Flying our faith out over the gorge

Prior to 1848, anyone wanting to cross the Niagara River had to do so by ferryboat, making it difficult for people and cargo to travel between New York and Upper Canada. Endeavoring to better connect the Atlantic coast with new territories in the West, entrepreneur William Merritt got permission to build a railway suspension bridge over the river, two and a half miles north of Niagara Falls. Charles Ellet Jr. was hired as the chief engineer.

Ellet’s first challenge was how to get a line across the gap. Cannonballs, rockets, and steamers were among the proposals, but Ellet ultimately decided to use a kite. To generate publicity, he held a kite-flying contest in January 1848, offering a cash prize to the first boy to anchor a string from country to country, 800 feet across the chasm and about 240 feet above the Whirlpool Rapids. Sixteen-year-old Homan Walsh won, flying his kite from the Canadian shoreline to the American side, where he had it fastened to a tree. Ellet’s team attached a light cord to Walsh’s kite string, then pulled the joined lines back across. Over the next month or so, they pulled successively heavier and stronger lines back and forth, back and forth, until the final bridge cable was in place.

Niagara kite-flying contest
Donna Marie Campbell, Kite Flying Contest Held To Get The First Line Across [The Gorge] For The Suspension Bridge (after a 19th-century sketch by an unknown artist), 1975. Watercolor, 23.7 × 31.4 cm.
Edwin Markham (1852–1940) interprets this story as a parable in his poem “Anchored to the Infinite,” likening faith and love to cords that grow in strength the more they are sent out, and that have their anchor in God.

“Anchored to the Infinite” by Edwin Markham

The builder who first bridged Niagara’s gorge,
Before he swung his cable, shore to shore,
Sent out across the gulf his venturing kite
Bearing a slender cord for unseen hands
To grasp upon the further cliff and draw
A greater cord, and then a greater yet;
Till at the last across the chasm swung
The cable then the mighty bridge in air!

So we may send our little timid thought
Across the void, out to God’s reaching hands—
Send out our love and faith to thread the deep—
Thought after thought until the little cord
Has greatened to a chain no chance can break,
And—we are anchored to the Infinite!

(Related post: “ESSAY: ‘The Poetry of Jesus’ by Edwin Markham”)

This poem is very close in form to a Petrarchan sonnet—it consists of an octave and a sestet in iambic pentameter, with a caesura (turn) between them, but it doesn’t rhyme.

The first stanza recounts the construction of Ellet’s suspension bridge across the Niagara River, especially his use of a kite to hang the initial cable.

The second stanza identifies in this historic building project an extended metaphor of spiritual significance. We are the children who stand at the edge of a vast unknown, timidly putting our faith and love out there, just hoping it will be received and answered. Sure enough, God stands on the other side, reaching out to grab ahold of our most feeble efforts to know him and to trust him, and anchor us to himself.

The last phrase (and the poem’s title)—“anchored to the Infinite”—is not quite a paradox, but it is difficult to visualize: being fixed to that which has no limits. Infinity cannot be pinned down, and yet it (or should I say “he”) pins us down, stabilizes us. We need only faith as small as a mustard seed, or as thin as a kite string, and God will catch it from across the void, attaching us securely to himself.

Terry Widener produced a beautiful, impressionistic illustration on page 32 of the children’s book The Kite That Bridged Two Nations that shows Homan Walsh flying his kite over Niagara Gorge. Although it is meant to be taken literally—an artistic interpolation of a historic event—it speaks volumes to me about what it means to exercise faith. Unfortunately, my request to reproduce it here was denied by the publisher, but I can describe it: Two rocky, snow-capped precipices rise up on either side of the picture, and a turbulent river courses between them, moving down a slight fall and crashing against four large rocks that protrude from the riverbed. The top fifth of the painting is blue sky, and a cumulus cloud hangs dead center, making visible a tiny red speck of a kite on a wisp of a string. Follow that string to the right side, and you can just barely make out a human figure holding the reel on the edge of the cliff. Because the gorge dominates the painting, the mood at first glance is one of panic and tumult. But in the upper register there’s a sense of peace and calm, as the kite drifts above the waves in search of an anchor. It’s still a scary endeavor—the small traversing the vast—and there’s the risk of losing the kite altogether, but there’s a thrill in it, in putting yourself out there.

One aspect of the metaphor that’s not addressed in Markham’s poem is the wind, which in the Bible is associated with the Holy Spirit. Just as the wind gives the kite lift, so does the Spirit give flight to our faith and love, powering us forward toward God.

As we unreel those two virtues, God works with us to “thread the deep”—to bridge the gap between finite and Infinite. And he strengthens us in them so that one day we will be able to walk out over the rapids, all the way across to the other side.


“Anchored to the Infinite” by Edwin Markham originally appeared in The Shoes of Happiness and Other Poems (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1919) and is now in the public domain.

MLK, Pippin, and the Holy Mountain

Holy Mountain III by Horace Pippin
Horace Pippin (American, 1888–1946), Holy Mountain III, 1945. Oil on canvas, 25.3 × 30.3 cm. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC.

(This post was originally published on theJesusQuestion.org in 2014.)

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I’d like to highlight the work of one who shared Dr. King’s vision, but whose microphone was a canvas.

The painting Holy Mountain III by self-taught African American artist Horace Pippin depicts the peaceable kingdom that’s prophesied about in the biblical book of Isaiah, chapter 11. When the Messiah establishes his rule on earth, writes the prophet,

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (vv. 6–9)

In spring 2013, this painting was featured in the exhibition “Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery,” curated by the now-defunct Museum of Biblical Art in New York City. A MOBIA commentator pointed out the shadows of violence in the forest: a lynched black man (left), planes dropping bombs above a graveyard of crosses (center), and two armed soldiers and a tank (right). Yet, the commentator writes, Pippin chose to foreground the Holy Mountain, demonstrating his hope that such a scene would one day be actualized: “Rather than turning a blind eye to the painful realities of a sad and violent world, Pippin presents a vision of mankind moving out of the shadows and into the brilliant light of a peaceful clearing.”  Continue reading “MLK, Pippin, and the Holy Mountain”

Spiritual imagination in the art of Igor Paneyko

I spend a lot of time “art surfing” the Internet, following click-trails that start maybe with a Google image search of a subject I’m researching and then end up somewhere totally different. One of those trails this weekend led me to the work of Ukrainian New Wave artist Igor Paneyko.

Paneyko was born on March 2, 1957, in the city of Stryi in the Lviv Oblast region of western Ukraine, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. From 1975 to 1981 he studied at the Lviv State Institute of Applied and Decorative Art (now the Lviv National Academy of Arts), then spent a year working in Khiva, Uzbekistan. He currently lives and works in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, near the Hungarian border, in the region known as Transcarpathia.

Other than this general biographical information, I can find little else about the artist. An exhibition promo from 2012 suggests that he is a private person who’s “wary of publicity,” though he does exhibit his work. Using the Ukrainian spelling of his name, Игоря Панейка, yields more results than a search in English, but information is still sparse.

Many of Paneyko’s paintings are of visionary landscapes with floating, haloed figures. Candles, moons, and ladders (see Genesis 28:12) are often featured. Much of his work seems to me to carry on the legacy of Symbolism, a late nineteenth-century art movement that developed new and often abstract means to express psychological truth and the idea that behind the physical world lay a spiritual reality. Symbolists sought to give form to the ineffable, such as dreams and visions, and they emphasized emotions, feelings, ideas, and subjectivity over realism, often addressing the themes of religious mysticism and death. Gustav Klimt and Odilon Redon are two of Symbolism’s greatest artists.

(Related post: “Christ Crowned with Thorns interpreted by Symbolist artist Odilon Redon”)

Below is a compilation of some of Paneyko’s paintings that I find particularly appealing. I don’t know the specs for any of them, besides the year of those that have it painted large enough on the canvas, but I’ve linked each of them to its online source.

These first five are, to me, visually stunning. Ground and sky are not discernible from each other but rather interpenetrate, creating sacred space and evoking wonder.

igor-paneyko2

^ From 2005, we have a woman with a candle standing in contrapposto and covered in multicolored roses. The thin gold band around her head suggests a halo, and the purple burst behind her an aureola. It appears that she has come to pay devotion to Christ, as a wayside crucifix, whose patibulum supports the candles of previous pilgrims, is planted in the background. In the center of the woman’s chest, a little red kernel is encircled with light, representing the love that’s set aglow by her encounter; her loins, too, bear this mark—a possible allusion to the erotic language used by medieval mystics to describe their union with Christ.

igor-paneyko

^ Here a haloed woman—maybe an angel (are those wings behind her?)—carries a load of pears and apples. To the left is a rowboat with four other haloed figures, one of them a baby; to the right, a garden. Some associations that come to my mind are Eden, Flight to Egypt, ship of salvation, fruit of the Spirit.

igor-paneyko4

^ In this one, the focal point is the bottom left corner, where a yellow-green-blue crescent moon balances atop a patchwork mountain, and a row of nightcapped sheep saunters sleepily away. On the other side of the mountain a newspaper party hat floats over a cross-marked graveyard. Maybe it’s because we’ve just come out of Christmas, but I think of Bethlehem after Christ’s birth: the Judean hills alive and vibrant, having been touched by angel song; the shepherds’ charges seeking rest after the flurry of activity; and spreading a shadow over the celebration, the Massacre of the Innocents—Herod’s extermination of the town’s infant male population.   Continue reading “Spiritual imagination in the art of Igor Paneyko”

Songs about the Flight to Egypt

On the heels of Jesus’s birth came his frantic flight, with parents Mary and Joseph, from the sword of an egomaniacal politician who swore death to all the male children of Bethlehem under the age of two. To secure his own power and advantage, Herod had to squash all potential threats.

Thus the birthday festivities were cut short as the Holy Family packed up what little they had and hit the road running, seeking asylum in another country.

Flight to Egypt by Jean-Francois Millet
Jean-François Millet (French, 1814–1875), The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1864. Conté crayon, pen, ink, and pastel over gray washes on paper, 31.1 × 39.4 cm. Art Institute of Chicago.

Many families are still making this difficult journey today: fleeing home in order to escape persecution and/or death.

Even though the Flight to Egypt is a part of the Christmas story, it’s often omitted from present-day nativity pageants and carol services because we prefer to bask in that which is quaint and cozy and cute and joyful, and we want that happy ending. We don’t want the darkness to rain on all the Christmas light. This is a real shame. By leaving out this event from our retellings of Jesus’s birth narrative, not only do we do a disservice to his memory, we neglect an opportunity to see Christ in our refugee neighbors.

(Related post: “Maria von Trapp, plus seven artists, on Jesus the refugee”)

To help remedy this omission, I’ve compiled a list of songs based on the Flight to Egypt so that churches can consider using them (or be inspired to write their own!) as part of their Christmas observances. I’ve purposely excluded “The Cherry-Tree Carol,” a centuries-old ballad derived from an apocryphal story about the Flight to Egypt from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (chapter 20); I did so not only because the anonymous lyricist reset the episode during the Journey to Bethlehem, when Jesus was still in the womb, but because, though charming, there’s nothing historic, spiritually valuable, or socially conscious about it, and it perpetuates a popular stereotype of Joseph as stubborn and unkind that I believe scripture itself does not bear.

Also excluded are the several carols about the Massacre of the Innocents—the episode that prompted the Flight to Egypt. The two episodes are obviously related, but I want to focus here on the Flight.

CONGREGATIONAL HYMNS

I could find only one song on the topic that was written with congregational singing in mind, and that is “Flight into Egypt” by the Rev. Vincent William Uher III (1963–). It’s made up of four verses and the refrain “Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy), a common prayer in Christian liturgies. Because the hymn uses a plainchant tune, it has an irregular meter and may therefore be a little tricky for congregations to pick up right away. But the words are so beautifully crafted and set, and Rev. Uher gives his permission for noncommercial use, as long as credit is given. I put together a printable hymn sheet, reproduced below the lyrics. (Click on the image to open up the sheet as a PDF in a new tab.)

“Flight into Egypt” (1997) – Words: Vincent Uher | Music: Plainchant mode V, 13th century

Lonely travelers from the stable
Out beneath the hard blue sky
Journeying, wandering, hoping, praying
For the safety of their child
While our mother Rachel’s weeping
Fills the streets of Bethlehem.
Kyrie eleison.

Warned by angels moved to save him
Who was born our kind to save
Joseph leads his holy family
Far from Herod and harm’s way
Mary shielding and consoling
Jesus Christ the Son of God.
Kyrie eleison.

Fleeing from the land of promise
They in Egypt find a home
Strange the workings of God’s mercy
House of bondage now God’s throne
But for sons who all were murdered
Sorrow breaks the House of Bread.
Kyrie eleison.

True the tale of flight and exile
Out of Egypt comes God’s Son
Angels tell of Herod’s dying
All is ended, all begun
Jesus will grow up in Nazareth
And the world will all be stunned.
Kyrie eleison.

flight-into-egypt-by-vincent-uher

Because of the scarcity of carols referencing the Flight to Egypt, I took to writing some verses of my own, using already-popular hymn tunes. Each of these verses is intended not as an additional stanza to the carol whose tune it shares (that would render the narrative structure incoherent) but as a standalone reprise of sorts. I envisioned any one of them being sung as part of a Christmas Eve service following the reading, as part of the total Christmas story, of Matthew 2:13–14.   Continue reading “Songs about the Flight to Egypt”