Administration. Similar to the slightly later La Quinta, we notice the brick cornice aligning the top edges of the exterior walls, similar to interior crown molding, which also echoes an aspect of classically inspired design.

Federal Emergency Recovery Act Building, 1934

Meem’s approach to architecture, with both his Spanish Pueblo Revival and his Territorial Revival styles, might suggest an anti-modernist rejection of contemporary European inspired design principles in favor of an adherence to an evident regionalism. Yet, Meem contended that his architectural work effectively blended aspects of modern architecture with a sensitivity to both local history and contextually appropriate materials. Even when working with concrete for the Colorado Springs Art Center, perhaps his most International School-looking building (which evokes European modernism / featured in a prior post), Meem sought out a formula for the poured mix that would render the color of the walls a warm cream tone instead of a cool gray.

Santa Fe County Courthouse (1939)

Meem’s Santa Fe County Courthouse (depicted above) reflects an interesting hybrid between the Spanish Pueblo Revival and the emerging Territorial Revival styles. There are marked outward similarities between this structure and his earlier pueblo style buildings and yet also some rather divergent details. This view of the building’s courtyard entrance (recently restored) reflects a creative blend of influences, including historic pueblo buildings, a Spanish design sensibility, and yet also a nod to modernism, most evident in the massing of structural forms as well as in the turquoise clad windows punctuating the walls of the side wings.