Treasure (Artful Devotion)

Crates by Pinturicchio
Crates of Thebes dumps out his wealth into the sea in this detail of the “Mount of Wisdom” marble mosaic inlay and graffito, designed by Pinturicchio in 1505, from the floor of Siena Cathedral in Italy.

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.

—Matthew 6:19–21

Eugene Peterson paraphrases Matthew 6:21 as “The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.”

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SONG: “House of Gold” by Hank Williams, 1948 | Performed by the Secret Sisters, 2010

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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.

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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/.

Siena Cathedral
View down the nave of Siena Cathedral

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.

The savasana of Lent

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.

Preparing for Flight by Michelle Kingdom
Michelle Kingdom (American, 1967–), Preparing for Flight, 2016. Embroidery.

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 . . .”

Mary Oliver, poet of quietude and wonder

Articles and essays 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.”

Mary Oliver
Photo: Angel Valentin / New York Times

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,

oh, Lord,
what a lesson
you send me
as I stand

listening
to your rattling, swamp-loving chat
singing
of his simple, leafy life—

how I would like to sing to you
all night
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.

Devotions by Mary Oliver

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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“To a Snowflake” by Francis Thompson

Snowflake
Photo © 2013 Eric James Jones/ArtandTheology.org

“To a Snowflake” by Francis Thompson

What heart could have thought you?—
Past our devisal
(O filigree petal!)
Fashioned so purely,
Fragilely, surely,
From what Paradisal
Imagineless metal,
Too costly for cost?
Who hammered you, wrought you,
From argentine vapor?—
“God was my shaper.
Passing surmisal,
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,
Tinily, surely,
Mightily, frailly,
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.

Roundup: Sister Wendy, Quaker Skyspace, Bach on the street, and more

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.

Sister Wendy

“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.)

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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.”

Leland Ryken is an emeritus professor of English at Wheaton College and the author or editor of some fifty books, most recently the anthology The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems. Other titles of his include How to Read the Bible as Literature, The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing, The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts, and several volumes in the Christian Guides to the Classics series.

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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.

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SACRED ARCHITECTURE

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 Life newsletter (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.

Greet the Light by James Turrell
Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting Room, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, featuring a permanent Skyspace installation, titled Greet the Light (2013), by James Turrell.

Greet the Light by James Turrell

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.

View other Skyspaces by James Turrell at http://jamesturrell.com/work/type/skyspace/, and read Bradberry’s perspective on the project at Faith & Form.

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.

San Bernardo Chapel
Capilla San Bernardo (St. Bernard Chapel), La Playosa, Córdoba Province, Argentina. Photo: Nicolás Campodonico.

San Bernardo Chapel

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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.

 

“A Ballad of Wise Men” by George M. P. Baird

Three Wise Men by Tamas Galambos
Painting by Tamas Galambos (Hungarian, 1939–)

“A Ballad of Wise Men” by George M. P. Baird

When that our gentle Lord was born
And cradled in the hay,
There rode three wise men from the east—
Three rich wise men were they—
And in the starry night they came
Their homage gifts to pay.

They got them down from camel-back,
The cattle shed before,
And in the darkness vainly sought
A great latch on the door.
“Ho! this is strange,” quoth Balthazar,
“Aye, strange,” quoth Melchior.

Quoth Gaspar, “I can find no hasp;
Well hidden is the lock”;
“The door,” quoth Melchior, “is stout
And fast, our skill to mock”;
Quoth Balthazar, “The little King
Might wake, we dare not knock.”

The three wise men, they sat them down
To wait for morning dawn;
The cunning wards of that old door
They thought and marveled on;
Quoth they, “No gate in all the East
Hath bar-bolts tighter drawn.”

Anon there came a little lad
With lambskins for the King;
He had no key, he raised no latch,
He touched no hidden spring,
But gently pushed the silent door
And open it gan swing.

“A miracle! a miracle!”
Cried out the wise men three;
“A little child hath solved the locks
That could not opened be.”
In wonder spake the shepherd lad:
“It hath no locks,” quoth he.

This poem was originally published in Rune and Rann by George M. P. Baird (Pittsburgh, PA: Al­dine Press, 1916) and is now in the public domain.

The Christmas Truce of 1914

This article was originally published on the centenary of the truce at theJesusQuestion.org. Because 2018 marks a hundred years since the end of World War I and two hundred years since the composition of the carol “Silent Night,” I thought it appropriate to bring it out of the vault. 

On Christmas Eve 1914, along the four-hundred-mile Western Front of World War I, a famous ceasefire took place, as enemy soldiers spontaneously emerged from their trenches, arms laid aside, to celebrate Christ’s birth together. They sang carols, exchanged gifts (jams and candies, cigarettes, newspapers), kicked around a soccer ball, and shared photos of loved ones. They also buried each other’s dead and prayed communally over the bodies, led by chaplains. Some even exchanged home addresses and promised to visit after the war.

One soldier described it in a letter home as “the Wonderful Day.” Another soldier, Pvt. Karl Muhlegg, wrote, “Never was I as keenly aware of the insanity of war.”

Though temporary truces are not unique in military history (they have been recorded since as far back as the Trojan War), never have they been carried out on such a large scale, and accompanied by such fraternization, as that of the Christmas Truce of 1914. Remarkably, this truce grew out of no single initiative but sprang up independently in many of the camps, against the orders of higher-ups. In most places it lasted from Christmas Eve through Boxing Day (December 26), though in some it lasted into January. It is estimated that some 100,000 men took part.

Inspired by this event, French filmmaker Christian Carion wrote and directed a dramatized film version of it, called Joyeux Nöel, which was nominated in 2006 for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The film focuses on three different regiments—one Scottish, one French, and one German—and their interactions with one another during that first Christmas on the front.

The pivotal scene, in which the truce is initiated, shows a conscripted German opera singer singing “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night) in his trench. The Scottish, stationed downfield, hear the distant song and start playing an accompaniment on bagpipes, which piques the attention of the French. Throughout the song, the German becomes more and more engaged: aware now of a listening audience across the void, he turns around, performing toward them. After the song, all three sides applaud, giving the opera singer the courage to step out of his trench and into No Man’s Land, singing “Adeste Fideles” (O Come, All Ye Faithful)—in Latin, the universal language of the church—and holding up a mini lit Christmas tree as a sign of peace.  Continue reading “The Christmas Truce of 1914”

Malcolm Guite on the imagination and God-with-us

I love listening to Malcolm Guite talk about spirituality, poetry, and the imagination; he’s a phenomenal teacher. In a December 2 podcast episode titled “Keeping Advent: Hope for a Dark World,” host Sally Clarkson interviews Guite on these topics as they relate to Advent. Before he launches into the meat of the talk, he describes the importance of the imagination in getting at truth:

God has given us all kinds of capacities with which to come to the truth, just like he’s given us different sense organs. When a bird is singing, your ears are telling you one part of what’s happening, and your eyes are telling you another. You’ve got both to get that whole experience. If you just had a silent film of the bird, you would be seeing something real, but you’d be missing something as well.

So I sometimes think that reason, the reason that makes for great science—analytic, helps us to think things through logically—that’s a very, very important test for truth, that’s a very important faculty, but it doesn’t get to everything. . . .

Imagination is the thing that shapes and puts things together. Shakespeare put this very beautifully. He said that imagination “apprehend[s] / more than cool reason ever comprehends” [A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 5.1.5–6]. He said we need to apprehend some joy before we can comprehend the bringer of the joy.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge believed that the imagination was part of our capacity to pay attention, and that the imagination would help us to remove, for a minute, the dull film of familiarity that we put over everything, and see it with freshness again. He also used a very beautiful analogy. He uses the example of a little insect, the horned fly, and how, when it’s still in the squashy pupa phase and it’s going to metamorphose, it makes a cocoon—a kind of carapace. He says that when that little fly does that, it leaves room in its involucrum, he calls it—what a wonderful word—for antennae yet to come [Biographia Literaria, vol. 1, chap. 12]. He says that’s what the imagination does.

Sometimes the artistic imagination, the poetic imagination, comes to us with something marvelous. And what that marvelous thing is doing is it’s holding open a shape that the rest of our mind is going to grow into, so that the antennae, the real reasoning and figuring it all out, can come a bit later, but the story [or poem or image] gives us something.

Igor Paneyko
Painting by Igor Paneyko (Ukrainian, 1957–)

In this interview Guite also reads one of his Advent sonnets, the last in a series of seven he wrote that were inspired by the traditional liturgical chants known as the O Antiphons. Titled “O Emmanuel,” the poem is a prayer for God to come among us again, in all his myriad attributes, and to rebirth not only the hearts of humanity but the whole earth.

“O Emmanuel” by Malcolm Guite

O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth
O tiny hope within our hopelessness,
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.

This and other poems, by Guite and others, can be found in the book Waiting on the Word: A Poem a Day for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. You can read more about “O Emmanuel” on Guite’s blog, which contains a wealth of writings. For additional books by Guite, see his Amazon page.

The Rich Man who passed through the eye of a needle

Poem: “Advent” by Suzanne Underwood Rhodes

Through the needle’s eye
the rich man came
squeezing through stars of razor light
that pared his body down to thread.
Gravity crushed his heart’s chime
and his breath that breathed out worlds
now flattened as fire between walls,
the impossible slit stripped him
admitting him
to stitch the human breach.

This poem was first published in What a Light Thing, This Stone (Sow’s Ear Press, 1999) and is used here by permission of the author.

My research interests have to do mainly with art’s theological potential and its ability to, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, “disclose” truths that are “closed” by prose. I love how it often surprises, and how it can make connections I would have never thought to make myself.

Suzanne Underwood Rhodes’s poem “Advent” demonstrates these values magnificently. Its topic is the Incarnation. But her mooring point is not John 1 or Luke 1–2 or Philippians 2 or any other scripture text traditionally associated with the doctrine. Instead she draws on the famous aphorism of Jesus that’s recorded in Matthew 19:24: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

In this Gospel interaction, Jesus is explaining how terribly difficult it is for wealthy people to enter heaven because they tend to cling tightly to their earthly wealth rather than to God; they let it make claims on them, and they trust in its promises, to the neglect of the claims and promises of God. While the needle saying, in context, pertains to man passing from earth to heaven, Rhodes turns it on its head to suggest the movement of God from heaven to earth. A seeming impossibility—infinity becoming finite, God becoming man. But “with God, all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). To save us, he would give up all the riches of heaven, assuming the role of a servant and ultimately giving up his very life.

Rhodes uses harsh, uncomfortable words—“squeezing,” “razor,” “pared,” “crushed,” “flattened,” “stripped”—to convey a sense of compression into human flesh. God’s breath, once so powerful and expansive that it brought the universe into existence, is now, in the person of the Son, walled in by a rib cage and dependent on oxygen. His heart pumps actual blood. Thus pared down to thread, he slips through the needle “to stitch the human breach,” to repair what we have torn through our disobedience. Severed from God no longer, we are held together with him by Christ himself.

Musical composition: “As by Fire between Walls” by Joshua Stamper

The evocative imagery of this poem has inspired artists in other media to respond in kind. One of them is composer Joshua Stamper, who, commissioned in 2014 by City Church Philadelphia, wrote a four-and-a-half-minute experimental jazz piece for chamber orchestra titled “As by Fire between Walls.”

 

It starts with minor chords on the piano, floating around ethereally. Then a violin tremolo kicks in (suggestive of the “razor light”), and other sharp bowing techniques (“par[ing] his body down”). Then soulful, wordless vocals. Then a staccato rhythm played on the mellotron, and percussion. Brass too. It’s a wonderfully wrought piece of music, a soundscape of the Incarnation, inclining the ear back toward Rhodes’s words and the heart to the grand story of scripture.

Painting: Through the Needle’s Eye the Rich Man Came by Grace Carol Bomer

Suzanne Rhodes is a friend of visual artist Grace Carol Bomer’s, who has a studio practice in Asheville, North Carolina. In 1993, Bomer was invited by the Asheville Art Museum to exhibit eight of her paintings for a Christmas show. Through the Needle’s Eye the Rich Man Came, inspired by Rhodes’s “Advent,” is one of those eight.

Through the Needle's Eye by Grace Carol Bomer
Grace Carol Bomer (Canadian American, 1948–), Through the Needle’s Eye the Rich Man Came, 1993. Mixed media on torn canvas on wood, 48 × 48 in.

About it, Bomer says,

The Christ of Christmas is God incarnate, the focal point or fulcrum of history. To show this glorious Incarnation, I chose to paint a piercing V (fulcrum) of light rending cloth (canvas on wood). The torn canvas symbolizes the veil of the temple. . . .

It was my personal challenge to show in painting that Christ is God, Spirit and flesh, in a way that would not be trite and sentimental. The Renaissance nativities are infected with beautiful Platonic realism, suited for Christmas card sentimentality. I feel they do not adequately exalt the “mystery hidden for ages,” the Christ of power and glory. Jesus Christ is Spirit and flesh, Son of God and Son of Man. Reality is both “abstract” and “realistic.” So too, art must seek to find this mysterious balance in order to proclaim the gospel. Art totally divested of realism, like Abstract Expressionism, becomes meaningless. Art must proclaim creation, fall, and redemption. I would like the poetic nuances in my work to stimulate the imagination to “see” in the abstract painting the spiritual truths that cannot be painted realistically.

In this piece there are suggestions of blood on doorways, symbolizing a Passover fulfilled, as Christ pushes open the door separating God and man.

So this painting integrates the coming down with the at-one-ing that happens at the cross, the physical tear of the canvas alluding simultaneously to the “human breach” of Rhodes’s poem and the tearing of the temple veil, which symbolizes humanity’s reconciliation to God. Birth and death are wrapped up in a single image, as both are key to Christ’s salvation project.

Through the Needle’s Eye is one of Bomer’s early works, but she has a whole series she calls Incarnation, which can be viewed on her website at https://gracecarolbomer.com/section/300298-Abstract-Incarnation.html.

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See how a poet’s imagination and craft can unfold the beauty and wonder of a heady doctrine with such concision? In Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense, Laurence Perrine defines poetry as “a kind of language that says more and says it more intensely than does ordinary language” (509). That’s just what Suzanne Underwood Rhodes does in “Advent.” And that intense language of hers has inspired works of musical and visual art that explore even further what it means that the Son of God, the “Rich Man” from heaven, constricted himself for our sakes, becoming impossibly small, taking up residence in a virgin’s dark womb, in humanity’s dark world, so that he could stitch back together our ruptured relationships with the Father and with one another.

“Leavetaking” by Anne Porter

Starry, Starry Night by Kiki Smith
Kiki Smith (American, 1954–), Starry, Starry Night, 2013

“Leavetaking” by Anne Porter

Nearing the start of that mysterious last season
Which brings us to the close of the other four,
I’m somewhat afraid and don’t know how to prepare
So I will praise you.

I will praise you for the glaze on buttercups
And for the pearly scent of wild fresh water
And the great crossbow shapes of swans flying over
With that strong silken threshing sound of wings
Which you gave them when you made them without voices.

And I will praise you for crickets.
On starry autumn nights
When the earth is cooling
Their rusty diminutive music
Repeated over and over
Is the very marrow of peace.

And I praise you for crows calling from treetops
The speech of my first village,
And for the sparrow’s flash of song
Flinging me in an instant
The joy of a child who woke
Each morning to the freedom
Of her mother’s unclouded love
And lived in it like a country.

And I praise you that from vacant lots
From only broken glass and candy wrappers
You raise up the blue chicory flowers.

I thank you for that secret praise
Which burns in every creature,
And I ask you to bring us to life
Out of every sort of death

And teach us mercy.

This poem appears in Living Things: Collected Poems (Hanover, NH: Zoland Books/Steerforth Press, 2006) and is used here by permission of the publisher.

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Anne Porter (1911–2011) is one of the last century’s foremost poets of thanks and praise. She wrote all her life, occasionally sharing poems with friends and family, but she focused mainly on raising five kids with her husband, Fairfield Porter, who was a painter.

Motherhood paintings by Fairfield Porter
Fairfield Porter (American, 1907–1975): Anne Reading to Laurence, 1947, oil on Masonite, 30 × 24 in., Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York; Katie and Anne, 1949, oil on board, 30 × 24 in., Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York; Anne, Lizzie and Katie, 1958, oil on canvas, 78 × 60 in., Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln, Nebraska.

She wrote “Leavetaking” upon entering old age, and after her husband had died. As her body grew weaker and more burdensome and death drew nearer, she still found much to praise God for—for the regal shape of swans’ wings overhead, for the “rusty diminutive music” of crickets on starry nights, for the vast love between mother and child, for the hope of resurrection preached in abandoned lots where flowers rise out of debris.

Some years later, Porter’s friend David Shapiro, a literary critic and fellow poet, asked if for his birthday, she could compile some of her poems for him. She gathered up what she could find in the house, and without her foreknowledge, he submitted it to a publisher. The resulting collection, An Altogether Different Language (1994), was published when she was eighty-three and was named a finalist for the National Book Award.

In the foreword to that first book of hers, Shapiro wrote,

If we have problems, because so much of the language of belief has grown connotatively encrusted, then we wait for the poets who believe enough and can freshen this dialect.

Anne Porter is one of the rare poets who believes enough, who lives in days and holidays, and who has stunningly found a language to transmit her Franciscan joy in created things.

Also from the foreword:

  • “Her faith has enlarged her, not the reverse, and her poetry has the grandeur of seeing things ‘as if for the first time.’”
  • “Her greatest emotional perspective is that of praise.”
  • She is “an American religious poet of stature who reminds us that the idea of the holy is still possible for us.”
  • “For Anne Porter, the holy is found in a commitment to Christ the Mediator and his triumph in suffering for a suffering world. However, she gives a constant, almost pantheistic pressure to the theme that the Kingdom of God is within and without, so that her radiant if concise imagism is all in the service of God.”

Whereas many modern and contemporary poets write about the hiddenness of God, the deus absconditus, Porter wrote unabashedly about the myriad ways in which God reveals himself in the world. Her second and last book, Living Things: Collected Poems (2006), brings together thirty-nine new poems with those published in the previous volume.

In 2010, theologian and biblical scholar Ellen F. Davis wrote a beautiful article for the Christian Century titled “Our proper place: The poetry of care and loss,” in which she discusses Porter’s poetry alongside that of Mary Oliver. Like Oliver, she says, Porter is a “direct descendant of the psalmists”; she “clarif[ies] what is at stake in the Psalter: nothing less than the possibility of praising God truly.”