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The Beauty of Ansel Adams’ Vision

 

Here is one image of Ansel Adams’ encounter with the evocative forms, textures, and light-sensitive surfaces of the historic church in Taos, New Mexico.

Here is another of his images of the same church, from the east end:

Adams’ attentiveness to the features of the natural world, and with his particular eye to the dynamic interrelationship between light and dark, helped him to create a legacy of compelling photographs that continue to be a source of allure for those who love photography. Many of us find especially compelling his winter images, as well as those of Yosemite and northern New Mexico, where he spent so much time in the field.

Adams’ photographs often prompt me to think of John’s Gospel. This is because of Adams’ and John’s mutual interest in the juxtaposition of light and dark, and the dynamic relation between the two in our perception and experience. Given our present physical as well as spiritual existence in this world, and considering the terms of successful photography, the presence of the dark helps us appreciate the beauty of light.

A technical inquiry into Ansel Adams methods, about how he photographed scenes with film-based cameras, helps us appreciate the significance of his technique. He used lens filters to highlight visual contrast, and was equally attentive to the composition of the chemical baths used for developing the negatives and the subsequent prints made from them. Noticing and considering these aspects of his creative work helps us appreciate how the ‘given-ness’ of what he saw was also shaped by how he came to render and present it. If he had been a religious man, he might have attributed some of this ‘rendering process’ to the shaping power of the grace of the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel writer, John, in receiving, interpreting, and then presenting Jesus and his ministry, as well as Jesus’ life and death, had a similar challenge. There was the ‘given-ness’ of Jesus’ teachings, signs or mighty acts, and his powerful presence in the eyes of many. Yet, John, led by the Holy Spirit, has given us a marvelous Gospel shaped by the spiritual dialectic between light and dark. And this is what brings to mind the ostensibly secular parallel provided by Ansel Adams’ portfolio. Among several passages in John, consider the marvelous account of Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus by night in chapter 2. And John, alone among the Gospels, records Jesus as saying, “I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Perhaps, when we are brought to the hoped-for ‘other side,’ we won’t experience a contrast between light and dark, but rather something more like a contrast among various captivating colors. Yet, while in this world, and while our lives remain colored by sin, we see, and we see better, when we are blessed by the perception of contrast between light and dark.

A ‘both-and’ approach to what we encounter in life may be congenial and even comforting when we deal with paradox and contradiction. But, an either/or challenge to our preferred ways of seeing things can be bracing and helpful for our perception. This is one reason why, even though most of us see the world in color, black and white photographs can be so evocative. As John recognizes in his Gospel, the darkness that has not overcome the light helps us recognize the Light of the world.

 

In memory of Robert (Bob) Bolton of Albuquerque, NM (1948-2022).

 

The Beauty of Picasso’s Guernica

 

It was probably in the summer of 1974 when I first stood before this remarkably stirring painting, Guernica, by Pablo Picasso (at MOMA, NYC). His fullest creative talents, as well as sensitivity to many aspects of our common human condition, came together to help him produce this recognized masterpiece. Not the least of the key features of this painting was his decision to render the composition in black, white and shades of grey.

Remember that he was ‘Pablo,’ not ‘Pierre,’ Picasso -that he was a Spaniard by birth, and in important ways, by self-identification.

In the context in which I compose these words, with Russia presently invading Ukraine, Picasso’s painting, and National Geographic’s somewhat unexpected reference to it at this moment, I am once again reminded of my recent visit to the Calder and Picasso exhibit at MFAH (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston). The image below, featured early in the walk through of that exhibit, shows Calder standing in front on Picasso’s Guernica, looking at his own contribution to the Spanish Pavilion for the 1937 Paris International World’s Fair.

Noting these precedents, I want to raise a question, which cannot simply or quickly be answered. What is the role of art, and of our exploration of beauty, in relation to the reality of evil?

A powerful example of a response to this question is provided by Illya Repin’s painting, Ivan the Terrible and his Son Ivan (1581). A more recent example is Francisco de Goya’s 1814 painting, The Third of May. And, of course, so many portrayals of the crucifixion of Jesus.

A partial answer to the question I have posed is to say at least this: art and the exploration of beauty has the potential to remind us of our common humanity, and especially of the ideals we attach to our best and shared perceptions of what it means to be human – even in the face of evil and of death.

Picasso’s Guernica provides a compelling example of a good answer to this question.

The Beauty of Balance

 

 

Recently, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH) featured a show of the work of Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso. The two were exact contemporaries and were acquainted with one another.

Like Picasso, Calder became famous for the wide range of his artistic expression. Most memorable are his ‘mobiles,’ beloved by many. These floating sculptures are the beautifully balanced hanging assemblies of wire and pieces of sheet metal. Unlike the example above, they are usually covered in bright colors or flat black paint.

His ‘stabiles‘ are floor-based sculptures that incorporate flat surfaces arranged in three-dimensional relationships, both vertical and horizontal. Some are wonderfully fluid given the curved shape of their panels, while others are geometric, more linear, and ‘edgy.’

The above photo features what I think was the final study model for La Grande Vitesse, his huge lyrical stabile which now sits on a principal downtown plaza in Grand Rapids, Michigan (which I have featured before.)

Obviously, Calder’s mobiles -especially the most successful ones- depend upon an engineer’s sensitivity for balance, while featuring his not-easily-imitable sense of proportion, shape, and color. He also blessed his mobiles with a capacity to drift quietly with the slightest breezes.

Less obvious is how the element of balance features in his stabiles. This involves the balance between vertical and horizontal elements; it also includes the balance between curved edges and flat surfaces. And finally, his stabiles incorporate the most subtle balance of all. This is the balance achieved by the artist when providing a cohesive experience of visual excitement for the viewer who sees each aspect of a stabile sculpture while walking around it.

Calder has been quoted as saying this: “The admission of approximation is necessary, for one cannot hope to be absolute in his precision. He cannot see, or even conceive of a thing from all possible points of view, simultaneously. While he perfects the front, the side, or rear may be weak; then while he strengthens the other facade he may be weakening that [one which was] originally the best. There is no end to this. To finish the work he must approximate.”

Surely, this is equally true of the spiritual life. Many of us are tempted toward the ideal of some kind of ‘perfection,’ surely never attainable by fallen humans such as ourselves. Yet, that pursuit of a kind of absoluteness and or precision, however attractive, is not true to our lives as pilgrims on an unfolding journey. Such a journey is an ancient and compelling metaphor for our lives, in Scripture and in our tradition.

So, yes, in the abstract, there are some things that are absolutely true in principle. But we so often seek and pursue them while ‘walking in circles,’ admiring the beauty, goodness and truth of what is before us. And yet, our grasp of, and appreciation for, the whole is often based on a single, or a limited number of perspectives. We then are kept from seeing the fullness of the many marvelous gifts given to us by and through our Creator’s grace-filled pursuit of us. Seeking and then finding a balance between sometimes competing perspectives and concerns can be an important step toward perceiving beauty when otherwise it may be hard to see.

I can think of no finer balanced-juxtaposition of these several elements within Calder’s extensive portfolio than the one depicted above, temporarily exhibited in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. A mobile gently moves above you, while you stand. You gently move around a stabile while it stands.

 

{my photograph; copyright reserved} / Regarding the above quote from Calder, remember that while his choice of pronouns may not be what we prefer, they were characteristic of what was considered ‘proper English’ and assumed to be fully inclusive at that time.

The Beauty of Intuition

 

Georgia O’Keeffe offers a compelling insight: “Artists and religionists are never far apart, they go to the sources of revelation for what they choose to experience and what they report is the degree of their experiences. Intellect wishes to arrange — intuition wishes to accept.”

“… intuition wishes to accept.” Whether we are considering the spiritual life or what we apprehend through art, our openness to what we might experience is the key to what we might accept. As O’Keeffe seems to suggest, we are not the source of revelation in either sphere of consciousness. We are the recipients of revelation in both realms. I think her second notable insight is to perceive the intrinsic connection between the two sources of what she calls revelation.

Medieval Christian mystics and writers had a similar insight about our experience of Creation, and our encounter with the Bible. They sometimes referred to the former as the Book of Nature and the latter as the Book of Scripture. The two ‘books’ have the same author, as well as overlapping content, even if differing in their redemptive significance. In ‘reading’ both, we are the recipients of beauty, goodness, and truth. By accepting what we apprehend through each source, our intuition is more broadly formed and informed.

Intuition is something of a cousin to prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Like these natural virtues, first described by the ancient Greeks, intuition is a capacity or strength that we are born with. And like the four Greek virtues, intuition is not something we simply have, but an aspect of our consciousness that can be developed through exercise and practice.

Prayers, meditations and reflections, and even sermons are often ‘reports’ of spiritual growth, just as O’Keeffe’s beautiful paintings are communications of her own artistic experience. Parallel to the way that many of the Psalms attest to the beauty of God’s graceful handiwork, O’Keeffe’s paintings often display a spiritually lyrical quality. As she says, “artists and religionists are never far apart” – an appreciation that more and more Christian teachers and writers are reclaiming from earlier visionaries in our tradition.

The beauty of holiness. And  the holiness of beauty. Reflecting on these parallel experiences can help us be open to and appreciate Georgia O’Keefe’s insight about intuition.

 

The Beauty of Now

 

Rembrandt’s paintings are so often moving, and speak well of the Dutch genius who created them. When many of his contemporaries sought to portray people and events with greater realism, even if with much feeling, Rembrandt often put the ‘feeling’ side of his work first.

Rembrandt shows his sensitivity to an aspect of the anticipated birth of John the Baptizer. John’s parents were old and despaired about ever having a son who might carry on their name. The artist depicts the aged priest, Zachariah, leaning on a young attendant upon hearing that Mary has arrived. He portrays Elizabeth as also showing her years as she greets her relative with warm regard. Though Mary bears within her womb the holy child of God, she appears humbled in the presence of Elizabeth, perhaps awed at how the grace of God could touch both of their lives in such an unexpected way. Light shines on the two of them, just as it should, given the way that Luke highlights this holy aspect of their shared story. Thankfulness and quiet joy suffuse the scene like the warm light at its center.

Waiting and anticipation are themes we associate with the beautiful season of Advent. In one sense, these two words suggest we already know what we are anticipating, for what we are awaiting. By contrast, Luke’s story about the Visitation suggests a variation on those themes. “Expect the un-expected,” it seems to say, to us who live a multitude of centuries later. And this is especially hard for us to do, in a culture that is so dependent upon the precise measurement of time, and upon the predictability of events in the natural order of things.

Let’s notice this about Elizabeth and Mary, and about John the Baptist who is not yet born. Luke portrays them as living in the moment, as living in God’s time rather than simply in human calendar time. When Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice, John leaps in her womb. Luke then says that Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaims with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, Mary, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Neither John nor Jesus are yet born, and so neither mother has yet received the assurance and peace that will come from seeing them safely delivered. And yet, in this moment, both women are filled with joy ~ joy about the fulfillment of God’s promises!

Elizabeth’s son, John, and Mary’s son, Jesus, would never be closer to the two women. And, in Luke’s telling, their quiet joy reflects their awareness of this, that now, in this moment, God is truly present, imparting grace and fulfilling promises. The same is true for us.

 

Rembrandt van Rijn: The Visitation (1640), Detroit Institute of Arts {many images online}

See Luke 1:41-42: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Context: Luke 1:39-56. This Gospel reading is appointed for the 4th Sunday in Advent, Year C, which features the Visitation of Mary to her relative, Elizabeth.

Personal and Family Devotions for Trinity Sunday June 7

 

Andrei Rublev, The Hospitality of Abraham (or The Holy Trinity), 1410

 

For this Trinity Sunday I am happy once again to share with you a format for personal and family devotions.

I invite you to read these readings, and pray these prayers tomorrow (on Sunday). The format is especially suitable for sharing with others. I am sure that many of you are already staying in touch with family, friends and loved ones, with the help of an app like Zoom for web-based internet group meetings. Feel free to share the link to the devotions with others

The icon above and in the devotions document is by Andre Rublev, and depicts the story of the three angelic visitors to Abraham recorded in Genesis 18, which is often perceived as a disclosure of the Holy Trinity.

You can access the Personal and Family Devotions document that I have prepared for tomorrow, Trinity Sunday, June 7, 2020, by clicking here.

Personal and Family Devotions for Pentecost, Sunday May 31

Peter Warden, Pentecost (1985)

 

For this Pentecost Sunday, concluding the Great 50 Days of Easter, I am happy once again to share with you a format for personal and family devotions.

I invite you to read these readings, and pray these prayers tomorrow. The format is especially suitable for sharing with others. I am sure that many of you are already staying in touch with family, friends and loved ones, with the help of an app like Zoom for web-based internet group meetings. Feel free to share the link to the devotions with others

The painting above and in the devotions document is a painting by Peter Warden.

You can access the Personal and Family Devotions document that I have prepared for tomorrow, Pentecost Sunday, May 31, 2020, by clicking here.

Personal and Family Devotions for Easter 7, Sunday May 24

 

Giotto, The Last Supper (Detail)

 

For this Seventh Sunday (during the Great 50 Days) of Easter, I am happy once again to share with you a format for personal and family devotions.

I invite you to read these readings, and pray these prayers tomorrow. The format is especially suitable for sharing with others. I am sure that many of you are already staying in touch with family, friends and loved ones, with the help of an app like Zoom for web-based internet group meetings. Feel free to share the link to the devotions with others

The painting above and in the Devotions document is a portion of a fresco painting by Giotto.

You can access the Personal and Family Devotions document that I have prepared for tomorrow, Sunday, May 24, 2020, by clicking here.

Personal and Family Devotions for Easter 6, Sunday May 17

Sadao Watanabe, Jesus and the Twelve Disciples

 

For this Sixth Sunday (during the Great 50 Days) of Easter, I am happy once again to share with you a format for personal and family devotions.

I invite you to read these readings, and pray these prayers tomorrow. The format is especially suitable for sharing with others. I am sure that many of you are already staying in touch with family, friends and loved ones, with the help of an app like Zoom for web-based internet group meetings. Feel free to share the link to the devotions with others

The wood block print above and in the Devotions document is by the Japanese artist, Sadao Watanabe. The image corresponds to the context of the reading from John’s Gospel for this day.

You can access the Personal and Family Devotions document that I have prepared for tomorrow, Sunday, May 17, 2020, by clicking here.

The Beauty of a Friendship

Stuart Levine, About 2010, Heading Out to Fish

For me, getting to know Stuart began with seeing a boat, an old boat. From when I first visited the northern Michigan harbor town of Charlevoix in about 2005, I noticed and was attentive to a classic fishing boat. It was a lapstrake wooden-hulled motor boat from the late 1950’s, painted in a beautiful dark forest green. Yet, I was also attentive to the easy skill and confident style of the boat’s captain, an older man whose approach to open water I admired and wished to emulate. During my increasingly frequent summer visits to Charlevoix, I took note of this boat and its persistent captain, who obviously knew what he was doing when going in and out every day to fish on Lake Michigan.

After about seven or eight years of seeing him and his boat each summer, and having taken photographs of them during many of those years, I finally met Stuart. One morning, early in the summer of 2013, I saw that venerable boat in my marina. The next afternoon I saw it again, while her captain was tying her up having come in from another fishing trip. Plucking up my courage, I walked over and haltingly introduced myself. I told him of my admiration for his boat and for what I had inferred from my limited observation about his daily practice. As it turned out, both Stuart and I loved old boats. And, serendipitously, Stuart and I hit it off. We were weekly correspondents, and fellow summer boaters, ever since.

As time has shown me, I had encountered and begun to be acquainted with a person of remarkable ability, sensitivity, and enhanced intuition. From first knowing him, Stuart seemed to look beyond the apparent limitations of the present moment, attend to what might be hoped for, and reflect on how the future could really be different. As I came to see, Stuart’s approach to life was nothing like the proverbial person who ‘sees things through rose-colored lenses.’ Stuart’s optimism was grounded in a belief that a different and more positive future results from actually choosing to live in a different way now, not just from believing or hoping differently.

A great example of this aspect of his character took place one summer. Standing with him on the Charlevoix dock while he was stowing his fishing gear after an outing, I asked about all the fishing tackle and gear he left on the boat, openly visible to anyone who might come by. Stuart told me about a valuable fishing rod that he had once left on the boat in a similar way. Upon discovering the rod’s disappearance the next day, he wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, describing the theft but saying that he would not change his usual trusting practice. He wanted to spend his summers in a community where people modeled trust, rather than self-protective fear.

I am reminded of an episode in a video by the former National Geographic photographer, Dewitt Jones (Celebrate What’s Right With the World). On assignment, Jones visits a living national treasure of the UK, a woman who was an acclaimed weaver up in the northern Hebrides Islands. Jones asks her, what do you think about when you weave. She responds by saying, at first, “I wonder if I will run out of thread!” Jones admits to being surprised by this. But then, she says, “When I weave, I weave…”

Stuart lit up when I told him this story, and he then said, “When I fish, I fish.” He told me that his delight was in the process, more than in the results. His comment then struck me, as it still does, as absolutely authentic to him. Even though this was a man the Michigan DNR highly regarded for having documented every lake trout he had caught and released for decades!

At a marina cookout in 2019, Stuart and I talked about the evolving challenge of evaluating college and graduate students in this current era. With several other boaters attentive to his comments, Stuart talked about his commitment to trusting his students. As always, he spoke positively about how placing trust in others encourages them to live into our imputed and projected hope for them. He often reflected on this principle with me, hoping to commend it. After all, it is founded (among other places) in Aristotle and in the Hebrew Scriptures. For what we practice, and live into, shapes who we are becoming. Stuart exemplified this insight.

And yet, at that cookout, as a younger, less-wise and less-experienced former academic, I responded by describing my disappointing prior service on a national examination board. As he invariably would in such conversations, Stuart challenged my apparently less-than-positive view of such processes. He did this in a way that was shaped by his long life experience of having served as a reflective scholar. By his comments in conversations like this, he would disclose how he was both intellectually curious as well as spiritually sensitive. In this way, he showed how he was often a mentor not only for young intellects but also for older souls.

Stuart reminded me of some my favorite teachers. He did this by how he modeled a particular virtue. It was his disposition to value good questions over what often seem to be important answers. For me, Stuart was an excellent example of one who always encourages others to wonder, and then ask, but, what is the question? For when we come to appreciate the horizon of a beautiful question, we are then more open to discovering meaningful answers to it. Stuart displayed an abiding curiosity about finding good questions. And this led him to discerning an ever-expanding body of insightful answers.

In one other important respect I would like to offer a tribute to Stuart. From time to time he would share with me words of respectful remembrance he had shaped in his effort to honor former colleagues, friends and students. His approach to this sometimes difficult task was compelling. For Stuart embodied a desire to recognize and express appreciation for the gifts, strengths and achievements of others, as a kind of spiritual practice in itself.

May Bard College and other teaching institutions always be blessed to have persons like Stuart Levine among their faculty and in their administrative staffs. And may we all be blessed to have a friend like him.

 

I offer this tribute in memory of Professor Dr. Stuart Levine, who died on May 1, 2020. He was formerly a Dean and Professor of Psychology for many years at Bard College, Annandale on the Hudson, New York. Stuart’s cultural and spiritual roots were within Judaism, and Bard College’s early history was associated with The Episcopal Church, within which I was ordained as a deacon and priest.