Readers often ask me what podcasts I listen to, so today I want to share one of them with you, which comes out of my home state of North Carolina: Makers & Mystics.
Hosted by Stephen Roach, Makers & Mystics is a biweekly podcast that aims to “develop a greater cultural understanding of why creativity abides at the core of our spirituality and why artists are called to be ‘architects of hope’ for our cities.” It is run by The Breath & the Clay, an organization based in Winston-Salem, which, in addition to producing regular online audio content, also hosts an annual conference and artist retreats. (Their 2019 conference already passed—you can purchase audio of all the presentations here—but two retreats are still being offered this year, in June and October; I just added them to my recent roundup, but you can also just go directly here for all the info.)
I love to find out about the various creative endeavors that the people of God are engaged in, and Makers & Mystics is one of my primary avenues for doing that. I’m impressed by the wide variety of disciplines and styles that Roach has curated in his selection of interview subjects, and I appreciate the mix of fine and folk art (some people reject this distinction, but you know what I mean). Though there are recurring themes in some of the interviews—things like the importance of honesty and integrity, and how to live a life awake to wonder—I find each episode so unique. It’s fun to hear different people’s stories and creative processes.
If this is the first time you’re encountering Makers & Mystics, you might want to start with one of the foundational episodes, which do not follow an interview format:
The very first things we learn about God in Genesis, Roach says, is that he’s a creative being, and that he takes immense joy in the creative process. So when we’re told in Genesis 1:26 that humans are created in God’s image, Roach continues, our only concept of God up to this point is that he’s a creator who delights in creating. That’s why creativity is not ornamental but, rather, is in our blood; it’s our birthright as human beings.
“Lawgivers don’t shape culture,” says Ray Hughes. “Artists do. They’re the ones that tell us who we are. That’s why I say, songwriters: hey, you’re not writing next year’s most popular chorus; you’re writing the next generation’s language for accessing God.”
Here is a list of upcoming arts conferences and retreats. I will be attending the CIVA conference next month as well as the DITA conference in September—if you’ll be at either, please let me know; I’d love to meet you!
All Things New (International Arts Festival) Date: June 15, 2019 Location: Waterras Common Hall 3F, Tokyo, Japan Cost: ￥2500 (about $22) Presenters: Joshua Messick, Gerda Liebmann, Christopher Elmerick, Roger Lowther, and more Organizer:Community Arts Tokyo (with additional sponsorship by Grace City Church Tokyo) Description: “How can people in a city experience personal, social, and economic flourishing? What is the role of artists in making this world a better place? How can faith, work, and the arts come together for a holistic view of peace for the good of mankind? At this conference, we will hear from artists in the business world, the media world, and the plight of refugees from other countries. Their stories will give us a vision for how the arts point a way to new beginnings and bring goodness and hope into a broken world. Join us as we enter this world through speaker presentations, music performances, a short film, gallery exhibits, small group discussions, and more!” (Note: Presentations in Japanese will have simultaneous English translation over the wireless earphone system.)
The festival will include presentations/workshops/performances by
hammered dulcimer player Joshua Messick, who contributed to the soundtrack of the Japanese animated fantasy film Mary and the Witch’s Flower
visual artist Gerda Liebmann, on how art can foster relationship and connection
Christopher Elmerick, who founded and runs a cultural center in Berlin that promotes the free exchange of ideas through shared work- and performance spaces and more
Megumi Project, a group of women artisans who upcycle vintage kimonos into shawls, scarves, bags, journals, and other accessories
the Charis Chamber Players
organist Roger Lowther, on the physics of music
Roger Lowther is, with his wife Abi, the founder and director of Community Arts Tokyo, “a team of artists, professionals, and Japanese nationals assisting church planting through outreach, discipleship, worship, and disaster relief.” Their work is supported through Mission to the World, the international missions arm of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).
Are We There Yet? Date: June 13–16, 2019 Location: Bethel University, St. Paul, Minnesota, USA Cost: $350 for nonmembers; $300 for members Presenters: Sedrick Huckaby, Letitia Huckaby, Hawona Sullivan Janzen, Chris Larson, Rico Gatson, Nate Young, Linnéa Spransy, Cara Megan Lewis, Rev. Babette Chatman, Jamie Bennett, Joanna Taft, Kelly Chatman, Joyce Lee, Caroline Kent, Lyz Wendland, Betsy Carpenter, Amanda Hamilton, Catherine Prescott, Vito Aiuto, and others Organizer:Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) Description: “If you’re anything like us, working in an age of high anxiety and disruption has been trying. At the same time, the art world has never seen more diversity, wealth, interconnection, and popular appreciation. Some experience our current creative conditions as a ‘joyful noise,’ others a ‘resounding gong.’ This makes art difficult yet at the same time crucial. With our hope rooted in the Lord, we can rejoice in the unfinished state of our work. There is still so much to be made!
“Are We There Yet invites us to inhabit questions together: What are our shared pursuits? What practices and commitments can guide us in our work and collaboration? What would radical generosity do to the global art market? And how might we be participants in making ‘impossible things possible,’ as described by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist? With a commitment to hospitality, we will ask these questions and many more.”
The conference will consist of plenary talks, panel discussions, and breakout sessions and will include a juried art show, late-night artist show & tells, optional day-ahead tours (art museums, city architecture, or sculpture garden) or workshops (printmaking or photography), a Liz Vice concert, and an ecumenical worship service.
Visual Arts Retreat Date: June 21–23, 2019 Location: Apple Hill Lodge, Moravian Falls, North Carolina, USA Cost: $450 (includes lodging, food, and class materials) Presenters: Allison Luce, Corey Frey, Ty Nathan Clark (via satellite), Stephen Roach, Thomas Torrey, Lauren Olinger Organizer:The Breath & the Clay Description: “Come get away for a weekend designed to inspire and deepen your understanding of visual art both as a spiritual practice and as an art form.”
Vocation, Motherhood, and Artmaking Date: July 25–28, 2019 Location: Laity Lodge, Leakey, Texas, USA Cost: $495 (scholarships available) Presenters: Andi Ashworth, W. David O. Taylor, Letitia Huckaby, Phaedra Taylor, Sandra McCracken, Ashley Cleveland Organizer:Laity Lodge Description: “This retreat is an invitation to explore the opportunities and challenges that are involved in the twin calling to motherhood and artmaking. It is open to mothers in all stations and circumstances of life, whether at the beginning of motherhood or in the fullest years of grandmothering, and to artists of all media, disciplines and contexts.” (Read more from David Taylor.)
Kingdom Creatives Con Date: August 3, 2019 Location: National Union Building, Washington, DC Cost: $99 Presenters: Noah Elias, Othello Banaci, Rachel Petrillo, Anifa Mvuemba, John David Harris, Ryan Han, Andrew Hochradel Organizer: Bemnet Yemesgen Description: A conference “aimed at igniting inspiration, learning, and networking in the Christian creative community. . . . Attendees will enjoy workshops and talks by creatives from diverse backgrounds and industries. The conference is specifically tailored towards creatives who love Jesus Christ . . . graphic designers, illustrators, photographers, filmmakers, developers, animators, copywriters,” etc.
New York City Arts Weekend Date: August 9–10, 2019 Location: Various venues, New York, USA Cost: $295 CAN Presenters:Makoto Fujimura, Iwan Russell-Jones Organizer:Regent College (host: Jeff Greenman) Description: “Makoto Fujimura and Iwan Russell-Jones lead this exploration of Christian faith and the visual arts in New York City. Enjoy a fascinating tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and participate in shared meals, stimulating presentations, and challenging conversations. Develop a deeper understanding of how creativity finds its place in the new creation.”
Creation and New Creation: Discerning the Future of Theology and the Arts Date: September 5–8, 2019 Location: Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA Cost: $175 (student discounts available) Presenters: Jeremy Begbie, Malcolm Guite, Christian Wiman, N. T. Wright, Natalie Carnes, Jennifer Craft, Carlos Colón, Steve Prince, Bruce Herman, Judith Wolfe, and others Organizer:Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts (DITA) Description: “At DITA10, we will celebrate past scholarship, reflect on today’s landscape, and imagine with tomorrow’s leaders.” The colloquium will include keynote lectures; workshops for church leaders and artists addressing the challenges of theology and the arts in the church and in our daily lives; panel discussions with artists and theologians; a concert by the New Caritas Orchestra; and a corporate worship service.
The Future of the Catholic Literary Tradition (Catholic Imagination Conference) Date: September 19–21, 2019 Location: Loyola University Chicago, USA Cost: $150 Presenters: Tobias Wolff, Alice McDermott, Paul Schrader, Dana Gioia, Paul Mariani, Richard Rodriguez, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, and others Organizer:Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage Description: “This international biennial conference, sponsored by Loyola’s Hank Center, features over 60 writers, poets, filmmakers, playwrights, journalists, editors, publishers, students, and critics who will explore a variety of questions surrounding the Catholic imagination in literature and the arts. What is the future of the Catholic literary tradition? What is the state of discourses in faith and Christian humanism in a world increasingly described as ‘Post’—postmodern, post-human, post-Christian, post-religious? How is Catholic thought and practice (or the absence of it) represented in literature, poetry, and cinema? If, as David Tracy observes, religion’s ‘closest cousin is not rigid logic, but art,’ what might literary art be trying to communicate to its ‘cousin’—and to us all—as we travel along the first decades of the 21st century?”
The call for papers is still open, until June 15. Also check out some of the special events being offered, which will include a theatrical performance of Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge and an evening of poetry readings, live music, and a Chicago blues panel.
Writer’s Retreat Date: October 25–27, 2019 Location: Apple Hill Lodge, Moravian Falls, North Carolina, USA Cost: $450 (includes lodging and food) Presenters: TBA Organizer:The Breath & the Clay Description: “Come get away for a weekend designed to develop your writing both as a spiritual practice and as an art form.”
The Art of the Lost: Destruction, Reconstruction, and Change Date: November 27–29, 2019 Location: Canterbury Cathedral, England Cost: TBA (I’ve just emailed the cathedral to find out and will update this info as soon as I get it) Presenters: TBA Organizer:Canterbury Cathedral Description: “This conference will explore and appraise current and developing studies of how art changes, is reused or repurposed, disappears or is rediscovered. It will look at how and why art is defaced, destroyed or is lost within architectural settings, with a particular focus on art within the context of cathedrals, churches or other places of worship. It will consider changing ideologies, iconoclasm, war, fashion and symbolism. It will cover art from the 6th century to the modern day.”
TGC ARTICLE:“18 Paintings Christians Should See”: The Gospel Coalition Arts & Culture editor Brett McCracken has rounded up fourteen arts professionals to each choose an artistically and theologically significant painting and write about it in 200 words or less—and I’m one of them! I chose Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, which shows that famous encounter between the “doubting” disciple and the risen Christ. Here Thomas literally puts his finger on the flesh-and-blood reality of the resurrection, and you can see the marvel in his face.
Other selections in the article range from medieval manuscript illuminations and Dutch Golden Age portraits to pop art and abstract minimalism. You might recognize the names of some of the contributors whom I’ve featured before on Art & Theology, like Jonathan A. Anderson, Matthew J. Milliner, W. David O. Taylor, and Terry Glaspey—they have all been influential to me. I’m very encouraged to see this major evangelical website engaging with visual art.
POEMS: “Featured Poet: Laurie Klein”: In this post from Abbey of the Arts, poet Laurie Klein introduces herself, discussing the sacred themes in her work and her approach to writing poetry, as well as sharing three of her poems: “How to Live Like a Backyard Psalmist,” “I Dream You Ask, But Where Do I Start,” and “Poem for Epiphany.” All three are wonderfully evocative, and I’m definitely going to check out her collection, Where the Sky Opens. The first poem references St. Kevin of Glendalough, a sixth-century Celtic monk whose hand outstretched in prayer once became a nesting place for a blackbird. The poem is about how to live a life of joy, wonder, and praise, and it begins,
Wear shoes with soles like meringue
and pale blue stitching so that
every day you feel ten years old.
Befriend what crawls.
Drink rain, hatless, laughing.
Sit on your heels before anything plush
or vaguely kinetic:
hazel-green kneelers of moss
waving their little parcels
of spores, on hair-trigger stems.
ARTISTS GROUP AT BIRCHWOOD: The Birchwood Painters, founded in 2009, is a group of painters with disabilities who live at Birchwood care home in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, in England, exhibiting locally and in an annual art show at Birchwood. One of the members is Mark Urwin, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Mark loves studying art history, especially the impressionists. Landscapes are his favorite genre to paint, but he also interprets religious works by the Old Masters—like Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi’s Annunciation, or Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper—in his own semiabstract style, using bright swaths of color. In 2016 Mark gave a lecture on his work at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
Mark uses an easel that was specially designed for him by DEMAND (Design and Manufacture for Disability) to enable greater freedom and control in his creations. Whereas before, an art class volunteer had to hold Mark’s canvas, making certain angles to paint more awkward, the DEMAND easel improves canvas access, as the canvas can be positioned in any orientation to Mark, with the bulk of his electric wheelchair no longer posing a problem. Furthermore, he can keep his talk board on his lap so that he doesn’t lose his voice while painting.
“Delving into the Getty’s collections, we are at work on the exhibition Balthazar: A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art (November 19, 2019–February 17, 2020). We are examining how Balthazar’s depiction coincided with and was furthered by the rise of the slave trade—and we invite your input to inform the exhibition. What questions or ideas do you have about this topic? What stories or themes would you like to see explored? We are eager to incorporate your views into our process.”
In this post from the Getty’s blog, The Iris, in addition to finding out how to relay feedback, learn about who the Magi were, what tradition says about them, and the development of Balthazar’s image over time.
TED TALK / LIVE PAINTING: “Can Art Amend History?” by Titus Kaphar: American artist Titus Kaphar reconfigures historical artworks—through cutting, bending, overpainting, stitching, tarring, and tearing—to include African American subjects. In this thirteen-minute presentation before a live audience, Kaphar opens by sharing the words his young son spoke upon seeing the famous equestrian statue outside the Natural History Museum in Manhattan, which has Teddy Roosevelt up high on a horse, flanked by a Native American and an African lower down, on foot—which can easily be read as establishing a racial hierarchy.
Kaphar goes on to discuss some of his own encounters with Western art history and his mission to bring black figures out of the shadows of that tradition. He demonstrates this with a reproduction of Family Group in a Landscapeby the Dutch master Frans Hals, which shows a wealthy white family of four with their young black servant.* More has been written, Kaphar laments, about the lace the wife is wearing and the dog at the right of the picture than about the black youth who stares straight out at us. This claim did surprise me somewhat—and then I visited the museum website, only to find that their six-paragraph description of the painting doesn’t mention the boy at all! By strategically applying white paint across this canvas, Kaphar forces us to “shift our gaze” and to notice the one who has typically gone unnoticed.
IN THEATERS: Currently showing in theaters are two historical drama films featuring main characters whose work (in art and in activism) was famously inspired by their Christian faith: Tolkien, about the author of Lord of the Rings, and The Best of Enemies, about civil rights leader Ann Atwater from Durham, North Carolina. Both movies have received lukewarm to not-so-great critical reviews but fairly high audience ratings, and I intend to see them. I found out about the latter one through Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, one of the mentees of “Grandma Ann,” who prepared a group study guide to accompany the film.
Also in theaters, with rave reviews all around, is Amazing Grace, a documentary about the creation of Aretha Franklin’s best-selling gospel album of the same title, recorded over two nights in 1972 at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The footage was recently unearthed and reassembled after almost fifty years. The resultant film has been called “wonderfully intimate,” “a raw, sensory, reverent experience,” “a transcendent joy,” “the new gold standard of filmed music concerts,” and “one of the finest music documentaries ever.”
It’s been interesting to hear secular reviewers expressing how moved they were by the film, a film that is prayer (e.g., “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”), proclamation and praise (“God Will Take Care of You”), testimony (“Amazing Grace,” “How I Got Over”), and invitation (“Give Yourself to Jesus”).
CHAIYA ART AWARDS: Now in its second year, this UK art competition explores spirituality through the visual arts. The theme for 2019/20 is “God is . . .” The finalist entries will be brought together for a public exhibition at gallery@oxo in London on April 10–19, 2020, with the winners announced on opening night. Any media are welcome, including painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, glass, textiles, photography, and video. You are allowed up to three entries.
Top prize: ₤10,000 Deadline: October 18, 2019 Entry fee: ₤20 (or early-bird rate of ₤15 for submissions sent by July 18) Restrictions: Must be a UK resident age sixteen or over Judges: Marcus Lyon, Deborah Tompsett, Mark Oakley, Clive Davis, Katrina Moss Sponsors: Bible Society, The Jerusalem Trust
I featured a 2018 Chaiya Art Award finalist in a previous roundup—a beautiful Holy Saturday image that uses pregnancy as a metaphor; click here.
JANET B. MCCABE POETRY PRIZE: There is no prescribed theme or topic for this annual poetry contest presented by Ruminate, a contemplative literary arts magazine with Christian roots. Fifteen finalists will be selected by a panel, and then the first- and second-place winners and honorable mentions will be chosen by poet Craig Santos Perez. Besides a cash prize of $1500, the winner will also have his or her poem published in Ruminate. (Note: If nothing happens when you click the Enter button on the submission webpage, be sure your ad blocker is turned off.)
Top prize: $1500 Deadline: May 15, 2019 Entry fee: $20 (includes submission of up to two poems and a free digital copy of Ruminate) Judge: Craig Santos Perez Presenter:Ruminate
ROSS AND DAVIS MITCHELL PRIZE: This biennial prize presented by Image journal “seeks to recognize Canadian poets whose work wrestles with the beauty and complexity of religious faith.
“The Mitchell Prize will be awarded to a poet who is hammering out new forms and new language to express the ineffable today. Our goal is to encourage writers whose poems provide access to spiritual experience, awakenings that cast light on the world and make it known. We want to hear from poets who are grappling with transcendence and the divine, those for whom poetry is—as Christian Wiman would describe it—a form of theology.
“Poets engaged with all faith traditions are encouraged to submit work, however this prize is not designed to erase distinctions or paper over conflict. There are meaningful differences between Muslims and Christians, Hindus and Orthodox Jews that cannot, and should not, be erased, suppressed, or ignored. Instead, this prize seeks to honor writing that explores the distinctive contours of belief and the shape it gives to modern life.”
Top prize: $20,000 CAD Deadline: June 30, 2019 Entry fee: $25 CAD (includes a one-year digital subscription to Image) Restrictions: Must be a Canadian citizen or resident Judges: Scott Cairns, Lorna Goodison, Chelene Knight Presenter: Image, with support from Cardus
HYMNS FOR LENT: A list of fifty-plus hymns for Lent, including free sheet music downloads, compiled by Dean B. McIntyre, director of music resources at the Center for Worship Resourcing at the United Methodist Church’s Discipleship Ministries in Nashville. Most of these hymns—either their tune, their words, or both—are contemporary, and I believe they were all either written or arranged by members of the UMC. I love that so many of them are minor-key! (There’s such a dearth of minor-key hymns in my evangelical tradition.) “The Desolate Messiah Dies” is a real standout for me—WOW. Here are the others that I really like. The first three would work particularly well for a Good Friday service:
“Behold the Savior of Mankind” – Words by Samuel Wesley, ca. 1709 | Music by Henry Purcell (“Dido’s Lament”), 1680s, arr. Dean B. McIntyre (alternate tune: Tennessee Harmony, 1818) [Note: The Purcell tune, originally written as an opera aria, makes a gorgeous pairing to this hymn text, but I feel that it’s better suited to a soloist; the Tennessee Harmony tune would be easier for a congregation to sing.]
“Holy, Holy, Lord of Mercy” – Words by Lawrence A. Wik, 2013 | Music: French carol melody [tune for “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”]
“Sovereign Most Holy” – Words by Lawrence A. Wik, 2013 | Music by Johann Crüger, 1640 [tune for “Ah, Holy Jesus”]
“Hosanna (Save, Mighty Lord)” – Words by John Cennick, 1743, and Reginald Heber, 1811 | Music by J. A. and J. F. Wade, 1854 | Words and music adapted by Ryan D. Neaveill, 2005
SONG: “You Can Never Hold Back Spring” by Tom Waits, covered by Lowana Wallace: I’ve had this song on repeat for the past several weeks—Lowana Wallace’s rendition is simply gorgeous. “This cover is a tribute to Canadians in March. Winter will end, you guys,” Wallace writes. “And maybe Tom didn’t mean for this song to point Christians to the beauty of Lent leading to Easter, but it did for me.”
Lowana Wallace is a singer-songwriter from Caronport, Saskatchewan. If you’ve listened to the Porter’s Gate Worship Project’s acclaimed album Work Songs, you will have encountered her work: she cowrote the song “Day by Day.” Check out more of her music videos, a mix of covers and originals, on her YouTube channel—they’re all great! To help her make more of these, consider becoming a Patreon supporter. You can also download four of the nine tracks from her Christmas jazz album, Hymns and Carols (2009), on NoiseTrade.
POETRY: “5 Female Poets of Faith”: March is Women’s History Month, and Jody Lee Collins has compiled a list of five women poets you should know, whose Christian faith infuses their work: Abigail Carroll, Barbara Crooker, Jeanne Murray Walker, Laurie Klein, and Marjorie Maddox. I heartily second these recommendations! For each poet, Collins has selected a representative poem, giving you a taste of their style, and has provided links to the poets’ published volumes.
2 FILMS + ART EXHIBITION: Incarceration is the theme of two HBO movies that premiered on television last month (following a positive reception at 2018’s Tribeca Film Festival) and the tie-in pop-up art exhibition, sponsored by HBO, that ran from February 20 to 25 at Studio 525 in Chelsea, Manhattan.
Written by Stephen Belber and directed by Madeleine Sackler, O.G. is an introspective drama that follows Louis (Jeffrey Wright), who, after spending twenty-four years in prison for murder, is about to be released. Groundbreakingly, it was filmed almost entirely inside an active prison—Pendleton Correctional Facility in Indiana—with a cast made up largely of inmates and correctional officers, who also consulted on the script. Read an interview with Wright, a professional actor best known for Westworld, and one with supporting actor Theothus Carter, who is serving a sixty-five-year sentence at Pendleton. When he was offered the role of Beecher, Carter said, “I was so happy, it was like being jolted alive back from the dead. I know I’ve never been dead before, but being dead has to feel like being in prison, because here it feels like you don’t matter anymore. This made me feel like I mattered again.”
It’s a Hard Truth, Ain’t It is a companion film to O.G. that is directed by Madeleine Sackler and thirteen incarcerated men at Pendleton, who reflect on their lives and the consequences of their crimes in front of and behind the camera. When Sackler received permission from the prison to lead a filmmaking workshop for inmates, she hadn’t intended to make a documentary, but she was so moved by the depth and intimacy of the conversations that were arising in that workshop, as participants shared their personal stories, and they all decided these stories and perspectives needed to be captured on film, crafted together, and shared more widely. An animator was brought on to bring the men’s memories to life.
Coinciding with the HBO premiere of these two films was a six-day exhibition in New York City called The OG Experience, curated by Jesse Krimes and Daveen Trentman. Like the Hard Truth film, this exhibition offered an insider narrative about the US prison system, as the art was all by formerly incarcerated individuals. The pieces on display included an installation of reclaimed cafeteria trays, a re-creation of a prison cell that invited viewers to sketch on the wall with a screwdriver, a video of the artist boxing with a projection of himself, a self-portrait in pastels over legal documents, and a mural of newsprint images transferred onto prison-issued bedsheets using hair gel (a method developed, and a work begun, by Krimes while in solitary confinement).
On seeing his work on display, Krimes said, “It was really emotional because so much of that experience and what our prison system is designed to do is pretty much destroy you. It’s designed to take away your identity, it’s designed to take away your humanity, and I think in creating that work and investing myself in something meaningful, and coming home and getting to see the final thing . . . it was something that made me feel like I came out of this situation intact, like I’m still a whole human being, and that this thing did not destroy me and it did not take away who I am at my core or change me in a way that it was designed to do.” Since his release from prison, Krimes cofounded the Right of Return Fellowship to directly support formerly incarcerated artists.
I particularly like the works by Russell Craig (also), a self-taught artist from Philadelphia. In his seven-piece set of unstretched canvases, E-Val, pairs of eyes peer out hauntingly from within Rorschach blots made of ox blood; “Craig, who was given Rorschach tests as part of his psychological evaluations during his time in the foster care system, wanted to represent the trauma felt in black communities,” the exhibition text says. Another work, a self-portrait he drew over his prison documents, “symbolizes the stigma of being a criminal,” Craig explained. “No matter how much you change your life around, you’re still viewed as a criminal.”
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
SONG: “House of Gold” by Hank Williams, 1948 | Performed by the Secret Sisters, 2010
In her poem “Storage,” Mary Oliver describes the total emptying of a storage unit she rented for years:
I felt like the little donkey when
his burden is finally lifted. Things!
Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful
fire! More room in your heart for love,
for the trees! For the birds who own
nothing—the reason they can fly.
Lent, which begins Wednesday, is a season for throwing out that which has been weighing us down—whether that be physical possessions, or things of the heart (such as unhealthy attitudes, habits, or dependencies; in a word, sins). It’s a spring cleaning of sorts, where we clear out those accumulations that have subtly edged out God. “Make a beautiful fire!” Oliver exclaims. A bonfire of vanities. Once you relinquish your burdens to the fire, you will be light as a bird, and free to fly.
Giorgio Vasari described the floor of Siena Cathedral as “the most beautiful . . . , largest and most magnificent . . . ever made.” Read an excellent, beautifully photographed introduction to this allegorical masterwork, unique in terms of its technique and message, at https://operaduomo.siena.it/en/sites/floor/.
Is it a contradiction for the church to have poured much of its wealth into the making of this magnificent floor whose imagery, in part, categorizes earthly wealth as a potential pitfall on the path to Wisdom? No, I don’t think so. Its beauty glorifies Christ, proclaiming him the ultimate Treasure. This is not wealth hoarded away for personal security but wealth poured out before God, for the soul-nourishment of others. The spending of large sums of money on art when poverty persists is and will always remain a tricky conundrum (not least during Lent, when an ethic of simplicity and almsgiving are emphasized), but artist Makoto Fujimura navigates it quite well in his 1996 essay “The Extravagance of God.”
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 Ash Wednesday, cycle C, click here.
I just finished proofreading a book on yoga, and one of its chapters in particular is going to stick with me through Lent: “Practice Dying.” In it the author, Michael Stone, discusses the significance of savasana (pronounced sha-VA-sa-na), literally “corpse pose,” which involves lying face-up on the ground, arms at your side, palms up, in a state of attentive relaxation. It is the final pose of every yoga session—and it’s the practice of death, of letting go.
In corpse pose, the practitioner embraces the impermanence of life and, by doing so, is empowered to live with greater gratitude for what is, right now, and with a continual attitude of surrender. Facing one’s mortality is seen as freeing rather than fearsome.
Savasana is a restorative pose, meant to rejuvenate the body, mind, and spirit. It’s widely considered the most important pose in yoga and also the most difficult. It’s deceptively hard to slow down and be still! And still more, to let the unwanted elements within us die.
This Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, Christians around the world will enter a savasana of sorts as they receive an ashen cross on their foreheads, along with the pronouncement that they are dust and will return to dust. Christians, like Buddhists, concede a great impermanence and teach nonattachment to the things of this life, but unlike Buddhists, we are theists who believe that there is One who is permanent, the only ground, the only stability, and that we are to attach ourselves to him at all costs.
In many ways, to observe Lent is to practice dying. We die to self—so that we can rise to new life in Christ. This act involves purging our hearts and lives of those things that only cause clutter, and relaxing into that empty space with God. In asana practice, it is, ironically, savasana, corpse pose, that wakes you up, that rebirths you into the rest of your day, the rest of your life. So, too, is Lent a putting-to-death posture that leads to resurrection.
Some people tend to associate Lent with extra exertion—and it’s true, there are disciplines associated with it (fasting, prayer, almsgiving). But what if Lent were reconceived as a time of “attentive relaxation”? Of meeting with the Breath (the Spirit) in stillness, listening and leaning into his promptings? Indeed, fasting and prayer are intended to open up that meeting space, and giving money and food to the poor is no burden to those who have relinquished their grasp on material possessions.
Like savasana, the “corpse pose” of Lent is both simple and difficult. Lying down and letting go. It can be painful to put to death those habits and things that have been keeping us from God, as can the sacrifice required to reach out to others in their need. But the life that awaits us when we die to self makes the choice obvious, and God’s very Spirit is active on our behalf.
Michelle Kingdom’s embroidery Preparing for Flight visualizes, for me, this idea of Lent as savasana. (That is, my theistic reinterpretation of it.) As the figure relaxes into the Ground of Being, she is made ready to soar.
Lent is about renewal, a coming to life that can happen only when we lie down and die (see, e.g., Jesus’s parable of the grain of wheat). In the stillness, in the dust, in the cessation of striving, is where God meets us and raises us up, as Rami M. Shapiro suggests in his poem “Renewal”:
Imagine not that life is all doing.
Stillness, too, is life;
And in that stillness
The mind cluttered with busyness quiets,
The heart reaching to win rests,
And we hear the whispered truths of God.
May your Lent be a time of blessed stillness that restores you to the abundant life of God.
The soundtrack for this post, embedded above, is “Death” by the Coptic Australian oud virtuoso Joseph Tawadros, inspired by Kahlil Gibran’s poem of the same name. “. . . [L]ike seeds dreaming beneath the snow, your heart dreams of spring. / Trust the dreams . . .”
Articlesandessays have been pouring forth from the web in tribute to the poet Mary Oliver since her passing on January 17. America’s most-read contemporary poet by far, Oliver approached the world with open-eyed wonder and delight, writing simply about nature and spirituality. “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement,” she wrote in “When Death Comes.”
Although Oliver won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, she has been dismissed by many poetry critics as trivial, unsubtle, just an old-fashioned romantic. But that’s precisely what so many of her readers love about her: her uncomplicated free verse that finds beauty and mystery in the ordinariness of the natural world. She always insisted that poetry “mustn’t be fancy”; it should be clear, so as to be understood.
The subjects of most of her poems are the flora and fauna of, most especially, New England, where she lived most of her adult life. Herons, egrets, swans, geese, goldfinches, owls, loons; turtles, snakes, and toads; foxes, porcupines, moles, bears, deer, and dogs (a whole volume on dogs!); ants and grasshoppers, beetles and bees; whelks and whales and sea mice; daisies and goldenrod, roses and poppies and peonies; and so forth.
Oliver, though influenced by the Christianity of her youth, did not ultimately join the church. But, like Whitman and Thoreau before her, she perceived an unseen, transcendental Presence within the natural world. She even sometimes called that Presence “God” and even “Lord,” especially in her later poems. She carried on the long tradition of reading with relish the “book of nature”—nature as a source of divine revelation, a teacher of spiritual lessons. For example, in “Some Herons,” she describes the bird as “a blue preacher,” and in “The Chat,” she writes,
what a lesson
you send me
as I stand
to your rattling, swamp-loving chat
of his simple, leafy life—
how I would like to sing to you
in the dark
just like that.
Oliver’s “How the Grass and the Flowers Came to Exist, a God-Tale” is one of my favorite Creation poems, and this isn’t the only poem of hers that acknowledges a Creator God. “Spring at Blackwater: I Go Through the Lessons Already Learned” opens tenderly, sweetly, “He gave the fish / her coat of foil, / and her soft eggs.”
Some things I’ve learned from Mary Oliver: Gratitude. Awe. Silence. Prayer. Attention. And these five qualities are all interconnected. Her personal manifesto can be summed up by the fourth section of her poem “Sometimes”:
Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.
If you’d like to read Mary Oliver, I highly recommend her final book, Devotions (2017), a compilation of 200+ previously published poems selected by Oliver herself and put out by Penguin. Spanning her career of more than fifty years, the book, though not exhaustive, presently serves as the definitive collection of her work.
Coincidentally, I was in the middle of reading this volume when I found out about Oliver’s death. Several of her poems confront mortality, the transience of life, and many of her obituary writers have been fond of recalling those oft-quoted final lines of “The Summer Day.” But I am drawn to her “Prayer,” which when I read it instantly made me think of my play-full, wonder-full aunt whose ashes, too, now dance in the ocean:
May I never not be frisky,
May I never not be risqué.
May my ashes, when you have them, friend,
and give them to the ocean,
leap in the froth of the waves,
still loving movement,
still ready, beyond all else,
to dance for the world.
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What heart could have thought you?—
Past our devisal
(O filigree petal!)
Fashioned so purely,
From what Paradisal
Too costly for cost?
Who hammered you, wrought you,
From argentine vapor?—
“God was my shaper.
He hammered, He wrought me,
From curled silver vapor,
To lust of His mind—
Thou could’st not have thought me!
So purely, so palely,
Insculped and embossed,
With His hammer of wind,
And His graver of frost.”
This poem was originally published in New Poems by Francis Thompson (London, 1897) and is now in the public domain.
OBITUARY:“Sister Wendy Beckett, Nun Who Became a BBC Star, Dies at 88”: A nun since the age of sixteen, Sister Wendy spent most of her life living in silence in a windowless trailer on the grounds of the Carmelite monastery in East Anglia, England. She read voraciously about art but had never set foot in a museum or seen any great paintings in person—until in 1991, a BBC producer persuaded her to do a documentary about the paintings in London’s National Gallery. She agreed, thinking it would be a flash in the pan, but it was very successful, and so throughout the nineties she presented several other documentaries on the history of art, including Sister Wendy’s Odyssey, Sister Wendy’s Grand Tour, and Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting. She quickly became the world’s best-loved art critic, as her unscripted commentaries, so full of wonder and enthusiasm, connected well with the general public, making high art accessible. She also authored some thirty-five books.
“One of the ways, for me, of looking at God is by looking at art,” she says in the intro to Odyssey. Not that art is God but that art can lead us to a deeper understanding of who, and Whose, we are.
Sister Wendy was a major influence on my path to becoming a writer on Christianity and the arts. I first encountered her in high school through her Story of Painting series, which a studio art teacher made our class watch excerpts from. This was my entrée into art history, a subject that captivated me then and that inspired me to pursue some such coursework in college, including a semester abroad in Florence, Italy. Without this initial incitement of interest from Sister Wendy, I doubt I would be writing about art today.
What attracts me to her is what attracts most people: her utter joy and rapture as she discusses art. She is the first person who taught me how to look at a painting and read it. I appreciate her charitable stance toward modern and contemporary art (movements that large swaths of Christians reject), and her unabashed delight in the nude body. Over the years, people have tended to be either amused or shocked, or both, by her frankness in talking about sexuality in art, but she was always insistent on the goodness of the human body and of sex. When Bill Moyers asked her back in 2000 whether she’s scandalized by the carnality, the sensuality, of so much art, she really stumps him with her matter-of-fact response! (See 4:15 of the video below.)
INTERVIEW: “Why You Should Read Devotional Poetry in 2019” by Leland Ryken: In this interview with Collin Huber, Ryken cites three reasons why Christians should read devotional poetry, elaborating on each one: (1) devotional poets express our spiritual experiences, (2) it sets our affections “in right tune,” and (3) it will take us to corners of the spiritual life that might otherwise remain unvisited. He also discusses how poetry has shaped him; the obstacles that keep people from enjoying poetry, and how to overcome them; what makes poetry distinctive as a genre; and the prevalence of poetry in the Bible. “Mastering a devotional poem by a famous English or American poet requires nothing beyond what mastering a psalm requires,” he says. “If you can possess Psalm 23, you can possess Milton’s sonnet on his blindness.”
STREET PERFORMANCE: Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565) by J. S. Bach: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue is probably the most famous organ work in existence. But last fall in Cologne, a group of four musicians, whose names I cannot find, performed it on two accordions, a violin, and a tuba! It’s uncanny how closely the collective timbre approximates that of an organ. The tuba grants sonority, and the other instruments contribute to the full-bodied sound.
This performance took place between Hohe Straße and Theo-Burauen-Platz in Cologne, Germany, but a few commenters on the video have reported witnessing near-identical performances in other parts of the country, so either this group travels, or the arrangement is circulating.
I frequently encounter articles on or photos of contemporary religious architecture. Here are just two notable buildings I’ve come across recently—the first one, thanks to Michael Wright’s Still Lifenewsletter (to which you should subscribe!).
Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting (2013): When the Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting in northwest Philadelphia was building a new meetinghouse, they invited contemporary light artist James Turrell, himself a Quaker, to design one of his famous “Skyspaces” for the meeting room—that is, an aperture in the ceiling that’s open to the sky. From the beginning, Turrell collaborated with architect James Bradberry to achieve this permanent art installation; for example, Turrell wanted the aperture to have no perceptible thickness, so Bradberry and his team developed a sophisticated steel roof structure and “knife’s edge” opening. The achieved effect of paper thinness is impressive: when I first saw photos, I assumed the “sky” on the ceiling was just a painted patch! (Visitors have reported similar surprise.) Turrell calls this Skyspace Greet the Light, a reference not only to the light of the sun but to the Quaker doctrine of the “Inner Light,” God within.
The meeting room is open to the public, for free, on select days (more info here). Visitors are invited to bring a yoga mat, pillow, and blankets (when the retractable roof is open, the room is unheated) and to lie on their backs on the floor or benches. Silence is requested. Turrell’s installation also makes use of artificial light: over the course of fifty minutes or so, the vaulted ceiling is bathed in turn in four color variations—green, red, blue, and white—which augments the natural light projected by the opening.
San Bernardo Chapel (2015): Located in a wooded grove in Argentina’s Pampas lowlands, just east of Córdoba, Capilla San Bernardo (St. Bernard Chapel) was designed by Nicolás Campodonico. It was constructed using hundred-year-old bricks that had been dismantled from the rural home and courtyard that previously stood on the site. There is no electricity in the area, so natural light plays a huge role, especially in the chapel’s most unique feature: two perpendicular beams, independently suspended from a large exterior opening, cast shadows onto an interior wall, which glide progressively toward each other throughout the day, ultimately overlapping to form a cross (see time lapse). Campodonico said he had in mind Jesus’s journey to Golgotha with the transverse beam, which, upon arrival at the execution site, was attached to the vertical mount; it’s as if the passion is being reenacted daily through the shadows, he said. See more photos at designboom.
FREE ALBUM: Into the Light by Joel LeMaire: Fans of Josh Garrels, Iron and Wine, and John Mark Pantana will probably enjoy Joel LeMaire’s 2015 EP, which is about finding hope in the letting go and stepping into the unknown. Download your own copy from NoiseTrade, and read more about the meaning behind the songs on LeMaire’s blog.