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.

beatitudes

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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.

rothschild

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.

The Trinity and Tony Stark

Tony Stark works in his basement, building endless Iron Man suits.  To me, this is the most exciting part of any Iron Man movie, to see Tony manipulating computer projections that float in the air around him.  It’s as if he’s pulling the thoughts directly from his head, thoughts that are so logical and precise that they always look like schematics.  And I’m not alone in preferring these scenes.  Many of the critics who thought that Iron Man 2 was vastly inferior to the first Iron Man based their indifference to the sequel on its lack of ‘Tony Stark inventing’ scenes.  To me, the thing that’s most appealing about Tony’s basement work is that he does it alone.  We get to watch a lone genius create things.  And if he can do it, then other people can do it.  Maybe it is possible for a single person who’s full of brilliance and inspiration to manufacture completely new technology with the help of only a few back-talking robots.

I’ve spent a good portion of my life in thrall to this fantasy.  When I was seventeen I used to predict that I would win the Noble Prize for literature by the time I reached thirty.  Now I’m forty-one and have three publications in online journals to my name.  My problem was that I spent those thirteen years between seventeen and thirty thinking I could do it alone.  I was too good to take classes, too good to join a writing group, too good to even read many short stories or novels.  In my mind, my brilliance was assured, and I didn’t need other people.  And then, when I reached thirty-three, I looked around and thought, “Jesus saved the world by the time he was my age.  What have I done?”  No one had published my novel.  Everyone, except my wife, who read my short stories either shrugged or reacted with positive distaste.  I hadn’t written the great book that could change people’s lives and make the world a better place.  I wasn’t anything like Jesus.  I wasn’t even like Tony Stark.

Then I joined a writing group.  I went to some writing seminars.  I began a grand attitudinal shift which led to…well, to three stories published in online journals.  But it also lead to new friendships, and the joy of collaborative work, and a much enhanced ability to take criticism, and to a week in Portland which rates as one of the best weeks of my life.  It lead to an end to spiritual loneliness.  But before any of these things could happen, before I could escape my spiritual loneliness, I had to admit my own poverty.

The poet Maggie Nelson says that “the veneration of poverty is more than an ethic – it’s almost a theological, or at least spiritual, conviction, devotion, or practice.”  Maggie Nelson says that she doesn’t have much of an imagination.  You would think that this would be a draw back for a creative writer.  But as Nelson points out, knowing this about herself means that she has greater freedom to admit that her creativity comes from a sense of community.  She’s in constant conversation with the thoughts and words of other people, from the Chinese poet Mo Fei to John Keats to the philosopher Judith Butler.  Knowing her own poverty, her lack of creativity, allows her to wake up in the morning with a sense of excitement about the world that surrounds her, rather than with the need to protect and isolate her own genius.  She doesn’t go down into the metaphorical basement, like Iron Man, but to the metaphorical window, where she can look out and see all the movements of this wondrous world.

I agree with her when she says that this is “a theological, or at least spiritual, conviction, devotion, or practice.”  Being with other people is often the best and most interesting way to find God.  Saint Anthony of Egypt, the great desert saint who helped create monasticism, spent many years running away from other people.  First he went and lived in a tomb in a graveyard, then he relocated to a fort in the desert, and finally to a rocky little place in the hills.  People wouldn’t leave him alone.  They kept coming to him and expecting to hear wisdom and experience miracles.  He got worried that they were venerating him more than they were venerating Christ.  So he picked a place on the map where he was pretty sure that no one had ever heard of him, and ran away to it.  But then something happened.  Some of his old followers found him.  They stayed for a few days.  When they left, he started planting a little garden, so that he could offer them something to eat if they came again.  The spindly little desert saint discovered that he liked people and wanted their company.  He would still throw himself into a thorn bush whenever he felt tempted by the sins of the flesh.  But now he had someone to tell about it.

When he was living all alone with only the wild beasts for company, he hadn’t yet fully acknowledged his poverty.  The paradox is that it was only when he grew that little garden, and actually had something to share with others, that he could admit how poor he really was.  We often go through life believing that revealing our poverty will make us more poor.  It’s the opposite that’s true.  Revealing our poverty is the first step in making us rich.  Not rich in material things.  Rich in experience, friendship, creativity, hopefulness, joy.  And doing the opposite, living with our poverty in a tomb or a basement full of robots and sports cars, only leaves us in the impoverishment of loneliness.

God never wanted us to be lonely.  “It’s not good for man to be alone,” God says, just after creating Adam, and then conjures up Eve to keep him company.  But the remarkable thing is that in Christian theology, God isn’t lonely either.  You would think that the deity would be, up there floating around in the cosmos, beyond all space and time.  But our God is in a relationship.  Actually, that’s incorrect.  Our God is relationship.  That’s what the trinity is all about.  God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit.  Or, to use more inclusive language, God the Creator, God the Redeemer, God the Sustainer.  Or, to get away from the theological heresy of thinking that the three persons of the trinity have different jobs, you could talk about them using the adroit theological method that my friends and I thought up in seminary, and give them gender neutral names such as Sam, Pat, and Bobby.  However you want to say it, God is three in one, a divine relationship, and therefore never lonely.

Which is good, since loneliness, as Judith Shulevitz points out in The New Republic, is lethal.  She writes that “Psychobiologists can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack. They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.”  About one third of people over forty-five are chronically lonely, and that’s an increase from one fifth a decade ago.  That doesn’t mean that they’re always alone.  They may spend hours, days, weeks, in the company of other people, and still feel intensely lonely.  They may be married with children, and still feel intensely lonely.  Loneliness isn’t the state of being alone.  It’s lack of intimacy.  And offering intimacy is the one thing we can do about it.

Back in high school, when I was seventeen and plotting to win the Noble Prize in literature by the time I was thirty, I took a speech class with Mr. Scott.  It wasn’t the greatest class I’ve ever taken, and Mr. Scott wasn’t my favorite teacher.  But he did spend one entire class period asking us to seek out lonely people and befriend them.  I remember that he told a story about a kid who always stood by himself in the cafeteria hallway during lunch hour.  Mr. Scott noticed this kid, noticed that he was always alone, and started talking to him.  All the kid wanted to talk about was fishing – he had a positive passion for fishing.  Mr. Scott didn’t fish.  But he spent a year of lunch hours learning about fishing, because he understood that he could do good in the world just by easing this kid’s loneliness.

Mr. Scott was the most trinitarian person I’ve ever known.  I don’t know what dreams he had for himself, what ambitions he fostered when he was young, what sorrow he felt when those ambitions weren’t fulfilled.  Maybe he’d never wanted to be more than a speech teacher who befriended lonely kids.  But my guess is that he, like all of us, had to come to some moment in his life when he admitted his own poverty.  When he realized that there was some dream that was simply out of reach, or came face to face with own loneliness and decided to do something about it.  I don’t know what led him out of the basement and to the window, what made him realize that he couldn’t live the story of his life alone.  But he did realize it, and then he tried to teach it to us.

If we believe in the triune God, God who is three in one, then we believe, primarily, in relationship.  And we should do whatever we can to foster relationship in our lives.  Sometimes this means admitting our own poverty – admitting that we’re not solitary geniuses who don’t need other people, admitting that we’re not as creative, or athletic, or brilliant as we would like.  It also means that we should think hard about the basements where we’ve gone to isolate ourselves from relationship.  They can be anywhere – in our cars, in front of our computers, within the four walls of a church.  And once we’ve discovered them, we should start making plans to abandon or transform them.  We should plant little gardens.  We should show people our work and risk criticism.  We should look around and find the lonely people, standing by themselves, and learn about the fish they catch.  We should, in other words, start to live in imitation of the triune God, who isn’t isolated, out there in the cosmos, beyond space and time, but who’s here, on this earth, in our lives, standing beside us at the window and looking out.

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Amy at Breakfast

Amy at breakfast