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With the Ancient Desert Monks behind the Happy Mexican

March 22, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Razor Wire and Broken Fence

Razor Wire and Broken Fence behind the Happy Mexican Restaurant, 2017

 

Two fish were swimming side by side in the ocean. The first said to the second, "the water is warm and clear today." The second responded, "what water?" [1]

Attentiveness does not just happen. It must be cultivated. We can only be awakened to deeper seeing, and ultimately to deeper living, if we teach ourselves to pay attention.

The men and women who began moving to the deserts of Egypt and Syria in the third and fourth centuries to practice a contemplative desert spirituality knew this. Theirs was a world in which faithful living had become difficult. It was made difficult by the emergence of an empire which often cloaked its quest for military conquest, economic domination, and exploitation of the vulnerable in Christian symbols and rhetoric.  Beginning with Constantine in the early fourth century and extending down through the history of "Christendom" to our own time, the Prince of Peace has often been gradually transformed into a triumphalist, flag-waving Jesus who sanctifies the imperial bid for domination, exploitation, and the suppression of difference in the name of security and patriotism. In a fateful dream on the night before his greatest battle at the Milvian Bridge, Constantine saw the Chi-Rho and heard the words, "in this sign, conquer." His dream seems to be a common one.

The driving question for these desert contemplatives was simple but profound, how do we live faithfully in a world where the faith we profess has been co-opted by empire? It was a subversive, unpatriotic, unwelcome question, and it remains so in this, our own season of empire.

The desert contemplatives answered this question by withdrawing from the world to live in the desert. While they withdrew from empire, they did not abandon the struggle against it. They knew that the line between our inner and outer landscapes is porous. They withdrew from the outward world of empire so that they could focus on the ways that empire comes to occupy the inner world of the soul. These desert monks knew that the political, military, and economic engine of empire was fueled by that other, more pernicious and elusive form of empire that colonizes the heart, enslaves the imagination, and infects all the small and ordinary activities of daily life in ways that often remain invisible to us.

At the heart of their strategy of resistance, lay spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, worship, fasting, extending hospitality to vulnerable guests, engaging in mutual correction, gardening, basket weaving, and caring for the sick, exploited, and outcasts of empire. They knew that we cannot merely profess a counter-cultural spirituality; we must train for it daily by reimagining even the most mundane of daily practices, freeing them from the dynamics of violence, domination, and exclusion pursued in Jesus' name. Such practices exorcized the demons of empire that dwelt in the heart and that keep empire alive in the outer world of politics, economics, and culture. The conflict with empire was indeed a cosmic conflict with "the powers and principalities of this present age," but victory would come only by prevailing in the small skirmishes of ordinary daily life. Victory would come by changing one's diet, clothing, sleeping practices, labor, and social circles. [2]

The spiritual disciplines aimed at many things, but among the most important of them was the cultivation of prosoche, attentiveness. Attentiveness is mindful seeing, purposefully lingering before things so that they may reveal themselves on their own terms and in their fullest depth and complexity. Pursuing prosoche meant learning to see the world as it really is rather than through the distorting lens of anxiety and acquisitiveness brought to it by the false, fallen self. Practicing prosoche meant observing carefully, deliberately, and dispassionately the subtleties of things as they really are. Such attentiveness awakened a heightened sense of nuance, a new-found comfort with complexity and ambiguity, and joyful delight in the variegated beauty of ordinary, mundane things. To practice prosoche was to retrain our eyes to see the world as God would have us see it, undistorted by the possessiveness and drive for domination rooted in the false self of empire. Pursuing prosoche was an antidote to illusion, a celebration of the realness of things as they are in their naked givenness and stark facticity. To engage in prosoche was to shatter the delusion of "alternative facts" and the spin of internalized imperial narratives of fear, threat, and conquest. Cultivating prosoche meant deepening one's capacity for complexity, making room for the foreignness of things and other people. [3]

Prosoche was closely related to diakrisis, that form of wise, patient discernment that makes nuanced, measured judgments informed by carefully seen, subtle, relevant distinctions. [4] Together Prosoche and diakrisis undermined the reductionistic, binary oppositional thinking demanded by imperial propaganda and the politics of fear and exclusion. Prosoche and diakrisis were an inoculation against the self-serving oversimplifications produced and required by our anxious, imperious drive for domination and control. To recast things in more contemporary terms, attentiveness and discernment destabilize "either-or," "yes-no,"  "us-them,"  "black-white," "insider- outsider," "liberal-conservative,"  and "deserving-undeserving," for example. By so doing, they school the imagination in resistance to the reductionistic thinking demanded by empire.

Simplistic binary oppositional thinking and living have again become a mark of our age. They are fed by political memes on social media, pithy bumper stickers, "news" networks that pluck only partisan soundbytes from complex stories, political propaganda, and extremist blogs masquerading as reliable sources of news. They are also fed by the fundamentalist religion of the right, and, if we are honest, of the left as well.  Such thinking thrives on fear and anxiety, promising us a seemingly irresistible form of clarity and certitude about the dangerous world before us. Such thinking seems to bring a reassuring order to the swirling chaos of our troubled world.

But if the ancient desert contemplatives can teach us anything, it is that such simplistic thinking is driven by that old, false self within us, that self that would be its own god. And perhaps we can learn from them to cultivate prosoche and diakrisis again. We cannot, of course, simply mimic their ancient spiritual disciplines in some desperate flight of nostalgia. We will need to adapt them in ways suitable for our own time. Part of such adaptation will mean that we consider again the power of art and artistic creativity in our daily lives.

I have walked behind the Happy Mexican Restaurant in a struggling section of downtown Memphis many times. Its façade is painted in bright colors and bears kitschy images of stereotyped mariachi singers whose dark, gap-toothed faces grin without pause. But behind the Happy Mexican, smiling faces give way to a tall fence, a tangled weave of metal, broken wood, and razor wire designed to keep thieves and vandals out. Behind the fence are dumpsters filled with the rotting food scraped from last night's plates. Next to these is a large grease trap that holds the discarded, acrid oils from the kitchen fryer. It stinks behind the Happy Mexican, and it is surely an ugly place.

And yet, as I stood next to the fence for a twenty minutes studying the shapes and patterns, I was struck by the graceful curves of the razor wire designed to tear flesh. The pattern of the fractured wood lattice behind it only multiplied the strange beauty of geometry set against the sunless grey sky. Here in ugliness was beauty. But this beauty did not erase ugliness. The fence was ugly and beautiful at the same time, a soiled, secular sacrament suspended in the sky. My eye said both "yes" and "no," and the longer I looked the more richly commingled they became. Here was a moment of prosoche, that deep attentiveness to the complexity of the world that awakens diakrisis, discerning judgment at home with ambiguity, complexity, and even paradox.  The givenness of this little, smelly scene disrupted the simplistic impulse to add it quickly to the column of ugly things and rush on in search of something pretty to balance the imperial ledger.

I do not think a single encounter such as the one behind the Happy Mexican will expunge empire from the mind. But perhaps as the desert contemplatives thought, cultivating such encounters in the small, daily skirmishes of ordinary life will eventually help us do so. At any rate, that evening as I watched the news, lying presidents, spying microwave ovens, make-believe wiretaps, chest-thumping patriotism, inept propaganda, and the political memes of social media seemed just a bit farther away.

Maybe a fish was becoming aware of the water.

 

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  1. Borrowed and paraphrased from David Foster Wallace, "This is Water." Commencement Address at Kenyon College, May 21, 2005. Transcript available at  https://web.ics.purdue.edu/~drkelly/DFWKenyonAddress2005.pdf 
  2. For a general introduction to the rise of ascetic, contemplative desert spirituality in late antiquity, see Derwas James Chitty's, The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestian Monasticism Under the Christian Empire (St. Vladimirs Press, 1977). For a more focused treatment of the emergence and role that the desert contemplatives played in the context of empire and its complex patronage system, see Peter Brown's classic essay, "The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity" (The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 61 (1971), pp. 80-101). Brown's essay is available online at https://faculty.washington.edu/brownj9/LifeoftheProphet/The%20Rise%20of%20the%20Holy%20Man%20-%20Brown.pdf
  3. Douglas E. Christie, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. See especially chapter 5, "Prosoche: The Art of Attention," pp. 141-78.
  4. Christie, 148

 


Let the Little Children Come to Me

March 03, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Boulders in the Surf, No. 2

 

Every summer when I was a boy, my parents would take us on vacation to Santa Cruz, California. For a household of boys, there was no place better on earth than Santa Cruz. We divided our time between three great attractions, the pier from which we fished, the beach where we swam and built sand castles, and the boardwalk where we indulged the world of carnival and theme park. The boardwalk was for evenings, and we filled them with rides on the Big Dipper, the Mighty Mouse, and the Log Jam. When we weren't riding the rides, we played games, and most importantly for me, created "spin art."

Nourished on the ambrosia of cotton candy and caramel apples, we made our way to the south end of the boardwalk, to the spin art booth. And here, like the Creator hovering over the primordial darkness and void, we hovered over a chaotic, paint-stained counter eager to create. At each station was a machine to which the operator attached a piece of blank rectangular art paper than spun around so fast it became a blurred circle. Here was our canvas, and there was no need for paintbrushes. Instead, for ten frenzied minutes we squirted streams of paint from plastic bottles onto the spinning paper. We learned to squeeze softer and harder. We learned how to press an awl gently against the spinning paper to inscribe texture and blend the paints.

And when we finished, and only when we finished, the operator would stop the motor that spun the paper. And then for the first time, we would behold the finished artwork sitting still before us. It was our moment of revelation. Then the orange-aproned operator, like a priest reverently raising the Host, would delicately lift your masterpiece from the machine and set it aside to dry before you returned to collect it. Nourished and tired, we proud Picasos toted our artwork back to the Salt Air Court where we transformed our little white motel room into a gallery.

I got hooked on spin art. Perhaps it was largely because I was not yet old enough or tall enough for many of the gut-jumbling rides enjoyed by my older brothers. But there was another reason, the thrill of waiting and not knowing, the thrill of the big surprise at the end. For those ten minutes of squeezing paint on spinning paper, my creative intentions and gestures were taken up by wild centrifugal forces beyond my control to produce something that was at once mine and not mine. All my technique and craft, in the end, were gathered up by the machine and spun wildly into something over which I ultimately had no control. Spin art happened in the unpredictable space between artistic intention and technique, on the one hand, and chance and cosmic forces, on the other. Here was theme park eschatology -- a boy living by artistic faith, confident that beauty would emerge from the tension-filled space between paint applied and paint drying.

It has been over thirty five years since I have made a piece of spin art on the breezy boardwalk by the sea. But just a few weeks ago, I stumbled into it again. Well, sort of. This time it involved no paper, paint, or spinning machine. With camera in tow, I descended the dunes to an isolated stretch of untamed beach along the Pacific coast in California. The beach was scattered with boulders large and small. As the waves of high tide crashed mightily, they tossed the boulders into one another, creating an eerie thunder on a foggy morning.

I chose to make long photographic exposures, slowly recording the water as it rolled unpredictably over and around the boulders.  Once opened, the shutter remained open for many seconds, and what happened during that time was beyond my control. I could anticipate when waves might crash and where water might flow and trip the shutter accordingly, but in the end what happened in those seconds was always unpredictable, surprising, and beyond my control. Sometimes the water foamed unexpectedly as it took its uncharted path around the rocks before beginning its streaky return to the sea. Sometimes incoming waves collided with returning waves and produced watery volcanoes of churning sand.  For those seconds when the shutter was open, the water went where it wanted, when it wanted, in the ways in wanted, and how the camera would record this was equally a mystery. All I could do was trip the shutter, wait, hope, anticipate.

Here was spin art of a higher order.

Here was  a middle-aged man reborn a boy by the briny baptism of the sea.

Here again was the eschatology of creativity, suspending my awareness between present intention and future outcome, between purposeful technique and cosmic surprise.

Here again was the undiluted wonder, potent mystery, and unfettered delight that too often only mystics and children know. And maybe messiahs.

"Let the little children come to me," he said. [1]

 

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1. Matthew 19.14. New Revised Standard translation.


On the Beautiful and the Sublime

February 13, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Boulders in the Surf, Montana de Oro State Park, Calif.

Boulders in the Surf, 2017

 

I cannot photograph sound.

And yet, twice in the past year I have desired to do so. In January of last year, following a snow storm in the Sierra Nevadas, I journeyed up to Yosemite to photograph. I began my circuit of the Valley with a stop at Bridal Veil Falls. The footpath to the base of the falls was covered in several inches of treacherous ice. Most of the few visitors in the park who bothered to stop chose to forego the walk and view the falls from the safety of the parking lot. As I gingerly worked my way up to the base of the falls, I heard peals of thunder overhead. But the skies were blue. It was not thunder. It was the sound of large sheets of ice high above the falls cracking, breaking loose, and smashing against rocks on their way over the cataract. This strange, thunderous sound echoed sharply over the whole of Yosemite Valley.

And just a few mornings ago, I stood atop a rocky shelf along an isolated stretch of untamed Pacific coastline at Montaña de Oro State Park. It was a foggy morning, and again I heard the sound of thunder that was not thunder. It was the sound of large, submerged boulders on the shoreline being lifted and tossed violently against one another by the fierce waves of  high tide.

There is something unsettling and eerily fascinating about this thunder of ice, rocks, and water. Immanuel Kant and the Romantic thinkers and artists of the nineteenth century would likely have categorized these encounters as experiences of the sublime. The sublime, they insisted, is different from the beautiful. The beautiful refers to things on a human scale -- small, delicate, pretty, and manageable by the mind. Experiences of beauty evoke an immediate sense of satisfaction and unalloyed pleasure as one perceived the presence of symmetry, form, and balance. Beauty awakens a sense of being at-home in the world. Beauty consoles, comforts, and reassures. The mind is up to the task of beauty.

Experiences of the sublime are different, insisted Kant and the Romantics. We experience the sublime when we are confronted and overwhelmed by the vast, unbounded, primal forces of the universe. When we experience the sublime, we are radically disoriented. We feel swallowed up by the vastness of cosmic forces and sense acutely our smallness and vulnerability in the grand scheme of things. For Kant, it was the vastness of "the starry sky above" that evoked a sense of the sublime. The power of ocean tides and echoing peals of thunder have the same effect.  These experiences of boundlessness, displace and dislocate us, disrupting our cognitive powers. When they do, they evoke something other than a simple, direct sense of pleasure and at-homeness in the world. Instead, they pull us affectively in multiple, contrary directions all at once. [1]

Rudolf Otto, while writing about "the holy," might just as easily have been writing about the sublime. Otto characterized a holy object as a mysterium tremendum et fascinans. [2] Holy things are mysterious, "wholly other" things that confound the mind and evoke a sense of fear and fascination at the same time. We are drawn irresistibly across treacherous terrain to the cracking ice and jumbling boulders even as we pull back with caution and fear at their danger and disregard for us. The thunder of rocks, water, and ice calls out to us to come closer for a better look even as we know that with one misstep these elemental forces can kill us. To feel these countervailing impulses at once is a mark of the sublime.

This distinction between the beautiful and the sublime is not without its problems. Repeating the gender essentialism of patriarchy, for example, nineteenth-century thinkers identified beauty with the feminine and the sublime with the masculine. And while it was not their intention to diminish the significance of the beautiful in the interest of the sublime, such was often the effect in practice when the distinction became gendered. Patriarchy demands beautiful but subordinate women rather than sublime ones. The former please and serve men, while the latter threaten to undo them. [3]

And yet, despite the problematic overlay of patriarchy and gender essentialism, one senses an authentic insight here into some kinds of aesthetically charged experiences. Tangled and muddled by gender politics as this distinction is, we do, in fact, have these experiences of the sublime, and they are different from other experiences of beautiful things.

Such experiences of the sublime are powerfully formative. They shake us awake from the slumber of our grasping egocentrism. We discover that we are not the center, force, and fulcrum of the universe. We sense our smallness and vulnerability again, and paradoxically it is liberating. They free us from the compulsive drive to control reality, from the fear that drives us into the arms of false messiahs who promise to make us great again.

I cannot photograph the thunder of water, rock, and ice, and that fact is a palpable reminder that I am not the measure or even measurer of all things. But perhaps a photograph such as Boulders in the Surf can crudely and clumsily bear witness, even if only obliquely, to the sublime, to the fact that "we are saved in the end by the things that ignore us." [4]

 

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1. For a brief overview of the distinction between the beautiful and sublime in Kant and Romanticism, see Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 82-6.

2. Rudolf Otto,  The Idea of the Holy. Trans. John W. Harvey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923; 2nd ed., 1950 [Das Heilige, 1917].

3. For a more comprehensive critique of the distinction between beauty and the sublime, see Scarry, On Beauty, 82-6.

4. Anthony de Mello, One Minute Wisdom. Quoted in Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Desert and Mountain Spirituality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 57.

 


Why Beauty Matters

August 13, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Train Cars, Rudyard, Miss.

Train Cars, Rudyard, Mississippi, 2016

Ours is an age that has come to think of beauty and art as luxuries easily done without rather than as necessities required for living well. 

 

Our willingness to dispense with them is written into much modern home construction and neighborhood development, for example, where our fetish for more and cheaper square footage and uniform design eclipses attention to the flow and arrangement of space, the presence or absence of natural light, and the unique, artful character imparted to a living space by careful attention to detail and variety. This impulse to dispense with beauty and art is also present in our educational institutions, where art programs are the first ones cut when budgets must be trimmed. The kids can do without paint, clay, and crayons, but they can't do without math and science, standardized tests, and computer skills, or so says the unimaginative "wisdom" of our age.

 

And on the few occasions when we finally turn in the direction of beauty, we easily get distracted by the pretty, by ornaments and decorations that lack depth or complexity. We want art that matches the couch rather than touches the soul. We confuse beauty with decor.

 

What exactly is lost when we slowly drift away from beauty and art?

 

Answering this question requires that we ask a more basic one, what makes a thing beautiful? Across the western intellectual tradition, the answers to this question has been complex and varied. But there is one aspect of the answers that recurs in nearly every age; and that is form. Form refers to the organizing principle of a thing, the integrative aspect that binds its parts into a harmonious whole. Form imparts orderly arrangement, coherence, and structure to an entity. A natural or artistic entity is beautiful when its various aspects are organized, integrated, and patterned harmoniously. Form expresses itself as the arrangement and order within a thing that make it a unified whole, something greater than the mere sum of its parts. Form sometimes goes by its Christian name, Logos, or by its Jewish name, Wisdom.

 

Form is what differentiates music from noise. If I drop my kitchen pots and pans on the floor, they will strike many of the same notes as the organist playing Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." But why is this noise rather than music? It is noise because the notes are not well ordered and harmoniously arranged. They lack proportion and symmetry, structure and coherence, integration and unity. The difference between "Ode to Joy" and clanging cookware is that the former has superior form while the latter lacks it almost entirely.

 

When we experience the form revealed in beauty, we feel down deep in our gut that the world in which we live is governed by order rather than chance, purpose rather than accident, pattern rather than chaos. In the presence of beauty, we sense deeply that our lives and the existence of all other things fit together in some coherent way that is ultimately meaningful. The experience of beauty awakens and intensifies that felt sense that the universal power that generates and integrates our lives is greater than the powers that seek to pull them apart. We are assured affectively that the universe is shot through with meaning, that its primal force is an integrative love, and that life is well lived when it consents to the harmony that binds all things together and yokes them to their transcendent purpose. Our native response to perceiving form in beautiful things centers in delight and joy that reorder the heart's deepest desires, drawing us out of ourselves toward the other in exuberant, spontaneous love.

 

To experience the form present in beauty is to hear a transcendent Witness declare that the world is good; that it is as it ought to be, and that there is room for us in it. The form of beauty awakens in us a sense of wellbeing, an intuitive, sure sense that the universe is not fundamentally hostile to our existence despite the reality of suffering in our lives. Beauty reveals the joyful truth that my life is never wholly my own own, that power and pose cannot ultimately trump goodness and truth. Form revealed in beauty exposes the lie that the only meaning my life has is whatever arbitrary meaning I or society assign it. The form manifested in beauty awakens hope, a sense of possibility, and a sense that life, love, and justice ultimately matter. Beauty thus gives birth to our moral imagination and awakens moral motivation.

 

In the end, the real danger of a beautyless, artless world is not so much ugliness but nihilism, the loss of that existential meaning that is bedrock to our humanity.


Pied Beauty

August 09, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

California Sea Otters, Mother and Pup

California Sea Otters, Mother and Pup, 2016

When I was a boy, I raised pigeons. I enjoyed releasing them many miles from home and finding that they had returned to the coop. On very rare occasions when two steel-grey homing pigeons mated, the plumage of their offspring was not at all like that of the parents. The parents had "thrown a pie" as pigeon-keepers called it. The plumage of the offspring was mottled, dappled in odd colors, and uniquely its own -- the wild resurgence of recessive genes.     -MTM

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things--

For skies of couple-color as a brindled cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; 

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings; 

Landscape plotted and pieced--fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

 

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.*

 

-Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1877

 

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*This poem is in the public domain.


On Pine Needles and Politics

July 28, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

 

 

Toadstool and Pine Needles, 2013

In My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), John Muir offers the following account of sketching a sugar pine tree in the Sierra Nevada.

 

I never weary of gazing at its grand tasseled cones, it's perfectly round bole one hundred feet or more without a limb, the fine a purplish color of its bark, and its magnificent outsweeping, down-curving feathery arms forming a crown always bold and striking an exhilarating... At the age of fifty to one hundred years it begins to acquire individuality, so that no two are alike in their prime or old age. Every tree calls for special admiration. I have been making many sketches, and regret that I cannot draw every needle. [1]

 

In the midst of a creative act, Muir discovered that "no two [trees] are alike." So intense is his insight that he longs to sketch each and every pine needle because one cannot substitute for another without loss. Muir was smitten by the power of particularity.

 

Artmaking opens up this power of particularity in our lives, evoking a deeply felt sense of the irreducible uniqueness of the single thing in front of us right now. Under its spell, we linger over the minutest detail, offering it a long, loving, sensuous gaze. As we do, everything else fades temporarily from view. It is as though time stops and we are wholly absorbed in the intricacy of this and only this thing. We come to know it immediately, intimately, and vividly. We lose ourselves in it only to find ourselves again, but now we are richer for having been woven together intimately with the object and the felt mystery it makes present.

 

As we sketch, photograph, or paint the pine needle, we are so keenly focused on its particularity that the boundaries between subject and object dissolve. The anxiously patrolled borders of the self become porous, fluid, and elastic. The self relinquishes its drive to control -- physically, emotionally, and cognitively. The ego discovers itself open, receptive, and vulnerable. Curiosity dissolves control, empathy replaces hostility, love banishes indifference. Before the pine needle and the felt sense of mystery that envelops it, delight, wonder, and hospitality crowd out fear, hatred, or violence. The self makes room for the pine needle and allows it to be what it is, fragile, beautiful, vulnerable. And now loved.

 

This kind of artistic awareness is very much like the mystical awareness treasured by the contemplative traditions in nearly all of the great religions of the world. These are not experiences of flight from the world, from the ordinary, from the particular. Rather, they are experiences of a radically new way of being present to the world, to the ordinary, to the particular. When we linger over the beautiful thing, suddenly we and it are cradled in the arms of the Whole, the mysterious Whither and Whence of all being. We have celebrated Communion.

 

There is a deep paradox here, and it is this. When we severely restrict the scope of our attention to a single being, giving it our total attention and devotion, it becomes a portal onto the Whole.  In seeing the one, we awaken to the All. Only by restricting our awareness does it become expansive and capacious. If it is Logos we find, it is always first incarnated.

 

This graced form of awareness is not the exclusive possession of professional artists or the mystical virtuosi. It is available to all of us, but we must cultivate it. Among the ways we do so is by exercising creativity, by making art. Many of us gave up artmaking when we grew up, shamed out of it by the demands of adulthood and "serious" living. But creativity and art-making are deeply spiritual, transformative practices, capable of renovating our imaginations and reorienting our total affective and cognitive posture toward life over time. When we neglect them in our adult lives, we do so at our own peril.

 

But what do pine needles have to do with politics? At this moment in American political life, we are a deeply divided people. Beneath our political, cultural turmoil is a deeper spiritual turmoil. We are a people governed by fear, alienation, and isolation. Our fractious politics and lack of empathetic connection to one another are a symptom of our traumatized souls. We are closed off from one another and from ourselves -- angry, alienated, and desperately in search of political messiahs from any end of the political spectrum who we hope will magically rescue us from our problems. But down deep we know that no politician, party, platform, or election will do for our souls what needs doing.

 

What is required is work rather than magic, and it is work that we the people rather than a single political messiah must do. It's local, particular, grassroots work. It's slow, hard, and risky work. And, as silly and naive as it may sound, I believe that some of this work must be the joyful work of making art. We need to discover or rediscover the bliss of creativity. We need to sketch, photograph, and paint that pine needle right there, right now. We need to do this creative work so that we might discover the transformative power of particularity. Attending deeply to this pine needle, the one right there in front of us now, is one way of practicing ourselves into openness and receptivity to the distinctive colors, qualities, textures, and scents of every unique, irreplaceable being.

 

Creative work will enable us to sit first with a pine needle and later with a particular person. Schooled in empathy, connectedness, and communion by the pine needle, we will become porous and fluid, able to receive a particular person who is different and strange. Schooled by the pine needle, we will learn the name and face, the particular story, the unique gifts, the peculiar fears, and the concrete hopes of a particular other.  Creative work thus generates the fundaments of love and community.

 

Sketching a pine needle may make it easier to sketch the particular life of a single African-American person and for the first time learn what a particular black life looks like. Only then will we know what's at stake when we say "black lives matter." Others of us will need to sit and sketch the life of a working-class, rural white man and learn about the seeds of his anger, fear, and alienation. Others of us will need to sit and sketch the life of a Muslim, a person suffering homelessness, a police officer, a single mom, or an LGBTQ person. All of us will need to sit and sketch our own particular lives, for these have become as foreign and dangerous to us as the lives of others.

 

This creative work will teach us the dangers of abstraction and facile generalizations that repress the moral sentiments and sever the affective bonds that knit our particular lives together into genuine community. Only when we have fully entered into the texture of another's particular life, will we learn what is lost by "all black people are...", "all white folk are...", "all blue-collar men do...", "every rich person is...", "all police officers do...". Such objectifying abstractions and weaponized generalizations are often defense mechanisms of our anxious, wounded, and fearful egos. Creativity and pine needles can help deliver us from them.  And while we may eventually be able to make some helpful generalizations based on shared insight, we will make them more carefully, hold them more loosely, always testing them against the pine needles.

 

So, go, sketch a pine needle, that one, right there, right now; the one caught on the far side of a dangerous divide.

 

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[1] Quoted in Douglas E. Christie, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 29.

 


Alas, His Feet Are Bolted Firmly to the Ground

July 26, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Big John, 2016

There stands Big John firm against the brilliant sky, tall and hollow, alone and happy. He's been there awhile now, along Highway 61 on the outskirts of town. It's hard to say whether he's coming or going. But he's a happy, abandoned relic in the roadside museum of American kitsch. 

 

Yes, there he stands, an empty-armed mascot of a supermarket that once was but is no more. Big John is unburdened now, free of the fiberglass bags of groceries filled with myths that he once carried and free even of the supermarket itself that told him who he was: provider, breadwinner, hardworking family man who brought home the bacon.

 

A hundred yards to his north sits a boarded-up "gentleman's club," a "strip joint" in the unvarnished vernacular of working class men in blue jeans and tieless shirts like Big John. I wonder if Big John ever feels his hollowness on some of those dark, lonely nights along the Blues highway. I bet he's tempted to stumble in there, imagining himself a supersized Don Juan with a giant fistful of dollar bills in search of intimacy and companionship now that he is out of work and short on self-worth. But alas, his feet are bolted firmly to the ground.

 

A bit to his south is a fireworks stand where the crowds pull in to buy their freedom by the box. For a few bucks and weeks in midsummer, they can bask again in "the rocket's red glare" while waiting "for the dawn's early light." I wonder if Big John ever wants to swagger over there and light a few Whistling Petes or Roman Candles in the name of liberty, reliving the founding myth of bullets, bombs, and liberty one sparkler at a time. But alas, his feet are bolted firmly to the ground.

 

A dozen yards to his east is the ramp onto Highway 61, the way out of Dodge. I wonder if, short on work and meaning, lonely and disconnected, and bored with the the rituals of bullets and bombs, Big John ever longs just to "hit the road," to ride off into the sunset like a cowboy in search of a fresh start. But alas, his feet are bolted firmly to the ground.

 

Being tied down has saved Big John, saved him from himself and saved him for us. Being bolted down isn't so bad. Look, he still smiles and even has shiny shoes. And watching over the endless line of other cowboys on their way out of town seems good for the big soul of this grinning idiot.

 

Hey cowboy, as you whiz down Highway 61, pay attention to the kitsch. It can teach you more than it ever intended.

 

On the Danger of Poets and Noble Lies

July 12, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Poet, Minstrel, Muse, 2016

The shadow of Plato's Republic falls long across the imagination of western philosophy, theology, and spirituality. In it, Plato offers a vision of the good society centered in reason. In the well ordered polis, Philosopher-Kings and Guardians, attuned to the eternal forms far above the shadowy things of this material world, govern justly and order life benevolently for all.

In Plato's rationally ordered world, everyone has an assigned place, rank, and function. But curiously, the maintenance of this rationally ordered world also requires what Plato calls "a noble lie," a fiction created by the elite Guardians and taught to the masses to convince them to embrace their socially assigned place as natural, reasonable, and inevitable. The noble lie is a falsehood ostensibly generated and enacted in the interest of a greater good. The noble lie was a kind of propaganda that legitimated social rank and function by appealing to the different kinds of metal allegedly found in one's blood from birth. To step out of one's place was to deviate from one's metallic nature, to bend metal in unnatural and dangerous ways. Thus, the conflation of reason and social power were concealed by this "noble lie" internalized by the masses. [1]

What's also interesting is how suspicious Plato is of artists and poets. The good artists are craftspeople who should merely imitate in their art what they see in the world. Imitation rather than interpretation is the artist's calling. And curiously for Plato (but not for Aristotle after him), perceiving artistic beauty should be free of deep pleasure. Apparently, artists were to leave the heavy thinking of interpretation to the Philosopher-Kings, and all pleasure would eventually trickle down to the rest of us from their lofty heights. [2]

Having successfully house broken the visual artists, Plato turns to the poets and decides it better to banish them from his ideal republic. Poets are energized by the muses, those uncontrollable, mischievous agents of creativity with ties to the gods who disrupt things as they are, ignite the imagination to envision something new, different, and maybe even better. Poets traffic in metaphor, paradox, wordplay, lyric, story, riddle, and song, all of which are fraught with ambiguous meanings not easily wrestled to the ground by reason and good order, even when they are armed with the billy club of noble lies. [3]

When politics and community begin in reason but come to depend on noble lies to prop them up, whether in Plato's time or our own, there is cause for deep concern. Perhaps we in the United States have, in the interest of a reasonable and ordered society, embraced our own noble lie. We have asked women, the poor, people of color, Muslims, queer people, alienated working class white folk, and angry unemployed rural men, for example, to accept their marginalized rank and function as natural, inevitable, and reasonable.  Our rational society demands the ordering of power and privilege found in the status quo. Embracing the noble lie allows us to render invisible the suffering and injustice masked by reason.

The problem with noble lies is that they are always tenuous, and require the multiplication of more lies to secure themselves. And when noble lies are finally exposed, it brings deep turmoil and struggle. Such well-worn, well-told lies always die a slow, tortured death that brings forth hate, rage, and violence as part of the grief of losing them.

Perhaps the danger of the poets and untamed artists is that they will expose the noble lie and the naked pretenses of reason. Wild-eyed, word-slinging poets might fire the imagination of their hearers toward other possibilities. Metaphors without crisp meaning but charged with evocative power might expose the fragility and limits of reason itself and indict the noble lie. Beauty might not be about mere imitation. Beauty might be about subversion, about new and never-before-imagined possibilities seizing hearts and minds and calling forth radical change. Beauty might trangress and erase the well chalked boundaries that demarcated order and privilege in our polis. Beauty might rescue people from the delusion of rational control and its noble fibs, or it might stir people to die trying. Poets fraternize with revolutionaries. They are always among the first to be purged in totalitarian states.

Plato was right. Poets (and undomesticated artists) are dangerous because they represented a volcanic eruption from beyond the world of rational control and noble lies; poets traffic in surprise and wonder, playfulness and laughter, all of which are subversive. They expose the hidden fissures of reason and in so doing challenge the distribution of social power and the structures of privilege often legitimated by appeals to seamless reason and its noble lies. Art touches mystery and transcendence, evokes new imaginative possibilities for the world, and tangles a robust affirmation of the goodness of the world with an equally robust criticism of the falseness that tries to erase it. Artists love to make visible what is invisible. They love to bend the metal found in earthen mines and fleshly veins into new things.

Perhaps this is part of why we need artists and their creative work so desperately in our own current, conflicted cultural moment where fear is driving us to desperate measures to preserve a status quo that seems ever so rational. But as in Plato's Republic, what's rational often needs a well-crafted, noble lie to prop it up. But even well-crafted, noble lies are dissolved by the beauty of artists and poets, because in the end, the Beautiful is always also the True and the Good.

If it is true that in times like these we most need artists and beauty, then its equally true that in times like these both are often least welcomed. In seasons of social turmoil, we convert art into propaganda, enlisting it strategically for our narrow cause. Unlike genuine art, propaganda dictates a one-dimensional meaning, corralling its sheep toward an overly simplified vision demanding unquestioning loyalty. It is reductionist, strategic, and coercive. Its line from art to action is far too straight and direct. It's clean edges stand false against the real world of jagged-edged ambiguity.

And when art and beauty cannot be enlisted for the cause by the propagandist, they are attacked as bourgeois distractions, escapist forms of sentimentality that make us privileged folk feel good while keeping our distance from the fray and struggle for justice. If art cannot be for us in propaganda, then it must be against us as luxurious, bourgeois escapism.

But the line between art and action is never as straight as the propagandist would like it to be. Nor is it so crooked and labyrinthine as to leave us lost in a dream world of illusion and escape.

Genuine art is far more powerful than propaganda or escapism. Genuine art and beauty work their muse-filled grace on the deep structures of our imagination, opening us to wonder, awe, and previously unconsidered possibilities. They awaken longing for and delight in the particularity of what is seen. When we enter meaningfully and briefly into the strange, new world of a poem or other work of art, we find ourselves delightfully lost there for a while. It has absorbed us the way a good story absorbs a listening child, and in so doing we find that we have joyfully given up our desperate grasp on the world, at least for a little while. Art draws us out of ourselves and away from the petty, acquisitive, self-serving, self-justifying egocentrism that all too often governs our actions, even those so easily cloaked in righteousness and reason.

Long before art issues in particular actions, it shapes our identity, character, and our most basic affective and cognitive attunement to all things. Encounters with beauty and artistry can dissolve the false self governed by anxiety, fear, hatred, and control and awaken a new self attuned to its own creatureliness, the joy of connectedness with all Being, and the longing for and delight that comes from participating in the mystery of life through the ordinary things of life. Long before beauty changes our individual actions and strategies, it changes our identities by rewriting the grand narrative that frames all things and grants them larger meaning.

And now we are back to Plato. Plato did fear the poets because they were propagandists or escapists. He feared them not because they changed actions in the short term or siphoned off our moral energies in escapism. He feared them for the right reason. He feared them because traffickers in beauty can trouble the universe as currently known and arranged. Beauty unsettles and transforms us, deeply, radically, and totally but usually gently, slowly, and seductively. New actions, of course, may and usually do follow upon such deep renovations of consciousness, but they are almost epiphenomenal it. What the poets bring is a revolution of imagination long before there is a revolution of action.

In our age of fear and hatred, desperate messianic politics, terrorism, and the weekly slaughter of those strange, unreasonable "others" aimed at preserving "law and order" and rechalking the lines of conventionality morality and social power, perhaps what we most need is to listen to the poets and artists, and to the gods whose bidding they do.

--------------------------

  1. Plato, The Republic. Trans. By C.D.C Reeve. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004), chapter 3, especially pp. 99-100.
  2. Kathryn B. Alexander, Saving Beauty: A Theological Aesthetics of Nature (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), pp. 14-15.
  3. Cecilia González-Andrieu, Bridge to Wonder: Art as a Gospel of Beauty (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2012), pp. 18-21.

 


Of Dandelions

July 06, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Morning Light, The Point, Morro Rock

The Point, Morro Rock, 2016

In his wonderful book, From Nature to Creation, theologian Norman Wirzba maintains that "how we name and narrate the world" is determinative for how we position ourselves in and relate to it. [1]

 

An illustration from Wirzba helps us to see his point. If I hold up before us a plant such as a dandelion and name it flower, we begin to interact with it as a beautiful and fragile thing, bright and fragrant, that pleases the senses. We are tempted to place the bright yellow flower in a vase of water on our dining table to enjoy during meals. It is an adornment worthy of care, attention, and delight.

 

However, if when holding up the same plant, I name it weed, we immediately see it as the enemy of our well manicured lawn. This weed is far from beautiful and fragrant; it is a nuisance. We don't enjoy it; we want to eradicate it, poison it even, in the interest of a uniformly green lawn.

 

Or still again, if when holding up the plant, I name it food, we immediately think of adding its leaves to a tossed salad to enrich the flavor. We will savor its slightly bitter contribution to the mix of fresh, delectable summer greens. And if we accept the witness offered by the menus of of fine restaurants, we will regard the consumption of dandelion leaves in our salads as a mark of a sophisticated palette.

 

Is the plant a thing of delight, an enemy, or a sophisticated food? Will we display, exterminate, or eat it? The choice to name it flower, weed, or food is at the same time a choice to locate it in one of several very different narratives of meaning that dramatically alter our cognitive, affective, and moral response to it. So, yes, "how we name and narrate the world" matters because it shapes dramatically different and often incompatible forms of life in response to it. [2]

 

In contemporary western civilizations, we name and narrate our world with the vocabulary of consumerism. We name ourselves I and narrate a story in which this isolated, autonomous self is the measure and meaning of reality. We enact our personhood through endless consumption. Other creatures are things, objects or commodities with little or no intrinsic value or sanctity. Things are raw materials waiting to be owned and possessed, used and consumed for my personal aggrandizement. The value of a thing is assigned by us, often by way of a price tag or through some other quantifier of its expendability and benefit to us. The problem with this naming and narration is that the appetite of the naming I is never sated, and we are trapped on a treadmill of utilitarian logic that demands more, bigger, cheaper, and easier. In this story, all creatures other than the self become things stripped of sanctity, lacking inherent worth, and thus unworthy of empathy or moral regard.

 

Not unlike the great religions of the world, artistic creativity and works of art can provide another way to name the plant. At their best, artists seek to name and narrate the world not as thing but as gift. [3]

 

Gifts, of course, can be and often are easily co-opted by the naming and narrating strategy of comsumerism. When that happens, they become thinly veiled transactions in which a gift given must be repaid by another gift of equal or greater value so as to balance the ledger of social power. Generosity, so the logic goes, is merely a mask for covertly exacting obligation, favor, or acquiesence from another. Better to pay back the debt to preserve one's autonomy.

 

But gifts need not become things pulled into the orbit of dominative power. To name the world and its creatures as gifts can to be recognize that all things ultimately come to us from beyond ourselves, including our very lives. Despite our efforts at denial, we are fragile creatures -- finite and radically dependent on realities given to us from beyond for daily survival. Gifts confront us of with the radical givenness of our lives and our utter dependence, moment by moment, on the unconditioned Whence and Whither of our existence. This is why receiving gifts can sometimes feel awkward.

 

Gifts also remind us of our inescapable interdependence with all other creatures. To give a gift is not simply to give someone a thing; a gift given is a call to membership, a summons to connectedness, and an invitation to deep participation in the mystery of the love and goodness that bind human beings, and indeed all beings, together in ways that are significantly resistant to commodification and market forces.  We respond most faithfully to a gift by acknowledging with gratitude that vast web of natural, social, and divine integuments that binds all things together in mutuality and interdependence. Mystery and connectedness, dependence and interdependence, humility and gratitude lie back of and saturate this different economy of gifts. These qualities in turn open us to wonder, thanksgiving, and deep delight -- qualities of soul noticeably suppressed in the economy of things.

 

When painters daub pigment on a canvas, when sculpters collects bits of driftwood and fashion them into mobiles with string and wire that float in the breeze, when photographers record an ordered composition found amidst an overwhelming surplus of rocks, clouds, and trees, they are offering to themselves and their viewers a gift. Their creative act and piece of art are less an expression of their private inner life and more an invitation to a new imaginative way of naming, narrating, and thus relating to the world and its Source. For a moment, this gift of beauty can arrest our drive toward cognitive mastery and material control. We find ourselves lingering over it in delight, attending to its particularity with wonder, curiosity, puzzlement, and delight. To give up control, to linger, to experience curiosity, puzzlement, wonder, and deep delight are antithetical to the logic of control, efficiency, and utility that govern the cult of the thing.

 

Good art invites us into a dialogue with itself, and when the dialogue is genuine, it displaced us as the measure of all things. Such an artistic gift is never perfect, but in its own fragmentary way it summons us to see differently, to name and narrate the world in new, graced ways. We can be creatures again who acknowledge and embrace our own fragility and dependence on the universe of being. Ultimately, an experience of artistic beauty is an invitation to membership, connectedness, and participation in an expansive, cosmic community of being. In this community, the logic of scarcity, acquisitiveness, possession, and disposability is overcome by the logic of abundance, communion, mystery, and deep, lasting delight.

 

------------------------

1. Norman Wirzba, From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving the World (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015).

 

2. Wirzba, pp. 18-19.

 

3. Wirzba, pp. 144-52. I am borrowing and adapting Wirzba's elaboration of gift. For a fuller discussion of the idea of artistic creativity and works of art as gifts, see also Lewis Hyde's The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (New York: Vintage, 1979).


Spilled Beauty

June 23, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Surf at Moonstone Beach, 2016

"… [W]hatever is and whatever comes to be, is and comes to be on account of the beautiful and the good. All things look to it; all things are moved by it; all things are held together by it. Every source…exists for the sake of it, because of it, and in it; simply put, every source, all preservation and all ending, whatever is held in being, derives from the beautiful and the good.

Hence, all things must desire, must yearn for, must love the beautiful and the good; because of it and for its sake, the weaker is returned with yearning to the more powerful, equals keep fellowship with equals, the more powerful become providential toward the weaker, and each brings forth itself; everything does and wills whatever it does and wills by desire for the beautiful and the good."

--Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, The Divine Names, 4.10, unpublished translation by Kendra G. Hotz

 

In the writings of the sixth-century Christian mystic known as the Pseudo-Dionysius (or "Denys"), we find a suggestive vision of the human condition. When Denys surveyed the human landscape, he concluded that our condition is one marked by a fragmentation and restlessness that undermine stable, integrated personhood. The tragedy of our condition resides not so much in disobedience and guilt but in pervasively distorted desire. To be human is to be an erotic being, where eros refers not primarily to sexuality but to the integrative pattern of yearning and desire that draws together our identities and orients us to all reality. Denys claims that before our fall into this tragic state, the desire that constitutes our personhood was like a single mirror that reflected a unified vision of life focused on the Divine. This singularity of focus ordered our identity so that the various desires of the soul and body were brought into homeostatic balance and harmony, ensuring, for example, that our sexual desire, our desire for food, our desire for companionship, our desire for work, our desire to own, use, and enjoy things, and our desire for God, were integrated into a carefully orchestrated, interdependent unity that brought wholeness, beauty, and harmony to all of life.

The Fall shattered that mirror into thousands of disconnected shards, each reflecting a diverse, discrete object of desire. A unified, integrated self became a fragmented, dislocated self drifting anxiously among a variety of disconnected things desperately investing each of them with an ultimacy that none of them could bear. The tragic consequence of this is not primarily guilt but personal disintegration, chaotic restlessness, contradictory and confused desires, alienation from self, and exile from the world of authentic relationships with God and others.

What has come to interest me as a theologian and photographic artist is the way that consumerism as the prevailing meaning-making system of our world reflects and answers to this ancient theology. Consumerism is more than an economic system. It is the totalizing ideology or, if theologian John Kavanaugh is right, the prevailing religion, of American life that has soaked deeply into our bones, shaping our individual and communal perceptions, values, actions, and assumptions in ways we usually remain blind to.*

Consumerism depends on the fragmentation and distortion of our desire, the elusiveness of fulfillment, the addiction-producing ache of incompleteness, and the illusion that finite objects will do for us what only the Infinite can do. To produce, buy, and consume are its ethical mandate. Competition, possession, and egocentrism are its cardinal virtues. Shopping is salvific, and cheap, fast, and convenient are the tropes of its over-marketed liturgy. More is its great eschatological hope and Santa Claus its patron saint. 

A constant stream of new and improved products are paraded before us, each promising to do for us what the last one failed to do. Each reminds us of our insufficiency even as it offers a faux redemption from it coated with ersatz ultimacy. Infiniti is yours as a luxury sedan made by Nissan, and Eternity is bottled as a $42 cologne by Calvin Klein.  Buy her earrings from De Beers Jewelry and like the silhouetted selves in the televised commercial you and your beloved will slip into the dark bedroom lit only by the sparkle of diamonds and rediscover your lost intimacy, sexual passion, and marital concord. You'll be a real man again, a provider for your woman, and she'll rediscover the power of things to narcotize the pain and diminishment of selfhood required by patriarchy.

I am more and more convinced that the pursuit of creativity and beauty in the arts can be one of the ways back to a unified, concentrated form of desire where integration overcomes fragmentation. Like prayer, sacraments, and other contemplative practices, artistic creativity and viewing works of art can become effective, albeit clumsy, efforts at coherence, wholeness, and connectedness in a consumerist world governed by divided desires, transient allegiances, and false objects of ultimacy. To be sure, efforts at creativity and beauty can be and often have been co-opted by consumerism, but at there best, they can form part of our strategy for resistance and the rediscovery of wholeness, well ordered living, and authenticity.

Artistic creativity and the thirst for beauty emerge out of an ordinary person's longing for connectedness and coherence, out of a longing to discern and bear witness to a larger underlying unity capable of stitching the fragmentary episodes of our individual and shared lives into a single, grand epic penned by that mysterious Other "in whom we live, move, and have our being." Art and beauty are an invitation to see, hear, touch, move, and ultimately live differently.

Good photographs or other good works of art can serve as portals through which we briefly glimpse the primordial unity that upholds and expresses itself through all things. But even this glimpse, brief, distant and oblique as it is, is enough to teach us that beauty is not simply there to entertain us. It is there to restore us, to occasion both the reintegration of the self and our reconciliation with others and with the Wholly Other that always seem to elude us in the fragmenting world of consumerism. Beauty has this power because it is ontologically real and because it is a concretization of divine grace.

Artistic creativity can be a gesture, albeit a halting, partial, and clumsy one, that points us toward the simple truth that beauty is Gospel spilled lavishly on the world.

 

-----------------------------------------

*John F. Kavanaugh, Following Christ in a Consumer Society: The Spirituality of Cultural Resistance (25th Anniversary Edition, New York: Orbis Books, 2006)

 

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