Category Archives: Spirituality

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

IMG_1137I’ve been doing drawn meditations based off of scripture or spiritual pieces.  I’m attracted to texts that come from other times of social disruption, those scary, creative times when the range of possibilities opens wide and people find new ways to seek God.  This seems to be the moment we’re in now, and I’ve been looking back at a much earlier moment that has some profound similarities.  The Early Church period was full of contrasting ideas about Jesus, full of argument, really, but also full of some beautiful expressions of piety and wonder.  God had come down and dwelt among us, which meant that people could claim, really for the first time in Monotheism, that they had met God, touched God, smelled and heard God.  It was an extravagant notion, and some unknown early Christians responded with this extravagant prayer, which was found in Nag Hammadi in 1945.  I found it in A New New Testament, Hal Taussig, ed.

1 This is the prayer they said: We give thanks to you, every life and heart stretches toward you, O name untroubled, honored with the name of God, praised with the name of Father. 2 To everyone and everything comes the kindness of the Father, and love and desire. 3 And if there is a sweet and simple teaching, it gifts us mind, word, and knowledge: mind, that we may understand you; word, that we may interpret you; knowledge, that we may know you. 4 We rejoice and are enlightened by your knowledge. We rejoice that you have taught us about yourself. 5 We rejoice that in the body you have made us divine6 through your knowledge. 6 The thanksgiving of the human who reaches you is this alone: that we know you. 7 We have known you, O light of mind. O light of life, we have known you. 8 O womb of all that grows, we have known you. 9 O womb pregnant with the nature of the Father, we have known you. 10 O never-ending endurance of the Father who gives birth, so we worship your goodness. 11 One wish we ask: we wish to be protected in knowledge. 12 One protection we desire: that we not stumble in this life.   13 When they said these things in prayer, they welcomed one another, and they went to eat their holy food, which had no blood in it.

Taussig, Hal (2013-03-05). A New New Testament: A Bible for the 21st Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts (p. 8). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

And here’s the text of my meditation, which can also be found scribbled in the picture above:

Name untroubled, we have known you.  We have known you when you curled your limbs, as only a child can curl her limbs.  We have known you as we once knew ourselves, when we were small and weak. A knowing before memory.  A knowing that only we can know.  And we know that this is your one pure gift – to give us to ourselves.  And so, Thanksgiving,  Great All-Being, smallest source of everything, who knows and anoints our knowing.

The Man with the Withered Hand

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He was there, in the synagogue on a Sabbath, an observant Jew.  His withered hand didn’t limit his worship – he wasn’t a Levite, he wasn’t a priest.  He couldn’t work because of it, but this wasn’t a day that required work.  It was the one day when his hand didn’t matter, the Sabbath, when all work went still.  Wouldn’t such a man love the Sabbath law, the law that allowed him to sit quietly with his neighbors and not feel that his withered hand made him an outsider?

Perhaps he agreed with the Pharisees’ denunciations of Jesus, who had just defended his disciples for picking grain on the Sabbath.  Picking grain, something he couldn’t do, in defiance of sitting quiet and being at rest, one thing he could do quite well.  Agreed with them, until Jesus took pity on him, and asked him to stretch out his hand.  Was he angry, even as he obeyed, not wanting to turn into a demonstration of power?  Or perhaps he was considering the day after, when he would be useless again, when he’d have to beg and accept charity and feel that he was somehow lesser than other people.  It was a finely balanced act, that stretching forward of his arm, the withered hand balancing on the end of it.

“Stretch out your hand,” Jesus said.  He could stretch his fingers without pain.  A glance back at the Pharisees, at their anger.  He had stepped from one camp into another, had ceased to be an observant Jew in their eyes, had become a grain-picker, a miracle-scrounger, a hopeful child.  And yet.  And yet, his hand moved, he could grasp the cloth of his tunic with it, could rub the fabric between thumb and forefinger and feel everything without pain.  He could return to his seat and hold his hand in his lap, looking at in, and then realize that it was no longer a passive object, that it could do more than nest in the cradle of his other hand, that it could stretch, the fingers could drum on his legs, the knuckles could curve them into fists.

But it was still the Sabbath.  No one would be working until sundown.  Even Jesus, who had proved his point, would rest now.  And the Pharisees, the angry Pharisees, had gone away.  The Sabbath, and there was little to do but return to the street, to the piece of shade that rested against the synagogue wall, where he must wait, watching the angle of the sun across the roofs of the houses, resting and waiting for sunset.

The Beatitudes

Here’s a small watercolor sketch (with some photo effects) that I created as part of the Sur’mount’ing the Mount project at Summit UMC.  My friend Meghan, who’s a dancer, noted that “the physical representation [of the Beatitudes] is reaching, exploration of opposites.”  I read this after I’d created my painting, but was pleased by how well Meghan’s thoughts seem to fit the image.

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Blessed are the Paintings

I move through the sanctuary very slowly, aware of the way my weight shifts to the balls of my feet.  I’m meant to be moving like this.  My friend Meghan has been leading us in a dance exercise, helping us to become aware of the kinesphere, that circle of energy that surrounds our bodies, the energy that makes us aware of someone coming into a room even when we don’t turn our heads to look at them.  We each have a kinesphere, she says, and we meditate, standing, breathing in and out and feeling internal energy grow within us, from a small flame behind our navels up and out through our limbs into the spaces that surround us.  And then we walk, slowly at first, increasing our awareness of the space that we’re in, the sanctuary, with its crowded chairs and altar on a dais, and doors that open to older and less beautiful spaces, alleyways and much-used kitchens.  I become aware of the windows on the door that leads into the lobby, and I walk towards them, watching the light shift on the textured glass, the contrasts change from pools of darkness to contours of light that allow the colors to rise, as if they’re bubbling up from a hidden depth.

As I walk towards the doors, I know that I’m seeing them in this specific way because of Michael Ambron’s paintings.  Michael is an Adjunct Professor at OSU, and on Friday night he opened a show at the EASE gallery, which I manage.  Here’s his artist’s statement:

My work is concerned with the expansion and extension of our senses into rarified zones of perception that exist between imagination and hallucination.  My paintings are doused in dirt, clay, dried powders, plaster and acrylics.  They are encrusted in the studio floor and pried from the walls.  The studio (as much as the materials) becomes a medium through which I can access strange forms of vision and magnify otherwise liminal experiences.  I use lights, patterns, and colors to test the limits of my knowable perceptions in order to develop sensitivity to that which I have yet to understand.

The body of work I have submitted represents a new vision of living paintings that shift both spatially and temporally.  The surface is raised, pulled forward, and balanced at the threshold of flatness and dimensionality.  As you move in any direction, the paintings move with you.  By expanding this interval (or zone of interactivity) between viewer and painting, the notion of a prescribed vantage dissolves.  The paintings exist as you exist, changing as your eyes and body adjust and change, and fading as we all fade.

These paintings have been working on me, making me aware of the shifting nature of the physical world.  I have always understood two-dimensionality better than three-dimensionality.  My mind translates the world I see into flat surfaces – photographs, drawings, watercolor paintings.  Now I wonder if this is a strategy of avoidance, a way of denying a connection to the physicality of my environment.  If we all have kinespheres, then our presence in any room subtly alters that room.  And maybe not just in terms of energy or spirit.  What if the world, like Michael’s paintings, changes as we change – changes because we change.  The territories that Michael’s paintings invite us into are places where the landscape shifts because of our presence in it.  But this is true of all landscapes.  Why is this so easy to ignore, until that moment when a painting makes it palpable?

At the opening, Michael kept taking one of his paintings off the wall and turning it in the light.  The colors shifted as it turned, as light from the tracks above illuminated different ridges of paint and shifted across the painting’s contours.  Those contours seemed to move with the light.

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I’m most drawn to the largest painting in the show, a painting whose colors are brass and blue.  If I start to the left of the painting I see a field of gold and reddish hues in the center of the canvas.  As I move to the right, the center loses its distinction, the reds drip downward, and thin waves of blue begin to rise along the ridges of paint.  Finally I come to the far right, and the brass is almost wholly subdued.  A few sparks of red remain, but the blue has imposed a kind of silence.  To sit before this painting is to commune with something beyond yourself.  I know that it’s only paint, and mud, and clay, and plaster.  But it seems alive.  More than that, it announces the life of its materials, and points beyond them to all physical objects.  It suggests that the whole world is alive – the buckled glass on the chapel door, the pattern of shadow on the weathered maple tree outside the window, the perpendicular grooves on the column of the lamp post beside it.  And if these things are alive, they have their own kinespheres, their own zones of energy and being, that subtly change and alter, grow and dwindle, depending on our interactions with them.

This suggests an ethic, a way of being in the world.  We can grow or narrow our kinespheres.  We can choose to make ourselves less present, in deference to the presence of others.  Meghan tells us to come back towards the center of the room.  At her direction, we begin to move quickly, to weave between each other.  She tells us not to avoid each other, but to fill the gaps between the moving dancers.  Those gaps become smaller and smaller.  We have been expanding, but now we are shrinking, and our kinespheres blend with each other, like overlapping waves of tinted light.

We are doing this exercise as a way of responding to the beatitudes.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”  We accept the smallness of our kinespheres, the diminishment of our energies.  We accept it meekly, because such acceptance is a path to awareness.  An awareness of other people and other things.  A desire to honor their energies, to blend with those energies, to avoid overwhelming them.  It’s an attempt at a kind of purity, an attempt at cultivating pure generosity, a response to the pure grace of other things.  It’s a form of blessing.  We bless the physical world with our awareness, and the physical world blesses us.  In the end, this blessing becomes a kind of territory that we, person and painting, dancer and glass, have created between us.

Under the Covers

“Why didn’t Jesus have sex?”  One of my students asked me this some years ago.  We were in the middle of cooking dinner for our weekly campus ministry meal, and my thoughts were on the onions simmering in a pan and on gathering the ingredients to make dessert.  I was distracted and the answer I gave her wasn’t well thought out.

“Because Jesus’s love is for everybody,” I said.  “There’s something about sex that creates a really deep intimacy between just two people, and Jesus’s intimacy is for everyone.  He either had to have sex with no one or everyone.”

I don’t think my student was satisfied with this answer.  I think she was probably asking a more specific question, “Is sex related to God,” or “does having sex take me out of my relationship with Jesus?”  If I had been able to hear these real concerns beneath the question that she did ask, I would have answered differently.

There’s a lovely illumination in the Rothschild Canticles that shows a nun, meditating upon her bed.  The Godhead appears above her in the shape of a sun, and one ray of that sun is reaching under the sheets.  It’s an image that reflects a late medieval spirituality that sought mystical union with God through erotic imagery.  I like it very much, because I think that it has something to teach us.  That teaching can be simplified to this – Jesus is with us under the covers.  He’s engaged in our intimacy, not absent from it.

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My friend Laurie and her friends used to open the hymnal when they were bored in church and add the words “under the covers” to the ends of hymn verses.  They giggled at phrases such as “Lo how a rose ever blooming, under the covers,” or “Come thou font of every blessing, under the covers.”  But this game was unexpectedly theological, even though they may not have intended it to be.  It was probably the only acknowledgement they ever heard in church of the idea that God is present with us in our intimacy.  Why is this idea so unnerving that preachers can’t preach on it, and it only gets expressed in the titillation of giggling children?

Imagine the gift that the church could give to people if it only dared to talk about the ways in which God can be present in our intimacy.  One of the paradoxes of sex is that it’s bodily, but also out-of-body at the same time.  The accumulation of physical sensations leads us into a kind of physicality that we don’t experience in any other way – the scent of a lover, the caress of a hand, the movement of a gaze across the body of a beloved, these things create a kind of altered state, a holistic sense of being present in the body so thoroughly that we transcend it.  There is a deep spirituality in sex, and Christians are always called to make Christ part of our spirituality.  Sex is intensified when we acknowledge that spirituality and invite Christ’s participation in it.  We could begin to define a Christian sensuality, one that acknowledges the godhead as a ray of light that’s with us under the sheets, and then offer this definition to others.  Our relatively shallow American conversation about sex could be deepened by this in a way that would help individual lives.

The Episcopal church, like many mainline denominations, has gone through a decade of pain and contention over issues of sexuality.  One of the things that make these disagreements so hard is that we lack a language for talking about sex at all, let alone about sexual orientation.  But such language hasn’t always been missing from Christianity, as the Rothschild Canticles and other medieval texts show.  Perhaps one of the fruits of the debate about sexual orientation is that it’s allowed us to talk about sex more generally, and start articulating real answers to people who ask us simple questions, such as “Why didn’t Jesus have sex?”  Jesus the man may not have had sex, but Jesus our Lord and Savior is surely with us under the covers.