Part 1: The Joys of F.O.G.

by Donald Schell

Part 1 of 2

Last month my congregation offered a free week-long day camp called F.O.G, an apt name for a summer gathering in San Francisco with perennial summer weather report, “Foggy near the coast, clearing by noon.” I think the joke is deliberate, but as an acronym it also refers to the teaching of Gregory of Nyssa that Christian life in community makes us “Friends Of God.” To the fourth year of our summer F.O.G, Sylvia Miller-Mutia, St. Gregory’s associate rector and the founder of F.O.G. asked me to lead daily Bible drama workshops for the children, each day exploring a different Gospel parable through improvised dramatic enactment of that day’s Godly Play story.

Until F.O.G. my only experience of Vacation Bible School had been summers growing up in a fundamentalist church. I still treasure that first learning of Bible stories, and am also grateful for good support in conversations with my parents for shrugging off the creationism, anti-Semitism, and horrifying interpretations of the atonement some of the teachers offered. What caught my heart, even in that fundamentalist setting was the offering generous-hearted teachers made when they really gave us the stories with room to ask questions and make our own interpretative discoveries. And as we come back to the stories, the discoveries seem to on through a lifetime.

Over the years between that long ago Vacation Bible School and my happy experience with F.O.G., I’d begun doing drama work with Bible stories, starting in summer camp chaplaincies – Family Camp summers in Idaho when I did my first parish work there, and then a couple of decades of summers of both Family Camp and Kids’ Camps in the Diocese of California.

Improvising theater to encounter and interpret Bible stories uses imagination something like Ignatius Loyola’s method of using imagination and the senses to read ourselves into familiar stories to feel how the stories live for us when we’re in them. For my drama workshop version of Ignatius Bible study I’ve worked with stories about Jesus and with the stories Jesus offered as a story teller, the parables.

As preacher/teacher/theater director I learned to spend time ahead with the text, reading it over and over slowly and looking for ways to guide actors recruited from the congregation or gathering to make simple, wholly embodied, interpretative gestures and actions to flesh out the stories.

Sometimes the Gospel story gives specific gestures, for example, in Matthew’s version of the Syrophonecian woman,“…a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’”

The Gospel says she “came and knelt,” two simple gestures to offer our actors in an improvisation. But each gesture contains more choices - HOW does the woman come and HOW does she kneel?

Does she approach very respectfully and kneel as if in church?

Or does she run to Jesus and throw herself at his feet?

And if she throws herself at Jesus’ feet, does she touch him?

Acting gestures need to be energetic and, as actors say, “specific.” How ever the preacher/director, actor or congregation decides the gestures should be enacted, “kind of walking” toward Jesus and “sort of kneeling” won’t give life to an improvisation.
Sometimes specific choices aren’t just the “how” of a gesture in the story, but discovering spatial arrangement and response of one character to another that aren’t given, but still have to be specific. As in Ignatian Bible study, we mae choices about gestures and movements that the Gospel story omits.

For example, in the story of the resurrection appearance to Thomas in John’s Gospel, does Thomas take Jesus’ invitation to touch the wounds in his hands and put his hand in the wound in his side? When I’ve worked with this text and asked the congregation, we discover that some people feel strongly the text assumes that he did reach out and touch Jesus’ hands and side. Others feel equally strongly that for Thomas hearing Jesus’ invitation and seeing the wounds was enough – often those people feel the writer of John wants us to picture Thomas dropping his skepticism and doubts in a moment of overwhelmed worship.

Some questions of “how” only show up when we’re planning or even guiding the congregational volunteers creating an improvisation. In this same resurrection appearance, it simply says that eight days later Thomas and the other disciples were gathered again in the upper room. And then, “Jesus appeared.” Embodied enactment demands more specifics. Different, specific blocking (the placement and movement of our actors) shapes the story differently. If the actor playing Jesus “appears” by slipping in to stand between or among disciples facing our Thomas, Thomas may see Jesus’ first. The actor can use his face and body to show his startled transition from not seeing Jesus to seeing Jesus. The other disciples might see Thomas experiencing something before they see Jesus. But if our Jesus actor comes and stands directly behind Thomas --where other disciples see him before Thomas, perhaps Thomas seeing his friends’ faces makes him turn to face Jesus, even before Jesus speaks. Neither is the “right” answer of how to enact it, but we do experience something different either way.

In the first instance, perhaps we’d find ourselves wondering how the other disciples might see Jesus’ presence through Thomas’s revelatory moment, while in the second instance, we might sense how the other disciples’ faces and faith move Thomas to a very literal turnaround conversion.

GP1.JPGOne of our stories this year was Jesus’ parable of the pearl merchant. I’d never worked with that story before, in my difficulty preparing to work with that particular parable made some unexpected interpretative discoveries. The essay that follows this describes my difficulty, the process of discovery and what I and we learned about the parable from enacting it. But to conclude this first essay, I’d like to encourage readers to visit the F.O.G. website to learn more about embodiment in prayer and teaching. Sylvia Miller-Mutia has been developing Friends of God Day Camp for the children of St. Gregory’s and other children in the church’s neighborhood. Sylvia’s approach to inter-generational liturgy and storytelling, like mine guides a congregation to embody text and song together. You can see additional ways of praying with our bodies and our senses Sylvia has developed at the resource website she’s made for F.O.G. leaders and parents.

Seeing what she’s creating for children and adults, you won’t be surprised to learn that before becoming a priest, Sylvia danced professionally with the Utah Ballet and then in modern dance was a member of Carla de Sola’s Omega West Dance Company. Improvisational interpretation of Bible stories and Sylvia’s embodying prayer in movement invite experience and questions, like a Godly play “I wonder.” Rooting interpretation and reflection in imagination, feeling and intuition leads us to discover new possibilities in familiar readings.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Chagall's crucifixions

by Deirdre Good

In preparation for this piece I asked FB friends what images the name Marc Chagall (1887-1985) conjured up for them. “Blue,” someone said. “Windows at the Paris Opera and the Chicago Museum” said someone else. “Murals at The Metropolitan Opera” others said alluding to the giant murals hanging at the entrance to the opera house visible to the Lincoln Center Plaza and from Columbus Avenue. Heidi Shott said, “Windows in the Fraumünster Church in Zurich. First trip to Europe at 20. Took my breath away.” Someone else quoted lines from the movie Notting Hill: “happiness isn't happiness without a violin-playing goat.” Another lent me Chagall’s illustrations of the Bible. Still others spoke of exhibits of his work they attended: at a Chagall retrospective in Paris, for example, Jane Redmont remembers a video in which the interviewer asked Chagall a question like "why are there so often cows inside women" or "women inside cows" or "why is there a cow inside that woman.” Chagall smiled and said "They're just there!" “I've never forgotten that,” Jane said. Several people mentioned crucifixion scenes, and one person posted Chagall’s painting “The White Crucifix.”

We went to see the current exhibit “Chagall: Love, War and Exile” at the Jewish Museum in New York City last week. It’s on until Feb 2, 2014. I was astonished to discover that the focus of the exhibit is on a roomful of paintings featuring Crucifixion scenes drawn and painted within a short time span. Chagall apparently produced over 100 paintings and drawings of the crucifixion. So I tried to find what he wrote about them. Of his first crucifixion scene he explains: “for me Christ has always symbolized the true type of the Jewish martyr. That is how I understood him in 1908 when I used this figure for the first time…I was under the influence of the pogroms.”

“Rarely exhibited and often misunderstood,” the catalog says, the Crucifixion scenes in the exhibit were produced in the years surrounding World War II when Chagall lived in France, then briefly in the US to escape the war in Europe, and then again after the war in France. By concentrating on Chagall’s work during the Holocaust years, and on the Crucifixion scenes in particular, the exhibit shows a darker side of the artist. What does any visitor to the exhibit, regardless of religious conviction, make of these paintings and drawings? I found them riveting. To exhibit images of the Crucified Christ by a Jewish artist in the context of the Holocaust raises fascinating questions: what makes an image of the Crucifixion theological? How and in what ways is the image of a crucified Christ a non-Christian symbol?

The exhibit’s Crucifixion scenes are very different: there are paintings including figures with halos, as in “Exodus” (1952-66), and “Christ in the Night” (1948). In a self-portrait, “The Artist With Yellow Christ” (1938), Chagall turns the face of himself as artist at the foot of the cross away from the figure on the cross. In “Descent from the Cross” (1941), the letters “MARC CH” replace the traditional “INRI” on the cross, and an angel holds a palette and brush. In most paintings, Jesus hangs upon the cross with a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl around his waist. And there are other figures in the scene: figures at the foot of the cross including a person with a ladder, a mother and child Madonna type, angels and Torah scrolls.

The number and intensity of paintings produced in 1941, “Christ Carrying the Cross,” “Descent from the Cross,” and “The Painter Crucified,” makes that year a turning point, I think. In 1941 Chagall was preparing to leave Europe. By June of that year he was in New York. An ink drawing “Christ carrying the Cross” of that same year drawn before leaving Europe shows other crucified figures, pogroms and smoke in the background towards which a figure helping Christ carry the cross is looking.

By painting Crucifixion scenes, many Jews believed Chagall had rejected Judaism. And it seems that some Christians regarded his recourse to Christian symbolism as “naïve and misguided.” Yet Chagall’s electric choice of the image of a crucified Jewish Jesus to express the suffering and slaughter of Jews and others in the Second World War not only claims the Crucified Jesus as Jewish but reverses the mistaken trope in which Jews were blamed for the death of Jesus by presenting a Crucified Jesus to personify Jewish suffering and bring it to the attention of the world. Chagall’s images of a Crucified Jewish Jesus reach out and present to any who care to see embodied images of both suffering and atonement at the darkest hour of the Holocaust.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. Her blog is called On Not Being a Sausage.

The boundary walker: Nathan A. Scott, Jr.

By Frederick Quinn

Nathan A. Scott, Jr. died, four years ago this December, in Charlottesville, Va. He was one of the most significant Christian commentators on contemporary culture of the second half of the twentieth century and merits a place in the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1925, the only child of a 51 year old father and 41 year old mother, he was raised in Detroit, Michigan, and graduated from the University of Michigan at age 19, from Union Theological Seminary at 21, and completed his Ph. D. from Columbia University at 24, while teaching religion at Howard University. A prolific author, Scott wrote seventeen books, edited nine others, and produced a steady stream of articles, book reviews, and essays. From 1955 to 1977 he taught at the University of Chicago and spent ten years as a canon of St. James’ Cathedral in Chicago, where he was a regular preacher and celebrant, and organized weekend seminars on spirituality and literature for Chicago clergy. In 1976 Scott and his wife, Charlotte A. Scott, became the first tenured black professors at the University of Virginia, she in business-economics, he in religion. He retired in 1990 and hoped to take a small Virginia parish, but by then lacked the stamina to do so.

Scott emerged as a leading Christian literary voice at a time when modern cultural criticism was turning toward Marxism, deconstructionism, new historicism, postcolonial, reader-response and a variety of other specialized schools of criticism. Drawing on the work of Paul Tillich, Scott staked bold claims – that religion gave culture its substance and that the great themes of alienation and the quest for unity central to writers as varied as Kafka, Camus, and Beckett were at heart religious issues. In a memorial sermon titled “The Boundary Walker” Samuel T. Lloyd III, a former graduate student of Scott’s at the University of Virginia, and now dean of Washington National Cathedral, recalled, “Nathan sought to articulate the Christian faith, within the language and thought forms of our time so that we can understand it in fresh ways. He believed that the faith conversation had to flow both ways. Secular thinkers had much to gain from recognizing the spiritual dimension at work in even the most non-religious works, and the church too had a great deal to gain from having its convictions tested and stretched in conversation with the spiritual quest of its time.” Lloyd, who Scott hoped would follow him in an academic-clerical career, described his mentor as a compelling preacher and lecturer. “He lived and wrote on the boundary between religion and literature, between the sacred and the secular, between the ancient and the modern, between theology and culture. But there were other boundaries he walked as well…As a black man from the North living out his climactic years in the heart of the Confederacy, he wrote eloquently about this crucial boundary divide in our culture.”

Despite making a substantial mark in his time, Scott is infrequently referred to now. Cultural criticism moved like a tornado in other directions during his professional lifetime. Scott called some of its trends “hermeneutical terrorism,” in a decade before such terminology had entered common usage. He was not a polemicist; his genius was in probing the depths of about forty key world authors over half a century, and relating them and their texts to biblical and contemporary issues. His collected sermons remain to be gathered and Scott awaits a biographer. His comments about himself were often guarded. But in a 1993 interview he reflected on the key influence of his father, who had been taught to read and write by the local postmaster in Laneville, Alabama, and who, after struggling to obtain an education, eventually became a lawyer in Detroit. “He had been taught Greek and Latin classics. By the time I was twelve years of age, he had taken me through the Latin text of Caesar’s Commentary on the Gallic Wars. I was the despair of my Latin teachers in junior and senior high school; they had noting to offer me. His daily devotional reading of the New Testament involved the koiné Greek text. He had an enormous passion for the Book. And when I was a small boy, he had already set me to reading the Fireside Poets (Greenleaf Whittier, Wadsworth Longfellow, and so on), as well as Browning and Tennyson. He had required me to commit to memory large blocks of this poetry by the time I was ten or eleven years of age. He contributed more to my formation than anybody else has ever done!”

The titles of some of Scott’s books suggest the range of his interests, Rehearsals of Discomposure: Alienation and Reconciliation in Modern Literature (1952), Modern Literature and the Religious Frontier (1958), Albert Camus (1962), Samuel Beckett (1957), The Climate of Faith in Modern Literature (1964), and The Wild Prayer of Longing (1971). Scott did not identify himself primarily as an African-American author, although he dedicated a book to his friends, Ralph and Fanny Ellison, and wrote a chapter on “Black Literature” in The Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing (1979). Some black authors felt he had sold out in writing about so many “dead white males,” a Jewish critic wrote in amazement in The New York Times Book Review that a black American should be writing about figures like Gerald Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, and Martin Heidegger. If a Jew had written about the same authors he did, Scott later reflected, it would not cause special comment. “Virtually no phase of American cultural enterprise is uninvaded by the racial animus that still ruinously indwells our national life, and I have not escaped its lashes,” he said in a 1993 essay, "A Ramble on a Road Taken", but added elsewhere, “American citizenship, for all of what is rotten in the country, is one of the great blessings in the world. And I believe it to be that.”

Scott’s manner was formal. An attentive listener, he could be initially guarded in conversation, then capable of exploding in laughter. He knew and interacted with almost all of the cultural greats of his time, but was equally engaged with college students as he was with Jacques Barzun or Lionel Trilling. Lloyd, who began his ministry at Scott’s old parish of St. Paul and the Redeemer in Hyde Park, Illinois, recalled evenings of generous hospitality in the spacious living room of the Scott’s Charlottesville home. Its walls contained original African and American art and its bookcases were overflowing. Gustav Mahler or Samuel Barber might be playing on the hi fi, avant-garde selections in that era. Nearby stood Nathan. welcoming guests and encouraging conversation, with a martini in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

If he wrote of tragedy and disruption in the human condition, his was at heart an incarnational theology, affirming of life and creation. Lloyd recalls his pointing a finger toward the congregation in one sermon and urging them to cherish “such things as fine linen and good crystal.”

Cautiously accepting of the Prayer Book revisions of the 1980s, Scott was glad that the excesses of penitential material and the morose vision of the Cranmer era had been removed, but cautioned that its “language is not a language calculated to convey to us a sense of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans.” Scott was optimistic about the future of the Episcopal Church, yet sounded a note of alarm about the way the Religious Right had entered the political arena “to make an enormous amount of mischief on the American scene.” “The conspiratorial posture of the Religious Right in this country is ever so bothering. But so far as our mainline Reformation churches are concerned, and so far as the Roman Catholic communion is concerned, though these are imperfect affairs, I don’t have any sense of great looming crisis.”

As a leading writer and teacher on Christian culture for over four decades, a university professor and chaplain, and parish priest and Cathedral canon, Scott was a leading voice for a hopeful Christian message in a torn world. His many achievements make him an admirable candidate for the Episcopal Church’s calendar of exemplary witnesses.

Frederick Quinn is an Episcopal priest, holds a doctorate in history from the University of California at Los Angeles, and has written books about law, history, and religion.

The White Light Festival

By Deirdre Good

When the applause died down and the lights went up, I sat in my seat at the center of the front row spellbound by the performance of Judith I had just seen. I'd heard her anxiety, her prayers, and her courage. I'd heard the words of the dying Holofernes. But how? The biblical text doesn't record them. So what was it I'd heard? Was it opera combining biblical text with midrash? Medieval passion play? Hagiography? Literary epic? Political manifesto? All of the above?

To unpack layers doesn't convey the piece's dynamism. But it’s a place to start. Rhymes of the Croatian poet Marko Marulic sung as improvised chant retell the ancient story as one of Croatian liberation. The top layer includes interpolations of the performer Katarina Livljanic as thoughts of Judith and Holofernes. A conversation between mind and spirit is put on Judith's lips just before she kills Holofernes and another in Holofernes' mind as he lies dying. Ms Livljanic found the words of a 16th Century Croatian manuscript in a Harvard Library written by a priest-peasant.

The interpolations are for her the nucleus of the story. They give the piece psychological heft. Judith asks, "Why are you sad, my soul, and why are you confusing me?" Her prayer for courage becomes the voice of oppressed people everywhere. And the dying Holofernes says something like lines from Borges' sonnets quoted in the program:

How many things,
Files, doorsills, atlases, wineglasses, nails,
Serve us like slaves who never say a word,
Blind and so mysteriously reserved.
They will endure beyond our vanishing;
And they will never know that we have gone.
Ms Livljanic explains the interpolations: “I think this is really entering the interior universe of the two characters, when we can see their soul and mind or soul and body speaking…So I find this festival a very natural frame for this story," she adds.

People I spoke with after the Judith performance found it extraordinary and some said it was the best part of the festival so far. For me, the musical performance and visual enactment enhances a reading of Judith's interior life. She vacillates between doubts and despair. Faced with a dead drunk Holofernes, she crouches down in anguish and dejection ("My soul, you are not helping me"); she kneels in supplication for courage; she takes her sword and decapitates Holofernes and finally, she sings in wonderment at her triumph ("Behold, the head that threatened to destroy us!"). The people respond ("the incense spread, the priest chanted and the walls echoed back, and the people knelt before the Lord"). This is a gripping musical rendition of a woman's terror transformed by courage through religious faith.

But what is the festival of which it is a part? Built around the theme of spirituality, it "seeks to offer remarkable and transcendent musical experiences" so as "to expand our interior lives…to help us feel the strength offered by our connection to our larger selves and to our community of fellow listeners," Jane Moss, Vice President for programming at Lincoln center and the White Light Festival explains. The name for the festival comes from a quote by the composer Arvo Pärt, which says that music is transformed from white light into color through the prism of the listener. “To me the ultimate success, I suppose, would be that you, the listener, fall in love the way I do every day of my life,” she said. “If I were able to give that to people — that, ‘Oh my God, this music makes me feel whole,’ for maybe only two hours — that would feel good to be able to do that.”

The festival abounds with listening opportunities. It opened with free presentations of unmediated music. Janet Cardiff’s sound installation “The Forty-Part Motet,” located at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, presents the16th century English composer Thomas Tallis' “Spem in Alium” (“I have hope in none other than Thee, O Lord”) by recording each voice on a separate channel. More diverse than any surround sound, listeners wander between the freestanding speakers to hear each individual voice and then the whole motet. They encounter "a piece of music as a changing construct,” Cardiff explains. “I am interested in how sound may physically construct a space in a sculptural way and how a viewer may choose a path through this physical yet virtual space.” Giving direct access to one of the most sublime pieces of music ever written is a unique sound experience for me.

I attended a concert given by Philippe Herreweghe conducting the Collegium Vocale Ghent and I Solisti del Vento (woodwind and brass) singing music by Brahms and Cornelius. But the highlight was a performance of Anton Bruckner's Mass in E Minor. The beautiful Collegium voices were well balanced by the musicians while warm acoustics of Alice Tully Hall bathed us in pristine sound. The piece was composed for the dedication of the Votive Chapel in Linz Cathedral. Although there are moments of intensity in the Credo, for example, Bruckner's use of traditional polyphony (apparently the Bishop was fond of the style of Palestrina) and counterpoint conveys a transcendent sense of peace and joy, which is presumably an expression of his faith. Here are more listening opportunities

After every festival event, audience and musicians gather over complimentary sparkling water or prosecco to converse and reflect on what we'd seen. On this occasion, I met my wife who'd come from a performance of Sutra, the only dance at the festival. She was enraptured. Sutra was an hour-long piece by 17 monks from the Shaolin Temple in China. They danced to music performed live by a Polish composer Szymon Brzoska on piano, percussion and strings. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui choreographed Sutra.

The Shaolin monks are disciplined in the arts of person-to-person conflict and they see this as their path to achieve union with heaven. The conflict encompasses Chinese bare fist fighting, and other martial arts. The set, which consisted of about 24 oblong wooden boxes about the size of a human but with one wall open, was an integral part of the performance. As the stage opens, the boxes form a solid block in the center of the stage and over to the left a man and a child sit at opposite ends of what appears to be a metal table, and on the table between the child and the man is a wooden block in small scale. The dance progresses with a series of movements in which it is hard to determine, as the massive block breaks up, whether a pattern of individual monks causes or mirrors the movement of the large blocks. Watching the whole calls to mind the life of heaven in the Hebrew Scriptures where what is happening on earth images and echoes what is happening in heaven. The monks use the realms of the miniature blocks as a patterning framework and props. The world of the man and child and the tiny blocks interpenetrates the world of the Shaolin monks and the worlds mingle with dance-like martial movements as we wonder about the correlation between them. Gradually the two worlds separate and the child moves the blocks to which the world of the monks conforms.

Antony Gormley contributed the visual design, consisting primarily of 21 coffin-like wooden boxes.

Sublime and ordinary: there were more than two hours of white light transformed into color by our listening every night. After all, as Meredith Monk, a festival performer says, "Drinking a cup of coffee is spiritual, if you're in the moment." Thank you, Jane Moss. Looking forward to the next White Light Festival.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. An American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and keeps the blog On Not Being a Sausage.

Lessons from church architecture

By George Clifford

British author and historian Richard Taylor wrote and narrated the six-hour BBC series, “Learning to Read Churches.” People who appreciate church architecture and the Anglican heritage will find this series enjoyable and informative. I found the links that Taylor draws between social history and church architecture of particular interest.

Taylor comments that the Georgians shifted away from medieval religious themes in the décor of their churches by introducing the Royal coat of arms; concomitantly, the “squirearchy” followed suit, portraying themselves in their funerary memorials as ancient Romans, lending authority and importance to their roles in sustaining the empire. Culture had conquered Christ, further aligning the Church of England (CofE) with state and commerce, alienating most downtrodden or marginalized English people. The clergy, privileged and highly visible representatives of the Church, lived by and adhered to largely upper-class values.

Victorians, especially through the influence of the Oxford movement, returned to medieval religious themes in art and architecture, seeking to restore the centrality of Christ and the Eucharist in their worship. This move came too late, failing to convince most strata of English society that the CofE belonged to the gentry and nobility. This became Christ above culture.

The single contemporary congregation Taylor visited was a “happy-clappy” evangelical congregation in a purpose built facility that resembled an auditorium, seated 1200, and appeared to be full of people in their twenties or thirties. The architecturally and historically significant churches that filled the rest of the six hour show were all filmed when empty, probably because worship attendance in England, by almost any standard, is abysmal. My reading and conversations in England and the States consistently echo Taylor’s implicit point that evangelicalism offers both the Church of England and the Episcopal Church (TEC) their best chance for a bright future in their struggle to retain significance and members.

Yet perhaps evangelicalism is not the answer for either Church. Michael Spencer, a writer and communicator living in a Christian community in Kentucky, wrote an excellent column last month in the Christian Science Monitor, highlighted in the Café’s Lead, “The coming evangelical collapse.” Among the seven reasons Spencer identifies why evangelicalism in the U.S. will collapse within two decades are: a dead end alignment with political conservatives; consumer driven mega-churches that will realign or collapse when money dries up; a pending collision between evangelical core beliefs and basic secular values; and the failure to effectively pass the orthodox Christian faith to the next generation.

Spencer writes as an evangelical Christian. I find his analysis cogent and persuasive but would add an eighth reason for the pending collapse: evangelicalism, like the Oxford Movement, represents a futile attempt to recreate a non-existent prior “Golden Age” in which orthodox Christianity flourished in a way not bound by time or culture. The “Golden Age” to which evangelicalism hopes to return is that of the reformers, whether an early one such as Luther or a latter one such as Wesley. If only we, like they, would hold fast to the deposit of faith revealed in the Christian Holy Scriptures and Creeds, all would be well with the Church.

The truth of the matter is that we can access our treasure, the way of life that we call Christianity, bottled only in earthen vessels. No “Golden Age” ever existed. Medieval Christians and the Reformers created pots whose beauty has waned and whose utility has diminished over time. The necessity to create new earthen vessels with which to try to pass along our treasure to others is ever with us; Paul Tillich expressed this idea when he articulated the Protestant principle. As a non-evangelical, perhaps it is easier for me to recognize the dual Babylonian captivity of evangelicals, ensnared by alignment with political conservatives while catering to consumers in their unrelenting, self-imposed requirement to report ever-increasing numbers. (Incidentally, as a self-avowed liberal, I wonder at what point(s) I am enmeshed in my own Babylonian captivity.)

I personally find old church buildings, in England and in the United States, fascinating windows into the faith of prior generations. These earthen vessels speak of a faith that once was, a testimony to Christianity’s diversity, permanence, and constantly changing face. However, I am thankful that I am not responsible for leading a twenty-first century congregation housed in one of those buildings. I might find myself among the many who succumb to the very real temptation to escape into the past, to pretend that by being good stewards of an old earthen vessel, by repeating the time-worn theological formulas of a prior generation, we are being faithful to the truth that no earthen vessel can contain.

For the Church, buildings are means to an end, not ends in themselves. Yet, too often the Church acts as if the opposite were true. New congregations yearn for the day when they will have their own building with the sense of permanence, perception of credibility, and ease of accommodation it offers. Congregations of longer standing cherish their building as a testimony to the faith of prior generations. And in our litigious twenty-first century America, the Church spends significant sums fighting over building ownership. I suspect Jesus might comment that it is not the building that hallows the people but the people who hallow the building.

When historians look back on ecclesial architecture of this age, what will they say?

George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, is now a visiting professor of ethics and public policy at the Naval Postgraduate School, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

To see and respect

By Deirdre Good

The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) here in New York City is currently exhibiting photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) until June 28, 2010. There are rooms full of 300 black and white photographs of ordinary and famous people at significant events or doing everyday things somewhere in the world between 1929 and 1969. Many have never been seen before. Cartier-Bresson has been called one of the great portraitists of the 20th Century. His photographs record every important event of the 20th Century: liberation of the Nazi camps, the Communist revolution in China, Gandhi's funeral. If you can't visit New York, the exhibit moves on to the Art Institute of Chicago (July 24 to October 3); the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (October 30 to January 30); and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (February 19 to May 15). It's also online here

From the age of 22, Cartier-Bresson began to travel. He became a photojournalist in 1937 when he went to London and photographed not the ceremony or the king but people at the Coronation of King George VI. The French weekly magazine that paid for his work was displeased that he did not take any pictures of the Coronation. Instead, he turned the camera onto the public most of whom had been up all night to get a good view. They'd also survived the abdication crisis of Edward VIII the previous year. For Cartier-Bresson, the significance of the event lay not with the carriage or the king but with the people who were there. In one photo a sea of people stand or sit on a monument in Trafalgar Square looking beyond the camera. Below them a man sleeps on the ground. Now he will miss the event he's stayed up all night to see. But the picture shows he was there. In another photograph, an elderly man in a top hat peers between two ladies. One of the women is lost in a reverie with a hand to her open mouth while the other gestures with a gloved hand as she speaks to the man. In Cartier-Bresson's photographs ordinary people look just as good as famous people.

After his visit to London and for several decades, Cartier-Bresson was everywhere. His images of people are arresting. He understood that sensitivity and geometry make a great photograph. Women on a hilltop in Srinagar, Kashmir hold their hands out in prayer. Their feet conform to the line of the distant mountains while their outstretched hands match the flow of the river. In the photograph of a bicyclist, symmetry of curvature matches the bicyclist's turn to the curve of a staircase. Listening to DeGaulle in Aubernas, France a row of women on descending steps fold their arms in shadow wearing almost identical dresses and headscarves. Only on the dog's head does the sunlight shine down. He is looking the other way.

The moment of taking the photograph, Cartier-Bresson says, is when the subject takes me. "I'm receptive and I shoot." You don't so much prepare to take a photograph as concentrate in the silence, and be receptive. "Don't think," he says, "the brain's a bit dangerous. You have to give satisfaction to your eye."

The French philosopher Simone Weil has a similar sense of waiting only she puts it into a spiritual perspective by stressing the importance of attentive, receptive waiting. She wrote in her journal: “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.” In her short life and in her writings she explores how attentiveness could enable spiritual growth. Not by means of willpower but only by means of receptivity and openness would someone discover truth.

Simone Weil believed that we need this discipline of attention if we are to know God. But she also believed that it was necessary if we are to know, and to help, other persons. Thus, expectant attention combines contemplation with action. In her book, Waiting for God, she says, “The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.”

Witnessing someone's distress leaves us uncomfortable. It is hard for me to look the homeless person I pass on the street in the eye, to watch someone cry or be in pain, or to listen attentively to a story of suffering. I want instead to be anywhere else. Simone Weil reminds us that the first principle of helping another is not action. It is to see and respect the other. She repeatedly notes that the greater the suffering of the other person, the harder it is truly to see and hear that person. We have to work at this kind of discipline so as to be fully present to the other. For only by attending to someone else first will we be able to consider what to do next. Yesterday on the street, I looked closely at a homeless person who inhabits our neighborhood. I saw that he was shredding tiny pieces of paper from a newspaper and as he shredded them he said, "She loves me, she loves me not. She loves me, she loves me not."

I wish I could see a photograph of Simone Weil if Cartier-Bresson had ever photographed her. They lived in the same country at the same time. Perhaps he would have caught on camera her concentration. She would have liked his photographs of factory workers and peasants in ordinary life and at moments of great transition. Perhaps they would have seen in each other a similar self-effacing desire to observe. Might they even have spoken candidly of the preparation and effort such an attitude demands? And would they have discussed the politics of socialism and anarchy for which each showed such sympathy? After all, an exhibit of Cartier-Bresson's photographs only shows what the artist and the museum choose to let us see. Why not imagine what we might want to see as well?

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. An American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and keeps the blog On Not Being a Sausage.

Making a home for artists and writers in the Church

By Donald Schell

Sometimes a tradition begins by accident. I was thirty-five years old, and eighteen months into founding our new congregation, and I invited congregants to a weekend silent retreat I’d hoped to launch a practice of silent retreats in my new congregation. The Spirit had something else in mind.

Someone had suggested we go to a retreat house tended by a vowed Episcopal hermit, Maggie Ross. Sister Maggie’s retreat house was deep in redwood forest north of the Russian River. She lived in a cottage some distance from the house where we’d be staying. We’d have to cook for ourselves - with propane, like the lights, because the house was off the grid. It sounded perfect.

I told our congregation of twenty somethings about my previous experience with silence in community and common prayer in a setting of silence. I said we’d be roughing it a bit and that we’d get to meet a hermit who had a pet raven, but she wouldn’t talk with us because she was a hermit and we’d be in silence. I may have mentioned that Maggie Ross was a writer, but it was the year before she published The Fire of Your Life, so all I knew of her writing was that it was part of her daily practice as a vowed solitary.

It so happened that a few months before the retreat we’d started a congregational writers’ group. We did writing exercises in the group and shared what we were working on, whether fiction, poetry, memoir, or essay writing. As we packed up our food and gear to drive up to Cazadero together, I noticed that everyone coming on the retreat was part of our congregation’s writers’ group. When we gathered after our first long silence on Saturday evening, everyone had journals and notes, prayers, poems and reflections from the day’s silence. We read and listened in wonder. We’d mostly used the writing to get to a place of deeper truthfulness. I think that was Sister Maggie’s observation. Watching us during the day in the embracing quiet of the redwood forest, she’d decided to break her usual pattern and sit down with the weekend group.

As it turned out, our shared prayers that weekend were very simple – sung grace at meals and a quiet Eucharist one evening. By the end of the weekend we knew we’d begun something we wanted to continue. What had been planned as a silent prayer retreat had become a writers’ retreat, a weekend of luminous silence for creativity. We scheduled with Maggie to return the next year and planned how to invite other writing friends.

In time Maggie left the country to live her hermit’s life the edge of a regular monastic community, and we moved our annual weekend to St. Dorothy’s Rest, a retreat center that offered us the additional support of a cook who prepared our meals. Gradually other artists joined us – composers, a dancer, painters, a potter-sculptor, photographers, and an iconographer. We’ve gathered every Labor Day since 1982, continuing to fold new participants in to the group. Sometime in the early 1990’s we added a second weekend in the spring. The group grew to twenty-five or thirty people. We continued to welcome beginners and professionals, people bringing work in progress or people wanting to try something. We asked everyone to declare on the first night of the retreat what he or she’d be working on. To encourage people to explore creative practice outside the safety of their familiar medium and spark something new, a composer might offer a music composition workshop or musical improvisation workshop for writers and painters, or an actor would lead a couple hours of expressive movement work. In such offerings, writers regularly found quirky, inspiring, provocative invitations to write.

When we opened the retreat to writers and artists beyond our parish community, we had to define ourselves and how we were gathered. If we were no longer a church group of artists and writers, what would we be? Our core group of planners decided we could welcome all kinds of artists and writers so long as we made clear that some of the work presented might be Christian or explicitly spiritual, and that prayer at meals and a Eucharist open to all would be part of our gathering.

Welcoming artists and writers who weren’t Christian stretched our own openness to hear experience and imagination shaped by those artists’ visions and hopes. We came to recognize how essential the Spirit was to all creativity, but we didn’t worry whether our non-Christian participants welcomed that language to describe what we experienced together (though many did). Sr. Maggie’s wisdom confirmed our ongoing discovery that even when experience is truthfully told, what we personally believe, and what the church teaches are in a dynamic tension. The Spirit is present in that tension challenging, enlarging, and re-defining us and our faith.

Over the decades, this gathering helped shape the spirituality of our congregation.
- We learned that anyone can be creative.
- We learned that the desire that moves us to create is never satisfied
- We learned that faithfulness to vision for a work may carry an artist through passionate trial-and-error, and into frustration and failure on the way to realizing the vision.
- We learned that faithful desire makes people patient with suffering and fires that patience with hope.
- We learned that creativity CAN be shared before work is done if a welcoming, encouraging community is willing to see or hear another’s unfinished work and say “I wonder…”
- We learned to respect and listen to the artist’s vision as we shared experience of new work, and that made us readier to collaborate with anyone taking a new initiative in the congregation.

Two years after we started the retreats, a painter attended our St. Gregory’s Sunday liturgy for the first time. She told me she kept coming back to St. Gregory’s because it was the first time she’d felt like an ordinary, normal person in church. She felt welcomed as an artist: we had learned something of the essential humanity of creative work.

Later, when people visiting St. Gregory’s began saying they were amazed at how many artists and creative people we’d attracted to the congregation, I responded that the congregation had helped many of those artists and creative people emerge. Some visitors couldn’t believe that this many creative people hadn’t walked into church as artists. But even skeptics, if they stayed, learned startling things about their own God-given creativity. All kinds of other creative and collaborative projects sprang up in the church’s life. We learned to gather around vision and help people articulate it. Sometimes we found ourselves growing into the discipline of moving gracefully from a leadership role in one project to a supporting, following role in another project. We found that creative practice, like contemplation, moves us again and again to say, ‘Thank you.’ We glimpsed why our Great Thanksgiving is our response to God’s creative gift of God’s own presence to us in the flesh, Jesus.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is
President of All Saints Company.

Review: The Sacred Made Real

A review of The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600 – 1700 at the National Gallery of Art Washington DC., 28 February – 31 May 2010

By Nicholas Cranfield

Most of us expect sculpture, whether wood or stone, to be pure. Despite a large number of painted mediaeval statues we still tend to think of the marble sculptures of the likes of Bernini or the great temples of Greece and of Rome. Even now scholarly opinion remains divided as to how much Greek temple sculpture was polychromed despite the surviving traces of paint on columns and friezes. Nineteenth century attempts to convince historians otherwise continue. It is a shock to learn that what to our eyes appears classical in both simplicity and form was never originally unadorned and was once garishly painted.

The exhibition at the NGA The Sacred Made Real brings together for the first time just such richly polychromed statuary from seventeenth century Spain set in the context of the more recognizable paintings of the same period. The curator, Dr Xavier Bray, demonstrates the complimentarity of these thirty or so exceptional works and argues that Spanish art in the Counter-Reformation period, independently of Italy and the Renaissance, achieved startling levels of brilliance.

Much of the zeal within the Church has always come from within the Iberian peninsula beginning with Saint Vincent of Zaragoza and continuing into the mediaeval period with Saint Dominic and, in the sixteenth century, the founders of the Jesuits and the new reformed orders; Francis Xavier, Ignatius Loyola, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.

It is against this background that this unique exposition unfolds making it ideal as an accompaniment to any Lenten devotion or Eastertide reflections. In London, where the exhibition ran successfully for three months, clergy and groups of interested lay people could be seen in the gallery every day and the silent awe with which gallery goers absorbed the show was palpable.

Inevitably, perhaps, the big names are those of the painters since it is with their works that most visitors will be familiar. The contemporaries Velázquez (1599-1660) and Zurbarán (1598-1664), as well as Jusepe de Ribera and Francisco Ribalta are all here while sculptors like Gregorio Fernández and Juan Martínez Moñtanés (who appears in a 1636 portrait by Velázquez), and Pedro de Mena are all rescued from obscurity.

Of the five Spanish saints canonised by Pope Gregory XV, on 12 March 1622, we come to meet Ignatius in a life-size statue made at his beatification in 1609 in which the sculptor had used a copy of the Jesuit’s death mask owned by the artist who painted it. No contemporary likeness of Ignatius was ever made as he personally rejected the idea but early Jesuits wanted an image of their founder. Paired with it is a second statue, of Francis Borgia, made later for his beatification (1624). Borgia, the duke of Gandia (1510-72), renounced his earthly diadem when he was widowed in 1536 and he is shown, both in the effigy and in a painting by Alonso Cano, gazing at the crown he has foresworn.

These figures speak strongly of the religiosity of Spain and stress both humanity in all its agony and ecstasy and real dogged determination. One glance at Mother Jerónima de la Fuente, painted by the twenty year old Velázquez, when she was 66 and about to sail from Spain to found a community in the Philippines, shows a redoubtable woman who would strike fear into any believer; the painted wooden crucifix she holds looks like an instrument of God’s holy war.

That should remind us how so much of this art was intended for the expanding colonies that Spain and Portugal held overseas. This in turn often involved what we might think of as mass production. As the recent show Sacred Spain at the Indianapolis Museum of Art showed (winter 2009/2010) statues could be readily transported to serve as models while increasingly Iberian born artists, like Antonio Montúfar and Sebastián López de Arteaga, settled overseas, serving the church in New Spain.

Such statues and paintings achieved a new verisimilitude in art which, the organisers argue, derived from the Low Countries where we know that van Eyck and Roger van der Weyden had also often painted statues in the early fifteenth century. The links between what became the Spanish Netherlands during the upheavals of the Reformation and the Hapsburgs in Spain introduced material influences, without direct reference to Italy. Sixteenth century artists like El Greco and Titian had worked in Italy before coming to Spain and engravings increased the awareness of, for instance, Michelangelo’s work beyond the Italian peninsula.

Across Spain there was a more rigorous demarcation between painter and sculptor than in Flanders; the finished sculpture had to be passed to a member of the guild of artists for the actual painting. I was longing to know whether Velázquez himself had undertaken this as we know that his former teacher and later father in law Francisco Pacheco did. As an apprentice he no doubt found Pacheco completing the gilding on statues such as that of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception.

It is none other than Pacheco who is jointly credited, with Moñtanés, for the powerful life-size representations of St Ignatius and Blessed Francis Borgia (Seville University). Only much later did Pedro de Mena seem to break this unionised strangle-hold, painting his own sculptures in defiance of custom.

As well as being an artist (His Christ on the Cross from Granada (1614) is here) it was Pacheco who wrote on the art of painting, a practical handbook for all aspiring painters. In the wake of the restraints on images and decorum determined by the Council of Trent he recommended how best to treat of certain religious subjects and thereby established the parameters for much later iconography. He observed that the application of colour to statues revealed ‘the passions and concerns of the soul with great vividness’ (1649).

The paintings of Zurbarán form the core of this exhibition and his works outnumber those of other artists. The 1628 Zurbarán painting of the martyred Mercedarian Saint Serapion (from the Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut) is the undoubted highlight. Despite his shocking death Zurbarán portrays him in sublime stillness. There is no blood and we, the devout, absorb and respond to the violence that is not seen in a profoundly visceral way. It was originally painted for a mortuary cell and would have allowed generations of monks to reflect on mortality.

Powerful among the many sculptures that, seen here as art rather than as overdressed devotional objects in cluttered churches, come to life is one of the many effigies of the Dead Christ, made by Gregorio Fernández for the Jesuit House in Madrid (1625/30) Newly cleaned for this show, the full horror of death is caught in the half open eyes made of real glass, the dirtied finger and toe nails of real horn and the ivory for the teeth. The thick blood clots and mess of death, his gashed knees and ripped palms, unflinchingly promote the Incarnation.

As striking but less bloody is the pairing of a celebrated painting by Zurbarán of Saint Francis in ecstasy, hooded and looking upward in a moment of rapture, and its half size ‘copy’, undertaken by Pedro de Mena for the sacristy of Toledo Cathedral some twenty five years later. In both media the saint is exclusively drawn away from us by his upturned gaze. This, and the bared foot, derive from a tale popularised in the 17th century that Pope Nicholas V had visited Assisi in 1449 and found that the dead saint’s body was perfectly preserved, standing upright as if still gazing at heaven.

But de Mena’s achievement, the tattered habit of the holy friar and the powerful cast of shadows, is perhaps the more striking as he was both sculptor and painter, bringing to his task the rich inheritance of both aspects of this extraordinarily vivid and expansive exhibition.

Dr Nicholas Cranfield is an Anglican priest based in a London parish and arts reviewer with a regular column in the Church Times (

Seeing the face of Christ in an unexpected place

By Carol E. Barnwell

Kermit Oliver spoke about his painting “Resurrection” at Trinity Episcopal Church, Houston, in 2007 and the chapel was standing room only. People strained to hear his low, gentle voice explain every detail in the contemporary altarpiece. But when someone asked about the face of Christ, Oliver’s eyes welled with tears and he turned away, unable to speak for a time. No one breathed, sensing the deepest of torments. Moments later, Oliver explained that the face of Christ was painted after his son, Khristian.

What he did not say was that his son was on death row for the 1998 murder. Khristian’s execution has been set for November 5.

“The idea[s] of birth, death, rebirth or resurrection…these elements I use really reflect … my religious upbringing. Basically I was looking at themes that dealt with the idea of immortality, the transitory [nature] of life, the idea of growth…the butterfly, the cocoon, the fish…all these are images that deal with the advent of a God that sacrifices his godliness to bring about salvation to humanity. And this idea of rebirth, you know, redemption…that especially,” Oliver said in a 2006 interview.

The 9-foot tri-foil altarpiece hangs in the Morrow Chapel at Trinity. It shows a triumphant Christ, his head crowned with lilies, rising from the tomb, while a violent orange and black background seem to explode behind him. Fabric draped around the body floats up as well as down, one piece torn and falling away.


Oliver explained that the twining shape of the cloth is reminiscent of human DNA, the humanity of Christ, as well as the curtain tearing in the temple at the time of Christ’s crucifixion. The painting is laced with allegory within the freeze at the base of the painting where Christ’s foot is stepping on a serpent, a dove perches near the cock and grapevines climb across the stone carving.

Khristian Oliver was one of four persons convicted in the burglary and homicide of Joe Collins, 64. Oliver, convicted of murder, was sentenced to death. The others received sentences from five to 99 years.

Collins went out to pick up a hamburger for dinner March 17, 1998, and returned to find Oliver, then 20, and 16-year-old Benny Rubalcaba inside his home. Rubalcaba’s 15-year-old brother and Oliver’s girlfriend were outside waiting in a pickup truck. Evidence showed Collins shot Rubalcaba in the leg after which Oliver shot Collins then grabbed the man’s rifle and beat him with it, resulting in fatal skull fractures.

The U. S. Supreme Court denied Oliver’s appeal last April, and the execution will take place on November 5.

Kermit and his wife Katie, also an artist, were married in 1962. He taught art until the couple moved to Waco in 1978 where Oliver took a job with the US Postal Service. He worked the night shift and painted in the mornings. The job provided a salary, pension and benefits -- more security than most artists enjoy -- while it insulated the quiet Oliver from the limelight he has sought to avoid. They have three children.

Oliver’s paintings are widely collected and he has designed more than two dozen scarves for Hermes, a Paris fashion house. Houston art dealer Geri Hooks, who represents Oliver through the Hooks-Epstein Gallery called Oliver one of “the top five of artists in America today.”

The Olivers will show their work, together with Khristian’s, in an Art Center Waco ( October 16, 2009 - January 24, 2010 in an exhibit titled “Oliver Retrospective.”

"A lot of church art celebrates the truth that God has come into the world and loves us. --that what has happened is glorious and full of grace. In Resurrection, Kermit Oliver challenges our assumptions about what is to come. He engages our spiritual imaginations. Then, learning that the face is his son's, Khristian, life and death swirl together in the orange cloud," said the Rev. Murray Powell, assitant rector, Trinity, Houston.

With information from the Waco Tribune.

Carol E. Barnwell, communication director of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, is an award winning photographer, writer and producer, who also edits a monthly newspaper for the diocese's 84,000 plus members. She has served on the press teams of four General Conventions and the Lambeth Conference, and has covered numerous international stories.

Studying the Sinai Pantocrator:
Part two

This is the second of a two-part article. Read Part One. Our next new essay will appear on Tuesday.

By Luiz Coelho

Symbolism emerges in the use of light. In the Sinai Pantocrator, the light moves from left to right creating a sense of mystery on the right side of the image. In fact, although the figure is pretty much centered in the picture frame, there is a very noticeable asymmetry between the left and right sides of Jesus' face. The left side, bright and shiny, shows relaxed eyebrows and lips. On the right side, Jesus' face is contracted and shadows make it even more mysterious. This duality of a serene and compassionate Jesus, and a dark and severe one are very appropriate at a time when the concept of the dual nature of Jesus Christ was being discussed by the Church. The use of light, and also of different facial expressions, reinforce the human and divine natures orthodox Christians believe exist in Jesus Christ. He is simultaneously Mercy and Judge.

There is also another very interesting feature related to the use of light in this image. Jesus' eyes do not show any kind of reflection, unlike previous Egyptian encaustic paintings. It is feasible to suggest that the painter behind this Pantocrator had enough knowledge of light and shadow in order to know it is necessary to depict the way eyes behave when light is cast on them. One possible explanation for the absence of any reflection is the belief that Jesus is the source of light, and since light comes from him, his eyes are clear of reflections. This became the general practice in later icons, and also came to be applied to a saint, since they were reflecting the light of Christ that emerged from them.

Pantocrator Sinai

Color was also used in order to reinforce the idea of unearthly lights and heavenly environments. Tones are warm and follow a palette that ranges from ocre to brown, centered in golden tones. A circular halo, made of gold leaf, and which possibly had some incrustations, shows very vividly that the one who is represented is “not of this world”. In fact one can link halos to older polytheistic traditions of Sun-god worship. In this case, Jesus is seen as the one who replaced those gods as the new “Sun of Righteousness”.

Graphic elements were also added to the painting in order to emphasize even more that it is not a portrait of a human being. One can see three axes of what could be a cross painted on the halo, with star-like designs in each one of them. Those star-like designs also appear in ochre on the top-right and top-left corners of the image. They would later symbolize purity, and would be a key element in depictions of the Virgin Mary. This is probably their meaning in this case as well, but later icons of the Pantocrator substitute inscriptions in Greek, as an evolution of this style.

It is also important to take further notice of the symbolism behind the pose and gestures of Jesus Christ in this scene. His body takes full control of the scene, showing that it is all about him. The Gospel book in his left hand symbolizes his authority over the Cosmos and also remionds the viewer of his ministry on Earth. His right hand blesses the faithful, but is also raised as a sign of teaching and/or authority – a common feature of Greco-Roman portraits and sculptures. His fingers are tied together in groups of two and three, which is usually interpreted as further reiteration of the belief in the dual natures of Jesus Christ and also in the Holy Trinity. Both doctrines found their formation and articulation in the midst of much debate during the first centuries of Christianity. Representing Christ himself endorsing these new dogmas was a clever way of teaching the faithful about the orthodox Christian faith.

Many of these elements would endure in later depictions of the Christ Pantocrator. A later example of the same icon (link to: ), shows a more stable style, which is still used by current iconographers. It is astonishing to notice that many of the features found in the Sinai Pantocrator were retained and consolidated in later icons: the frontal pose, the use of warm colors, dramatic light that “comes from the subject”, hand gestures and golden halo, among many others. Some others evolved from elements found in the Sinai Pantocrator: star-like shapes were substituted on the top of the painting by “IC XC” (which are the initials for the name Jesus Christ in Greek), and by other inscriptions around the halo, usually “I am who I am” in Greek. Strong outlines and background simplification were enhanced, and garments became more stylized with additional symbolism attached to them. For example, red (or purple) represented divinity, and blue represented humanity. Jesus was “God in man's clothes.” Some depictions of the Blessed Mother and saints have an opposite color scheme (red over blue), representing “men attaining union (theosis) with God.”

The Sinai Pantocrator marks a very important change in Western art. It shows visible signs of the end of an art more preoccupied with naturalism and illusion of reality, and the beginning of a style more concerned about symbols and the supernatural. Icons have also proven to be a valuable tool in communicating the teachings of the Christian Church to its members. The symbolism behind them often was a means of embedding doctrine in visual symbols. Its style was a merger of all Christianized regions of the empire, most notably the Eastern ones, and naturally incorporated Hellenistic philosophical and spiritual principles.

Therefore, this icon is a key work of art for the understanding of the ascendance of Byzantine art, which ran parallel to the advance of Christianity in the Roman Empire and the eventual theological disputes that happened within the Christian Church, such as the debates over the existence of God as Trinity, the natures of Christ, and even the iconoclastic controversy. While different from other artistic styles which were used for religious purposes, but not necessarily “as” religion, Byzantine iconography was definitely a key element in Eastern Christian faith, to the point that it has retained and distilled its main characteristics, and preserved its integrity into our own time, despite all sorts of realistic and naturalistic tendencies that affected Western European art at the end of the Middle Ages. The Sinai Pantocrator is one of the most meaningful Byzantine pieces to art gistorians because it gives many hints of how a civilization that for centuries embraced harmony and realism adopted stylized and simplified forms in order to make room for deep symbolism. Again, Christianity is the key for such a mystery, and iconography is the visible proof we have of all those changes.

Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian.

The Sinai Pantocrator: Iconography 101

This is the first of two articles. Part two will appear on Sunday.

By Luiz Coelho

Most churchgoers have probably seen this representation of Jesus Christ. The icon of Christ Pantocrator located at St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai, Egypt (the Sinai Pantocrator) is regarded as one of the earliest examples available of what would be later described as Byzantine Iconography (or painting). Earlier pieces probably existed. In fact some features of the Sinai Pantocrator already were stable enough to conclude that such an icon was developed in the midst of a transitional style of Eastern representations of Christ in Majesty. However, all other pieces either were lost due to lack of preservation, or more likely were destroyed during the iconoclastic controversy. Consequently, this example of the Pantocrator is one of the oldest extant examples of an emerging style, heavily influenced by early Christian spirituality and Hellenistic philosophical thought, that would replace older artistic traditions and become a reference not only to the Eastern Christian world, but also to the West, and to the fringes of the Christian world.

The style expressed in the Sinai Pantocrator is an example of a genre which emerges from the late Roman Empire and from what would be called the Byzantine Empire, or the Roman Empire of the West. This style would survive in most of Eastern Europe, and Christian areas in the Middle East, leading to regional and periodic variations, such as Early, Middle and Late Byzantine, Coptic, Russian, and Armenian. It also would provide important elements upon which later styles would be developed in Western Europe. In fact, some scholars would regard Romanesque and Early Gothic paintings as a “Western” iconographic tradition. The importance behind the Sinai Pantocrator lies in the innumerable sub-products which emerged later and which were continuously used for Christian worship, and remain important for us Christians in our own day.

The image found in St. Catherine's Monastery of Christ as the Pantocrator , which is Greek for “Ruler of all,” is a 33 X 18 cm encaustic painting on wood, probably done during the 6th century A.D. It shows a frontal portrait of Christ holding a Gospel book in one hand, and blessing the viewer with the other hand. Behind him, one can see what seems to be a city. Around his head a gold leaf halo indicates to the viewer that this painting is not the portrait of a mere man, but of a divine figure. In this case, the iconographer wishes to indicate that this is an image of God Incarnate.

Pantocrator Sinai

This emerging iconographic style is characterized by several influences, so that it is impossible to determine with any certainty where it was painted. One influence is Roman portraiture, which flourished during most of the Roman Empire. Paintings were often commissioned by wealthy families and portrayed people in dignifying frontal poses with an austere look. Like them, the Sinai Christ also follows a frontal pose and has an air of nobility. Another visible influence is the Egyptian school of Fayum, Lower Egypt. It is understood that large encaustic paintings started to replace reliefs on sarcophagi lids during the Roman era, and are a clear example of the merger between the Roman and Egyptian portraiture traditions. In fact, the Sinai Pantocrator resembles these paintings in pose, aspect and materials much more than any other work of art from that period. Obviously, the link between depictions of people in the afterlife and the Risen Son of God was very evident, and the evolution of such portraiture is clearly understandable.

Another source of influence for Byzantine iconography was a style of Syrian paintings that emerged during the Roman Empire as a merger of Asian and Hellenistic traditions. This style was essentially symbolic with outlines, isocephaly (all heads on a level), bodies without weight or substance, and space reduced to a minimum. Many of those characteristics are found in the Sinai Pantocrator too, and its further descendants would take them to the edge. The portrait of Christ takes control of the scene, practically hiding the landscape behind him, which still has some elements of the illusionistic decorative Roman tradition of painting. It sends a clear message that the subject of the portrait, and not an elaborate architectural landscape, is what matters in this new style.

Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian, on which he examines "Christianity in the third millennium, from a progressive, Latin American and Anglican point of view."

Simply poetry?

By Kathleen Staudt

I was caught up short by the title of Bishop John Bryson Chane’s column in the latest Washington Window: “Prayer without Action is Simply Poetry.” It raised the ire you might expect from a poet. “Simply poetry?” The phrase was clearly dismissive. It seemed as if the title meant something like “faith without works is dead” – and actually, in reading the article, I didn’t find much I disagreed with – of course we are called, as Christians, to address injustice in the world, to examine and refashion ways of life that are draining resources from the poor, to keep in mind the mandate of Matthew 25. The statistics the Bishop offers are horrifying, numbing, about the level of human suffering in the world. And of course addressing these things is part of how we are called as Christians.

But I think we need poetry as we respond to the gospel’s call to action in the world. Talking with college students about vocation over the past year or so, I have been struck by the way that many young adult Christians are intimidated, overwhelmed, by the whole notion of the call of Christians to heal a clearly broken world. The task seems too great for them and they don’t know where to begin, and how they can contribute. It seems like a lot of pressure, trying to identify a vocation that will save the world. In these conversations it seemed to me that some imagination, some poetry, needs to be brought into our preaching and teaching about the call of Christ to a ministry of healing and reconciliation amid the world’s brokenness. Poetry can help us imagine our way to the particular ways we are called to heal a broken world, “wherever we may be”

It seems to me that there is a great deal of “poetry” in our faith tradition and story – the act of imagination that story and poetry invites is a powerful source of the energy and spirit that propels us to love and serve the world. And the practice of prayer, of receptivity to God, requires imagination – is a kind of poetry. Modern prophets Bishop Desmond Tutu and Verna Dozier both invite believers to an act of imagination as we attend to the brokenness of the world. They speak of the “dream” of God – a poetic expression of our common awareness that the world is not what it is meant to be – and that we are called by our faith to participate in its transformation. Tutu writes, in lively, imaginative mode, drawing on the poetic language of our tradition:

"I have a dream," God says. "Please help Me to realize it. It is a dream of a world whose ugliness and squalor and poverty, its war and hostility, its greed and harsh competitiveness, its alienation and disharmony are changed into their glorious counterparts, when there will be more laughter, joy, and peace, where there will be justice and goodness and compassion and love and caring and sharing. I have a dream that swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, that my children will know that they are members of one family, the human family, God’s family, my family.” ( God Has a Dream, pp.19-20)

Verna Dozier makes a similar point when she points to the poetry of the Biblical story, with it’s account of a God who loves us and calls us to return, and a Saviour who gives himself to that work and calls us to new life. It begins, as Bishop Chane implies out, with the ability to look squarely at the world’s brokenness and to see the huge chasm between the world as God desires it to be and the world as it is. But to address this without being overwhelmed, we need imagination, poetry and faith.

Dreaming with God requires ongoing discernment: we need to learn to look at the story God is telling about the world, known through Scripture and tradition, and also at the world as it is. Then we need to ask, “Where is my heart breaking; what is calling me here: what is my small piece of this great work of redemption and reconciliation that God is calling me to?” We need to be imaginative enough to “dream with God ” and to give ourselves to that dream.

No one of us can do it all. We can and should participate in large programs through our institutions; but each of us, as individuals and as congregations, need to look at the relationships, needs and communities around us and say “what is the dream of God for this situation, even if I can’t figure out how to realize it all by myself? What might be my piece of the work of reconciliation here?”

My point is, of course, it’s “both/and.” Prayer without action is passivity; Action without prayer can wind up being about more narrowly political and social agendas – it can lead us to miss the dream of God in the work we are called to do. Genuine prayer will lead us to action. But it is folly to dismiss either of these as “simply poetry.”

Walter Brueggemann has named the poets as the “prophets” of our time. We are required, in reaching out to the world, to learn compassion through imagination, to name suffering and to speak truth to a corrupt social order. And activist poet Denise Levertov described imagination as “the perceptive organ by which it is possible. . . . to experience God.” We need poetry, the expression of imagination, to name the brokenness and imagine the healing, to help us to dream with God, and to ourselves keep humbly open to possibilities we may not have imagined. True poetry, like true prayer, will call us to action, powered by the energy of the imagination, which enables us to touch the heart of God. It teach us, within whatever sphere of life we are called to encounter and name, to live into the dream of God.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

Sacred space v. Holy people

By Donald Schell

On the way to mass in Sevilla’s Gothic cathedral, we passed Christopher Columbus’s tomb, a suitable reminder that Spain’s colonial power and wealth had built the cathedral. At the main altar, a gilded reredos towered to a height of fifty feet, gilded statues of saints and Bible scenes filled rank on rank up the golden wall, every surface gilded with Inca and Aztec gold from the New World. During the liturgy the dean stood at a simple lectern to preach. He smiled warmly and half gestured at the glittering reredos as he said, “I want us to hear Jesus’ teaching in this morning’s Gospel, and that great wall of gold behind me won’t help you hear. The statues tell Gospel stories and stories on the saints, that real holiness lives here [pointing to his own face] and there [gesturing toward us in the congregation].”

I remember this moment when a preacher contradicted the voice and theology of a powerful building, so what he said proved memorable. You can argue with the architecture, and briefly at least, you can win. But the triumphalism and static hierarchy of the admittedly beautiful reredos is still there as you read, and the preacher is not. Should we be content to argue with the building’s steady voice? Each instant when we’re not offering another vision, the building continues to speak, so in the end it does speak louder than our words. Beauty and history aren’t in themselves our tradition. Our tradition honors God’s compassionate steady hand making humanity wholly and holy.

We can preach that we’re called to see the face of Christ in our sisters and brothers and in the strangers we meet, and all the bright faces in the congregation may nod their agreement, but only the preacher sees those faces. Are the backs of people’s heads an adequate image of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ?

We can preach that God came to dwell among us in Jesus Christ who touched and blessed our living and dying with his human hands and heart and breath. But when we call on the Spirit to make his presence live for us again in the assembly and in the bread and wine, what does offering that prayer in a fenced-in “sanctuary” reserved for vested clergy and vested authorized lay assistants say about our approach to the Holy One who drew near to us?

Our furniture dilemmas are not the Great Tradition. Distant altars, altar rails, and forward facing pews are the legacy of 17th century church polemic and 17th century church-growth problem solving.

Starting in 1633, Archbishop Laud (with King Charles’ enthusiastic encouragement) worked to eliminate Elizabethan and Jacobean altar tables where the people gathered around. He decreed that altars should be fenced in with altar rails at the east end of the building. Laud and the King agreed that the Anglican practice they had inherited of gathering the congregation at an altar table for confession (‘draw near with faith’), Eucharistic prayer and communion cheapened the Eucharist. Laud was convinced that a set-apart, clergy-only area and rails to keep lay people out declared the holiness of the sacrament. Laud was so convinced that he was right that he invoked sedition laws to punish his most outspoken critics by having their ears cut off and a brand burned into their faces.

Puritan reaction set in fairly quickly. King and Archbishop lost power in 1640, and both were eventually executed. Oliver Cromwell's church-vandalizing soldiers destroyed Laud’s new altars and altar rails, and also smashed statues and stained glass windows. The cycle of reaction continued when the monarchy was restored in 1660; many of the altars were redone (again), as Laud would have had them. But popular liturgy was on the cusp of the Enlightenment. Preaching is the most rational and thought-provoking part of liturgy and in restored Anglican liturgy after 1660 preaching became the main event and preachers were media stars. Stylish Londoners valued and expected l-o-n-g, rhetorically elegant sermons, so when the 1666 Great Fire destroyed most of London’s churches, people welcomed Christopher Wren’s new churches with their auditorium style seating, forward-facing bench pews, that enabled people to sit back and listen more comfortably to whichever of London’s elegant rhetoricians was preaching a customary ninety minute sermon.

What many Episcopalians call a ‘traditional Episcopal’ church arrangement synthesizes these two innovations –practical seating for a kind of liturgy we’d no longer tolerate (ninety minute sermons), and the ideological barrier to the laity, for a kind of liturgy I hope we don’t believe – that ‘the sacrament’ is holy and the people are not. In the sweep of Christian history, the 17th century is recent. I believe we’ve got to ask whether these two contradictory elements of 17th liturgy really serve the liturgy we’re called to make.

Buildings with forward-facing pews encourage us to scatter two or three to a pew; the furniture preaches isolation and passivity, making each lay person a passive religious consumer watching ‘what’s going on up front’ from a safe and lonely distance. And the massive railed in altar (whether it’s out from the wall or not) conveys that Laud meant it to convey – a power and holiness that lay people ought not to get too close to.

In Liturgy and Architecture, Louis Bouyer, a Vatican II-era Roman Catholic theologian, scripture and early church scholar, and liturgist, traced step by step the changes in Christian church architecture from the earliest church buildings. In his century-by-century account we see how the priest became more and more the center of a show while the laity faded into the background – headed toward Wren’s audience – passive listeners. And in that book Bouyer warned that the priest going ‘behind’ the altar to face the people so they could ‘see what was going on up there’ was only another step in the same clericalizing distancing.

Is the Eucharistic prayer something we want to witness the priest doing, or is it something we’re doing together as a congregation? Rick Fabian, my wife Ellen, and I founded St. Gregory’s, San Francisco in 1978 to explore just how completely the liturgy can be a shared work of the whole assembly and what a full expression of that shared work Sunday by Sunday does for evangelism, Christian formation, and mission. Twenty years later the new building St. Gregory’s had just built won an American Institute of Architects Best Religious Building of the Year award. The award said:

St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church has developed a unique, historically inspired liturgy based on fourth and fifth century Christian worship. There are two distinct aspects of their worship service: the Liturgy of the Word (Bible readings) and the Liturgy of the Eucharist (Holy Communion). The church building joins two distinct but linked worship areas, each with its own liturgical and acoustical requirements. [The area] for the Liturgy of the Word, seats 200 people facing each other across a central platform. This antiphonal arrangement encourages spoken and sung community participation. The presider’s chair is located at the north end in front of a prominent painted icon. Bible readings are from a lectern at the south end.

Midway through the service, worshipers move in a procession from the seating area to gather around the central altar table for Eucharist, song and dance in the octagonal room…the baptismal font is in a garden court beside the hill [outdoors] on cross axis with the altar table.

This is a church with a marvelous sense of community and a wonderful ordered plan that reflects the eastern Coptic influence in this Episcopal congregation’s liturgical practices. The parts of the service were given geometric forms. Beautiful, naturally lit ceilings and modest materials are handled with a profound sense of craft and purpose show keen awareness of the Bay Area’s regional character. The church appeals spiritually and aesthetically to the diverse people of the Bay Area, welcoming all to what the congregants call ‘a home for God’s friends.

Jesus appealed to daily experience of marginalized people and ordinary sinners to God’s work among us. He made everyday service to others holy when he washed his disciples feet and he transformed a table meal into the sign of his victory over death and living presence with us for all time. In the religion of Jesus day, he was a layperson. He commanded his disciples, also lay people, to do all he had done and serve as he served.

I’ve troubled people saying this, but can’t escape the conclusion that we’re not being faithful when we let the voice of the building speak louder than Jesus’ practice. Provisionally, to develop a congregational vision, we may have to work in and around buildings that contradict Jesus’ teaching (both what he taught and how he taught), but sooner or later faithfulness asks us to practice what we preach. I believe the Spirit asks that we make our buildings work for liturgy and serve the holy people. When we hear and refuse to listen, we’re valuing sacred space more than holy people.

How do we make a holy space for holy people? Whatever our building or floor plan, two things can make a huge difference in the message our building teaches:

-we can re-order seating to monastic or collegiate choir so that lay people can see one another’s face as well as the preacher and reader see everyone’s faces. Our faces are our primary manifestation of the image (icon) of God, and seeing one another’s faces as we pray and sing and listen brings us closer to Jesus’ teaching and practice of the holiness of people and human experience, and

- we can open up space for processions of the whole congregation and space to gather everyone around table and font as we do our sacramental work. Congregational processions and real gatherings for sacramental action let us feel that we are one body in Christ, and that together, souls and bodies, God’s pilgrim people, are on the move.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

The power--and limits--of Christian symbols

By George Clifford

In the early 1980s, I served a tour of duty as the chaplain for the Marine Corps’ Officer Candidates School in Quantico. Marine OCS differs from Army, Navy, and Air Force OCS. Unlike the other military services, the Marines do not train officers at OCS. Instead, they screen and evaluate candidates to determine whether each has the ability and potential to become a leader of Marines. Those who successfully complete OCS receive a commission as a Marine Officer and then spend the next six months at The Basic School learning to be officers.

During my tenure at OCS, roughly 50% of all candidates did not receive a commission, either dropping out at their own request or OCS dismissing them as not qualified. For these young men and women, many of whom worked for years to get to OCS, disenrollment was emotionally devastating. The rigid insistence on meeting Marine expectations combined a pervasive boot camp mentality and intense physical program to make OCS an incredibly high stress environment for most candidates.

I soon learned that Isaiah 40:31, “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint,” had great symbolic meaning for Christian candidates. The Marine Corps emblem is the eagle, globe, and anchor. By envisioning him or herself wearing that emblem, the eagle a reminder of God's promise to help, the idea of God's presence with them in the midst of a great personal struggle, unrelenting stress, and unending physical weariness acquired fresh and considerable power. (Obviously, one must avoid conflating the eagle’s two meanings; Christianity and patriotism are not the same and often have competing agendas.)

Feeling stress in 2009 is also easy to understand. Many have lost jobs and others wonder if (and when) their job may disappear. Stock portfolios have steeply declined in value, curtailing or perhaps threatening to curtail, the lifestyles of those dependent upon investment income. The credit crunch has affected the ability of many to buy or sell a house, car, or other item. Each of us could personalize this list with our stressors that might include family problems, a loved one in harm’s way, illness, etc.

Against that backdrop, one line from a recent Sunday’s gospel reading especially struck me. Those who went searching for Jesus when he sought some early morning private time told him when they found him, “Everyone is searching for you.” (Mark 1:37) What those who found Jesus were really saying was that people were distressed, like the Marine officer candidates to whom I ministered, and these people wanted God's help. They had seen or heard of Jesus mediating that help to others – this is what the stories of healing are all about – and now they wanted, needed, God's help for themselves.

Unfortunately, no amount of searching can bring us face to face with the historical Jesus. Thankfully, the Christian tradition has a rich panoply of symbols through which people can still experience God's life-transforming love.

Historically, many Christians have found the bread and wine of Holy Communion powerful mediators of God's grace. This common experience of grace explains why the Church early in its life literalized its interpretation of Jesus’ words of institution, “This is my body … this is my blood.” Transubstantiation, pursuit of the Holy Grail, prayer before the consecrated host, and a wealth of other traditions all grew out of the reverence that Christians attached to symbols through which many experienced God's presence and grace so powerfully mediated. The Church hoped that literalizing the symbols would preserve the symbols’ power and help expand the number of those for whom the symbol mediated God's grace.

Similarly, with the advent of printing and widespread availability of Bibles, many other Christians discovered that the printed words of scripture symbolically mediated God's life-transforming love in an equally powerful manner. They too literalized their experience in an effort to promote its power and to prevent sacrilege. The words of scripture became words that God had spoken. One never set the Bible on the floor or placed another book on top of it. Bequeathing one’s Bible to a member of the next generation conveyed a sense of continuing spirituality between generations.

The saddest example of church architecture I have ever seen is the Dunker Church situated on the Antietam Civil War battlefield in Maryland. My visit to that Church building has remained vivid for over thirty years. What saddened me was neither the damage from cannonballs nor inadvertently poor choice of location. What saddened me was that the church, structurally and in terms of its décor, was distinguishable from some mid-eighteenth century schoolhouses that had benches instead of desks only by the absence of a chalkboard.

Dunker opposition to symbolic expressions of the faith, apart from one book, the Bible, lies at one extreme of the spectrum of Christian reliance on symbols. The Eastern Orthodox Churches, with their unapologetic reliance on multiple symbols – gilded icons, incense, chant, and elaborate, highly stylized ritual – occupy the other extreme of the spectrum of Christian expression.

The Episcopal Church falls broadly between those two extremes: low-church Episcopalians toward the Dunkers and high-church Episcopalians toward the Eastern Orthodox. No one set of practices is normative for us; individuals and congregations gravitate in directions that they find helpful. Yet Episcopalians unite around two truths. Symbols can mediate God's presence and love. But the symbol is only a means for receiving God's grace; identifying the symbol with grace results in idolatry that destroys the symbol’s ability to convey God's grace.

Symbols that fill our Church and spiritual lives include:
• Water in Holy Baptism, fonts at church entrances, and ablutions;
• The taste of bread and wine in Holy Communion;
• Oil used in anointing;
• Metaphors and images incarnated in word, music, paint, fabric, and stone;
• The smell of incense and evergreens;
• Touch in the laying on of hands in prayer and ordination, and physical contact – hugs, shaking hands – when we exchange peace;
• Changes in posture, as we stand, kneel, sit, bow, genuflect, and make the sign of the cross.

Which symbol or symbols resonate most deeply with you at this point in your life? If, like the people in Mark’s gospel, you search for God's powerful presence, then live into the symbols that resonate most deeply with you. When we think on meaningful symbols, incorporate them into life in appropriate ways, and explore their mysteries, then we, like the Jews to whom Isaiah spoke, Jesus’ contemporaries, and the Marine officer candidates to whom I ministered, can experience anew God's loving, life giving presence.

The Artistic Ministry

By Luis Coelho

“So, you want to be an artist?” - he asked. “Yes, sir.” - I responded. “So, you don't want to study theology anymore?” - he asked. “No, sir, I still want to study it.”

The man who asked me those questions was a parishioner at the church I served as an intern the whole year of 2007, back in the Anglican Diocese of Rio de Janeiro. Like many, he could not see the manifold interrelations between art and theology. I thoroughly explained to him how the Church has always used art as a means of retelling stories about the People of Israel and also about Our Lord Jesus and all the saints. And then I told him about my earlier attempts to start art school and how I felt called to incorporate art and ministry together. Still, he was puzzled. And then, only God knows why, I eventually told him: “I want to pursue this vocation because I firmly believe that God is the source of all beauty, and as part of his creation, we enjoy being able to create beautiful works to praise Him.” He finally settled, albeit a little disturbed with how obvious and still how unnoticed those words were to him.

More recently, I found myself giving a similar explanation to a completely different audience: art students. While having a meeting with a professor at Savannah College of Arts and Design-Atlanta, we were invited to show some of our art and explain why we had chosen that field. Most of us in that room were visual artists, or at least visual artists-wannabes. We showed our art to our peers and also to the professor. When my turn came, and I finally got to show some of my pieces, a student noticed how commonly religious themes were present in my artwork and asked why. I told him – to the awe of some of my peers – that since I believed we were made in the image and likeness of God, not only were we gifted with creativity, but we also could use our creative abilities to praise him through the resources he has given us.

I wonder how, or when, art and faith got disconnected from each other – at least to the wider public. In art circles, this is often true. It is still impressive to me to notice how many artists and art students, who in many cases are people of faith, do not perceive how precious the artistic creative process is and how blessed we are to have the opportunity of doing it. Even churchgoers fail to see how natural it is to praise God through art. When I finally communicated my intention to come to Atlanta to pursue a BFA in Painting at SCAD, and therefore to combine it with long-distance theology studies at one of the Brazilian Anglican seminaries, some people in the Church found that complicated arrangement to be a very difficult one. After all, to them, either you are an artist, or you are a priest.

I refuse to accept this exclusive definition of ministry, and many of you already know why. In your communities of faith, you probably have had the joyful opportunity of feeling God's presence through the beauty of lovely choirs, through the glooming light that crosses stained glass windows, through various art exhibits, and even through well-chanted liturgies. All of these have something in common: they are the fruit of the human creative process, with the sole purpose of worshiping the One to whom all glory and honor should be given.

As children of God, we are part of his beautiful creation. God has also entrusted this creation to us, and has made it available for us to enjoy and use in order to generate beauty in the midst of this broken world. It is true that stains of sin sometimes cover our beauty. However, through Christ our Redeemer we are always able to recover our inner radiance. As Christians, we are called to spread the redeeming message in many forms; and art is one of them.

So, the next time you find yourself appreciating a work of art, do not forget it is also a prayer: a plea from the human spirit to its Divine Creator, and also an opportunity to engage the original beauty of God's creation.

Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian, on which he examines "Christianity in the third millennium, from a progressive, Latin American and Anglican point of view." He is currently a steward at the Lambeth Conference.

Beyond words

By Martin L. Smith

I’ve been traveling around Turkey, in slow trains and buses that give leisure for musing. Ancient sites passed by and triggered old memories from reading the spiritual classics. I peered through the window at Nevsehir on the way through Cappadocia, which was the see city of the bishop, mystic and theologian Gregory of Nyssa. Later, as I walked through canyons riddled with ancient monasteries and settlements, I got to thinking about what the ancient fathers of the Church can still teach us. We think of theology as the profession of academics, but this wasn’t true in Christianity’s springtime. At first the word theology referred not to a field of study, but first hand spiritual knowledge gained from contemplation. “If you are a theologian, you pray in truth. If you pray in truth, you are a theologian,” wrote Evagrius, one of the pioneers of Christian spirituality.

Today the word ‘theology’ is so embarrassingly degraded that TV pundits often use the term as a scathing reference to abstruse theorizing unmoored in reality. And the word ‘orthodoxy’ has had a similar fate. These days, orthodoxy is almost a synonym for rigid dogmatism and moralism, hidebound ecclesiastical formulas in which changeless truth is supposed to be set in stone. But originally orthodoxy meant the lived experience of being on the right track (orthos) in giving glory (that’s what doxa means) to God, in worshipping and adoring God, in community. And what these pioneers of Christian orthodoxy insisted on, with all the eloquence at their disposal, was the utter impossibility of capturing God in words and images, or grasping God in even the most sublime spiritual experience. God surpasses anything we can possibly say or imagine, and all our experiences of God are merely touching the hem of his garment. God is without rival and nothing is really like God, therefore all language, all symbolism, all our metaphors can only point into further unexplored depths. Christian orthodoxy was—dear God, what has become of it?—a passionate commitment to the mystical core of the Gospel. As such, orthodoxy is the polar opposite of what we call fundamentalism.

As our trains rumbled through the endless valleys of Anatolia, I was running over in my mind some of the meditations that Gregory has left us. He wrote a marvelous commentary on the life of Moses, using it as an allegory of the journey of faith. He comes to that strange vision that Moses has from the cleft in the rock, when he is allowed a fleeting glimpse of God’s backside. This odd detail in the legend Gregory takes as a symbol of the truth that we can only follow God. God is always ahead of us, leading us out of ourselves further into the unexplored territory of his glory. We can only see God’s back, because he is carrying us on his back into mystery. And Gregory taught that even in eternity we will always be on the move as explorers into God, since God is infinite and inexhaustible. There will always be more God to know.

The Church Fathers surprise us. Later I stayed in Sanliurfa, ancient Edessa, a city which embraced Christianity in the second century. I thought about Saint Ephrem who lived and worked here at a time when the city was ringing with a cacophony of rival versions of Christianity (not so unlike modern America.) How did he bear witness as a voice for the orthodox teaching about the Incarnation and the Trinity?

Not through argument, lectures, propaganda, classes. He bore witness through passionate song, writing hundreds of lyrical, fabulously imaginative hymns which were sung in the public squares by a dedicated choir of women. For him, the incandescent truth of the Christian message was best suited to poetry, in the exaltation of music, not prosaic argument. And this is the strange, paradoxical dynamic of the theology of the ancient fathers. At one and the same time they are passionate about the absolutely mysterious character of God, the utter impossibility of defining him, and yet they feel authorized and inspired to use a vast array of imaginative, even outrageous symbols and metaphors, to point to the mystery. Orthodoxy is the paradoxical state of being both blinded by the dazzling darkness of God’s unknowability and of being thrilled by God’s encouragement and permission, through the Incarnation, to deploy every kind of metaphor and poetic symbol to kindle the heart’s awareness of the attractiveness of God’s beauty and power and love. Ephrem’s poetry, like Dante’s, is ablaze with the erotic audacity of lovesong. We pray for God to send laborers into his harvest. Are we praying for spiritual poets, prophets and visionaries, who will help us set our speech about God on fire again today? Or will we as Episcopalians succumb to the fate of becoming—you know—the bland leading the bland?

Martin Smith is well-known in the Episcopal Church and beyond as a priest, writer, preacher and leader of retreats. Through such popular works as A Season for the Spirit and The Word is Very Near You and in numerous workshops, lectures and retreats, he continues to explore a contemporary spirituality that encourages a lively conversation between new knowledge and the riches of tradition.

A sermon in stone

By Kathy Staudt

In 1965 I visited Washington DC with my girl scout troop, and was taken on a tour of the Washington “National Cathedral, which was then a work in progress. I don’t actually have a visual memory of what we saw – except a sense that it was confusing and hard to picture. I was from a New England Presbyterian background where not much emphasis was placed on aesthetics, so at that time I didn’t see the point of putting so much energy and labor into a church building. But I remember hearing that it might be completed by the 1990’s, and thinking that sounded like ages away. I could not know then that by 1990, when the cathedral was completed, we would be living in Washington, and that later in the 1990’s that cathedral and its schools and choral program would become a central part of our family’s life, and the beauty of that space would be formative to my life of worship and prayer. I thought of this recently when I had the opportunity to visit the Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) temple in Barcelona this past month, and walked through a nave under construction, watching stonecutters at work on massive columns in a space still open to the sky.

Officially called the “Temple Expiatiri de la Sagrada Familia,” this fascinating building is a work in progress whose history and architecture embodies the vision of a generations of deeply committed Christians, both artists and donors, The project began in the late 1800’s, in an era of rising industrial prosperity and cultural burgeoning in Barcelona. (“Expiatory, ” I understand, means funded by the alms of the faithful: the project is entirely privately funded). The architect, Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) was a brilliantly original artist and a devout Roman Catholic with a deeply mystical sensibility and unique vision. He worked on this building over most of his career, making it the focus of his work during the last four or five years of his life. Gaudi died suddenly in 1926, run over by a streetcar, and work on the building was interrupted and thwarted again by upheavals in Spanish politics and the suppression of Catalonian culture at various times in the 20th century. But his plans and vision for the Sagrada familia were the focus of his life throughout a brilliant architectural career, and the artchitects of succeeding generations have taken up that vision, shaping it with their own voices and styles and with a continuing faithfulness.

Jacques Maritain said somewhere that if you want to be a Christian artist, you should be a Christian, live your faith, and then put all your energy into the perfection of your art work. The artists involved over generations in completing the Sagrada Familia have been faithful to the vision that Maritain describes . The result is a work with many distinct artistic voices, speaking of a common faith. It is something hard to put into words, but you experience it in the space, the stone carving and the architecture.

Over the century and more that it has been in progress, the Sagrada Familia temple has come to reflect a Christian vision uniquely suited to the 21st century, the century in which it is expected to be completed. The Nativity Façade depicts with great gentleness and humanity the story of the nativity and the mystery of Incarnation. It celebrates the virtues of faith, hope, and love in its 3 porticos. The stone carvings on this façade are lush and lavish and baroque, the human figures reflecting a gentle and beautiful humanity, amid depictions of nature – flowers, animals, and trees, which are Gaudi’s hallmark. Looking at this portal, which is now on the UN list of World landmarks, one experiences the connection between the Mystery of the Incarnation and our Creator-God’s love for the beautiful, material, bodily world where we live and the. Contrasted to this, the facade of the Passion, sculpted in the 1970’s by Josep Maria Subirachs, conveys the stories of Passion Week in carvings that are stark, linear and impressionistic, conveying the stripping-down of everything. The Resurrection portal and window bring this all together, and the projected towers that will top this building when it is finished will focus on the risen Jesus. So it is, as the guidebooks say, a “sermon in stone.” Like the medieval cathedrals, it re-tells the core of the Christian story. There are also details everywhere that speak to our time. We noticed a gargoyle on one capital in the cloister that depicted the devil handing a bomb to a terrorist! Elements of the creed and of church governance are also incorporated into the building, but the representations of the life of Christ, the focus on Jesus as the heart of the story, and the interweaving of all of this with natural imagery, remain striking to anyone who visits this building. In a post-Christian Europe, where people still appreciate beauty but are increasingly secular in orientation, this temple will preserve the story, and the artists’ belief in the truth of the story comes through, somehow, in the quality of their work.

Gaudi is known for the colorful ceramic tile work and the organic, non-linear shapes on his most famous buildings – especially the Casa Battlio, the Casa Mila and the Park Guell in Barcelona, and the turrets and roof ornaments of the Sagrada Familiia are among his most striking works in this medium. The colorful parts of the building are almost entirely reflections of natural objects – fruits, birds, trees. Inside the building, the huge, 5-part nave is now under construction. In keeping with Gaudi’s original vision, the huge columns that hold up the vaults of the nave are shaped like trees, and it really does feel as if one is walking through what one guidebook called a “mystical forest” inside that nave, -- which is still open to the sky but will one day be a high-vaulted space, illuminated by both natural light and stained glass.

This is the part that struck me as so contemporary. The Sagrada Familia tells the Christian story in a building that also celebrates the beauty and strength of the earth, and our connection to Creation. In the century that will have to address global warming and our stewardship of the earth, Gaudi’s vision is even more compelling than it was in his time – when natural images were a more or less standard part of the “modernista”/ art nouveau vision. I do not know if I will get to see the completed Temple of the Sagrada familia in my lifetime – it looks as if they still have years of work to do. But remembering my first visit to the National Cathedral, I believe it will be finished one day, and I’m glad that this vision is being carried forward, embodying in space and stone the faith of generations of Christian artists.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph and teaches courses in literature, theology and writing at Virginia Theological Seminary and the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

Advertising Space