Artistic Vision Requires Community

sudden illumination

Sudden Illumination

 

This post continues a line from my previous post about seeing the foundation of the Christian community as an act of artistic vision and commitment.

God’s call to new life and creative innovation  always happens in community no matter how much we as individuals experience this creative energy stirring very personally in our own hearts.
So in the crucial story in Acts 10 of God’s calling of the church to open its mission for the first time to the gentiles, both Peter and Cornelius have visions of remarkable power and personal impact that cause radical changes in their ways of seeing the world. What they have seen in their visions is undeniable, and they must act on it, yet, as Luke puts it so wonderfully, they remain “puzzled,’ about what their visions portend.*
Luke makes it very clear that neither actually sees what God’s call is apart from one another and apart from the gathered community. Even Peter and Cornelius meeting alone would not have been enough to clarify things. Though we often think of artists working in isolation, or romanticize art as the lonely call of a ‘genius’ hearing intimate things no one else can hear, the truth is that all art is communal of its essence, as it is about opening the aperture of a community’s heart to new things–it aims to communicate something fundamental about community and its blindnesses: “This is what I see, I don’t know quite what to make of it. What do you see?” If I as an artist see something previously unimaginable, I  work to bring this vision to life in order to have the community help me see what it means, what it intends, for all of us.
Art lives then at the intersection of profound insight and radical unknowing and is an inherently political act when we understand politics in its root meaning as the art of living together in harmonious creative play.
Because vision requires this shared discernment even as we have powerful intimations that God is doing something new and in a unique way with us each as individuals, we must gather and listen together to the word, behold the vision. This is actually the most important reason why the church gathers regularly each week and sometimes more often and why it is simply not possible to be a Christian or a spiritual being apart from some kind of gathered community. We don’t know the communal meaning of what we see otherwise.
What Acts 10 tells us is that we should be careful of defining that artistic spiritual community too narrowly, for God has a way of bursting open doors we didn’t even know were there!
“Then the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the Word.”
* for you philosophy types, the greek word here for puzzled is διαπορέω [diaporeo] a variant of the verb ἀπορέω from which we get the word aporia.

St. Peter’s Artistic Vision: The Spirit of not quite knowing who we are

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Gurdon Brewster’s Jesus and Buddha dancing ecstatically. Are you sure you can tell who is who? St Peter would be proud I think!

“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance ἔκστασις I saw a vision.” –Acts 11:5
We celebrate the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul today. To Peter we owe our militant refusal to identify God’s ways with our own. When he insists that we not judge or criticize God’s re-making of our very identities, he becomes the patron saint of all artists.
For art is above all the ‘ecstatic’ science, one that takes visions with ultimate seriousness, even when these visions undermine who we thought we were and where we thought we were going. True art is fearless, seeing possibilities for new life even in the monstrous mixing of categories, identities, and story lines. So Peter took and ate the unclean animals and his spirit was nourished and expanded. It is hard to underestimate the radical nature of Peter’s faithfulness to this vision, one which revolutionized the church’s mission and opened it up to continual revisioning and spiritual leaps of creative and often improbable connection.
His friends who wanted to keep everything in its proper place criticized him (διακρίνω) and insisted on being reasonable above all else–surely a vision by a man literally out of his mind cannot be the basis upon which we are to be reborn? We are who we are, who we always have been, and to suggest otherwise is to be more than ecstatic, it is to be a revolutionary. For some, he was undoubtedly seen as quite beside himself and mad. That’s our Peter, church. Are we so bold as to follow?
Peter insists that the vision he has seen is of God and then he holds relentlessly to the discipline of re-building his life and the life of the community around this vision. It will be hard work, full of mistrust, desires to clarify and codify and delimit what is a whirlwind, a colorful mixing of metaphors, not to mention  families, languages, peoples,  and nations. We will be tempted to cleave to the safe shore of our familiars, but Peter the artist will boldly lead us into the blooming and onto the whirling wheel of life.  “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction (διακρἰνω),” Peter insists.
When we think of that rock of the church,  Peter,  as a spiritual artist then we can begin to see art and artists in a different way.  Artists are not, as is often thought, impulsive dreamers, rogues, or ne’er do wells (well, okay, sometimes they are ;-)) but principled and discipline followers of visions and promptings of the spirit, and they tend to contemplative silence and communities of radical hospitality.  The are protean in their willingness to be re-formed, de-formed, and in-formed by their vision, and so they are often allied with the mystics and the misfits of society. But they are seriously grounded, as Peter was, upon the reality of what they see which is why they align with other scientists in their insistence on being true to what is seen and heard. Artists learn the hard way to either get out of the way of the work or be damned to ugly narcissism.
Contemplative silence is therefore crucial, a prayerful attentiveness in which self-aggrandizing distinctions, premature criticisms, and risk-averse judgments have little place. Vision and discipline together lead to humility and awe before the ways our creator gives us the task of extending the creation in our own lives.
And so we should not be surprised that Peter’s words lead to this outcome:  Hesychia (contemplative silence) and praise. All truly spiritual art begets more of the same.
When they heard this, they were silenced (ἡσυχάζω). And they praised God. —Acts 11:18

A Preacher befriends an Long Haired Hippie Artist Freak: Watch the sparks fly

I had a rather longish conversation the other day with a new artist friend who is not much of a churchgoer.   And though this is the second or third of these wide ranging and quite stimulating conversations I have had at this friend’s request, it seems fairly clear to both of us that this is not likely a prelude to a ‘church’ conversion. I do not feel I am being ‘interviewed’ by a potential congregation member and I hope and trust that he does not feel I am trying to soften him up only to pull out my crook and wrastle a ‘wayward sheep’ into the fold.

Like the singer in the classic Kris Kristofferson ballad, Sunday Morning Coming Down, my friend has his own way to the divine and the ringing of church bells and the sound of bibles thumping tend to make him feel more at sea with the heebie jeebies than anything else. Church “makes the body feel alone,” as the singer puts it, and so he ambles on his Sunday morning way, more like Thoreau along the Merrimack River  than a sinner heading to the anxious bench.

Perhaps my friend was a bit surprised that I,  his companion with the dog collar,  was not troubled by this reality. One suspects, given his deep spiritual inclinations, that this was not the first such conversation he had had with a professional religious. One also suspects that in many cases, hopefully not all, he had felt the pressure mount as the clergy tried one end of the stick and then another to convince him that church was not lonesome at all. How could it be,  if it had faces as  friendly and sympathetic  as the winsome priest’s, which was smiling invitingly across the table?! Evangelism can be a sly little devil as sweet as honey and soft as butter even when it has swords up its sleeves ready to be drawn.

What he, the artist friend, didn’t know, was that one of this priest’s favorite songs is Preacher by Ray Wylie Hubbard. One listen to it and you’ll know why the priest was not at all perturbed about the state of the soul of his new friend.

Ray Wylie Hubbard

The Cosmic Cowboy long haired Texas Hippie looking righteous and cool in purple. Now that really preaches!

Preacher by Ray Wylie Hubbard

Preacher come by today
Preacher come by today
He talked a whole lot but didn’t have much to say

Told me of a place where the streets is gold
Told me of a place where the streets is gold
He went on to say that God and the devil
Both want my soul

Said my life was empty something was missing
Said my life was empty something was missing
Carried on and on about how the Savior
Lived in a world above this one

My woman she was hanging clothes on the line
My woman she was hanging clothes on the line
I said look out yonder preacher
Now tell me have you ever seen anything as fine

See how she moves slow
See how she moves slow
You can see I ain’t missing nothing
When she stoop down low

Preacher closed his Bible
And he put his hat on his head
He closed his Bible and he put his hat on his head
He took off down the road,
Must have been something I said.

 

The first time I heard this song on Ray’s incomparable album named, not inappropriately, Growl, I howled with delight.  What strikes me again and again in listening to Ray’s music is the sheer earthiness and depth of the singer’s spirituality. “See how she moves slow,” he tells the preacher, who is clearly in all-too-fired-up of a hurry to rush past this life, the only one any of us actually have experienced, and into the “world above this one.”

And it is the mundaneness too that the reluctant artist ‘evangelee’ highlights. Its not bright lights, big city, or flashy cars and loose women that the singer is ‘tempted’ by. No, its his beloved ‘hanging clothes on the line,”  that floats his boat, and in just a single line Ray has taken us to the depths of his own recovery spirituality, where “keeping our gratitude higher than our expectations” leads to really good days. Ray is dedicated to this woman who has given him as much of the divine as his heart can handle and given it in the flesh.

And it is crucial that unlike the preacher’s reach upward for the slightly unreal vapors too many addicts are prone to being seduced by, his sensuous mystifying angel “stoops down low,” keeping it both real and real humble. The contrast is sharply drawn between the preacher’s arrogant assumption that he and he alone has the truth and the singer’s simple gesture of pointing to something else. Its not that he denies the truths of the preacher.  Its simply that he wants the preacher to see that God’s beauty can be found everywhere, even in something as simple as “drudgery divine,” as the great Anglican priest and poet George Herbert puts it.

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A different kind of preacher: the long haired English hippie freak and priest George Herbert!

At this point in the song,  the preacher heads off. Here the ambiguity is both tantalizing and full of potential mischief. Has the singer’s sensual spiritual ‘preaching’ of his own bested the full-of-himself bible-thumping evangelist? Perhaps. Is the preacher “shaking the dust off of his feet,” as he goes, scornfully lamenting that ‘here goes another one off to the depths of H.E. double hockey sticks?’ Maybe.

But here I confess that I’ve always been drawn to a third option, one that the song seems to allow though certainly not insist upon. Perhaps the singer is a better evangelist than he knows, or maybe its his woman who’s really got the preacher’s gifts in spades and black ink, and it is they who have converted the preacher! I like to imagine that the preacher too has a woman back home, one who has sadly been neglected for countless days and nights as her righteously cold hubby  has been singularly obsessed with his heaven, others’ hell,  and his own work, to the exclusion of his household chores and his woman’s many blessings. “He took off down the road,” Ray sings, indicating that he was in something of a hurry. Maybe, just maybe, his heart was strangely warmed by his ‘conversation with the devil‘s’ minion, and he suddenly awoke from his dogmatic slumbers and into a life of newfound beauty, love and holy desire.

Perhaps what I mean to say is this: even preachers have beauty and beauteous creatures in their lives. Sometimes it takes a “band of heathens” or two as friends to make that beauty come to life for them. That is why the preacher needs art and artists as friends. To make the body sing electric, righteous, and holy.

What a gift for a preacher to learn how to sing the blues!

On Discernment and Misrecognition: The Tortoise Beats the Hare??

cecil turtle

The beloved Cecil Turtle!

I was thinking about spiritual discernment this morning and a wonderful insight shared by some good friends about how sometimes we don’t see or hear things quite accurately, like thinking that a voice is coming from behind us rather than in front.

This picture is from one of my all-time favorite Bugs Bunny cartoons, Tortoise Beats Hare. Bugs’ most insightful director, the incomparable Chuck Jones,  is one of the great spiritual geniuses of our time 🙂 and I find it rather amusing that he reportedly hated this particular episode directed by Tex Avery because he thought it made Bugs unrecognizable. But ain’t that the truth about our own spiritual condition sometimes– it happens that we see something rather different or even unrecognizable about ourselves when we look in the spiritual mirror of prayer (James 1:22-26)? Perhaps we are, as Paul puts it, being made new!

Anyway, watching this classic again  reminds me of how sometimes when we see certain objects in the distance they appear to be moving very slowly but in fact they’re moving much more quickly than we can anticipate. And of course the vice versa is also true. It’s only when we get closer to the point of meeting that we see things are moving very differently than we had imagined. Like Desperados waiting for a train,  we find we may not be able to catch on to the fast moving boxcar like we had thought. Best to regroup and wait for another to come by that is moving our speed. 

Discernment is like this, and it means we must stick with it until the moment things come into focus and we sense the scene has reached a fitting resolution at least for the time being. Because our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, nor our spiritual eyes and ears perfectly keen, we can expect misrecognition to happen. This is rarely anyone’s fault as I often need to remind folks I am working with in spiritual direction. And we do not always know ourselves, never mind others, as well as we thought, and God can be doing something deep in our hearts about which we may at the moment be only dimly aware. 

Discernment means recognizing this reality and not getting misled by the optics or too frustrated by our lack of clarity. And of course it does no good to beat ourselves up for feeling frustrated or confused either! Disappointment is only natural, as long as we remember the great Book of Common Prayer thanksgiving prayer that we take “disappointment and failure not as a measure of our worth, but as a chance for a new start.”

As for me, I’m still not sure whether I am more of a tortoise or more of a hair at this moment in my life. Actually no “hair” at all. 🙂 Thanks Siri for your fruitful  voice misrecognition 🙂

mt baldy

Mt. Baldy–inside of which turtles and rabbits run free

Gurdon Brewster’s Bust of Reinhold Niebuhr and the art that sets us free: “Imposters yet true”

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We are treated as impostors, and yet are true
(2 Corinthians 6:8).

I will always associate this verse from Paul with Reinhold Niebuhr’s remarkable sermon from his book Beyond Tragedy which I read while at the University of Chicago Divinity School in the mid 1990’s.

Niebuhr really stretched out in his sermon, reading this verse as a way of thinking of the art of storytelling, myth, legend and poetry as privileged means of theological exploration.  i.e. myths are sometimes seen as ‘impostors’ because they aren’t ‘literally’ true, and yet, as Niebuhr passionately argued, our stories as much as our dramatic, poetic leaps of body and spirit are often the closest we can get to articulating the mysterious truth of God’s presence in our lives.

It was, I realized only much later, a rather brilliant rejoinder to Plato’s dismissal of the artists from his ideal polis, Niebuhr suggesting that there was more “truth in myths” (which I think was the title of the chapter in Beyond Tragedy) than there was in the desiccated reasoning of the literalizers.

Speaking of Niebuhr, I can’t wait for the chance to head to NYC, to visit the library of Union Theological Seminary, Niebuhr’s stomping grounds for most of his theological career. There I believe still sits the bust of Niebuhr made by our beloved Gurdon Brewster, who shared with me the story about how Niebuhr growled at him when Gurdon asked to do his bust. “Don’t do it in bronze, I’m not dead yet!” was his response, and then he insisted he was too busy to sit for Gurdon to study and cast him. Classic Niebuhr gesture, who once told Paul Tillich to hurry up on one of their daily theological talk/strolls because Tillich was too busy smelling the flowers. “They’ll still be there tomorrow!” Niebuhr impatiently reprimanded. Score one for Tillich in their ongoing theological debate. Stopping to smell the flowers while on a walk is always good-better-best theological practice!

Gurdon accepted the challenge, by the way, and gathered as many photographs of Niebuhr as he could to do the painstaking work of casting Niebuhr’s bust while the man himself continued to fly about his work with barely a pause to catch his breath. Is the bust an accurate representation of the man? Given that he never stood still, a bust of Niebuhr is in and of itself a bit comical, but I can’t wait to give it a look. Niebuhr was for many years my theological hero and it when Gurdon dropped his name during my first  conversation with him over lunch in 2008, I knew I’d made a friend worth his weight in bronze or gold.

Gurdon Brewster, imposter, yet true…thank you my dear friend!

Dinner Table Fun and Games at Brewster House

talent card

At Brewster House every night, the West crew has dinner at the dining room table. Often our eldest, Cecilia, will request that we play a little game Sarah brought back from Mount Saviour Monastery in Elmira.

It’s a card game where we read a card from a deck with a conversation prompt. Last night the card pictured here was the one chosen. Cecilia went first and said she would be an artist and would draw as many beautiful paintings as she could in the one day she had artists gift. That way, her gift would last well beyond that one magical day and would give others enjoyment for years to come. Wow! Cecilia sets the bar high.

Her adoring brother Amos listened carefully to his sister’s choice and then quickly re-calibrated. He had been thinking of choosing the talent of basketball but decided that wouldn’t give much lasting joy to others, so he chose instead to have the talent of a great writer and write as many wonderful books as possible on his magic day. Given his recent success with his book The Talking Hot Dog and the Mean Yellow Stick, we all approved.

Sarah went next and shared her desire to be the world’s greatest ballet dancer so that her entire body and soul would be giving glory to God and joy to others. This was indeed good!

Annie went next and picked singing and added that she would record her songs as music videos that could inspire others for years to come after her one day of talent was gone. Our budding you-tuber had chosen well. Amen.

Cecilia then noticed that I had not gone and insisted it was my turn. World’s best farter? (That was Bear’s inappropriate suggestion). No! Best priest ever? asked one of the kids. Nope, already am came some braggadocious bumblehead’s retort. World’s best comedian? Maybe. Best singer songwriter? Oh, that would be cool to write a song like Masters of War or Blowing in the Wind that would inspire for years to come. But finally my answer came: World’s greatest children’s book writer. That would be my choice. The table was pleased. Dessert and dish washing then commenced.

Spirituality, art, and prophetic justice

Though the artist must be willing to enter into the crux of human suffering, anxiety, and the propensity for violence against both self and other, the artistic spark comes from a deeper place.

Here is Juan Diego responding to Our Lady of Guadalupe’s visitation to him even as he struggles with his own deep sense of loss from the ravages of colonialist violence:

“Then he dared to go to where he was being called. His heart was in no way disturbed, and in no way did he experience any fear; on the contrary, he felt very good, very happy…The mesquites, the cacti, and the weeds that were all around appeared like feathers of the quetzal, and the stems looked like turquoise; the branches, the foliage, and even the thorns sparkled like gold. He bowed before her, heard her thought and word, which were exceedingly re-creative, very ennobling, alluring, producing love.”

Here I am reminded of one of Gurdon‘s last sculptures, the overpowering Prophetic Thunder. I remember him telling me about how tired he was of images of King that sanitized his prophetic fire.

And I imagine that in order to articulate this fire into bronze, he must have had to discipline himself with exquisite attentiveness: returning again and again to this ‘re-creative, very ennobling, alluring…love,” in order not to go astray into bitterness and resentment as he worked. This spiritual discipline of the artist is deeply analogous to what King had to do day after day as he faced the violence of American racism and economic and political inequality. Art, spirituality, and social justice are intimately related in this tradition Gurdon brought to Cornell and shared for so many years.

In this inspired sculpture, currently on display at the Tompkins County Public Library, we see that in Gurdon’s time with Daddy King and the beloved community, he learned his lessons well.

20160115GH GURDON BREWSTER Sculptor Martin Luther King Jr. Sculpture

20160115GH GURDON BREWSTER Sculptor Martin Luther King Jr. Sculpture

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