“A Wild Turn” by Donelle Dreese (excerpts)

Gestel, Leo_Autumn
Leo Gestel (Dutch, 1881–1941), Autumn, 1909. Oil on canvas, 53.5 × 61 cm. Museum Kranenburgh, Bergen, Netherlands. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

You, Sunshine,
strand of pearls,
lay yourself down
on a country pond
one at a time
. . . . . . . . . . .
You, Sunshine,
bountiful benefactor,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
dangle your golden earrings
never grow old
teach me to roam.

This poem is published in A Wild Turn (Finishing Line Press, 2008), http://donelledreese.com/.

Roundup: Works of mercy, #GettyMuseumChallenge, new gospel songs, and poems

RADIX ARTICLE: “The Seven Works of Mercy: How two Dutch artworks—one Renaissance, one contemporary—can help us recover an ethic of neighborly care” by Victoria Emily Jones: When I was in the Netherlands last year, I saw lots of artistic representations of what are called the seven works of mercy, derived from Matthew 25. (Even after the Protestant Reformation, the subject remained popular among Dutch artists, who delighted in representations of everyday life.) In this article, published last week, I share just two. One is a multipaneled painting, now at the Rijksmuseum, commissioned in 1504 by the Holy Ghost Confraternity in Alkmaar, which ran an almshouse that provided medical care for the sick and housing for the poor (social welfare programs were carried out by the church in those days); notably, in each contemporary townscape, Jesus stands among the afflicted—a theologically loaded artistic choice. The other artwork is a set of photographs by Thijs Wolzak on display inside Rotterdam Cathedral, which feature community service organizations in action, caring for drug users, undocumented immigrants, and others. (Note: The chapel was in a bit of disarray when I was there, with light fixtures disassembled all over the floor and a ramp blocking my entrance, hence the messy staging of my photo! See a professional photograph in the article link, including photos of individual panels.)

Feeding the Hungry by the Alkmaar Master
Master of Alkmaar, Feeding the Hungry, leftmost panel from the Seven Works of Mercy polyptych, 1504. Oil on panel, 103.5 × 55 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. The inscription on the original frame underneath (not pictured) is a rhyming Dutch couplet: “Deelt mildelick den armen / God zal u weder ontfarmen” (Share generously [with] the poor, [and] God shall have mercy on you).
Wolzak, Thijs_Works of Mercy
Thijs Wolzak (Dutch, 1965–), in collaboration with Kathelijne Eisses, Werken van Barmhartigheid (Works of Mercy), 2010. Duratrans prints in light boxes. Chapel of Works of Mercy, Sint-Laurenskerk (Church of St. Lawrence), Rotterdam, Netherlands. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

It’s interesting to consider the overlap of Christian and civic duty the images present and the way in which they function(ed) in their disparate spaces. The more explicitly theological Alkmaar polyptych was originally owned by a lay brotherhood and sited in a church beside the collection box, and its primary purpose was “to stir up . . . to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24), and to financial giving—but it is now in a large, government-run art museum, where it’s viewed mainly as an art historical object. The Wolzak piece, on the other hand, was commissioned as a permanent installation inside an active church that is also a heritage museum and something like a community center, with the purpose of highlighting the charitable work being done in the city. I like how Wolzak helps us to see where some of the needs lie in contemporary society and examples of tangible ways they might be met, through such services as safe-injection sites (for those suffering from heroin addiction) or the Lonely Funeral Foundation (for the anonymous dead).

The summer 2020 issue of Radix magazine also includes an interview with Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, on his book The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor: Seeing Others Through the Eyes of Jesus; an interview with D. L. Mayfield on her book The Myth of the American Dream: Reflections on Affluence, Autonomy, Safety, and Power; Martin Buber on genuine dialogue; Simone Weil and the “kinship of affliction”; a review of the film Just Mercy; and more.

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NEW BOOK: Off the Walls: Inspired Re-Creations of Iconic Artworks: This March on social media, the Getty Museum issued the #GettyMuseumChallenge, inviting art lovers to channel the stir-crazy energy of COVID-19 quarantine into crafting themselves, their families, and their pets into masterpieces of world art and posting the photos online. By May there were at least 100,000 re-creations uploaded to the Internet—246 of which are featured in the new book Off the Walls, released this month by Getty Publications. All profits from the book will go to the charity Artist Relief to support artists facing financial emergencies to the coronavirus pandemic. This is such a fun way to get people to engage with art!

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NEW SONG RELEASES

“Hallelujah (Come Bless the Lord)” by September Penn: September Penn is a singer, songwriter, performance artist, worship leader, and cofounder of The Power of Song Inc., an organization that educates about social justice issues through song, theater, and art. She wrote “Hallelujah” while directing the Kaleo Choir at Fuller Theological Seminary, where she earned an MDiv this year with a focus on Worship, Theology, and the Arts. The song was released September 3 as a single on all music-streaming platforms.

“Nara Ekele Mo” by Tim Godfrey, performed by Resonance: Last month the Global Resonance Multicultural Worship Collective, under the organization Arts Release, posted on YouTube a multicontinent, multilingual cover of the Nigerian Igbo song “Nara Ekelo Mo” by Tim Godfrey. It features thirty-seven singers from Brazil, England, France, Indonesia, Singapore, and Spain, with lyrics in Igbo, Yoruba, Tamil, Bahasa Indonesia, French, Mandarin, Portuguese, Spanish, and English. (See the original version of the song here.) [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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POEMS

“Field Guide” by Tony Hoagland: A few weeks ago SALT Project reprinted this poem that celebrates the ordinary in nature—along with brief commentary and a stunning macrophoto of a dragonfly. An excerpt from the opening chapter of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Nature” is referenced: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.” (The poem is from Hoagland’s 2010 collection Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, published by Graywolf Press.)

from the current issue of Image: Image journal is the one piece of mail I most look forward to receiving every quarter—full of poetry, visual art, literary essays, and short stories with a spiritual sensibility. In its current issue, no. 105, some of the poems I particularly enjoyed were “Trench Coat” by Cameron Alexander Lawrence, on the accumulation of things; “Pastoral with Wheat” by John Hart, on fatherhood as beatitude, and as a continual lesson in dying to self; “Duet” by Chelsea Wagenaar [previously], about the “music” of the ordinary moments of motherhood, like tending to your child’s bee sting; and “The Eighth Sacrament” by Peter Cooley, on grief, written after the death of his wife, Jacqueline.

Bithiah’s Defiance: Kelley Nikondeha and poet Eleanor Wilner imagine Pharaoh’s daughter

At the beginning of the book of Exodus, the Hebrews have been in Egypt for several generations, their migration blessed by a previous pharaoh in appreciation of Joseph’s handling of a food crisis. But their peaceful coexistence comes to an end when a new pharaoh comes to power and conscripts the Hebrews into hard labor. In addition to the enslavement, Pharaoh issues an imperial edict that all newborn Hebrew boys are to be killed.

In her excellent new book Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us about Freedom, practical theologian and community developer Kelley Nikondeha talks about the exodus of the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt as a series of small rescue operations, starting with the midwives who refuse to carry out Pharaoh’s death order. Then there’s Jochebed, Moses’s birth mother, who relinquishes her son in order to save him, placing him in a basket on the Nile: Nikondeha imagines her navigating the basket across the river and placing it strategically in a thicket of reeds to be discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter, whose pensive nature and possible sympathies she had been observing for the past three months.

Defiant book cover

Pharaoh’s daughter is unnamed in the biblical narrative, but Jewish tradition gives her the Hebrew name Bithiah, “daughter of Yahweh” (Leviticus Rabbah 1:3), identifying her with the woman in 1 Chronicles 4:18. In this verse she is called a Judahite (i.e., a Jew), which Megillah 13a says is because she repudiated the gods of her people—that when “she came down to bathe at the river” (Exodus 2:5), it was to cleanse herself of idolatry; essentially, to perform a ritual conversion to Judaism, as her loyalties will bear out. When she discovers the baby, she knows he’s Hebrew, and presumably out of compassion, she decides to raise him as her own. She hires Jochebed as a wet-nurse (it’s unclear whether she knows Jochebed is Moses’s birth mother) and, once the child is weaned two to three years later, receives him into the palace. She names him Moses, Egyptian for “son” but also sounding like the Hebrew word mashah, “to draw out” (of the water).

Scripture gives us no information about Moses’s upbringing and very little about his adoptive mother, so questions are unavoidable. Did Moses look different from the Egyptians? Did Pharaoh know Moses was Hebrew but overlook it to indulge his daughter, or did Bithiah have to hide Moses from him and others at court? When did Moses find out he was Hebrew? (The biblical narrative skips from Bithiah naming Moses as a toddler to “One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people . . . . ,” meaning the Hebrews, and he clearly knew at that point. No more mention of Bithiah.) Had Bithiah told Moses about his heritage, or did she hide it from him? Maybe his biological sister, Miriam, encountered him one day and told him? Did Moses ever know his birth mother? And what ever happened to Bithiah—if Pharaoh disapproved of her making a Hebrew part of the royal family, was she exiled (as a popular rabbinical interpretation suggests), or even killed? Was she married, and did she have any other children? Did she follow Moses out of Egypt? (Jewish tradition supposes yes.) The Bible leaves room for multiple interpretations, and stories have developed in different directions to try to fill in the gaps.

I love Nikondeha’s speculative retelling of the Exodus story. (Her book, Defiant, integrates exegesis, meditation, and imagination, as she believes, as do I, that biblical study is enriched by the practice of envisioning fully fleshed narratives, including character backstories and relationships.) Nikondeha sees Bithiah as an Egyptian princess who has slowly awakened to her father’s tyranny—she sees a dead baby in the water one day, she hears the Hebrew mothers’ laments across the river. She wants to stand against the injustice but is unsure where to start, feeling overwhelmed and powerless. And then she meets Moses. The Hebrew women had initiated a strategy for liberation, and Bithiah commits then and there to become an ally, to partner with them in their freedom work. To fight the evils of empire, but secretly from within.

Nikondeha imagines that during Moses’s breastfeeding years Bithiah developed a relationship with Jochebed, which was doubtless fraught at first, but Jochebed eventually opened up, and Bithiah learned to listen. During clandestine meetings in the palace gardens and even twice in the slaves’ quarters, Jochebed taught Bithiah about Hebrew history and culture, and Bithiah bore witness to Hebrew rage, which further catalyzed her to resist her father. The two women were part of what Nikondeha calls the Nile network, a resistance movement that crossed ethnic and socioeconomic lines, operating in the shadows.

Nikondeha, who is a light-skinned American, writes not only as an adopted child but also as the adoptive mother of a Burundian son. (Her husband is Burundian.) This gives her special insight into Moses’s transcultural adoption story and Bithiah’s mindset. She describes Bithiah’s thoughts after saying goodbye to Jochebed for the last time, once Moses is weaned:

She knew relaying his full identity to him was her responsibility now. Continuing his connection to his Hebrew heritage would be her yoke to carry. Also on her shoulders: the subversive work of educating her son to see injustice from the inside and imagine something different. She would raise him in Pharaoh’s house but not indoctrinate him with the imperial values that produced endless quotas, death edicts, and dead boys washed up on the river’s shore. . . .

I feel a kinship with Bithiah, not only in her position of privilege that needed to be disarmed but also in her determination to make sure Moses knew he was as Hebrew as he was Egyptian. She didn’t erase his Hebrew heritage; she didn’t ignore it. She marked him with a name that said “you are both” and set him out on that journey of discovery. It is what I aim to do with my own son. I doubt either of us do it perfectly, and Lord knows we need help from our sisters to deepen our understanding. I think that in my own way, I, like Bithiah, set foot on a journey as a novice peacemaker that continues as I learn to navigate two cultures, various animosities, and what it means to oppose discrimination for the sake of peace for my son. . . .

Moses followed the liberation trajectory set by the mothers in his life—Jochebed and Bithiah but also all the other women who mothered him with liberative verve. (100, 104, 113)

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As I read the “Bithiah” and “Mothers All” chapters of Defiant, I thought of the poem “Epitaph” by Eleanor Wilner. From the collection Maya (1979), it appears in Before Our Eyes: New and Selected Poems, 1975–2017 by Eleanor Wilner (2019) and is published here by permission of Princeton University Press. Copyright © 1979 by Eleanor Wilner. (Listen to the poet read the poem.)

The Egyptian Woman by Max Beckmann
Max Beckmann (German, 1884–1950), The Egyptian Woman, 1942. Oil on canvas, 60 × 30 cm. Private collection.

“Epitaph” by Eleanor Wilner

Though only a girl,
the first born of the Pharaoh,
I was the first to die. Young then, we were bored already, rouged pink as oleanders on the palace grounds, petted by the eunuchs, overfed from gem-encrusted bowls, barren with wealth, until the hours of the afternoon seemed to outlast even my grandmother’s mummy, a perfect little dried apricot in a golden skin. We would paint to pass the time, with delicate brushes dipped in char on clay, or on our own blank lids. So it was that day we found him wailing in the reeds, he seemed a miracle to us, plucked from the lotus by the ibis’ beak, the squalling seed of the sacred Nile. He was permitted as a toy; while I pretended play I honed him like a sword. For him, I was polished and as perfect as a pebble in a stutterer’s mouth. While the slaves’ fans beat incessantly as insect wings, I taught him how to hate this painted Pharaoh’s tomb this palace built of brick and dung, and gilded like a poet’s tongue; these painted eyes.

The epigraph of the poem is the epitaph of Pharaoh’s daughter, Bithiah. It could mean she died in the tenth plague God unleashed on Egypt: the death of every Egyptian firstborn. While Exodus 4:23 and 13:15 seem to suggest it was only the firstborn sons who were killed, some rabbis have said that firstborn daughters were also among the victims—but that Bithiah was spared (Exodus Rabbah 18:3). The day before Passover each year, it’s customary in Jewish families for the firstborn to fast to commemorate the salvation of the Israelite firstborns; in most traditions the fast is obligatory for males only, but in some communities it is observed by female firstborns as well. Anyway, if all firstborns, regardless of gender and without exception, were struck by the plague, Bithiah, if she was Pharaoh’s firstborn and wasn’t already deceased, would have fallen.

But I don’t read the epitaph this way. I take it to mean that Bithiah rejected her despotic father and chose Israel over Egypt, which was itself a kind of death. She was “the first to die” because she “died” decades before the plagues swept through. She died to the expectations she had had for her life and, if we assume she left Egypt with Moses and the rest, forsook all the comforts and privileges that came with being a pharaoh’s daughter. One Jewish exegetical tradition commends her heroism and has God saying, “Because she caused salvation to come to Israel and brought them forth to life, behold, I will prolong her life. . . . I have made a covenant with your fathers and they followed in the path of their fathers. This woman, however, who has forsaken her royal status and attached herself to you [Israel], shall I not reward her?” (Kallah Rabbati 3:25).

“Epitaph” is written in Bithiah’s voice. She describes her boredom with pampered palace life, the emptiness of wealth (and, as her family’s was amassed through abuse of power, its foulness), and her growing revulsion for all that her father stands for. For the time being she still looks and acts the part of princess, but underneath the surface she seethes. When a Hebrew baby shows up on the riverbank, separated from his mother in a desperate attempt to protect him from Pharaoh’s genocide, Bithiah resolves to take him in and raise him—but not as allegiant to Pharaoh. “While I pretended play / I honed him like a sword,” she says, teaching him about his origin and exposing him to the hideousness of slavery while instilling in him values of compassion and bravery. She sharpened his perception of the world and of his own identity and calling.

“I was polished and as perfect / as a pebble in the stutterer’s mouth”—a reference to Exodus 4:10, where Moses expresses reticence about being God’s mouthpiece, telling him, “I am not eloquent . . . I am slow of speech and of tongue.” (The Greek orator Demosthenes was said to have treated his speech impediment by talking with pebbles in his mouth.) By raising Moses to hate oppression, Bithiah planted seeds of rebellion in him that germinated during his time in Midian, sprouted in his conversations with God, and came into full bloom in his dramatic confrontations with the next Pharaoh.

Bithiah leveraged her privilege to save not only Moses but all of Israel. Ashamed of the exploitative practices and murders perpetrated by her father, she joined the Hebrew resistance, ultimately foiling the house of Pharaoh by helping to free Israel.


This post contains Amazon affiliate links, meaning that Art & Theology will earn a small commission on any purchase that originates here. [purchase Defiant] [purchase Before Our Eyes: New and Selected Poems]

“A Child’s Thought of God” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Hardy, Frederick Daniel_A Kiss Goodnight
Frederick Daniel Hardy (British, 1826–1911), A Kiss Goodnight, 1858. Oil on canvas, 16 × 12 in. (41 × 30.5 cm).

They say that God lives very high!
But if you look above the pines,
You cannot see our God. And why?

And if you dig down in the mines,
You never see Him in the gold,
Though from Him all that’s glory shines.

God is so good, He wears a fold
Of heaven and earth across His face—
Like secrets kept, for love, untold.

But still I feel that His embrace
Slides down, by thrills, through all things made,
Through sight and sound of every place:

As if my tender mother laid
On my shut lids, her kisses’ pressure,
Half-waking me at night; and said,
“Who kissed you through the dark, dear guesser?”

This poem was originally published in 1850 and is now in the public domain.

Roundup: Ecotheology, “Kadosh,” black church music, and more

I didn’t post an Artful Devotion this week, as I struggled to satisfactorily put together image and song for any of the readings, but I’ve now cycled through all three lectionary years on the blog, which are stored in the archives. For content on Sunday’s lectionary reading from the psalms, Psalm 133, see “When Brothers Dwell in Unity (Artful Devotion)” (featuring a Chicago mural by William Walker and a joyful new psalm setting from the Psalter Project); see also the poem “Aaron’s Beard” by Eugene Peterson.

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NEW ALBUM: Quarantine Sessions by Eric Marshall: Eric Marshall is the frontman of and songwriter for the meditative art rock band Young Oceans. During the COVID-19 quarantine he recorded eleven of the band’s old songs acoustically in his home studio—just his voice and guitar—and has released them digitally on Bandcamp. Several music artists have been making lo-fi records during this season, and I’m digging it!

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ART COMMENTARIES from ART/S AND THEOLOGY AUSTRALIA

Art/s and Theology Australia is an online publication that aims to provoke public reflection and promote research on conversations between the arts and theology, predominantly in Australian contexts. Here are a few articles from the recent past that I particularly enjoyed.

Galovic, Michael_Creation of Light in the Heavens
Michael Galovic (Serbian Australian, 1949–), Creation of Lights in the Heavens, n.d.

^^ “Jesus Dreaming: A Theological Reaction to Michael Galovic’s Creation of Lights in the Heavens by Merv Duffy: Creation of Lights in the Heavens by contemporary artist and iconographer Michael Galovic is an authentically Australian reading and rewriting of one of the Byzantine creation mosaics at Monreale Cathedral. Like its visual referent, it shows the Logos-Christ seated on the cosmos, hanging the sun in place (medieval artists tended to show God the Son, who is depictable, as Creator), but the gold background, used in icons to represent the eternal uncreated light of God, is replaced with dots, curves, and circles that represent the Dreamtime of Aboriginal theology, the origin of time and eternity.

Dunstan, Penny_Sixteen Earth Bowls
Penny Dunstan, Sixteen Earth Bowls, 2018. Installed at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Merriwa, for the Festival of the Fleeces.

^^ “Sixteen Earth Bowls” by Penny Dunstan: Soil scientist and visual artist Penny Dunstan has crafted bowls out of topsoil from rehabilitated coal mines in the Hunter Valley in Warkworth, New South Wales, which she exhibits in churches, among other places. “Making earth bowls is a way of thinking about my ethical responses to soil use in a post-mining landscape,” she writes. “It is a way of thinking with my heart and not just my head. As I work with each Hunter Valley topsoil, I come to understand each as an individual, a special part of God’s creation. Each soil behaves according to its own chemical nature and historical past when I fashion it into a bowl shape. . . .

“These soils, full of tiny lives, are responsible for growing our food, making our air and storing atmospheric carbon. Our very lives as humans on the earth depend on them. By fashioning these soils into bowls and placing them in sacred places, I hope to remind us to honour the earth that we stand upon, that earth that speaks to us by pushing back at our feet.” (Note: See also Rod Pattenden’s ArtWay visual meditation on Dunstan’s work.)

Finnie, Andrew_The Body of Christ, the Tree of Life
Andrew Finnie (Australian, 1957–), The Body of Christ, The Tree of Life, 2014. Pigment print on Hahnemuhle paper, 78 × 182 cm.

^^ “The Cross and the Tree of Life” by Rod Pattenden: “One of the pressing questions for the Church is how we see Christology being renewed in the face of climate change and the potential for the quality of life on this planet to decline,” writes art historian Rod Pattenden [previously]. “Who is Jesus for us in the midst of the profound changes that are occurring to the earth, water, and air of our world? . . .

Andrew Finnie’s image The Body of Christ, The Tree of Life”—a large-scale ecotheological digital collage—“is an attempt to re-imagine the figure of Christ in conversation with the earth and the networks that sustain human life in all its thriving beauty. Here, the traditional figure of the cross has become entwined in the roots of the tree, a tree of life that is giving form to the variety and beauty of the natural world.”

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SONG: “Kadosh” by Wally Brath, sung by Nikki Lerner: The Kedushah is part of the Amidah, the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy. Its first verse is taken from the song of the seraphim in Isaiah 6:3: “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Kadosh means “holy.”) In this original composition for voice, piano, and string quartet, Wally Brath [previously] has combined this Hebrew exclamation from the book of the prophets with an English excerpt from the Lord’s Prayer taught by Jesus in Matthew 6:10: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” [HT: Multicultural Worship Leaders Network]

The performance captured in this video, featuring Nikki Lerner, took place at Winona Lake Grace Brethren Church in Winona Lake, Indiana, on July 11, 2020. A full list of performers is given in the YouTube description.

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CONCERT FILM: Amen! Music of the Black Church: Recorded before a live audience at the Second Baptist Church in Bloomington, Indiana, and airing April 26, this PBS special explores the rich traditions, historical significance, and meaning of black church music. Dr. Raymond Wise leads the Indiana University African American Choral Ensemble in twenty-one spirituals, hymns, and gospel songs, showing how black church music is not monolithic. He demonstrates the stylistic spectrum you can find among black church communities using a song text derived from Psalm 24:7–10 (“Lift up your heads . . .”): one performed with the European aesthetic preferred in more affluent congregations, one a classical-gospel hybrid, and one pure gospel. One thing I learned from the program is that there is a tradition of shape-note singing in the black church! (See, e.g., The Colored Sacred Harp.) [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Music of the Black Church

Here’s the set list:

  • “We’ve Come This Far by Faith” by Albert Goodson
  • “Kumbaya”
  • “Run, Mary, Run”
  • “Oh Freedom”
  • “What a Happy Time” by J. M. Henson and J. T. Cook
  • “Amazing Grace” by John Newton
  • “Ain’t Got Time to Die” by Hall Johnson
  • “I’ve Been ’Buked”
  • “Lift Up Your Heads” by Emma Louise Ashford, arr. Lani Smith
  • “Lift Up Your Heads” by Clinton Hubert Utterbach
  • “Lift Up Your Heads, All Ye Gates” by Raymond Wise
  • “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah”
  • “Jesus on the Mainline”
  • “I Need Thee Every Hour” by Annie S. Hawks and Robert Lowry
  • “You Can’t Beat God Giving” by Doris Akers
  • “Come to Jesus” by E. R. Latta and J. H. Tenney
  • “We Shall Overcome” by Charles Tindley
  • “Lord, Keep Me Day by Day” by Eddie Williams
  • “Lord, Do It for Me” by James Cleveland
  • “Oh Happy Day” by Edwin Hawkins
  • “I’ve Got a Robe” by Raymond Wise
  • “Hallelujah, Praise the Lord, Amen” by Raymond Wise

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INTERVIEW: Last September The Cultivating Project interviewed Malcolm Guite [previously] on his latest poetry collection After Prayer, the poet-priest George Herbert, the life of a writer, art as faithful service, doubt and despair, his Ordinary Saints collaboration with Bruce Herman and J.A.C. Redford, his friendship with Michael Ward (author of Planet Narnia), the blessing of seasons (both earthly and liturgical), and making room for joy. The interview includes three of Guite’s poems: “Christ’s side-piercing spear,” “A Portrait of the Artist,” and “St. Augustine and the Reapers.”

Herman, Bruce_Malcolm Guite
Bruce Herman (American, 1953–), Malcolm Guite, 2016. Oil on panel with gold leaf, 30 × 30 in.

A Little East of Jordan (Artful Devotion)

Redon, Odilon_Jacob Wrestling with the Angel
Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916), Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, ca. 1905–10. Oil on canvas, 56 1/2 × 24 1/2 in. (143.5 × 61.9 cm). Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two womenservants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok.

And he took them, and sent them over the brook, and sent over that he had.

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.

And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.

And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.

And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob.

And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.

And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there.

And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.

And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh.

—Genesis 32:22–31 (KJV)

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SONG: “Whilst falling asleep, Savta told me of Jacob” | Text by Emily Dickinson, ca. 1859 | Music by Dominic de Grande, 2017 | Performed by St. Salvator’s Chapel Choir, under the direction of Tom Wilkinson, on Annunciations: Sacred Music for the 21st Century, 2018 [listen on SoundCloud]

This choral composition was commissioned in 2016 as part of the TheoArtistry project [previously] of the Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, the aim of which is to reinvigorate dialogues between theologians and practicing artists. Emerging theologians from St. Andrews’ divinity school were paired with composers under the guidance of Sir James Macmillan to create six new choral settings of Hebrew Bible “annunciations,” communications of God to humankind. The collaborations are mutually beneficial: composers who may have no Christian background or no formal theological training but who want to contribute to the landscape of modern sacred music or seek out new lyrical content in the Bible are provided with textual exegesis and consultation by those who are learned in the fields of theology and biblical studies, and on the other hand theologians have Bible passages opened up to them in new ways through music, helping them to engage the texts on a more experiential level. Creative inspiration on both sides! Dr. George Corbett, director of TheoArtistry and an ITIA lecturer, says the St. Andrews divinity school wants composers and other artists to use them as a resource.

Dominic de Grande was one of six composers selected from an applicant pool of about a hundred to write a choral piece approximately three minutes in length that would be performable by a good amateur choir. He was assigned Jacob’s nocturnal wrestling match and was partnered with theologian Marian Kelsey, who oriented him to the ambiguity of the Genesis 32 narrative, the Hebrew wordplay, and the narrative’s appropriations in liturgy, literature, and visual art. De Grande chose to set Emily Dickinson’s poem on the subject, “A little East of Jordan”:

A little East of Jordan,
Evangelists record,
A Gymnast and an Angel
Did wrestle long and hard—

Till morning touching mountain—
And Jacob, waxing strong,
The Angel begged permission
To Breakfast—to return—

Not so, said cunning Jacob!
“I will not let thee go
Except thou bless me”—Stranger!
The which acceded to—

Light swung the silver fleeces
“Peniel” Hills beyond,
And the bewildered Gymnast
Found he had worsted God!

Because the tone of the poem is light and playful, de Grande scored it in the context of a grandmother telling the story to her grandchild at bedtime; he titled the composition “Whilst falling asleep, Savta told me of Jacob,” the word Savta being Hebrew for “grandmother.” It starts off gently, lilting, with a harmonic underpinning consisting of three chords. But, as Kelsey pointed out, the biblical text evokes a sense of danger and intensity, so after Dickinson’s third stanza, de Grande inserted a fragment from Genesis—“LET ME GO, FOR DAY IS BREAKING”—spoken by Jacob’s mysterious opponent. It’s sung as a burst of voices and organ, the latter six syllables introducing six new chords, evoking a sense of otherness. This demand forms a juxtaposition with the sweet, innocuous language of Dickinson’s angel, who politely asks permission to break for mealtime. After the interjection the piece returns to its gentler tone, as dawn dispels the “silver fleeces” of cloud and Jacob sits in the aftermath of the encounter. The human whistling throughout suggests something of the numinous.

Annunciations (ITIA book)

To learn more about the TheoArtistry Composers’ Scheme, check out Annunciations: Sacred Music for the Twenty-First Century (2019), an open-source book available for free download as a PDF or for purchase in other formats. The book includes reflections on the collaboration process and other aspects of the project by all twelve participating theologians and composers (plus full scores! and links to audio) as well as chapters by various contributors on sacred music in worship settings versus secular settings, the theology of music, the vocation of the composer, moments of divine encounter in the ancient Near East, Mary as a model for creative people, the Gospel canticles in church liturgies, and more.

You can also watch this twenty-minute behind-the-scenes documentary:

The other “annunciations” in the TheoArtistry Composers’ Scheme are God speaking to Adam and Eve (Genesis 3), Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3), the threefold calling of Samuel (1 Samuel 3), Elijah and the “sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19), and the Song of Songs 3:6–11.

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For an Artful Devotion from last year on this same biblical text, see “Wrestling Jacob”; it features a contemporary woodcut illustration from a German Bible and one of my favorite Charles Wesley hymns, with music from the shape-note tradition.

For theologically informed commentary by Natalie Carnes [previously] on three modern artworks of Jacob wrestling the angel, see The Visual Commentary on Scripture.


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 Proper 13, cycle A, click here.

“We Walk in Miracles” by Sister Maura Eichner, SSND

Saar, Betye_Flight
Betye Saar (American, 1926–), Flight, 1963. Screenprint, 14 9/16 × 18 1/8 in. (37 × 46 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York.

We walk in miracles as children scruff
through daisy fields, their dresses appliquéd
with shifting tide of blossom, welkin-stuff,
the Father’s white creative laughter made.

Common as spring, as bread, as sleep, as salt,
the daisies grow. Our Father made them reel
against us like the morning stars that vault
the greater home His love will yet reveal.

The petals push against the ankles, knees,
the thigh, the hands; gold pollen sifts within
the pores to rivulets of veins, to seas
of subtle life behind unsubtle skin.

O deeper and deeper than daisy fields, we drown
in miracles, in God, our Seed, our Crown.

“We Walk in Miracles” appears in After Silence: Selected Poems of Sister Maura Eichner, SSND (Notre Dame of Maryland University, 2011), published posthumously and copyrighted by the Atlantic-Midwest Province of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Used with permission.

Three poems about Vincent van Gogh

This spring I guest-wrote and narrated an episode of the Makers & Mystics podcast on the life, art, and spirituality of Vincent van Gogh.

Vincent van Gogh artist profile

The son of a Dutch Reformed pastor, Vincent was a lifelong seeker after God who sought through his work to convey the pervasion of the Divine in the everyday. Before he was an artist, he was a missionary to a destitute coal-mining village in Belgium. His ministry was so incarnational—he lived just like those he served—that the sending agency deemed him too undignified to be a minister of the gospel and cut off his support. Hurt by its hypocrisy, Vincent left the institutional church, but he never abandoned his faith. That faith did evolve, however. His so-called evangelical period gave way to a period of artistic discovery, which enabled him to revel even more deeply in the mystery of God and the ethics of Jesus—which he wrote about frequently in letters to his brother Theo.

Despite personal suffering and an acute awareness of the suffering of others, Vincent was very attuned to the beauty of this world and lived a life of wide embrace. He saw the image of God in people and in nature and honored that image through his paintings, of sunflowers, cypresses, olive groves, wheat fields, farmers and mothers and postmen, soldiers, doctors, café owners, and his own self. When he was institutionalized, he continued to paint, so long as his health allowed it, and some of his finest work comes from this period at Saint-Rémy, including The Starry Night. (“When all sounds cease, God’s voice is heard under the stars,” Vincent wrote.) While some interpret the agitated brushstrokes of his later paintings as evidence of internal turmoil and instability, might they not instead express his view of the universe as vibrant, wild, pulsating with life and energy? It is a myth, after all, that Vincent painted in fevered states.

As I was doing research for the podcast episode, I encountered many poets who have responded in verse to specific paintings of Vincent’s, or more generally to Vincent’s oeuvre, vocation, and legacy. I’ve selected three such poems from the latter category, each of which serves as a wonderful introduction to the man and his work—a distillation of his essence, even. I’m struck by how all three poets use religious language to describe Vincent’s paintings: hymns, psalms, prayers.

I’ve compiled the images referred to in the poems, plus a few other representative ones, in the tiled gallery below. To enlarge a photo and to view more info, click on its caption, visible by hovering your cursor over the bottom.

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“Dear Lover of Light” by Abigail Carroll

Dear Lover of Light,

There lived a priest
so in love with light
it drove him mad.
Paint was his thing.
When he could no longer
preach, he hopped a train
south, took up a brush,
turned zinc and lead
and chrome
into gaudy, wild-
petaled ambassadors
of the dawn. He slapped
stars as big as brooches
on the sky, danced
crows across bowing fields
of wheat, exalted a bowl
of onions, a bridge, a pipe,
a chair, a bed. Postmen
and prostitutes
were his friends—
so too were irises,
almond trees,
windmills,
clouds. Francis,
if you think of a painting
as a kind of song, he too
canticled the sun.

A Vincent enthusiast

This poem appears in A Gathering of Larks: Letters to Saint Francis from a Modern-Day Pilgrim (Eerdmans, 2017) and is reproduced here by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

“Dear Lover of Light” is from a collection of verse-style letters addressed to Saint Francis of Assisi, a thirteenth-century friar who was in love with Christ and with creation—he called animals, the natural elements, and celestial bodies “brothers” and “sisters,” as in his famous “Canticle of the Sun,” and is said to have preached to birds and tamed a wolf.

Abigail Carroll sees Francis as a kindred spirit to Vincent, who, she says, also “canticled the sun.” Vincent’s paintings are like songs of praise. Instead of words he used color—and yellow was his favorite (yellow ocher, cadmium yellow, zinc yellow, chrome yellow), representing for him life, energy, happiness, hope, and friendship.

“When he could no longer / preach” refers to Vincent’s being let go from his village preaching post by a religious board that deemed him too ineloquent and too radical. He moved to The Hague, where he befriended a pregnant sex worker named Sien and her daughter Maria, giving them shelter in his apartment and supporting them as best he could with his own meager funds. From there he went to Nuenen, where his compassion for the working poor manifested in the many earth-toned paintings of this period, including his first major work, The Potato Eaters, showing a family gathered around the dinner table, enjoying the fruit of their labors. After two years in Paris, Vincent needed a respite from the city noise, which led him to Arles in southern France, where he really started finding himself as an artist. He was enraptured by the way sunlight flooded the Provençal landscapes, making them radiant.

Carroll’s poetic descriptions of Vincent’s paintings—dancing crows, jewel-like stars, bowing wheat—capture his sense of all of creation being alive unto God, infused with the sacred. Vincent found great joy in observing what flowered around him, from the irises that grew outside the asylum where he committed himself to the almond tree he painted as a gift for his newborn nephew Vincent, whom his brother named after him. And Vincent saw sacred beauty not only in the natural world but also in everyday articles and objects, be they a pair of well-worn boots in the mudroom or the empty chair of his friend Paul Gauguin.

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“What Happened When He Looked” by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

His miners are made of earth, his sowers so close
to the colors of the fields, only the broad hat, the sack,
the outflung arm keeps them from fading into wheat.

But sometimes, he found, the earth itself turns
to water. Mountains tumble like rapids, waves
curling, blue, roiling and leaping like
the Psalmist’s mountains clapping their hands.

And water turns to air. As life turns to breath.
The sky grows heavy with sun and draws
everything into its fierce embrace, urging
matter upward and homeward to where
the energies of earth begin.

And then there is fire. When they are alive enough
(or we), bushes burn. If you see it, you go
reeling home along a roadway you suddenly know
is temporary and might evaporate or begin
to pinwheel around a star, taking you with it
beyond deeper and deeper blue, into yellow that melts
to a core of thick, transparent white where love
burns day and night to fuel the fallen seed.

This poem appears in The Color of Light: Poems on Van Gogh’s Late Paintings (Eerdmans, 2007) and is reproduced here by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

This poem is structured around the four classical elements, understood as the material basis of the physical world: earth, water, air, and fire. Marilyn Chandler McEntyre notes how in Vincent’s paintings, these elements take on characteristics of one another: for example, in Olive Trees in a Mountainous Landscape, the hills surge and flow like water, and in The Sower of 1888, the air burns like fire.

In this latter painting, Vincent said he wished to use the yellow sun as a symbol of Christ’s presence, a sort of halo that covers everything it touches. (See also Letter 673: “I’d like to paint men or women with that je ne sais quoi of the eternal, of which the halo used to be the symbol, and which we try to achieve through the radiance itself, through the vibrancy of our colorations.”) The Sower shows the union between the temporal and eternal, two interpenetrating realms. “The sky . . . draws / everything into its deep embrace, urging / matter upward and homeward,” McEntyre writes.

Vincent saw, in the famous words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, that “Earth’s crammed with heaven, / And every common bush afire with God.” A reference, of course, to the burning bush in Exodus 3:

Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (emphasis mine)

McEntyre titled this poem “What Happened When He Looked”—that is, what happened when Vincent, like Moses, looked with intent on the miraculous sights that go unnoticed by so many. What happened is, like Moses, he heard God speak. What happened is he experienced a mystical union with that “something on High—inconceivable, ‘awfully unnameable’— . . . which is higher than Nature.” Vincent’s artmaking was a reverent act of beholding and of bearing witness to that something.

The final line of McEntyre’s poem refers to Jesus’s parable of the fallen seed, which once it dies, springs forth life—a picture of the promise of resurrection. The sun, or white-hot love of God in Christ, is generative, the energy that raises us out of the dark and fuels our growth and flourishing. Vincent’s paintings radiate that love.

During his time as an assistant preacher under the Rev. Thomas Slade-Jones in Isleworth, England, in summer 1876, Vincent wrote to Theo,

I am still far from being what I want to be, but with God’s help I shall succeed. I want to be bound to Christ with unbreakable bonds and to feel these bonds. To be sorrowful yet alway rejoicing. To live in and for Christ, to be one of the poor in His kingdom, steeped in the leaven, filled with His spirit, impelled by His Love, reposing in the Father [. . .]. To become one who finds repose in Him alone, who desires nothing but Him on earth, and who abides in the Love of God and Christ, in whom we are fervently bound to one another.

Though Vincent would later renounce orthodox Christianity, he retained his love for Christ and his sense of awe in the face of the Infinite active in the here and now.

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“Van Gogh” by Jeanne Murray Walker

     All right, I love him for the way
                      he painted Vermilion! Orange! jagged as
        shouts, and when no one bought them,
                      no one even heard him,
he shouted louder,
                      Sunflowers! Self-portrait!
     and years later, not one sold,
                      he cut off his own ear.

     Then he had to bring it back on canvas
                      hundreds of times,
        in the brass swelling
                      of the bell
that called him to dinner,
        in the complicated iris
                      at the end of the asylum path.
                            Think how stooping
at a fork in the road
                      he might have seen a stone-shaped ear,
       how the human heart,
                      once it knows what it needs,
will find it everywhere, how
       in the curve of his delicately padded cell
                      one starry night, he must have murmured
                            everything he had ever wanted to say
straight into the ear of God.

This poem appears in A Deed to the Light (University of Illinois Press, 2004) and is reproduced here by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

If McEntyre’s poem is about looking and provoking others to look, Jeanne Murray Walker’s is about wanting to be heard, and takes the ear as its central image. Vincent is, of course, notorious for the psychotic episode that culminated in him cutting off his left ear. (His self-portraits show the bandages on his right ear because he painted them by looking in a mirror.) Walker imagines him thereafter seeing ear-shapes everywhere in nature—delicate curves and hollows—manifestations of his longing to be listened to.

Vincent’s paintings are prayers, Walker suggests, that went straight into the ear of the One who hears, who holds all our joys and sadness in love. Others didn’t hear Vincent, but God did.

I will mention that it is a myth that Vincent never sold a painting during his lifetime. True, he sold few—his most significant sale was The Red Vineyard, purchased in January 1890 by Anna Boch while Vincent was convalescing at a psychiatric hospital—“but still,” writes Rainer Metzger in Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings, “the fact should not be overemphasized; after all, Vincent was so willing to give his paintings as presents that many would-be purchasers never needed to part with a penny” (566). And he sometimes made in-kind trades with his paintings.

It’s also false that Vincent died without ever having received recognition for his work. Actually, he was a rising star in the art world. The avant-garde circles in France and Belgium recognized his talent before his death. He was exhibited a few times and received a gushing review in January 1890. Several fellow artists spoke favorably of his work, and of course his brother Theo, an art dealer, was a tireless champion, even supporting him financially for years so that he could paint. It wasn’t easy getting established, and yes, there were many people along the way who didn’t see the value of what he was doing, but Vincent kept at it. He was still in his early career when he died on July 29, 1890, at age thirty-seven. After his death the audience for his work, and thus appreciation for it, grew exponentially, thanks in large part to his sister-in-law, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, who edited, translated, and published all 652 letters from Vincent that she had in her possession, lent his paintings to various exhibitions, and promoted his work in other ways.

But on a personal level, Vincent was often overlooked, known as something of an eccentric, a crazy person, for which he was often teased and tormented. In fact, one theory about his death, originating in the 1950s but popularized by the Pulitzer Prize–winning biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith in their 2011 book Van Gogh: The Life, is that he was shot by teenage bullies. (The Van Gogh Museum rejects this theory, declaring his death a definitive suicide.)

Vincent battled mental illness: during his lifetime he was diagnosed with a form of epilepsy that causes seizures, hallucinations, and manic depression. While he made friends in each city he lived in, his illness tended to cause rifts, sometimes permanent ones. On occasion he wrote to Theo how lonely he was.

So even when Vincent was starting to attain professional recognition for his art toward the end of his life, he still felt at times unwanted and misunderstood. “A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke.” He wrote this line in June 1880, but it’s a sentiment that would resurface in his letters over the next ten years—the idea that people aren’t interested in the gifts he has to offer, be they relational or artistic.

Walker’s poem captures that mixture of confidence and doubt, self-assuredness and vulnerability, hardness and softness, and above all the dogged persistence that characterized Vincent. He “shouted” his soul onto canvas and into a world that in many quarters was plugging its ears. And he “murmured” it to the heavens, where it was received openly, caringly.

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To learn more about Vincent van Gogh, here are some recommended resources:

  • The aforementioned “Vincent van Gogh” podcast episode (Makers & Mystics Artist Profile Series no. 28) breaks down Vincent’s art and faith in under twenty minutes.
  • The world’s largest collection of van Gogh’s work is at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The museum has an excellent website, which includes high-resolution photos of 200+ paintings and 500+ drawings, plus interactive “Stories” on such topics as “Nature and the Artist,” “Inspiration from Japan,” and “Brotherly Love: Vincent and Theo,” in which you click through bit by bit to view art, archival photos, and quotes connected together with short narration—very engaging! (Kudos to whomever designed the interface.) You can even take a seven-video virtual tour of the museum in 4K, seeing how all the galleries are laid out.
  • The freely accessible website Vincent van Gogh: The Letters contains scans, transcriptions, and translations of all van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo, his artist friends Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard, and many others. They are heavily footnoted and include sketches and other enclosures, and the website enables universal searches! I can’t afford the official six-volume, complete illustrated and annotated print edition from Thames & Hudson, but I do own a Penguin Classics edition, The Letters of Vincent van Gogh, a generous selection introduced and editorialized by Ronald de Leeuw and translated by Arnold Pomerans, which is mostly what I quote from in this article. An abridged book like this one might be a good place to start if you’re not able or willing to invest a ton of time poring over the full correspondence, some of which is dull or rambling.
  • Van Gogh’s paintings have been victim to some truly poor-quality reproductions circulating online. The full-color Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings (Taschen, 2012) was indispensable to me as I researched the artist, as it documents his full catalog of paintings (note: not drawings) with high-resolution photos that capture as accurately as possible the works’ colorative and textural richness. These are arranged by period and contextualized with essays.
  • The award-winning HENI Talks produced a seven-minute video titled “Van Gogh’s Olive Trees,” which is gorgeously shot and covers more than just the titular subject.
  • Movies? I really enjoyed the 1956 biopic Lust for Life starring Kirk Douglas—the characterization seems to me spot-on, and overall it does a great job with historical accuracy—and the oil-painted animated feature Loving Vincent from 2017 [previously]. I was not too keen on the recent At Eternity’s Gate starring Willem Dafoe.

Van Gogh books

There are many spiritual biographies on Vincent van Gogh, or books about the religious impulse behind his art:

At Eternity’s Gate, published by Eerdmans in 1998, was the first of its kind and is still probably my favorite; the author has advance degrees in both religion and art history and does an excellent job arguing that Vincent’s spiritual life was essential to the unfolding of his artistic vision. Carol Berry’s Learning from Henri Nouwen and Vincent van Gogh, though, would probably be my top recommendation to those who just want to dip their toes in and engage Vincent’s story in a less academic, more personal, way, as Berry, an art educator with a background in Christian ministry, interweaves the lives of Vincent and Henri with personal memoir—an excellent gift book.

Roundup: Santo Spirito, Joan of Arc, “Halo My Path,” and more

VIDEO: “Ned Bustard: Making Good”: Cursive Films profiles Ned Bustard [previously], a graphic designer, linocut artist, and founder of Square Halo Books. Asked how he as a Christian defines success in his field, he responds with a quote by his friend Kurt Thompson: “We were made in joy to make things in and for joy.” So instead of asking, “Am I successful?,” we should be asking ourselves, “Am I doing what I was designed to do?,” Bustard says.

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ESSAY: “I’d Like to Learn to Love It Anyway” by Helena Sorensen: In this personal essay from the Rabbit Room, Sorensen reflects on the world’s brokenness and beauty, a world where there is grief and disappointment and uncertainty and scarring but also love and springtime and strength and song. She opens by recounting her eleven-year-old son’s very visceral feeling of pain in reaction to the death of a baby bird, and his exasperated “What’s the point of it all?” She then introduces a song that crystallizes her son’s struggle—“Letter to the Editor” by J Lind—while sharing her own struggles, since adolescence, to accept her body. There’s no theodicy here, no theological explanations for suffering; just an aspiration to live with openness and gratitude and perspective, and to take the bad along with the good, the cost of being human.

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NEW POEM: “Santo Spirito” by Jacqueline Osherow: (Read the poem before reading my commentary; I don’t want the latter to influence your first impressions!) Osherow is Jewish and also a lover of Renaissance art, having previously lived in Florence for a year and a half. And she has been enamored of birds since childhood. These influences coincide in her long free-verse poem “Santo Spirito” (Italian for “Holy Spirit”), subtitled “Autobiography with Doves.” Here she traces the presence, and sometimes absence, of the dove as symbol of the Holy Spirit in Italian master paintings of the Annunciation and the Baptism of Christ. Osherow said she does not read the New Testament but experiences Christian narrative and theology through art, which has “been working / on me all along, its proselytizing / deftly subliminal // like the edgy / come-ons urban / legend claims / were strategically / concealed in / advertisements.” (Still, she says, “I remain a Jew, . . . no matter / what I look at, what / I see.”)

Santo Spirito
Basilica di Santo Spirito, Florence

The poem is a reflection on divine revelation and hiddenness, precision and mystery, the visible and invisible. Where and how does God’s spirit reside? What is holy, or can we say only when we encounter it? The poem hinges on the fifteenth-century Florentine church the poem takes its title from. Santo Spirito has a strikingly plain façade, a “supple blankness / wide-open, burning, / immaculate, . . . infinite,” like an unrolled scroll without writing. After a catalog of religious art that pictures and describes, Osherow pauses in front of this emptiness that is likewise inviting. Yes to artists’ visions, she says, to doves and other literalisms, to the transcription and translation of God’s word, to apologetic discourse and theologizing, to bumbling our way toward truth—but yes also to the way of unknowing.

My junior year of college I, too, lived in Florence—just a few minutes’ walk from Santo Spirito, in fact—so this poem is full of memories for me, and I love Osherow’s candid reflections on specific artworks in the city:

Plus these two:

  • The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca, made for the Priory of San Giovanni Battista at Sansepolcro in Tuscany, now in the National Gallery, London
  • The Annunciation panel of an altarpiece Piero della Francesca made for the Franciscan convent of Sant’Antonio da Padova in Perugia, now in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria

Jacqueline Osherow read her poem recently for an Image-sponsored Zoom event followed by a Q&A (video link available on poem page). There were supposed to be photo slides of the paintings keyed to relevant stanzas, but the display doesn’t correct until 8:03.

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NEW SONG: “Halo My Path” by Josh Rodriguez: The words to this “quarantine chorale” are excerpted and adapted from a Puritan prayer titled “Voyage,” from the compilation The Valley of Vision. Composer Josh Rodriguez said he wrote the song “as I watched the bravery of medical professionals, the difficult decisions that government leaders faced, the disproportionate suffering of the poor, the unrest in my own heart. . . . I hope this prayer will challenge us to fight against the selfishness that resides in our hearts, to persevere in the long road to recovery, to appreciate once again that simple privilege of life together.” I’m grateful to Rodriguez for throwing this beautiful phrase into high relief: “Halo my path,” an address to God. Make bright my way, sanctify it, illuminate it with gentleness and love so that my every step is into the light of these virtues, not into the darkness of causticity and hate. The song is an aspiration to bless, to sow gladness rather than grief.

Halo my path with gentleness and love,
smooth every temper;
let me not forget how easy it is to occasion grief;
may I strive to bind up every wound,
and pour oil on all troubled waters.
May the world be happier because I live.
Halo my path.

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NEW ALBUM: Peace to All Who Enter Here by Josh Garrels: A mix of calming hymns and worship songs, including two previously unreleased originals: “Fear Thou Not” and “Creation Song.” I’ve long had a strong emotional connection to the opening song, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” so I was hooked from the beginning!

“in the month of march the world entered a time of quarantine,” Josh’s wife Michelle writes on the album’s Bandcamp page. “our life of work- and school-from-home continued basically as usual. but beyond the boundaries of our yard, the world was rapidly shifting. instinctively for us, it was a time to pray & praise. when we enter into praise in times of uncertainty, we feel God’s goodness, the everything in His hands. His peace is a real, sustaining thing. josh began these days by firelight in the garage, mornings of prayer while winter melted away into hopeful spring. in the afternoons he’d turn on the recording gear & sing out praises. You’ll hear the click of the wood stove, the chirping of birds, our five children playing in the front yard. there was a spontaneity to this recording, & the result is sweet. . . . we hope you encounter the peace of Christ as you enter here, finding hope & faith restored in these turbulent times.”

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FILMS

May 30 is the feast day of Joan of Arc, a French peasant girl who, during the Hundred Years’ War, claimed to have received visions from God instructing her to fight against English domination. She participated in military campaigns with the French army but was eventually captured and, after a trial financed by the English crown, burned at the stake. She was later sainted.

Joan of Arc has been the subject of many films. Here are two I’ve seen, both of which abandon glamorous military heroics to focus instead on some of the less flashy parts of her life, with Jeannette being set during her preadolescence, and The Passion during her trial.

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (2017): A thrash metal period musical is certainly a unique approach to take for Joan’s story, and this movie is . . . eccentric. It shows Joan, played by nonprofessional actors at ages eight and thirteen, as a shepherd girl in rural France, deeply pained by the English oppression of her people. “Our Father who art in heaven, your name is so far from being hallowed, and your reign from coming,” she laments. Pious beyond her years, she struggles to discern God’s will, and once she does, to follow it. She’s helped along by visions of the nun Madame Gervaise—whom writer-director Bruno Dumont splits into two singing, dancing figures played by twins—and others.

While this could just be an art-house filmmaker trying to push the envelope, I feel that the ridiculousness serves a function: we furrow our brows and roll our eyes and wonder if it’s for real, much like those contemporaries of Joan’s who, to put it mildly, had trouble getting on board with her odd story.

The dialogue is adapted from Charles Péguy’s 1910 mystery play The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928): Starring Renée Falconetti in a legendary performance, this silent film classic paints Joan as a Christ figure who’s mocked and martyred for her refusal to betray God’s will. There are allusions throughout to Christ’s passion: shadows form a cross on the wall; Joan weaves a crown of straw; there’s a bloodletting scene; et cetera. Expressionistic lighting and painfully intimate close-ups immerse viewers in Joan’s subjective experience. (As a sidebar, I must note that Falconetti was thirty-five when she played the role, whereas Joan was only nineteen; I think because Falconetti’s portrayal is so iconic, people often forget how young Joan was.)

Director Carl Theodor Dreyer was very concerned with documentary authenticity, so he enlisted the leading expert on Joan of Arc, Pierre Champion, as a historical adviser on the film. The script is based heavily on transcripts of Joan’s trial and execution, which are held at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The French ecclesiastical court, allied with the English, press Joan on the authenticity of her visions, her certainty of salvation, her support of Charles VII, her wearing of men’s clothing; she continues to insist that she is fulfilling the mission God called her to. Though the historical Joan was subjected to twenty-two interrogation sessions spread out over a few months, by necessity the movie telescopes them into a brief timespan.

Many composers have written scores for the film. The Criterion release gives three options: Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light oratorio, which takes a traditional, maximalist approach; a score by Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory and Portishead’s Adrian Utley, utilizing electric guitars, voices, synthesizers, brass, harp, and percussion; and a minimalist piano score by Mie Yanashita. However, purists say the film should be watched in silence, as Dreyer preferred.