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.

Personal and Family Devotions for Easter 5, Sunday May 10

James Tissot, The Last Supper

For this Fifth 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 by James Tissot. 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 10, 2020, by clicking here.

Personal and Family Devotions for Easter 4, Sunday May 3

 

Sadao Watanabe, The Good Shepherd

 

For this Fourth 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 Sadao Watanabe, a Japanese Christ artist.

You can access the Personal and Family Devotions document that I have prepared for tomorrow, Sunday, May 3, 2020, by clicking here.

The Beauty of a Holy Place

 

I recently received a touching photo of one of my granddaughters, sent to me by her mother. My granddaughter Anna lost her twin sister a day after their birth. In a lower part of the photo above (which I have cropped), my granddaughter appears to have a look of sadness on her face as she walks through the cemetery. Still, photos can capture momentary facial expressions that do not necessarily reflect our inward disposition.

Anna’s sister’s remains lie under a nearby stone in the cemetery depicted above. The photo shows the very old but still used burial ground of Grace Church, St. Francisville, Louisiana, where I served until 2007. When called away from there, the blessed folks of that parish provided a burial plot for Martha and me in the rector’s portion of the cemetery. It is one of the most touching gifts we have ever received.

In viewing the cemetery scene above, some may have a hard time imagining how a place like this that is associated with death could be replete with signs of life. And yet, it is. These evident signs of life transcend the presence of the church building and its related Christian symbols, like the crosses and inscriptions found on the monuments. Look closely at the live oaks with their long draping limbs, and how they stay green year-long, often supporting gangly strands of gray-green Spanish moss. More subtle are the plant-like growths on the upper surfaces of those limbs, which appear to be a blend of moss and ivy. Their name is resurrection fern, which in dry spells has an ochre color, but which then miraculously transforms into a deep green after an overnight rain.

My former rector’s office looked out upon the ground in which are buried the remains of dear Lucy, a deacon I helped sponsor for ordination. Every time I walk through the paths between alternating old and newer stones, I go to visit her resting place, and also see reminders of other friends and acquaintances. And now, I also go there to visit ‘one of my own,’ in that most personal sense of the phrase. Some day, under one of these magnificent oaks, my remains, as well as Martha’s, will lie next to those of our granddaughter, Avery.

To write these things and muse upon them in this way during the coronavirus pandemic may strike some as morbid. Yet, I share my thoughts here in the spirit of the life-giving texts we encounter liturgically every year in our Eastertide lectionary readings. For, in one way or another, we are all called to visit that rocky ‘garden’ tomb and find it empty, and ponder its significance. There is undeniable beauty in this story about what then becomes a holy place.

The beauty of the good news concerning that empty tomb is so much more than a wonder-story about a lucky man whose experience might inspire us. A man who, despite the worst that this world can do to ‘good’ people, somehow managed to escape into something better. The Gospel story is also the ground for our hope, our hope for ourselves and our loved ones. Can that empty tomb then help us recognize how, in similar places reminiscent of death, we can find signs of new life? Yes. For our cemeteries are places where we seek to remember and honor our loved ones, with whom we are still connected. Here, in these places of burial, we are reminded that through God’s love we are destined for more than we can now see or imagine.

 

The photo above depicts the cemetery of Grace Episcopal Church in St. Francisville, Louisiana. The church was founded in 1827, and the present building was completed by 1860. Three years later it was damaged by canon fire from Union gunboats on the nearby Mississippi River who were targeting the Courthouse across the street.

Personal and Family Devotions for Easter 3, Sunday April 25

Ceri Richards, The Supper at Emmaus 

 

For this Third 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 is by Ceri Richards, a Methodist painter from England.

You can access the Family Devotions document that I have prepared for tomorrow, Sunday, April 26, 2020, by clicking here.

The Beauty of a New Discovery

 

It happened when I was learning sea kayaking in and around the Gulf Coast. My experience on the water aroused memories of prior saltwater boating experiences from long before, back when I was 11 or 12. These experiences involved being out in a dinghy in Yokohama harbor, as well as sailing in open boats with the sailing club of the Japanese high school where my father was among the faculty. Accompanying those members, I went by train down to Enoshima to sail in Sagami Bay, southwest of Yokohama.

Then, one day as I was driving to a clergy conference in south Louisiana, I stopped at a bookstore for some extra reading material. There, I found a sailing magazine with the snappy title of Small Craft Advisor. What caught my attention on the cover was the mention of an article, “Lake Powell Potters.” After buying the issue, I was intrigued by reading about Anne Westlund’s journey from northern Michigan to Utah, towing her 15′ West Wight Potter boat, “Peapod.” She took that trip with a friend who had a similar Potter, and they sailed and camped on those quite small boats. After reading her account of the journey and voyage, and seeing photos of the boat, I was hooked.

Not too long after that, I was able to get a West Wight Potter P-15 of my own, “Zoe,” hull #2634. The photo above shows her afloat on DeGray Lake in west central Arkansas in September of 2006.

Describing this boat as having a length of 15′ is perhaps generous given that Stanley Smith, the designer and builder of the original hull, listed her at 14.’ Smith built the first boats on the Isle of Wight, and sailed an early model from there to Sweden in a voyage recorded in his book, October Potter. A later model is credited with a voyage from Mexico to Hawaii. Usually, the contemplation of such voyages with a small craft like the Potter would be regarded as ridiculous and foolhardy. Yet, West Wight Potter sailors love their boats precisely because they defy common expectations, and bring such joy.

When I read about the P-15, and then saw and inspected the first nearby example I could find, I was captivated by this boat’s design and sailing capabilities. I have since acquired a larger boat, a choice which was very much influenced by the design qualities of my P-15. Yet, I still have “Zoe.” And, as I get older, and eventually will be less able to grapple with a bigger boat on my own, I will continue to love this little boat that has brought me so much pleasure and so many memories. Not least of them was a two-week long cruise on Lake Charlevoix in northern Michigan years ago, before we moved from Louisiana.

Towing a dinghy, with water-proof gear bags filled with food supplies and extra clothing on the forward deck along with a cooler, and a camping porta-potty stowed discretely aft, made such a journey and voyage possible. It also helped to have an easily rigged awning over the cockpit for an approximation of a covered ‘back-porch,’ especially under a hot sun or cool rain. Despite the physical limitations involved, I learned much and had a great time.

I have made similar but shorter such trips on both DeGray Lake and Lake Ouachita (also in Arkansas) towing my sea kayak. (below)

In this present time of the coronavirus stay-at-home orders, I try to remind myself that great adventures are still possible within the circumstances of relative confinement. I take boats seriously, and am at the same time aware that owning one can be seen as a folly, and as extravagant. I respect that view. Yet, having experienced five two-week-long voyages across the Pacific Ocean in ships, and a month-long 1969 voyage in the South China Sea, my life has been immeasurably enriched by boating and seagoing opportunities, both while alone and also with significant others. The many times I have chosen to interact with unpredictable air and sea conditions have helped me to be better prepared to deal with equally unpredictable circumstances in our current public health crisis.

Most of all, it is a time when I remind myself of one of my favorite quotes from within the tradition of Christian spiritual writing, a quote attributed to blessed Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

 

Notes: If you are not yet a sailor, start ‘small.’ When it comes to boats, we all dream big at first. And my favorite first resource to recommend is Small Craft Advisor magazine. I have been consistently pleased with their fine and informative work. Sadly, I have just learned that the West Wight Potter 15 is no longer being manufactured in the US, which may limit its future availability here. For more on the West Wight Potter P-15, see Dave Bacon’s book, The Gentle Art of Pottering, which provides a great introduction to all aspects of the boat..

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.