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Family Devotions for Easter 2 (Sunday April 19)

James Tissot, St. Thomas 

 

For this Second Sunday of Easter (during the Great 50 Days) I am happy to share with you the format for family devotions I will be using with my children and grandchildren, who live in Louisiana. Tomorrow, we will take various parts and read these readings, and pray these prayers, together with the help of the Zoom app for web-based internet group meetings.

The painting above and in the devotions is by James Tissot.

You can access the Family Devotions document that I have prepared for tomorrow, Sunday, April 19, 2020, by clicking here.

 

The Beauty of Rediscovering What We know

Lookout Studio, Grand Canyon Village

 

I camped in a small (trailered) sailboat on the south rim of the Grand Canyon for about ten days in the summer of 2005. Ever since, I have been thoughtful about buildings there in which I spent many hours. Many of those structures are routinely attributed to the design work of Mary Jane Colter. Among them, I remain most fond of Lookout Studio (featured above), as well as Hermits Rest.

In the course of my 2005 encounter with those buildings, I obtained two informative books about Mary Colter and her assumed architectural legacy, which I was pleased to have and read. These books are representative of a wide body of published material regarded as authoritative, which is laudatory of Mary Colter. Imagine my surprise and subsequent fascination when discovering a recent publication that appears to offer a diametrically opposite assessment, one which definitively debunks what are widely considered to be facts concerning Mary Colter’s achievements.

Given the harsh-looking cover of the book, and its tabloid-style title, I was initially cautious about reading Fred Shaw’s book, False Architect. But, as the old folk wisdom advises, “don’t judge a book by…” Once I engaged the content of this finely researched and well-argued book, I was both disappointed and persuaded. Disappointed in that my impression of Mary Colter and the work attributed to her talents was based on what I now consider to be a substantial amount of mythology. Persuaded because of Shaw’s powers of analysis and discernment, as well as his evident fortitude when it comes to research. Yet, I am also curiously heartened… which is perhaps a strange thing to feel after reading such a book.

This is because I am happy that we can now more properly focus our attention on the architects and designers who were actually responsible for many significant contributions to our experience of beauty in public architecture. With Shaw’s book, I am rediscovering my regard for a number of buildings throughout the former Santa Fe Railroad system, along with their associated Fred Harvey hotels and restaurants. In the process, I am learning more about these structures by being willing to set aside previously held opinions and conclusions as I encounter new facts and insights.

During the recent season of Lent, I had a similar experience of a spiritual kind. It happened as I ‘rediscovered’ and renewed my appreciation for subtle but profound aspects of John’s Gospel. The experience reminded me of the beauty of encountering once again things we know and love within each of the Gospels. This beauty lies in how we are able to gain further learning and deeper insight from already-familiar sacred texts.

The natural setting of Lookout Studio, which sits near the historic El Tovar Hotel on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, seems appropriate for us to consider in Eastertide. For the American Southwest is widely recognized as being a ‘thin place,’ or as what others refer to as an ’emergent place.’ In such places, divine grace seems more immediately present within our experience of the natural world. In a less dramatic, but equally rocky terrain, Jesus was buried in a cave-like rough-hewn tomb. Light is still found amidst darkness; spirit is found within matter – even that which is humanly shaped.

 

Notes: Books and guide materials consistently attribute these and other buildings to the design work of Mary Colter. Lookout Studio and Hermit’s Rest are more properly to be attributed to the architect, Louis S. Curtiss, while the El Tovar was designed by Charles F. Whittlesey. For documentation of these attributions, please see Fred Shaw’s 2018 book, False Architect: The Mary Colter HoaxThe lectionary readings for Eastertide (and beyond) can be found by clicking here.

Easter Family Devotions

James Tissot, Jesus Appears to the Eleven

 

The current coronavirus stay-at-home orders are dramatically changing preparation for Easter for many of us. Instead of attending public worship as many of us might usually do tomorrow, we are compelled by circumstances to find an appropriate alternative.

Given our geographical distance from one another, my own wider family is planning to have worship together tomorrow using a web conferencing app. Rather than simultaneously viewing a worship service online that is streaming from another location, we can worship with each other albeit remotely. Anticipating this worship time tomorrow with our children and grandchildren, I have prepared a service of Easter Sunday Family Devotions, and I am happy to share it with you.

The Easter Sunday Family Devotions document can be accessed by clicking here.

The readings and prayers are drawn from those appointed by The Book of Common Prayer.

The first page of the attached document features James Tissot’s painting, The Resurrection, which I presented in my blog this past Thursday. It provides a very suitable reference point for the reading from Matthew’s Gospel. On the last page you will find some Notes concerning the service, as well as a participant list in case you choose to use these devotions with several others.

 

The image above is James Tissot’s Painting, Jesus Appears to the Eleven, which corresponds to John 20:19ff.

Finding Beauty During Holy Week

James Tissot, The Resurrection

 

I had the privilege of seeing the original of this image by James Tissot at a recent exhibit of his work in San Francisco. I have known about this painting for some time, but was struck by how relatively small it is (image size approximately 8″ x 12″). Given the size, Tissot’s attention to detail is astonishing, especially when seen alongside his large oil paintings.

Like the one above, Tissot’s biblical paintings were largely done with opaque water color paint (now commonly termed “gouache” paint) and graphite on textured gray paper. This sets the water color paintings apart from his oil paintings in terms of their technical quality and pictorial finish. Nevertheless, they are in some ways more remarkable because Tissot was using the less forgiving medium of water colors instead of oil paints, which provide greater flexibility for painting over unsatisfactory or undesired results.

Choosing a single image for consideration in the context of Holy Week presents a certain challenge. For which of the events that we commemorate this week provides the most suitable reference point for our reflection? Considering this question, and possible answers to it, can help us gain insight about how we understand Holy Week in relation to Easter and more specifically whether we view the Passion (the arrest, trial, torture, and crucifixion) of Jesus as an essential part of the Easter story.

We know that it is not just among Christians, but also among Jews and Muslims, that notable differences concerning belief and practice exist among pious adherents of a shared religious tradition. A significant variable for Christians concerns how -in our prayers, worship and practices this week- we approach the relative significance of the key liturgical ‘moments’ that we commemorate during the ‘Holy Three Days’ (or Paschal Triduum). According to the biblical concept of time, these three days commence at sundown on what we now call Maundy Thursday. And so, the first ‘day’ includes remembrance of the Last Supper, Jesus’ arrest and trial, as well as his Good Friday crucifixion. The second ‘day’ then begins on Good Friday evening, just after when Jesus would have been buried. And the third begins after sundown on Holy Saturday evening, and includes the twenty four hours during which Jesus’ resurrection occurred and his empty tomb was then discovered.

When considering the significance of the events we commemorate at this time of the year, some Christians think primarily in terms of Easter Sunday and what Jesus’ resurrection will mean for them. Many others include in their reflection a spiritual consideration of the events we associate with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The broader ‘catholic’ liturgical tradition reflects this wider perspective in the liturgies appointed for Palm Sunday at the beginning of Holy Week. For example, The Book of Common Prayer liturgy for Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ journey on a donkey down from the Mount of Olives and his entrance into the Holy City, which leads to his ‘cleansing of the Temple’ and the subsequent conflict this provoked. A central feature of the Palm Sunday liturgy is a reading of the full Passion narrative from one of the first three Gospels. John’s Passion narrative is always read every year on Good Friday. And, on both Palm Sunday and Good Friday, the Passion story often incorporates readers who give voice to individual parts within the narrative.

In light of these observations, and as we prepare to enter the ‘Holy Three Days,’ I invite you to consider Tissot’s painting titled, The Resurrection. As you view and reflect on it, here are some details you may want to take into account:

  • Tissot portrays the moment of Jesus’ resurrection at night (rather than ‘Sunday morning,’ with lanterns partially illuminating the scene
  • Matthew’s Gospel mentions Joseph of Arimathea placing Jesus’ body “in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock;” Tissot adds a dressed stone frame around the tomb entrance
  • though the crucifixion was enacted by Roman soldiers, Matthew suggests that the guard of soldiers sent to the tomb belong to the chief priests and the Pharisees and are primarily local citizens
  • the risen Lord still bears the marks of his torture and execution, though his wounds are transformed into points of light
  • diaphanous angels appear on the righthand side of the tomb opening

These and other observations about this resurrection painting make it relevant to our observance of Holy Week, as well as to Easter. I offer this image and these comments as a way into the mystery of this week.

 

The image above is James Tissot’s painting, The Resurrection, which with many of his other biblical paintings is part of the collection of the Brooklyn Museum.

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).