Book Review: Praying the Stations of the Cross by Margaret Adams Parker and Katherine Sonderegger

A collaboration between an artist and a preacher, Praying the Stations of the Cross: Finding Hope in a Weary Land by Margaret Adams Parker and Katherine Sonderegger (Eerdmans, 2019) is an ecumenical on-ramp to the ancient Lenten practice named in the title. A substantial introductory section provides a history of the Stations of the Cross, which are rooted in Holy Land pilgrimages, and selections from centuries’ worth of passion art, song, and other texts, showing the range of ways this old, old story has been engaged in various eras and locales. The core of the book is a service of scripture, prayer, image, and meditation, featuring original woodcuts by Parker alongside theological reflections by Sonderegger, who writes in a pastoral voice; together they draw us into the biblical narrative and its present-day implications, emphasizing how Christ’s mercy goes out and embraces all the sins and sorrows of the world. The final section provides resources for further study as well as an afterword by each of the authors, discussing their respective vocational callings and their approaches to this book project.

Praying the Stations of the Cross

Having grown up in a Baptist church, I don’t think I ever heard of the Stations of the Cross until college, and even then, it was just a vague head knowledge. My real entry point into the Stations—into a more experiential knowing of them—was through art, which I began studying more deeply about a decade ago and incorporating, in a loose way, into my spiritual practice. I came to realize that traditional images like the Ecce Homo and the Holy Face of Jesus and the Crucifixion and the Pietà, though often made to stand alone, are sometimes made as part of a fourteen-piece sequence that takes you all the way down the road to Calvary, from the praetorium to the tomb. And since the Middle Ages this sequence of images has had liturgies to go along with it.

The Stations of the Cross are about bearing witness, Parker writes, to the suffering death of Jesus Christ. They’re a way of being with a friend in his last moments (“How dreadful is the death that takes place alone, unwatched, unwept!”), and we do so in participation with fellow witnesses across time and place:

Countless pilgrims have walked and prayed the Stations of the Cross. We imagine that great cloud of witnesses, moving across centuries and cultures. We glimpse them in the winding streets of Jerusalem, in magnificent cathedrals of Europe, in dusty villages in South America. They are rich and poor, young and elderly, vigorous and dying, joyous and heartsick. They pray beside images resplendent in gold and rich color, in front of stark depictions in wood and unbaked clay, with Stations marked by numbers only. They speak and chant and pray in a myriad of languages. They weep. They stand silent. It is remarkable and moving to think of all of these worshipers—in ways so many and so varied—bearing witness to Jesus’s atoning work.

Today the practice of the Stations, for centuries primarily a devotion for Roman Catholics, has spread into the other liturgical denominations and even beyond. It takes many forms, visually and liturgically, from the sparest set of recitations to the most ornate combination of images, texts, and hymns. But to some Christians the practice can seem strange, bizarre, or even offensive, a kind of lugubrious piety with the puzzling addition of nonbiblical scenes. Why would the Stations dwell on this suffering, offering prayers that often seem to focus on Christ’s wounds? What is the spiritual and theological merit of the Stations? And how can a valid spiritual discipline include six (out of fourteen) scenes that are absent from the New Testament account of Christ’s passion? (7–8)

The authors go on to answer these questions, demystifying the Stations—drawing out their theological meaning, scriptural significance, and pastoral dimensions. They clarify the common misconception that the Stations are only about suffering, doubt, and darkness; actually, they are just as much about hope and redemption and resurrection. They are consolatory by nature.

Praying the Stations (4)

Praying the Stations (11)

Though centered on the person of Jesus and his journey to the cross, the Stations can also be a way of bearing witness to the suffering of those around us. Historically, they have sometimes taken this form, emphasizing that Christ stands beside all those who suffer. The prayers in Praying the Stations, written by Sonderegger, reflect this concern, interceding for those who bear heavy burdens; who are stricken by shame, guilt, or fear; who live in places of famine or disaster; and so on.

(Related post: “‘Where Sorrow and Pain Are No More’ by Margaret Adams Parker”)

One of the most powerful reflections in the book is on Station XIII, “Jesus Is Placed in the Arms of His Mother.” While acknowledging the uniqueness of Mary, Sonderegger also identifies her as every woman who is vulnerable through the suffering of those she loves. The image of Mary holding her dead son, therefore, can speak to the women of Ramah or Hiroshima, Auschwitz or the Jim Crow South, or any number of other mothers, wives, daughters, sisters who have lost loved ones to violence.

Praying the Stations isn’t merely a theoretical introduction to the Stations of the Cross; it’s practical, hands-on. The new worship service of the Stations that it offers gives readers the opportunity to see for themselves the powerful impact such a practice can have. The book would be suitable for individual or group use—I can envision it being used in small-group settings or corporate worship, or in private devotions.

As one who has never participated in a formal “Praying the Stations” liturgy—being from a denomination that does not readily avail itself of this rich devotional resource from the church’s past—I found the book incredibly helpful in understanding the purpose of the Stations and how a church community of any type could make use of them. The book is perfect for beginners (I’d especially recommend it to pastors and liturgists), while also being of value to those already familiar with the Stations, as it provides a fresh encounter, through word and image, with Jesus’s “Way of Sorrows.” The dual perspective of artist and preacher-theologian is a real asset. Clear, wise, and compassionate.

[Purchase from publisher] [Purchase on Amazon]

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I’ve featured artists’ interpretations of the Stations of the Cross several times on this blog and its predecessor, sometimes as part of a roundup, sometimes in full-fledged posts:

Lazarus (Artful Devotion)

Stankova, Julia_Resurrection of Lazarus
Julia Stankova (Bulgarian, 1954–), Resurrection of Lazarus, 2006. Painting on wooden panel, 30 × 40 cm.

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”

Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him.

—John 11:1–45

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SONG: “Lazarus” by David Wimbish (of the band The Collection), on The Collection EP (2011)

 

Live-in-studio arrangement for Little Fella Media, from 2015:

Looked in your eyes, they were burning like cigarettes
On top of a head that could resurrect Lazarus
Up from the grave that somehow made you cry
Both of your hands were rough like a carpenter’s
So accustomed to nails and to hammers
Never would’ve thought those nails would cut inside
Oh your hands were blessed one holy, holy night

We found your grace, it was waiting inside of a
Dead dark place with few survivors
It seems that you lived in places I reckoned you wouldn’t
And all that we saw were people that had no hope
And you changed my eyes into flaming kaleidoscopes
I saw something that I thought for sure was fiction
But the peace that it brought me erased all of my conviction

There was a knife buried deep inside
The part of our hearts where we learned how to love something
Other than us; it was built on a sandy shore
Hoping the waves wouldn’t come to the door and
Greet us with disdain and heaviness, one of
Redemption, washing away all the thoughts we had
Run to before

Will you rescue me from my disbelief?
Would you please rescue me from being a thief
Of things that will burn up when it’s the end?
Dust collects, yeah, dust it upsets and
We are only dust at best but
You can breathe dust back to life again
Oh flood the whole world, and dust will walk again

(Related posts: “‘Dry Bones’ by Rebekah Osborn”; “‘Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep’: Death, Resurrection, and the New Exodus”)


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, cycle A, click here.

Rejoice, O Virgin (Artful Devotion)

Blonsky, Alexander_Annunciation
Alexander Blonsky (Ukrainian), The Annunciation, 2014. Oil on canvas, 82 7/10 × 129 9/10 in.

March 25, nine months before Christmas, is when the church celebrates the conception of Christ in the womb of Mary. The narrative of this event is known as the “Annunciation” because Gabriel comes from heaven to announce the good news to Mary that she has been chosen to give birth to and to mother the Son of the Most High God.

Because Luke 1:26–38 is such a familiar Bible passage, it helps to read it in less familiar translations so that it can land fresh in our ears. So here is Eugene Peterson’s translation from The Message:

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to the Galilean village of Nazareth to a virgin engaged to be married to a man descended from David. His name was Joseph, and the virgin’s name, Mary. Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her:

Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.

She was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that. But the angel assured her, “Mary, you have nothing to fear. God has a surprise for you: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and call his name Jesus.

He will be great,
be called ‘Son of the Highest.’
The Lord God will give him
the throne of his father David;
He will rule Jacob’s house forever—
no end, ever, to his kingdom.”

Mary said to the angel, “But how? I’ve never slept with a man.”

The angel answered,

The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
the power of the Highest hover over you;
Therefore, the child you bring to birth
will be called Holy, Son of God.

“And did you know that your cousin Elizabeth conceived a son, old as she is? Everyone called her barren, and here she is six months pregnant! Nothing, you see, is impossible with God.”

And Mary said,

Yes, I see it all now:
I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve.
Let it be with me
just as you say.

Then the angel left her.

—Luke 1:26–38

(Read the English Standard Version)

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SONG: “Bogoroditse Dyevo” (Rejoice, O Virgin) | Words: Traditional | Music by Arvo Pärt, 1990 | Performed by The Singers (Minnesota Choral Artists), under the direction of Matthew Culloton, on Shout the Glad Tidings (2005)

This traditional Eastern Orthodox acclamation in Church Slavonic, based on Gabriel’s and Elizabeth’s words to Mary in Luke 1 (and better known by the closely related Latin Ave Maria from the West), has been set by various composers over the centuries, most famously by Sergei Rachmaninoff. His solemn interpretation is beautiful, but I’m partial to the celebratory setting by contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, commissioned by the King’s College Choir, Cambridge, for the festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve 1990. It is for SATB a cappella choir.

(Related posts: “Book Review: The Annunciation: A Pilgrim’s Quest by Mark Byford”; “Three poems on Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation)

Богородице Дево, радуйся,
благодатная Марие, Господь с тобою.
Благословена ты в женах,
и благословен плод чрева твоего,
яко Спаса родила еси душ наших.

Transliteration:
Bogoróditse Dyévo, ráduisya,
Blagodátnaya Maríye, Gospód s tobóyu.
Blagoslovyéna ty v zhenákh,
i blagoslovyén plod chryéva tvoyevó,
yáko Spása rodilá yesí dush náshikh.

English Translation:
Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos,
Mary full of grace, the Lord is with Thee.
Blessed art Thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of Thy womb,
for Thou hast borne the Savior of our souls.

All but a small number of Pärt’s ninety-odd compositions since 1976 are settings of biblical texts or Christian prayers. For an excellent article on him, see “How Arvo Pärt speaks prayer into a secular world” by Peter C. Bouteneff, published in the Christian Century. “Why are people listening so avidly?” Bouteneff wonders. “The same audience that would instinctively tune out anything with a whiff of Christian sensibility, that would normally be repulsed by pious petitions to Jesus or Mary for the forgiveness of their wretched sins, is held rapt by these very prayers when Pärt speaks them through his compositions.” Beauty has a way of penetrating people’s defenses, it seems. And that’s one reason we so desperately need artists.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the feast of the Annunciation, cycle A, click here.

Roundup: Leon Bridges, Stations of the Cross, Hermitage Museum tour, and contemporary “religious” poetry

NEW SONG RELEASE: “Conversion” by Leon Bridges: A smoky, minor-key redemption ballad closes out Leon Bridges’s [previously] latest EP, Texas Sun, a collaboration with the three-piece psychedelic funk band Khruangbin. Bridges wrote the song in 2012 in response to his conversion to Christianity, he said, but this is the first time he’s recorded it. Halfway through, following a personal testimonial about being made alive by the Holy Spirit, the song breaks into a slow R&B rendition of Isaac Watts’s “At the Cross.” Lyrics here. See also the musical and lyrical analysis Aarik Danielsen wrote over at Think Christian.

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STATIONS OF THE CROSS:

Contemporary Artists Interpret Stations of the Cross, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Arlington, Virginia, February 19–April 3, 2020: Thanks to one of my readers reaching out, I found out about this church-sponsored exhibition just south of where I live and was able to attend the opening reception, where many of the artists were present to talk about their work and answer questions. Unfortunately, the coronavirus has led to its early closure, but photos of the artworks, which are for sale, can be viewed online: see this write-up by curator Maureen Doallas. Below are the works representing station 8 (“Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem”) and station 14 (“Jesus is laid in the sepulcher”).

Peckarsky, Terry_Still Weeping on the Via Dolorosa
Terry Peckarsky, Still Weeping on the Via Dolorosa, 2020. Quilted commercial cotton fabrics, digitally altered photographs printed on fabric, tsukineko inks, and watercolor, 23 × 31 in. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones. Artist’s website: https://tpeckarsky.tumblr.com/
Lukitsch, Carol_Sophia Icon
Carol Lukitsch, Sophia Icon. Mixed media collage on paper (with laurel leaves), 30 × 22 in. Photo courtesy of the artist. Artist’s website: http://carollukitsch.com/

Passion and Compassion Oxford: This self-guided tour through Oxford, released this February with a new website and supported by the “Alight: Art and the Sacred” app [previously] for Android and iOS, stops at fourteen artworks or artifacts in multiple locations across the city. Designed around the Scriptural Stations of the Cross as a pilgrimage of sorts, it comprises a mix of historical and contemporary pieces, including sculptures by Jacob Epstein and Antony Gormley, Old Master paintings by Anthony van Dyck and the studio of Andrea Mantegna, a medieval stained glass lily crucifix, Roger Wagner’s Elie Wiesel–inspired Menorah, a “celure” depicting the Pleiades in white gold, Thomas Cranmer’s prison band, and more. Each stop comes with audio commentary by a clergyperson, theologian, or artist. The tour starts at University Church Oxford, the institution that created this wonderful resource. (Note: Most of the sites on this tour are currently closed indefinitely due to the coronavirus.)

Caroe, Oliver_Celure
Oliver Caroe, Celure, 2012. University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford.
Agony in the Garden (alabaster)
Alabaster relief by the Master of Rimini or workshop, southern Netherlands or northern France, ca. 1430–40. Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford.

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VIRTUAL TOUR: Single-shot walk-through of Russia’s Hermitage Museum: The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is the second-largest museum in the world (the Louvre is the largest), with over one million square feet of exhibition space extending across six historic buildings, including the Winter Palace, the former residence of the Russian tsars. Thanks to a five-and-a-half-hour advertisement by Apple showing off the iPhone 11’s battery life, people can move seamlessly through 45 of the museum’s 309 galleries from their own homes. Shot in one continuous take, the video includes close-ups of individual artworks as well as wide shots of the lavish interiors. It doesn’t cover the entire museum, but there is much western Christian art to see, starting at 1:04:41 with Hugo van der Goes’s Adoration of the Magi triptych. Among the most famous religious artworks in its collection, which you may know from Henri Nouwen’s book about it, is Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son (2:15:54). Here’s the trailer, followed by the full-length video:

It includes ballet sequences throughout and concludes with a live orchestral performance featuring Russian pianist and composer Kirill Richter.

The Hermitage Museum offers virtual tours of its entire collection, in an interactive format that uses panoramic photos, at https://www.hermitagemuseum.org/wps/portal/hermitage/panorama/. Unlike the Apple video, whose purpose is showcase the capabilities of the new iPhone, the Hermitage-created tour inserts “info” buttons over each artwork so that you can click through to find out the artist, title, etc., if interested. But this format, in addition to requiring a brief load time for each step forward, lacks the grandiose scoring and camerawork of the new Apple video.

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POET FEATURE: Jeanne Murray Walker: A semirecent recent blog post by “online abbess” Christine Valters Paintner introduces the work of poet Jeanne Murray Walker, author of Helping the Morning (2014), Pilgrim, You Find the Path by Walking (2019), and eight other books. Reprinted in full are the poems “Staying Power,” about God’s pursuant nature (a modern-day “The Hound of Heaven,” if you will); “Attempt,” which opens with a quote by Traherne; and “Everywhere You Look You See Lilacs,” about being in the moment, taking cues from nature. There is also a video of Walker reading her poem “The Creation,” which muses on the beautiful quirkiness of giraffes, who “spring up like Wow . . . riff-raff of [God’s] imagination.”

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GOODLETTERS ESSAY: “What Does It Mean to Be a ‘Religious’ Poet?” by Brian Volck: The contemporary English theologian Nicholas Lash wrote that sadly, “the relation of human beings to the Holy One” has, by many and certainly in the popular imagination, been “reduced to knowledge of an object known as ‘God’ . . . [,] faith’s attentive presence to the entertaining of particular beliefs.” Such reductionism has led many artists to resist being labeled “religious”—“a designation that typically serves to qualify, marginalize, or dismiss creative work.”

But good poetry, Brian Volck says, “and the human sensibilities we’re taught to call religious needn’t be strangers.” There are many poets today who tread the “vast borderlands where religion, spirituality, faith, art, and mystery overlap,” and Volck briefly reviews four such collections from 2019: Anaphora by Scott Cairns, Pilgrim, You Find the Path by Walking by Jeanne Murray Walker, This Far by Kathleen O’Toole, and Long after Lauds by Jeanine Hathaway.

Wake Up, Rise (Artful Devotion)

Spencer, Stanley_The Resurrection (Waking Up) (detail)
Stanley Spencer (British, 1891–1959), The Resurrection: Waking Up (triptych, detail), 1945. Oil on canvas, center panel 30 × 20 in. (76.2 × 50.8 cm), side panels 20 × 30 in. (50.8 × 76.2 cm). Private collection. Photo © Christie’s Images. Source: SACRED NOISE e-catalog (London, 2018).

“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

—Ephesians 5:14

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SONG: “Wake Up, Oh Sleeper” by David Nasser, Jonathan Shelton, Mac Powell, and Shane Barnard

Live performance by Jason Crabb and Third Day:

Studio recording by Jason Crabb, Jonathan Shelton, and Bear Rinehart, on Glory Revealed II (2009):


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, cycle A, click here.

Roundup: Pool of Bethesda, Argentine tango hymn, Ernesto Cardenal, beauty and suffering, “Spiritual Cosmonaut” playlist, and “The Two Popes”

VISUAL COMMENTARIES: “The Pool of Bethesda” by Naomi Billingsley: In a recent contribution to the online Visual Commentary on Scripture [previously], Naomi Billingsley has compiled and written about three artworks based on John 5:1–18, a story in which Jesus heals a paralyzed man at a reservoir in Jerusalem. A source of hydration, cleansing, and tranquility, the pool of Bethesda, Billingsley says, is a symbol that transcends individual religious traditions.

Pool of Bethesda

She discusses William Hogarth’s painting of the subject for a hospital, showing sick patients receiving care; a “Dreamtime” drawing from Aboriginal Australian artist Trevor Nickolls’s Bethesda series, created during his recovery from a major car accident; and The Angel of the Waters fountain in Bethesda Terrace in Manhattan’s Central Park, designed by Emma Stebbins in 1842 to celebrate an aqueduct that brought clean water to New York City and improved public health (and which you may recognize as the site where John the Baptist baptizes disciples in the opening sequence of the movie Godspell).

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ARGENTINE TANGO HYMN: “Tenemos Esperanza” (We Have Hope): This hymn text was written in 1979 by Federico Pagura (1923–2016), a Methodist bishop and human rights champion from Argentina, and set to tango music by Homero Perera (1939–2019) of Uruguay. Argentinian pastor Federico “Fede” Apecena, who lives in Georgia in the US, recently introduced the song to his friend Josh Davis, who heads the multicultural worship ministry Proskuneo, and the two banged out this awesome video performance. “The song is a record of all that Jesus came to do and to be,” Apecena explains at the end of the video. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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OBITUARY: Ernesto Cardenal (1925–2020), poet and priest who mixed religion and politics in his commitment to social justice in Nicaragua, dies at 95: A Catholic priest, poet, and political revolutionary from Nicaragua, Ernesto Cardenal was a controversial figure. He supported the Sandinista insurrection against the dictatorial Somoza regime in the seventies and, when the Sandinista government (which claimed to integrate Marxist and Christian ideals) came to power, served as its minister of culture from 1979 to 1987. He viewed this post as an extension of his priestly office and, refusing to quit it at Pope John Paul II’s behest, was forthwith suspended from the priesthood in 1984. (Pope Francis absolved him of canonical censure in February 2019, permitting him to administer the sacraments once again.)

Cardenal’s most enduring achievement was his 1966 founding of a religious community among the peasant farmers and fishermen of the Solentiname archipelago in Lake Nicaragua. He saw to the construction of a small wooden church, where he led collaborative Masses: instead of giving a homily on the week’s assigned Gospel reading, he opened up dialogues about it with his parishioners, relishing their insights. Transcripts of these conversations were published in four volumes as El Evangelio en Solentiname (The Gospel in Solentiname) between 1975 and 1977, with English translations appearing in 1976–82—a classic work of liberation theology.

Besides cultivating the islanders’ interest in the Bible, Cardenal also took notice of their creative talents. He brought in artists to lead workshops, which led to the development of a primitivist art school that achieved international recognition for its paintings, many of them depicting Jesus’s birth, ministry, and passion taking place in Solentiname, in and around the familiar thatched-roof buildings, blue waters, and lush vegetation. In 1984 Orbis Books editors Philip and Sally Scharper combined several such images with a heavily abridged version of The Gospel in Solentiname and published it as The Gospel in Art by the Peasants of Solentiname, a slim, full-color hardcover that I highly recommend.

Guevara, Gloria_Visitation
Gloria Guevara (Nicaraguan), The Visitation, 1881 [source: The Gospel in Art by the Peasants of Solentiname]
“It was the Gospel which radicalized us politically,” Cardenal said. “The peasants began to understand the core of the Gospel message: the announcement of the kingdom of God, that is, the establishment on this earth of a just society, without exploiters or exploited.” Afraid of the dangerous ideas taking root in Solentiname, Somoza’s National Guard razed the settlement to the ground in 1977, and Cardenal was forced to flee to Costa Rica. He gave his blessing to his community’s decision to join the Sandinistas, the people’s army, to attempt an overthrow of Somoza, a victory they achieved in 1979. The surviving peasants returned to Solentiname to rebuild, and their practice of art and faith continues to thrive to the present day.

Cardenal is also known as a poet. I’ve read only one volume of his poetry, in English translation: Apocalypse: And Other Poems (New Directions, 1977). I didn’t connect well with a lot of it, but it does have a few gems, like “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe,” “The Cosmos Is His Sanctuary (Psalm 150),” and “Behind the Monastery,” reprinted here in full:

Behind the monastery, down the road,
there is a cemetery of worn-out things
where lie smashed china, rusty metal,
cracked pipes and twisted bits of wire,
empty cigarette packs, sawdust,
corrugated iron, old plastic, tires beyond repair:
all waiting for the Resurrection, like ourselves.

(translated from the Spanish by Robert Pring-Mill)

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LECTURE: “On Beauty” by Natalie Carnes: “Beauty has been leveraged in ways that wound us, with legacies of misogyny, class hatred, and racial injustice,” says Dr. Natalie Carnes, associate professor of theology at Baylor University. “And yet I want to suggest that beauty tends those same wounds, and can be found in those same wounds, for beauty is a name for God.”

In this half-hour talk given November 1, 2017, at Dallas Theological Seminary as part of school’s Arts Week, Carnes examines the paradox, expressed in the church’s art and theology across history, that God is both beautiful and not beautiful. In his suffering, Carnes says—his entering the ravaged and scarred places of our humanity—God does not renounce his beauty but reveals it.

The divine presence in grotesque suffering is not a departure from the divine life but characteristic of it. And that movement into the grotesque is not antagonistic to beauty but the revelation of it. God’s faithfulness goes by way of intimacy with not-God, and beauty by way of the grotesque. The beauty that rejects suffering is false, and the one who follows the call of beauty faithfully will find herself in the scarred places of the world. Beauty, after all, is a name for God, and God does not abandon divinity in identifying with the suffering and afflicted but expresses through such identification the very marker of divine life.

This is not to say that suffering, affliction, or poverty is beautiful. Beauty is distinct from the mode of its arriving. Poverty and suffering can be important sites of beauty, even as they are not themselves beautiful, because they mediate the beauty of the God who is charity. . . .

Beauty and Suffering
Left: Michelangelo, Last Judgment (detail), 1536–41 | Right: Matthais Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (detail), 1515

Natalie Carnes is the author of Beauty: A Theological Engagement with Gregory of Nyssa, Image and Presence: A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia, and (forthcoming) Motherhood: A Confession.

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PLAYLIST: “Spiritual Cosmonaut,” compiled by Latifah Alattas: Last month singer-songwriter and music producer Latifah Alattas [previously] curated a short Spotify playlist of “Spiritual songs that stir my soul. Melodies that tap into mystery. Sounds that open me up to the wonder and peace of God.” It’s great!

Alattas is the frontwoman of the band Page CXVI [previously], which has just returned from a six-year hiatus. I’m so moved by their recently released rendition of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” with piano, synthesizer, and pedal steel guitar. Alattas has made the song more communal, subbing out all first-person singular pronouns for first-person plural, even rewording whole lines, like the last two of the chorus, which become “Amidst the pain of this world you grieve with us—unfailing faithfulness, dwelling so near.” Or the final line of the final verse, which she changed from “Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!” to “Blessings for all, Christ within us resides.”

People who are attached to singing the song a certain way might object to such lyrical revisions, but I see them, along with the creative musical liberties she takes, as helping to bring out the themes that are already there. Alattas helped me to hear this classic hymn with new ears.

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FILM: The Two Popes (2019), dir. Fernando Meirelles: I recently watched this Oscar-nominated biographical drama and enjoyed it more than I thought I would! I wasn’t expecting the respect it gives to its subjects and to Christianity. Its title refers to the fact that, for the first time in six hundred years, the Roman Catholic Church has one reigning pope and one retired pope, the “pope emeritus.” (When Benedict announced his resignation in 2013, it shocked the world, as it’s expected that, if chosen, you serve in that role until death.)

The movie is primarily about the relationship between the traditionalist Pope Benedict XVI (born Joseph Ratzinger) and the progressive Pope Francis (born Jorge Bergoglio), which starts out antagonistically but buds into a friendship of sorts. It’s dialogue-heavy (it was adapted from a stage play), but in the most interesting way, as the two engage in “a series of philosophical and dogmatic discussions and disagreements about the nature of faith and forgiveness, and the direction of a church struggling to maintain relevance in the modern world” [source].

But it’s not just about the church’s struggle or the burdens of high office; it’s also about personal faith as a struggle—how to discern one’s calling in life, how to hear God’s voice and deal with his silence, and how to forgive oneself for one’s own tragic silences (in Benedict’s case, regarding the sex abuse perpetrated by clergy; in Francis’s, regarding the Dirty War in his home country of Argentina in the late seventies and early eighties, while he was serving as priest).

Francis’s backstory, of which I knew nothing beforehand, is told in flashbacks. (The fiancée is fictional, though the real Francis has admitted to having romantic crushes as a teenager and even as a seminarian.) The portrayal of both men, by Anthony Hopkins as Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Francis, is very humanizing (not initially for Benedict, but his character gets there)—and not just because of the glimpse it provides into Francis’s life prior to the cloth, but also, in part, because of little nods it gives to their interests beyond the church, like Francis’s love of soccer and tango dancing, and Benedict’s piano playing and Fanta drinking. And because it shows their personal fallibility, their regret over past misdeeds.

It should be noted that the meeting of the two men at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo prior to Benedict’s resignation is invented, as are many of their lengthy dialogues, which are nonetheless inspired by speeches, letters, and other writings of theirs, brought into conversation with one another by playwright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten.

Jesus Gave Me Water (Artful Devotion)

Pierce, Elijah_Christ and Lady
Elijah Pierce (American, 1892–1984), Christ and Lady, 1968. Wood, paint, and glitter, 21 1/2 × 16 1/2 × 1 1/4 in. High Museum of Art, Atlanta. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

A woman, a Samaritan, came to draw water. Jesus said, “Would you give me a drink of water?” (His disciples had gone to the village to buy food for lunch.)

The Samaritan woman, taken aback, asked, “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (Jews in those days wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans.)

Jesus answered, “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water.”

The woman said, “Sir, you don’t even have a bucket to draw with, and this well is deep. So how are you going to get this ‘living water’? Are you a better man than our ancestor Jacob, who dug this well and drank from it, he and his sons and livestock, and passed it down to us?”

Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.”

—John 4:7–14 MSG (read the full story)

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SONG: “Jesus Gave Me Water” by Lucie E. Campbell, 1946 | Performed by Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, 1951

“One of the most regarded composers of African American religious song, Lucie E. Campbell [1885–1963] was a pioneering figure linking traditional hymnody to modern gospel composition and bridging gender and racial divides in the world of gospel music. Alongside such musical peers as Thomas A. Dorsey, Roberta Martin, and fellow Memphian Reverend W. Herbert Brewster, she helped forge the black gospel sound of the first half of the twentieth century and further belongs to a small coterie of composers who have set lasting standards for religious music in the black Baptist church.” (https://memphismusichalloffame.com/inductee/luciecampbell/)

Campbell’s song “Jesus Gave Me Water” was first recorded by Artis Kitchen in 1947. For a partial list of subsequent covers, see secondhandsongs.com. I like Sam Cooke’s version best, from 1951, when he was singing lead for the Soul Stirrers—no one can beat his honey-smooth vocals. You might know him, as I first did, as the singer of hits like “You Send Me,” “Chain Gang,” “Another Saturday Night,” “Twisting the Night Away,” “Cupid,” and “A Change Is Gonna Come.” (I have fond memories of listening to Oldies 100.7 FM in car rides with my dad growing up!) But like many famous soul singers, Cooke, a PK (preacher’s kid), got his start singing at church, at age six. His leadership of the popular black gospel group the Soul Stirrers from 1951 to 1956 propelled his career, and he crossed over into pop with great success.

For a throatier version of “Jesus Gave Me Water,” which is also quite good, see the Stars of Faith’s recording from 1965.

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A self-taught artist born in Baldwyn, Mississippi, Elijah Pierce began wood carving as a young child, using the pocketknife his father gave him. He knew he didn’t want to farm for a living like the rest of his family, so he left home as a teenager and eventually settled in Columbus, Ohio, where he ran a barbershop and led a church congregation. He described his wood carvings as sermons he used to teach people about the Bible. After encountering how Pierce used art to supplement his teaching, Leroy Almon (another celebrated folk artist, unknown at the time) apprenticed himself to Pierce.

The High Museum of Art in Atlanta has a wonderful collection of folk art, including works by Pierce and his student Almon. Pictured below, from my visit last year, are: Leroy Almon, The Baptism of Jesus, 1983; Elijah Pierce, Christ and Lady, 1968; Ulysses Davis, Jesus on the Cross, 1946; and Leroy Almon, Slavery Time, 1990.

High Museum of Art folk art (Almon, Pierce, Davis)

Though no well is visible in Christ and Lady and the title is generic, I see it as a depiction of the Samaritan woman from Sunday’s lectionary reading, and the description on the museum’s label also interprets it that way.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Third Sunday of Lent, cycle A, click here.

Roundup: Acoustic ecology, trees in religion, the Pharaoh Sisters, and more

Below you will find a mix of annotated links to songs, interviews, articles, and art showings of interest: “The Sound of Silence” on classical guitar; an acoustic ecologist whose job is to record nature’s music; giving up books for Lent; two interfaith art exhibitions (Faces of Prayer in Vienna and To Bough and To Bend in Los Angeles); and two new folk music albums (Old Wow by Sam Lee and Civil Dawn by the Pharaoh Sisters).

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MUSIC VIDEO: “The Sound of Silence” (arr. Lawson, Trueman): Classical guitarist Miloš Karadaglić collaborated with members of the string orchestra 12 Ensemble on this instrumental rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” [HT: Philip Chircop]

This is the title track of Karadaglić’s fifth album, Sound of Silence, released last fall. To watch him perform the piece in London’s Air Studios, as filmed by Classic FM in October for Live Music Month 2019, click here.

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PODCAST EPISODE: “Silence and the Presence of Everything,” On Being interview with Gordon Hempton: “Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton collects sounds from around the world. He’s recorded inside Sitka spruce logs in the Pacific Northwest, thunder in the Kalahari Desert, and dawn breaking across six continents. An attentive listener, he says silence is an endangered species on the verge of extinction. He defines real quiet as presence—not an absence of sound but an absence of noise.”

Such a unique vocation—listening to places, preserving natural soundscapes. “I hear music coming from the land,” Hempton says. “Some of the most sublime symphonies have been hidden away in something as simple as a driftwood log.” Among his other favorite “musics” are “grass wind” (“the tone, the pitch, of the wind is a function of the length of . . . the blade of grass”) and sounds from “the most musical beach in the world,” Rialto Beach.

Earth is a solar-powered jukebox. . . . We can go to the equator, listen to the Amazon, where we have maximum sunlight, maximum solar energy. The solar panels, the leaves, are harvesting that and cycling it into the bioacoustic system. And, to my ears, that’s a little too intense. That’s a little bit too much action.

Then we can jump up into Central America, and we can still feel and hear the intense solar energy, but it’s beginning to wane.

And we notice a really big difference when we start getting into the temperate latitudes, of which I particularly enjoy recording in because it’s not just about the sound, but it’s about something that I call the “poetics” of space. . . .

“Silence is really wonderful, isn’t it?” he beams. “Even when we just let it exist, it feeds our soul.”

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ESSAY: Last year Leah Slawson gave up books for Lent. When I first read that headline, I balked. Books are so life-giving to me! But as I read on, I came to understand Slawson’s reasoning (with which I can identify), and, while I’m not fasting from reading, I admire her choice. “I put a high value on reading, but I am keenly aware that I can use it as an escape from thinking my own thoughts or from noticing my feelings. . . . Reading, for me, is a distraction from the hard work of writing, and since it is so worthy of an activity, I feel justified and redeemed. I even read and study as a way to fool myself into thinking I am practicing faith; when really, I am just reading about someone else’s spiritual practice.” [HT: Rachel A. Dawson]

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EXHIBITIONS

Faces in Prayer: Photography by Katharina Heigl, Weltmuseum Wien, Vienna, December 5, 2019–March 24, 2020: A series of thirty-one intimate black-and-white photographs showing people of different faiths in prayer. To capture these shots, photographer Katharina Heigl visited churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, and other places of worship in Austria and Israel, but, important to the display, there are no labels to tell you who is praying to which god(s). That’s because Heigl wishes to emphasize the universality of the human impulse to communicate with the Divine. There are signs, however, that reproduce quotes from anonymous sources, printed in German, English, Hebrew, and Arabic, such as “Prayer is like an oasis of calm inside me. Like a tree giving me shade.” [HT: ArtWay]

Faces in Prayer
Exhibition view of “Faces in Prayer: Photography by Katharina Heigl” (2019–20) at the Weltmuseum Wien, Vienna
Heigl, Katharina_Faces in Prayer
Photograph by Katharina Heigl, from the “Faces in Prayer” series

To Bough and To Bend, Bridge Projects, Los Angeles, March 11–April 25, 2020: Officially launched last October, Bridge Projects is an LA exhibition space with public programs connecting art history, spirituality, living religious traditions, and contemporary art practices. Their second exhibition, To Bough and To Bend, opens Wednesday, with thirty-two participating artists.

“The Tree of Life is found in both the beginning of the Jewish Tanakh and in the last book of the Christian Scriptures. The Bodhi Tree is said to be the site of Siddhārtha Gautama’s awakening as the Buddha. Ancient Chinook prayers address God as the ‘Maker of Trees.’ As the novelist Richard Powers said, trees are rightly called ‘architecture of imagination.’ Their shade and branches have been sites of contemplation, suffering, and imagining our renewal.

“Today, trees still speak: blunt stumps communicate deforestation and charred limbs speak of Los Angeles fires started by our own hands—or our negligence. New discoveries of communicating root systems speak to a tangled web of connections just below the surface of the visible world, just as LA’s iconic—and imported—palms evoke a colonial past. In To Bough and To Bend, artists explore these ecological issues and look to both religious and contemporary art practices that help us listen to these old friends, so that we might relearn to ‘walk slowly and bow often’ and find our way back into the living world we share.”

Shochat, Tal_Lessons in Time 3
Tal Shochat (Israeli, 1974–), Lessons in Time 3 (Yellow Apple Tree), 2016. C-prints, mounted and framed, 39 1/4 × 44 in. each. Photo courtesy of the artist and Meislin Projects.

The opening celebration on March 14 will consist of a communal poetry reading followed by a Tu B’Shevat (New Year of the Trees) ritual presentation by community organizer Michal David. Other events are: “Called to Shine: Trees in Myth, Symbol, and Art”; a live interview with artist Lucas Reiner on his Trees as Stations of the Cross project; a talk on indigenous trees of Southern California, given by a member of the Tongva tribe; a discussion of art’s role in nature preservation; a lecture by Dr. Kimberly Ball on Yggdrasil, the tree of life in Norse mythology; “Paradise and Agony in the Garden: Sacred Trees in Italian Renaissance Art”; Dr. Duncan Ryūken Williams on the intersections of Buddhism and ecology; a bonsai demonstration; and a poetry reading and song performance by Iranian-born writer Sholeh Wolpé.

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NEW ALBUMS: Both these were released in January.

Old Wow by Sam Lee: An avid collector and reinterpreter of traditional songs, Britfolk artist Sam Lee is acclaimed for “breaking the boundaries between folk and contemporary music and the assumed place and way folksong is heard . . . not only inviting in a new listenership but also interrogating what the messages in these old songs hold for us today.” He studied under the Scottish storyteller and ballad singer Stanley Robertson (1940–2009) and, in addition to singing, plays the Jew’s harp and the Indian shruti box. Other instruments in his unique fusion include the klezmeresque cello, tabla, Japanese koto, ukulele, violins, and percussion.

Below are two music videos from his latest album, Old Wow. The first is “Lay This Body Down,” a song about death; in the choreographed video, Lee is tugged and caressed by a gaggle of deceased souls, who at the end enfold him in the ground. “The Moon Shines Bright,” on the other hand, which features Elizabeth Fraser, is about life: its call (fitting for Lent) is to “Rise, arise, wake thee, arise / Life, she is calling thee / For it might be the mothering of your sweet soul / If you open your eyes and see.” I’ve heard many different iterations of this song, which usually appears on Advent/Christmas albums with verses about the Nativity, Crucifixion, etc., but this adaptation was gifted to Lee by an elderly Gypsy woman named Freda Black and is absent of overt Christological references.

Another highlight: “Soul Cake,” a song I know from Peter, Paul, and Mary’s 1963 “A’ Soalin’.” It refers to a medieval Hallowmas tradition.

Civil Dawn by the Pharaoh Sisters: The Pharaoh Sisters is a folk outfit from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, whose debut album has arrived! Influenced by the mountain, old-time, and gospel traditions, the band consists of Austin Pfeiffer on acoustic guitar and lead vocals, Jared Meyer on acoustic guitar and backing vocals, Kevin Beck on lap steel guitar, and John Daniel Ray on upright bass. “Their music blends the cowboy sensibilities of Western-native frontman and lyricist Austin Pfeiffer with the Appalachian traditions of dark imagery and poignant guitars from their current home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.”

 

The biblical narrative is deeply embedded in the album, with many sideways references to specific scriptures. Topography is used symbolically throughout—fissures, canyons, mountains—and helps establish the central metaphor of Jesus as a pioneer, opening up a new frontier for us, leading us through the wilderness into the land of promise.

The album’s title, Civil Dawn, is a scientific term referring to when the center of the sun is 6 degrees below the horizon in the morning—in other words, the moment before the sun rises. The first song, which muses on the paradoxical character of Jesus, ends with a yearning for “Healing wings / Righteous sun,” a subtle nod to Malachi 4:2. That leads into “Awake, my soul, to the sun,” a prayer that we would incline ourselves toward the Light that’s already shining. As the journey continues, there’s darkness, dryness, a feeling of lostness and thirst. But we are not abandoned by our co-traveler, who is our light, our rest and refreshment, our way-maker. The last song, “Homecoming,” celebrates the “pioneer man with sun-scorched hands” who “guides on a trail he’s blazed”—an evocative image, which makes me think of Christ’s glorious wounds (in many traditional religious paintings, the nail prints emit light), but also, in light of the whole record, Isaiah 58:11: “The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.”

I Will Lift My Eyes (Artful Devotion)

McCahon, Colin_Tomorrow will be the same
Colin McCahon (New Zealand, 1919–1987), Tomorrow will be the same but not as this is, 1958–59. Solpah and sand on board, 188.6 × 127.8 cm. Christchurch Art Gallery, Christchurch, South Island, New Zealand.

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.

My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth.

He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.

Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.

The LORD is thy keeper: the LORD is thy shade upon thy right hand.

The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.

The LORD shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul.

The LORD shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.

—Psalm 121

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SONG: “Traveler’s Psalm” by Donald Boyd | Arranged and performed by Andy Zipf, on Traveler’s Psalms and Carols (2009)

https://open.spotify.com/track/3ixEsmd1RZr1NRupQGswwd?si=CT969notT1Cn8kLsUS3nlA

 

I will lift my eyes unto the hills
Whence cometh my help
My help cometh from the Lord
Who made heaven and earth
He will not allow my foot to stumble
For he’s always on my side
And he’ll guide me through all of the days of my life
Now and forevermore

Andy Zipf received this original song from his maternal grandfather, Donald Boyd (1919–1998), who, in addition to writing hymns, was the choir director of a church in Roland, Iowa, for fifty-one years. He had bought Zipf his first guitar and always encouraged him to sing. As a tribute to Grandpa Boyd and his formative impact, Zipf has made the song available for free download at Bandcamp.

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The dusky, reverberant landscape painting Tomorrow will be the same but not as this is by Colin McCahon [previously] shows a sun setting behind a range of dark New Zealand hills, with a gray body suggesting water in the midground. Art critic Justin Paton surmises that the mysterious form in the upper left corner (which he jokingly calls “the windshield wiper of God”) is the tail of a cross, because McCahon did a whole series of drawings of flying crosses within landscapes.

“I think it’s a kind of resurrection painting,” Paton said in an RNZ Saturday Morning interview last November. “It’s talking about the way in which an immense spiritual event could shake your world, but then you go to bed and you wake up the next day. It is still the same world, but how has it altered?” Paton continues, “He [McCahon] deals in visions, he deals in miracles, he deals in cataclysmic and elating spiritual events, but it’s always earthed in the everyday—in a world we recognize, a world we can smell . . .” The medium in Tomorrow is commercial flooring paint mixed with sand.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Second Sunday of Lent, cycle A, click here.

“After the Fig Leaves, Eve Cuts Her Hair” by LeighAnna Schesser

Bouguereau, William_The First Mourning
William-Adolphe Bouguereau (French, 1825–1905), The First Mourning, 1888. Oil on canvas, 79 9/10 × 98 2/5 in. (203 × 250 cm). Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires.

“After the Fig Leaves, Eve Cuts Her Hair”

So when they bury Abel, there is no veil
between her grief and her love. And there he stands,
so like his father, his cities yet unbuilt.

His father cuts open earth with bare hands,
leaving plough and shovel, the sharp edges
and the heavy handles, apart in furrowed field.
She calls each animal he resembles: mole, badger, fox.
He named them, once, and now she names him:
father unfathered, sonless, one son less. The sun hangs
round and clear, apple-red, above the dark tree line.

Once, when Cain was the only child in the world,
their fields withered and arrows flew fruitless.
Dull-eyed by the empty fire, beside the windless cedars,
he wailed at the dry breast. Much later,
after thunder dumbed the stars,
they faced the barren, muddied vale together. Adam said,
God made paradise, and we made this—
this is all we have to give him. He struck his staff
upon the seedless ground. Cain made two tiny fists.

Abel she cannot unsee as a splintered spear
of red lightning, reduced to kindling
on the perfumed grass, the churned earth
weeping red mud. Loss escapes her in a hiss
of distant fear: this time, the choice
for death has been made for her,
despite that it was life she’d sent into the world.
Her voiceless throat swells tight, dry as scales.

Her hair is short and stiff and gray. The world is young.
There will yet be other sons, and daughters more;
the seed of man must multiply. But this grief is older
than she knows, its gaze fixed far ahead
on what, someday, must be done. The wind’s voice
keens a long lament, a parent loss,
the form of sons’ deaths yet to come.

“After the Fig Leaves, Eve Cuts Her Hair” by LeighAnna Schesser was originally published in Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry 2018 and is used here by permission of the author. The poem will appear in Schesser’s first full-length poetry collection, Struck Dumb with Singing, to be published by Lambing Press in April 2020.

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LeighAnna Schesser’s poem “After the Fig Leaves, Eve Cuts Her Hair” explores parental grief following the death of a child—in particular, that of our primordial parents, Adam and Eve, who mourn the loss of their second-born son, Abel. Genesis 4:1–16 recounts how Abel was murdered by his older brother, Cain, in a fit of jealousy. This is the first human death in the Bible, and it was the direct result of sin.

The poem starts with the title, which flows with unbroken syntax into the first line: “After the fig leaves, Eve cuts her hair so when they bury Abel, there is no veil between her grief and her love.” The cutting of hair in response to death in the immediate family is a ritual practiced by women in many Native American tribes and Aboriginal people groups, where the act of severing, and the subsequent absence of, a cherished part of your self serves as a stark physical reminder of your loss. Similarly, after 9/11, many non-Native women in the US cut their hair as a sign of shock and sadness at the immense loss of life; one woman said, “I felt so different internally, I wanted something to express it externally.” Schesser imagines Eve taking part in some form of this ancient mourning ritual, wanting to leave her crying face exposed.

This is “after the fig leaves,” euphemistic shorthand for that landmark event earlier in her life in which she stole fruit from an off-limits tree and then, feeling shame for the first time, went to cover her nakedness with the first available foliage. The title/opening line, between that prepositional phrase and the first clause, skips over quite a long period of time—from the Genesis account, it sounds like at least two decades passed between Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden and the murder of Abel. But these two events are life-defining for Eve, so the chronology is collapsed.

“And there he stands / [. . .] his cities yet unbuilt.” The “he” here refers to Cain, who, after being confronted by God, went into exile “east of Eden,” to the land of Nod (Gen. 4:17). In his later life he built up the world’s first city, Enoch.

Like the burrowing species of animals he named, Adam digs into the earth with his bare hands—elemental. For this, the making of his son’s grave, he leaves aside plow and shovel as a sort of penance: he wants to feel directly the hard dirt, his body’s full labor and sweat, the effects of the curse he brought upon the world, which he feels implicates him in his son’s death. As he digs, the sun hangs above him “round and clear, apple-red,” a taunting reminder of his former trespass.

In the third stanza the speaker goes back to the time that’s elided in the poem’s opening, back to when Adam and Eve left God’s teeming garden and entered a dead world. They struggled to secure food for themselves. Eve gave birth to a baby boy, but soon her breast milk dried up. It was then that they resolved to get down to business and fight for a life in this inhospitable land. Even baby Cain expressed defiance against the odds with little fists as Adam broke new ground.

Snapping back to the present, Eve observes Abel’s limp body, bloody and broken and reddening the earth. “The churned earth / weep[s] red mud”—an arresting poetic image to match God’s in Genesis 4:11: “The ground . . . has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand,” he tells Cain. We are taken back again to the Fall through more figurative language, this time evoking the snake: fear “hiss[es]” in the distance; Eve’s throat is “dry as scales.” Eve, God’s child, chose death in the Garden, and now her child (the one to whom she gave life) has chosen death too. She now has a taste of the horror, disappointment, and sadness God must have felt.

“Though the world is young,” the poem continues, “this grief is older / than she knows.” Older, even, than God’s grief at the Fall. For another child of God, his “only begotten son” (John 3:16), was destined to die millennia later—“the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). In his foreknowledge God saw this death and mourned it immensely. His is the oldest grief.

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William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s painting The First Mourning shows the lifeless body of Abel sprawled out over Adam’s lap, and he and Eve ridden with grief. Adam clutches his broken heart, and Eve buries her face in her hands, sobbing uncontrollably. The only color in the bleak landscape is from the puddle of blood on the ground. In the background, smoke rises from an altar, mixing with the storm clouds in the sky; this is the remnant of Abel’s offering going up to God, the cause of Cain’s resentment that led him to commit murder.

By the time Bouguereau painted this scene in 1888, three of his five children had died of illness. (A fourth child of his would also die within his lifetime—twelve years later, at age thirty-two.) He knew the sorrow that accompanies such a traumatic event as seeing your kids leave this world before you do.

The iconography he uses is closely related to that of the Pietà, an image type that shows a grieving Virgin Mary holding her dead son, Jesus, on her lap following his crucifixion. The connection is intentional, as death—which Abel was the first person to experience—will ultimately be undone by the death and resurrection of Jesus. The writer of Hebrews says that “the sprinkled blood [of Jesus] speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:24), because Christ’s blood is redemptive, bringing us back to the Garden that we lost through sin.

For an adaptation of Bouguereau’s The First Mourning by African American folk artist Ellis Ruley, see http://collection.folkartmuseum.org/objects/2474/pieta.

Call to artists: I’d love to see you interpret Schesser’s poem visually: Eve shorn inside and out (her hair “short and stiff and gray”), wearing her grief openly; Adam animalistic, digging a grave by hand; Cain looking on; and the wind bearing their lament forward to the cross. If you pursue this suggestion, do let me know!

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LeighAnna Schesser is a Catholic writer and a homeschooling mom of four from Kansas, whose forthcoming book of poetry, Struck Dumb with Singing (out next month), “meditates on family, devotion, divine mysteries, and their rootedness in place.” Visit Schesser at her website, https://acanticleforhomestead.com/, where you will find, among other things, links to some of her other published poems and articles.