Beauty

Engage with Beauty

Enclosed Mountains and Clouds_John Baggaley

 

Alexander Calder approached the creation of public sculpture in a unique way. His largest pieces are often set in the midst of cities, placed on plazas between modern office buildings. We have a beautiful example here in Grand Rapids, with another large one in the same bright red color, nearby in Chicago. Unlike them, Mountains and Clouds, in the Washington Hart Senate Office Building, is painted in matte black. This works well against the white marble and clear glass in the atrium where it stands. Each of these three “stabile” sculptures provides a lyrical counterpoint to the linear and grid-like facades of the office buildings. Mountains and Clouds is unique in that it also involves one of Calder’s mobiles, suspended from the atrium ceiling.

We know that monumental sculptures from earlier times often portray honored heroes, standing or on horseback. By contrast, Calder’s large works are abstract, and don’t simply draw attention to themselves. His plaza sculptures do more. They lead the observer’s eyes to notice the interplay between his work and the spaces around them, as well as their contrast with nearby buildings. One doesn’t just view these sculptures; one engages with them, and with the larger context of their placement.

Here, we must mark a paradoxical aspect of all public sculpture, which indicates something more about us than it does about the art. Many people work everyday in buildings around where these sculptures are situated. But they are just as capable of being as inattentive to these pieces of art as they are to their parking spaces or to the doors of their offices. With the stabiles’ soaring heights and reaching curves, Calder’s works are expressively shaped and tremendously uplifting. But our focus on our work and our worries, and the practical things we need to do, blinds us! And it diverts our attention from something truly beautiful, right there in front of us.

I note all this because the same thing can happen when we encounter the first verses of John’s Gospel. Often called the prologue to his Gospel, John has written a passage shaped by poetic beauty and filled with lofty theology. Yet, we have a tendency to focus on what is immediate and practical, and on what seems narrowly relevant to our everyday concerns. And so, we can go right by this Gospel ‘work of art’ just as people hurry past the great Calder downtown, absorbed with getting to their offices. In both cases, something sublime lies before us, waiting for us to engage with it. But sometimes we don’t see it because we aren’t really looking for it!

 

Alexander Calder, Mountains and Clouds, 1976 (installed 1986),  in the Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. The beautiful photograph is by John Baggaley, and is used by permission. For a link to the website of this talented photographer, click here.

For further reflection on Calder’s stabiles, especially his Mountains and Clouds, in relation to the Prologue of John’s Gospel, click here.

The Beauty of Gray

James_McNeill_Whistler_-_Nocturne-_Blue_and_Gold--Southampton_Water_-1280

 

When asked, I used to say that gray was my favorite color. Correctly, some would respond that gray is not a color, but the series of shades marking the region between black and white. Gray often represents a mixture of the two in pigment.

Examined more patiently and reflectively, and in a less technical way, gray is alive with color–but subtle color. Just look up “Payne’s grey” (note, U.K. spelling), and you will see.

Perhaps my childhood in Japan, as well as my adult experience in England, formed my appreciation for the beauty latent within the world of gray. I love James McNeil Whistler’s paintings, and especially those that employ fields of gray permeated with subtle color. Many of these were influenced by Japanese prints.

I consider these things as I reflect on the recent film, The Giver. Though people will say it starts “in black and white,” I think it can be described more properly as immersing us in a visual field of gray. The film is compelling, and not simply sentimental or youthfully romantic (which it might easily have been), because of how positive aspects of this gray world are thoughtfully presented. A thematically ‘black and white’ film would portray a more polarized contrast between the forgotten past of color, which included both conflict, hate and violence as well as their alluring opposites, and a hypothetical present world, deceptively gray, where—eerily— all seems well. A gray world might imply moral ambiguity rather than moral neutrality.

As we emerge from adolescence into adulthood, don’t we seek stability as we move away from the up-and-down emotional life of our teenage years? Don’t we assume that monastics—like us— seek something spiritually akin to a world of gray, enabled by their departure from our world of distraction, competition and self-promotion?

The Giver risks presenting a gray world as desirable, and then fearfully threatened and upset by a young man’s journey into the forgotten past. There is beauty to be found almost everywhere, in a world filled with heart-breaking contrasts of emotion and alive with color, yet even in one where affectively numb persons find everything appears in a field of gray.

I don’t question the value of the hero’s journey, nor its evocative results. Yet, I continue to muse about what made the gray world attractive to those who shaped and promoted it. Simplicity, even a morally reductionist simplicity, has abiding appeal.

 

Above: James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne: Blue and Gold—Southampton Water (1872). Note the reference to color in the title of a very gray-looking painting.

Beauty in Marriage

Kiyochika-Sumida River by Night-Detail-1881

 

Adapted from a recent wedding homily for my son.

In Sumida River by Night, Kobayashi Kiyochika depicts a man and a woman walking in Tokyo, late on a summer evening. Though from Asia, this 1881 print had a profound influence upon the American painter, James McNeill Whistler. I love how the artist grabs our interest with the glow of red paper lanterns, both near and far. This beautiful image provides a helpful metaphor.

We can see in this picture a reflection of our lives. Hans and Bridget, in your marriage together, you will have many occasions to look out onto life in the world around you and notice others. Your attention may be caught by a parallel to the glowing lights along the far side of the river in this print. Though you may have a light between yourselves, your eyes can be drawn to the multiplicity of other lights around you, and the way they reflect off events and other people. There will be times when you may think others are more happy or fortunate than you are.

Especially when we are young, we tend to think that knowledge, goodness and happiness lie elsewhere, and in others. It’s actually an important part of our journey into maturity to want to attain these things for ourselves. Our admiration for others and their achievements, prompts us to reach further and higher. But this same experience can create an illusion, the mistaken belief that we are of less value.

A similar thing can happen with love, especially romantic love. When we are single, we notice couples walking together in parks and along streets. It seems that others have found their mate, and a kind of happiness that eludes us. Even when we meet that special person, as we get to know him or her and as our relationship matures, we begin to see that not everything goes smoothly. Once again, we are prone to looking at other couples with a misleading idea ~ that they have something more than we have.

But there is another way to see this picture, which applies equally well to you at this point in your lives. I think the artist has deliberately portrayed this couple as older, with the man shown holding a cane. Notice how the paper lantern in his hand, in whose glow they both walk, rivals anything glowing on the horizon. It may be smaller than the great lanterns across the river, but it is near them and within their hands. They have all the light they need, shared between them, as they walk along the river of life.

I have suggested two ways of looking at this print, paralleling two ways of looking at our lives together in this world. In seeing this print as portraying a young couple, we might reflect on the way that things in our lives can seem scarce and limited, and how our attention can become fixed on what seems to be missing. Yet, seen the second way, as portraying an older couple, our hearts can be filled with an awareness of abundance, and how everything we really need is within our reach, if not already in hand.

You may think that I am talking about such things as our natural talents and abilities, and the resources we have been given or have attained through our work. But what I actually have in mind is that great intangible thing we call love. I have in mind not only the kind of love we have for one another, in romance and marriage and for others in our families. I mainly have in mind the kind of love we are given by our Lord, especially when we ask him for it.

The natural love the two of you have for one another is complemented by a supernatural love you will have for each other in marriage. This is a love that is given to you and through you, for your life together. Though some things in your life may become scarce, and even if many things become limited, you will always have all the love you need. Your love will be the light you carry with you as you journey along the path you share together. This kind of love, and this kind of light, are gifts, rather than something you purchase or attain. And so, tomorrow you will have just as much of this love and light to illumine your walk together, as you will have when you are old.

Jesus said, “You are the light of the world!” We are used to Jesus being spoken of as the light of the world. But he tells us that, through his gift, we share the quality of being light for the world. Love illuminates darkened hearts and darkened lives, and love becomes the source of life, true life. Jesus does not want us to hide the light he gives us. Instead, he wants us to display it through how we live, that others might give glory to our father in heaven. Even if we mistakenly think we have so little of this love, and even if sometimes there seems to be more of it in the world around us than in ourselves.

The Church is very wise to appoint this portion of Matthew’s Gospel as a reading for weddings. Not only does our Lord hope that we as individuals will bear witness to his light and love; he intends that our marriages, and our lives together as families, will display the same light.

Hans and Bridget, the love that you share with one another and with Conor and Brady is, at its heart, a gift from God. Let this light that you share as a family, be a light for your path. May it also be a beacon of light for those around you.

 

Sumida River by Night (1881), by Kobayashi Kiyochika. Matthew 5:13-16 is one of five Gospel readings appointed for The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage in The Book of Common Prayer. This homily was offered near the great Mississippi River, in Baton Rouge, LA, in May.

Beauty in Community

Pentecost_CELPentecost[1]_buildfaith.org

 

A collection of individuals fills this painting, signifying Mary and the first followers of Jesus. They are looking in different directions at the moment when the great whooshing wind and the flames of the Holy Spirit come down upon them. Caught up in the movement of the wind and flames, they are pushed forward into a celebration that is turned outward, and toward the darkness that lies beyond. The fire of the Spirit blows in and through them, not just around and over them. And they are swept forward into the future, in common mission.

We have a challenge imagining this moment. Our culture emphasizes the particularity of personal experience, and differences between us. We hear much talk about diversity and inclusion, which might reflect a positive regard for community. But it may also reflect an assumption that, apart from our efforts to bring people together, we are separate and disconnected. Perhaps, on the day of Pentecost, some of the people dramatically experienced God’s power. But we may be surprised to hear that all of them did, and together!

We don’t appreciate how community is vital to individual human flourishing. We often want individual freedom without personal accountability to others, and individual opportunity without personal responsibility. Being in community with other people may seem to be occasionally beneficial, especially when it is on our terms. But we don’t see it as essential to our lives.

In the ancient biblical vision, we are created in community, and we are redeemed in community. Whether we experience it or not, after Baptism God abidingly dwells between us and within us. There is no distance between us and God, even if we perceive a disconnection within ourselves. Whether we are conscious of it or not, God pours out grace to us in revelation and in inspiration. This is why God encourages us to open ourselves in prayer to his abundant gifts. All are blessed, for all receive a full measure of the Holy Spirit in Baptism. And all are commissioned by the fire of the Holy Spirit to engage in mission wherever we are, at home, at school, at work or at play. All are called to share in the beauty of Christ in community.

 

The Pentecost painting is found on the website, http://www.buildfaith.org. See Acts 2 for the Pentecost story.

Creation as Revelation

1024px-NautilusCutawayLogarithmicSpiral-cc license

 

“Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” Writing to the Romans, Paul suggests that all people have an opportunity to learn about God through our experience of the world. Visible beauty speaks of invisible mystery. Some call this common grace, and others refer to general revelation.

We learn about God in other ways that complement the ‘special’ revelation given to Israel and in Christ. This ‘general’ revelation from God through nature provides true knowledge even if it is not saving knowledge. Saving knowledge comes to us solely through special revelation. Therefore, to say that all can learn from God through his Creation does not imply that all will be saved. Only that all may experience delight and wonder from him.

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork.” Psalm 19 celebrates how the beautiful ordering of the world reflects our Creator and speaks of his purposes. We find this ancient insight at the heart of a modern prayer:

“Almighty and everlasting God, you made the universe with all its marvelous order, its atoms, worlds, and galaxies, and the infinite complexity of living creatures: Grant that, as we probe the mysteries of your creation, we may come to know you more truly, and more surely fulfill our role in your eternal purpose…”

When Paul visited Athens and spoke to civic leaders at the Areopagus, he built his message on a similar assumption. Having found an altar dedicated “to an unknown God,” Paul revealed to his listeners the identity of the deity whose existence they had implicitly acknowledged. According to Paul, the Creator had fashioned the world in such a way that all people “would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him.” Though the Athenians did not yet know the God of Creation by name, they had already encountered him.

Regardless of their inclination or efforts to discern deity, Paul tells the Athenians that God “is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’.” Remarkably, within this statement, Paul quotes one of their poets to make a theological observation, and in the process identifies himself with his listeners.

The God in whom we all live reveals his divinity in the beauty and patterns of creation.

 

See Romans 1:19-20, Psalm 19, and Acts 17:16-34, which is the first reading appointed for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Year A. The Prayer is found in The Book of Common Prayer, page 827. (Note: Beginning the week of May 25, I may post less frequently during the summer.)

The nautilus photograph is from Wikimedia Commons. For more on the logarithmic spiral discerned in the nautilus shell, and reflection on how the spiral may be diagramed in relation to the golden ratio proportion, see the web page <http://www.goldennumber.net/nautilus-spiral-golden-ratio/&gt; by Gary Meisner.

Beauty and Grace

All-Things-Relative-Portland-Japanese-Garden-Oregon_WhereToWillie

 

A 4th century liturgy speaks to contemporary concerns, particularly our attention to the health of the created world around us. It helps us see that we have more than an ethical motivation for our interest in respecting the ordered patterns we find in nature. Our flourishing, and that of other living things, also depends upon how nature mediates grace, and how the Creator infuses the whole world with divine presence.

The opening paragraphs of this prayer express the mystery of God’s transcendence and immanence. First, God’s transcendence: “It is truly right to glorify you, … for you alone are God, living and true, dwelling in light inaccessible from before time and for ever.” Next, God’s immanent presence: “Fountain of life and source of all goodness, you made all things and fill them with your blessing; you created them to rejoice in the splendor of your radiance.”

Discerning the beauty of God’s presence throughout creation is part of our our calling as human beings who are made in the divine image and likeness. Naming God’s presence, and helping others see it, also number among our vocational tasks. “Joining with [the countless throngs of angels who stand before God], and giving voice to every creature under heaven,” we acclaim our Lord, and glorify his Name.

The song we sing with the angels, in every eucharistic prayer, echoes Isaiah’s words in the Temple, and the seer John, in his Revelation: “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory…”

Because the earth is full of God’s glory, we are in a position to notice and celebrate its reality. By doing so, we give voice to every creature under heaven, and especially to creatures unable to speak or recognize how the whole world mediates the Creator’s grace. For “ever since the creation of the world, his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” *

As long as we remember that God is both utterly beyond and absolutely near, it is appropriate to associate the beauty of this world with God’s mediated presence. When we are moved to praise the glory of nature, we should always remember to sing praise of her Creator and sustainer.

 

The evocative photo of the Japanese Garden in Portland, Oregon, is by William Woodward, and is reproduced here under “Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial.” Visit his website at http://www.wheretowillie.com. Also, see Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8; *and Romans 1:19-20. Eucharistic Prayer D, in the Book of Common Prayer, is based upon the Liturgy of St Basil.

Beauty and Intimacy

Sadao Watanabe_Last Supper_1995

 

Because the humanity we inhabit involves the intertwined concepts of person and body, our notion of personal intimacy is interwoven with bodily intimacy. Intimacy provides a great challenge for western culture. Though we are barraged by displays of physical intimacy, we are naive about personal intimacy.

Many forms of our social interaction rest upon two assumptions: that personal intimacy is always physical and sexual; and, that sexual intimacy is merely physical. These widely held assumptions create spiritual challenges for us: we have a hard time imagining personal intimacy that is not sexual; and we have an equally hard time accepting that sexual intimacy is always personal, with relational implications. These assumptions hinder our ability to imagine personal intimacy that is not physical, and therefore our ability to follow Jesus into intimacy with God.

Think of John, the beloved disciple, at the Last Supper. Jesus loved him for who he was and not merely for his physical embodiment. Reclining against Jesus at the Last Supper table meant something very different in his culture than it would today. It expressed genuine friendship and love for Jesus, and prefigured the personal and intimate relationship we all have with Jesus, through Baptism. Our culture does not prepare us to perceive this truth. And when we don’t experience its beauty, we don’t believe it is real.

Intimacy with God always has some affinity with, but also clear differences from, our intimacy with other persons in this fallen world. Sometimes, our words, facial expressions and bodily gestures are not sincere, and we fall short of encouraging each other’s wholeness. We find ourselves merely creating the impression of a personal relationship and intimacy. But our intimacy with God never involves using one another. God cherishes us for who we are in his embrace, and not merely for who we are in our own eyes.

With God, we are always the end and goal of divine self-giving love. Jesus revealed and embodied God’s personal love and intimacy. His loving intimacy is nurturing and healing, and enables a wholeness that can only be called the beauty of holiness.

 

The above print, The Last Supper (1995), is by the Japanese Christian printmaker, Sadao Watanabe (1913-1996). For further reflection on these ideas, click here to see my homily exploring the theme of how Jesus is the Way into intimacy with God.

Sharing Beauty

Prayer in Taize Church

 

“Intentional community” has become a familiar phrase used to describe a group of people who choose to live together in a patterned way. In making this decision, they order their common life through shared commitments rather than by default. Sometimes these fellowships model their way of life after religious communities known as monasteries, convents and friaries. But not all who live in ‘intentional community’ take vows, or describe themselves as “catholic.” In recent years, believers from protestant and evangelical backgrounds have chosen to live together in religious communities so they can share prayer and meals, as well as assets and expenses.

The ecumenical monastic order of Taize, and the L’Arche communities for people with developmental disabilities, provide compelling examples. They inspire young people to live together for a period of time, so as deliberately to evoke the apostolic community described in Acts.

At the heart of these initiatives is an observation: through Baptism, we already share membership with one another through our incorporation in the One Body. In every Eucharist, we offer all that we are and all that we have. We may not actually give our energies and our goods in ways that literally manifest these resurrection-enabled realities. But they discipline our awareness and vision, if we open ourselves to their power to transform our lives.

The beauty of the risen Lord and his Spirit permeate the community that bears his name, wherever it may be found — in an apartment in a blighted urban area or in a house on a rural farm; in a convent or friary of life-vowed missionaries, and in the ordinary households of believers everywhere.

If we already share the most valuable thing we have, our Spirit-led life in the Risen Jesus, why is it so hard to share ourselves and our things with generosity and joy? Old habits and attitudes die hard, even if they have lost their original power. This may be why Paul urges us not to set our minds on the things of this world but on things above. It is surely why we find Jesus so often telling us not to be afraid.

The beauty of the Lord, whether in the face of an icon, or in the face of a fellow believer, frees us and transforms our natural inclinations and limitations. His grace and love are abundant, and his beauty is found everywhere — even in you, even in me.

 

The photo above shows people gathered for prayer in the Church of Reconciliation at Taize (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence). The theme of this posting directly follows the theme of the prior one, “Common Beauty.” See Acts 2:42-47.

Common Beauty

Rossano_Gospels_Last_Supper

 

We have many ties with others through birth and our families. We find we are connected with one another by bonds that are not of our own making.

Like the links we have with our families into which we are born or adopted, our relationships with other members of the Body of Christ are also given to us. These relationships are a reality we find rather than one we construct, for they are not products of our acts of willing.

Though we discern the reality of these given birth and baptismal connections between us, we easily fall into patterns of thought that suggest otherwise. When asked who we are, we often answer in ways that ignore these received relationships. We forget that, especially after Baptism, who we are can never rightly be described without also referring to whom we are for.

Acts 2 describes the post-resurrection community as having four shared attributes : common worship, common practices, common goods, and common witness.* Members of this community could share “all things” because they already shared the most important thing, the beauty of new life in the risen Jesus.

The Rossano Gospels depict Jesus with the disciples at the last supper, reclining in ancient mediterranean style. The image of circular fellowship applies equally to their life together after the resurrection and ascension. They shared their lives at the table of Eucharist and at tables of fellowship, which became visible symbols of everything else they shared.

Judas is shown leaning out from the pattern of this circle, fulfilling Jesus’ prediction about the one who would dip in the bowl after him. Judas’ stance mirrors his refusal to share the common purse with which he has been entrusted, and his disinclination to share common worship and common witness to Jesus’ power among them.

Common beauty is within us and around us. Seeing each other as joined in the risen Lord is directly correlated with seeing the risen Lord in each other. By sharing union with him, and through discerning his beauty in one another, we are more likely to share everything else.

 

The image above is from the Rossano Gospels, 6th century A.D. *Robert W. Wall offers this insight.

The Beauty of Connections

image

 

We live in a world filled with “data.” Disconnected bits of information, especially in great quantity, overwhelm our ability to see and to think. Accumulating additional data or more information does not produce knowledge. Knowledge has to do with seeing the connections between bits of information. When we see the connections, we begin to see a picture, we begin to hear a story, and we gain understanding as well as wisdom.

The unrecognized fellow traveler on the road to Emmaus asks, ‘what are all these things you are talking about?’ The answer he receives from the other two on the road amounts to giving him information. But his question was pointed toward understanding, especially in relation to ‘the big picture.’ What do ‘all these things’ have to do with what God has been up to, all along?

Here is a basic Christian truth that we find in the Emmaus Road story: Things take on meaning in relation to the risen Jesus. It happens when we see events in our lives in relation to him. It happens also with things like bread and wine as we gather at table. And it happens with people like you and me as we gather in community.

Jesus helps our perception on the road to Emmaus, and reveals something even more profound at the inn. This ‘inn,’ unlike the one where he was born, has many rooms, many mansions. When we see things like past events and the bread in relation to him, we discern more about what they are, and what they can become. When we see ourselves in relation to him, we better discern who we really are, and who we are called to be.

Prayerfully, we can look around, between things, and within. We can look for the connections. When we do, we see and discern. We see more because we see more wholly. Then we see the holy.

 

The above painting, Supper at Emmaus (1958), is by Ceri Richards, and is used by permission from the Trustees of the Methodist Modern Art Collection (UK). The penciled notation at the base of this guache painting on paper suggests that it was intended as a study for an altarpiece painting for the chapel of St. Edmund Hall (or College, at Oxford, England). The Emmaus story can be found in Luke 24:13-35.