Spirituality and the Arts: Why We Need Tragic Drama

This fall Ellen Gainor and I will be teaching Paula Vogel’s remarkable play Indecent in our course at Cornell. Vogel is a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and a lesbian feminist of Jewish heritage.
I was struck by her comment in a recent interview when asked if she considered herself a spiritual person and if that affected her work. Vogel responded:
“I don’t think there’s anyone in theatre who doesn’t consider themselves spiritual. I don’t really know any secularists. In terms of spirituality when it comes to theatre, you are dealing with, literally, the undead. Characters are bringing to life the sense of humans that don’t exist. I consider myself extremely spiritual.”
It strikes me more and more that in the kind of death-driven political climate we live in, the spiritual resources of the arts are more necessary than ever. We need life and more life and the courage to explore the depths of human suffering and the joy that can come even in the darkest moments of our lives. Vogel’s play, which I saw when it was still off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre, does exactly that.
So too for the Ayad Akhtar play Disgraced currently at the Hangar Theatre here in Ithaca. It was a bold and even dangerous choice by Michael Barakiva and  the Hangar to begin their season with this bracing tragedy, and it certainly stirs up for our attention the many forms of political and religiously inflected violence in the world today. disgraced image
But like all true tragedies, Disgraced does this with a deeply moral, political, and spiritual agenda. Here’s Rowan Williams in his remarkable little book The Tragic Imagination articulating the crucial spiritual and political role well-written tragedies can play:
“In this moment of my watching in the theatre, the only action that is going on is on the stage. I am both free from the necessity to act and bound to be still. I have surrendered this time to the action of others. And that, so Cavell argues, is where the tragic drama becomes transformative of my perception. I am enjoined as a spectator to allow to happen what the tragic agents on stage are struggling not to allow: I am affirming human separateness, the impenetrability of agents to each other, so that my/ our response to suffering is to some degree stripped of the corrupting drama of easy identification with the sufferer, the absorption of the terrible otherness of alien pain into my own story…
…my immobilization in the face of terrible pain has here a contemplative quality; and when tragic liturgy has decayed or disappeared, we are left with a toxic gap in our human repertoire. Once, as audience to a tragic representation, we had a ceremonial ‘doing nothing’ which showed us why we feel helpless in the face of pain and loss— because we are still learning the solidarity that comes out of recognizing the sheer distance between actual human persons, so that our stillness in the face of represented pain becomes a forced acknowledgment of our habits of avoidance and denial and a confrontation of the helplessness in the presence of catastrophe that we regularly experience and avoid reflecting about.
From this experience, we can recover a proper political ethic, we can learn better how and when to act. Without this liturgical moment, the only answer to the question of why we are doing nothing in the face of pain and terror— in the face, say, of constantly reported pain and terror, or pain and terror represented as entertaining anecdote; in the face of newsprint and screen— is that we have chosen to do nothing, a choice that ‘requires the same energy, the same cunning and avoidance, that tragic activity used to have to itself’.
And the implication of this is that a culture without tragic drama, a culture in which the tragic audience has been replaced by the assembly of spectators, is itself exemplifying tragic disaster; it is refusing to know what it knows about humanity, and so is at risk of dying from what it does not know, like any classical tragic protagonist.”

The gift of Being bi-polar: Heaven and Hell in the arms of God

serenity prayer path

On the grounds of Jesuit Retreat House in Parma, Ohio

It is a tremendous thing to have spiritual warfare going on in one’s heart, to see God vanquishing the devil and his dark thoughts day after day. A tremendous thing to be invited by God into the drama of the life of his Son who was tormented by dark thoughts day after day and who triumphed in love even at his lowest.

It is a gift to have one’s heart open to spiritual movements, as much of a gift as it was to be a disciple following Jesus all the way to the cross. The spiritually vulnerable are not to be pitied or clucked over by those above the fray. Is anyone above the fray? We might pity those who think so. Should we pity Mary, Jesus’ mother, for her sufferings? Or should we rather rejoice with her for being in her son’s presence all the way to the cross—for it is in this rejoicing, this joyful sorrow, that we find the depths of true com-passion.

This is the boldest thought for one with what today is called a chronic mental illness: that it can be received as a gift from God, with all of God’s tools being given to endure the crosses, the temptations, the stumblings and betrayals, just as they were given to Peter, James, John, Mary Magdalene and the others. To see God in the dark nights, to know that these too have their role to play in the story of salvation, to share in community and prayer the silly attempts of the devil to draw us from the love of God and the sure knowledge that even our darkest days do not separate us from the love of God. Confident to the point of what the mystics called insania amoris, insane love, that such days may even bring closer to the one who cried from the cross.

And so this thought today: I thank you God, for making me so marvelously, for all of the many gifts you have given me, not least of which is the gift of a soul that swings from heaven to hell with such ease. May I never reject this gift, but always seek you and your presence wherever you may lead me. Help me to help others to see me as you do, not as damaged goods, but as a glorious child of God, who lives in the darkness and the light, which to you are both alike. Amen.

I call upon you from the ends of the earth with heaviness in my heart; * set me upon the rock that is higher than I.

For you have been my refuge, * a strong tower against the enemy.

I will dwell in your house for ever; *I will take refuge under the cover of your wings.

The Episcopal Church. (2007). The Book of Common Prayer, 1979 (Ps 61:2–4). New York: Church Publishing Incorporated.

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.


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”


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

Sermon for Third Easter at Church of the Epiphany Trumansburg, NY

disciples-on-the-road-to-emmaus-tissotThis sermon was preached on Sunday, April 30, 2017.

Listening: The Heart of Spiritual Direction


The biblical word that is often translated as obedience is hypakoē in the Greek, a word whose root is from the verb which means to listen attentively.

This is what makes discernment so crucial, because we hear many voices and many words and it is not always easy to know which are God’s. Some of these words are our own, others those we inherit from our culture, still others from our personal stories, wounds, past traumas. And God’s word may speak through these words, but God can also issue forth a new song previously unheard, at the periphery of our spiritual-auditory landscape.. So we sift through all of this slowly-in God’s time, not our own.

A quiet word, as in the whisper to Elijah in the whirlwind of our doubts and fears, may often be the one we must strain to hear and follow.

And when such a word calls us, as it did the people of Israel, into unfamiliar territory, even a wilderness without clear landmarks, obedience means to listen to this call and to follow it in trust.

This is hard work, and it involves suffering as we let go of our attachments to the familiar and secure. We may launch out, as Peter did, in fear and trembling, and at times draw back in fear and need God’s forgiveness for our faltering.

As always, for those of us in the church, Jesus is our guide for this attentive listening:

8 Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; 9 and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him
(Hebrews 5:8–9).

Running to Places production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat


Photo by George Cannon Images

My daughter Annie was in her first production of this remarkable local youth theater group. Here are a few thoughts of mine from a recent Facebook post:


Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is truly a wonderful work of pastoral theology–the story of Joseph is read as a story of how our gifts are often also our afflictions–in Joseph’s case his gift of dreams and dream interpretation–leading him to isolation and ostracization at the beginning of the show–but at the pivotal moment when he is thrown in jail and everything seems dark and he feels utterly isolated (Close Every Door), the chorus comes to tell him no, we’ve read the book, Joseph and you come out on top. This is a remarkable affirmation of the importance of faith, and for those of us who are biblical people, a reminder of how important it is to read the scriptures as our story, not just that of ancient history.

They then sing Go Go Go Joseph and tell him that the way forward is to realize that this gift is to be affirmed, understood, and used for the good of others–which he does for the starving people of Egypt and then his brothers.

And in the end, the coat of many colors is taken off his shoulders–he is only special when he shares that gift. It is meant for the good of others, not self-adulation, as the good book says.

In R2P’s remarkable staging, as the coat is taken off Joseph’s shoulders the lighting on stage becomes technicolor; now the community is technicolor–showing that the gift that was the affliction and isolating can, with work and group discernment, become a gift for the whole community in its great diversity of gifts and dreams.

When Jasper as Joseph raised his hands up at the end, the whole community did too and we see the power of love and mutual recognition of our gifts. The joy and redemption and release were palpable and I for one was moved to tears of great joy and gratitude.

This is truly a remarkable work. Thank you Jeremy Pletter and Joey Steinhagen and R2P. I look forward to coming to many more of these wonderful productions!

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