I Will Lift My Eyes (Artful Devotion)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Psalm 121

+++

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

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

 

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

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

+++

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

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


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

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

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

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

“After the Fig Leaves, Eve Cuts Her Hair”

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

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

+++

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

Fall of Man (Artful Devotion)

Gollon, Chris_Expulsion from Paradise
Chris Gollon (British, 1953–2017), Expulsion from Paradise, 2013. Acrylic on paper, 30 × 22 in. (76 × 56 cm).

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened . . .

—Genesis 3:6–7

+++

SONG: “The Fall” by Gungor, on Ghosts Upon the Earth (2011)

The fall, the fall, oh God, the fall of man
The fruit is found in every eye and every hand
Nothing, there is nothing yet, in truest form
We walk like ghosts upon the earth; the ground, it groans

How long, how long will you wait?
How long, how long till you save us all, save us all?

Turn your face to me, turn your face to me
Turn your face to me, turn your face to me

The light, the light, the morning light is gone
And all that’s left is fragile breath and failing lungs
The night, the night, the guiding night has come
Uniting lover with his bride, more precious than the dawn

How long, how long must we wait?

Turn your face to me, turn your face to me
Turn your face to me, turn your face to me

Because of the music behind “Turn your face to me”—soft and smooth, consonant, calm not frantic like the rest—I read this refrain as being spoken by God. The humans lament their fall, asking how long they must wait for salvation, and God gently responds: it’s available now, just turn your face to me.

The idea of “ghosts upon the earth” is inspired by C. S. Lewis’s allegorical novel The Great Divorce, in which a group of travelers from a “grey town” are taken by bus to heaven, a land that proves to be far more solid, more real, than even the travelers’ own bodies. “Sometimes it seems like the most real thing is what we can see and experience with our senses around us—this life, the tangible,” Michael Gungor said. “Ideas like love, like God, these things sometimes feel more disconnected and ethereal, like that’s the ghostly realm. But what if that’s wrong and God and love is actually what is most real, and we are more like ghosts walking upon the earth, hoping to become more real?”

To watch a live performance of Gungor’s “The Fall” from 2012, click here.


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

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

Come, Weak and Wounded (Artful Devotion)

Kershisnik, Brian_Wounded Saint
Brian Kershisnik (American, 1962–), Wounded Saint, 2002. Oil on panel, 40 × 30 in.

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near . . .

Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

—Joel 2:1, 12–13

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

—Psalm 51:8

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

—Psalm 51:17

+++

SONG: “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy” | Words by Joseph Hart, 1759, with anonymous refrain, ca. 1811 | Music: American folk melody (RESTORATION), published in William Walker’s Southern Harmony, 1835 | Performed by Keith and Kristyn Getty, on The Greengrass Session: Six Hymns from the Old World and the New, 2014

Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love, and pow’r.

I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
Oh, there are ten thousand charms.

Come, ye thirsty, come, and welcome,
God’s free bounty glorify;
True belief and true repentance,
Every grace that brings you nigh.

Come, ye weary, heavy-laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.

Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.

The singing-songwriting duo Keith and Kristyn Getty [previously], who are married, are from Northern Ireland and split their time between there and Nashville, Tennessee, in the United States. In 2014 they recorded a medley of the (American) shape-note hymn “Come, Ye Sinners” with a traditional Irish reel tune known as MUSICAL PRIEST, blending the musics of their two homes. The song starts out at a slow, weary pace with spare violin accompaniment and then picks up with a brisk guitar and other strings, including a free-ranging fiddle. The dirge gives way to celebration—this is the movement of Lent.

“Come, Ye Sinners” appears in hymnals with slight variations in verses, sometimes with an additional two, but the text above is one of the most commonly used. The anonymous refrain (“I will arise . . .”), which makes an oblique reference to the parable of the prodigal son, was added to Hart’s text sometime in the nineteenth century; it is a “floating lyric” found in Southern hymnals as early as 1811.

Though I most associate the hymn with the tune RESTORATION (sometimes called ARISE), it has been set to several tunes over the years, both traditional and contemporary. These include BEACH SPRING, GREENVILLE (which uses a different refrain), and ones by Todd Agnew and Matthew S. Smith, to name a few.

+++

In his painting Wounded Saint, Brian Kershisnik [previously] shows us a young woman with downcast eyes and a bleeding gash in her right arm. This wound, a metaphor for the pain she carries inside, could be self-inflicted or inflicted by others or both, but either way, her child gently leads her forward toward healing, as two angels support her from behind. “Poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore,” the woman returns to her God, whose light emanates faintly from her head. In his arms, as the hymn says, “there are ten thousand charms”—ten thousand graces, ten thousand traits that fascinate, allure, delight . . . and make whole.

+++

I’ve just published a piece on the Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) blog to mark Ash Wednesday tomorrow. It’s a short reflection on the interactive installation hash2ash by the Warsaw-based art collective panGenerator, which uses digital technology to turn selfies into a pile of ash. “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” as the liturgy goes. Visit https://civa.org/civablog/remember-you-are-dust/ to read more.


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 A, click here.

Roundup: Lent devotionals, Joseph Shabalala, dancing with dust, kids’ songs and doodles

Lent begins next week, and as usual, I’ll be sharing visual art, music, poetry, and other media throughout the season that I hope will be a quiet support to your spiritual walk. If you are giving up social media for Lent but want to be kept aware of new Art & Theology posts, sign up to receive the posts by email by clicking the “Subscribe” button—on the right sidebar if you’re on a desktop, or at the bottom of this post if you’re on your phone. (Note that the sidebar/footer is not visible from the homepage; you have to click through into a post to see it.)

+++

Lent devotionals 2020

NEW LENT DEVOTIONALS: I’ve become aware of two new poetry devotionals for Lent published this year.

My Sour-Sweet Days: George Herbert and the Journey of the Soul by Mark Oakley: “George Herbert is one of the great 17th century poet-priests. His poems embrace every shade of the spiritual life, from love and closeness, to anger and despair, to reconciliation and hope. And his work is always rich with audacious playfulness: he seems to take God on, knowing God will win, as if he’s having an argument with a faithful friend he knows is not going to leave. In much of theology and spirituality, God is a critical spectator to human lives, but for Herbert, his sense of relationship with God is primarily of a friendship that can never be broken. These are some of the themes Mark Oakley explores in this book. He offers a poem for every day in Lent, with a two-page commentary on each of the forty included.”

Wendell Berry and the Sabbath Poetry of Lent by SALT Project: “In this Lenten devotional, biblical texts and simple, accessible practices walk hand-in-hand with Wendell Berry’s poetic vision of sabbath and the natural world. All you’ll need is your favorite Bible and Wendell Berry’s This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems. Week by week, we’ll walk through the woods together toward Easter morning, keeping sabbath as we go—with Wendell Berry as our guide.” Sold as a professionally designed, downloadable PDF with printing and folding instructions.
   I really enjoyed SALT Project’s Lent devotional from last year, built around the poetry of Mary Oliver, so I bought this new one and gave it a breeze-through so I could recommend it here prior to Lent; I look forward to spending more time with it throughout the season. Devotions are provided for Ash Wednesday; the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent; Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Each one includes an instruction to read a Bible passage and a Wendell Berry poem, a short meditation that draws the two together, an additional reading of two more related Berry poems, a candle lighting and one-sentence prayer (on the themes of silence, trust, delight, care, insight, resurrection, joy, love, sorrow), a few recommended practices for the week, and personal questions to ponder and discuss with a friend, if desired.
   I especially appreciate the “Practices” section, which includes ideas like: make a list of your favorite little delights (“the sunlight’s slant in the late afternoon, your dog’s ears, the steam rising from your coffee—no delight is too slight!”) and read it aloud with family or friends over a meal; take a neighborhood walk and count how many shades of green you see; ignore a household chore for an entire day each week.

+++

DANCE VIDEO: “Seas of Crimson”: In this music video for one of the pieces on Bethel Music’s album Without Words: Synesthesia, Jessica Lind of the Oregon Ballet Theatre dances with dust that by the composition’s end turns to vibrant color. A metaphor for the Lenten journey, perhaps? [HT: A Sacramental Life]

+++

OBITUARY: Joseph Shabalala, Ladysmith Black Mambazo Founder, Dies at 78: From the New York Times obituary by Jon Pareles:

Joseph Shabalala, the gentle-voiced South African songwriter whose choir, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, brought Zulu music to listeners worldwide, died on [February 11] in a hospital in Pretoria. He was 78. . . . Mr. Shabalala began leading choral groups at the end of the 1950s. By the early ’70s his Ladysmith Black Mambazo — in Zulu, “the black ax of Ladysmith,” a town in KwaZulu-Natal Province — had become one of South Africa’s most popular groups, singing about love, Zulu folklore, rural childhood memories, moral admonitions and Christian faith. Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s collaborations with Paul Simon on his 1986 album “Graceland,” on the tracks “Homeless” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” introduced South African choral music to an international pop audience.

Joseph Shabalala

Shabalala was an ordained minister in the Pentecostal Church of God of Prophecy, having become a Christian in 1976. He said he hopes his music shows people “how to be good to God, how to praise God, how to respect, how to forgive each other . . .”

Below is a video of Shabalala with Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing one of his songs, “King of Kings,” live in Montreux, Switzerland, in 2000. Written during apartheid, it is a prayer for peace in South Africa and the rest of the world. It was first released on the 1987 album Shaka Zulu. [Listen on Spotify]

+++

KIDS’ SONGS: I’m not a mom, but I often enjoy listening to “children’s music,” as there’s so much of quality out there these days. Here are two songs released this year in that too-restrictively-titled genre (because hey, there’s much for grown-ups to love here too!), along with animated music videos.

“Glad You’re Here” by Justin Roberts: This new single by “the Judy Blume of kiddie rock” (New York Times) is for a new- or soon-to-be-born baby. So fun, warm, and adorable! (Note: The video was produced by the same company that brought you the Wendell Berry devotional mentioned above.)

“Dinosaurs in Love” by Fenn Rosenthal, feat. Tom Rosenthal: This sad-sweet song about two dinosaurs eating cucumbers and having parties and then, well, you’ll have to listen . . . was written by three-year-old Fenn Rosenthal from London (with some help on the tune from her dad, Tom). At the end of January Tom Rosenthal, who is himself a singer-songwriter, posted a recording of Fenn singing this one-minute creation of hers on Twitter, and it went viral. Now the song is streaming on Spotify and is up on iTunes, Amazon, and other e-tailer websites, with all proceeds benefitting wildlife charities. It was also picked up by directorial team Hannah Jacobs, Katy Wang, and Anna Ginsburg, who created a music video using 2D frame-by-frame animation. [HT: Colossal]

+++

DRAWING CONTEST: “Doodle for Google,” for K–12 artists: Google Doodles are those special drawings, sometimes animated, that embellish Google’s logo on the website’s homepage from time to time. For the twelfth consecutive year, that highly visible space is up for grabs to one young artist in the US through the tech company’s “Doodle for Google” competition, open to ages K–12. This year the theme is “How do you show kindness?” In addition to having their work featured on Google’s landing page for an entire day, the winner will receive a $30,000 college scholarship, and the winner’s school will be awarded a $50,000 technology package. The deadline for submissions is March 13, 2020, at 11 p.m. ET. [HT: Hyperallergic]

Seeing Your Glory (Artful Devotion)

Velasco, Leandro Miguel_Transfiguration of the Lord
Leandro Miguel Velasco (Colombian, 1933–), The Transfiguration of the Lord. Mural, Great Upper Church Sacristy, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC. Photo: Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP.

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.

And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”

—Matthew 17:1–9

In the artwork above, Moses is shown on the left holding the Ten Commandments and representing the law, and Elijah, on the right, holds a scroll, representing the prophets; Jesus stands in the center, the fulfillment of both. The painted inscription inside the picture is, of course, Peter’s words to Jesus in Matthew 17:4. The carved inscription below, however, comes from an earlier passage in Matthew’s Gospel, 13:16–17, where Jesus says to his disciples, “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”

This is one of several paintings by Leandro Miguel Velasco located in the sacristy of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. (He also designed, in 2006–7, the church’s Incarnation and Redemption dome mosaics, in a much different style.) The sacristy is the room where the priest and attendants vest and prepare before the service, and where they return their vestments and used liturgical vessels afterward. It is not accessible to the general public.

+++

SONG: “Transfiguration Hymn” | Words adapted by Jeffrey Cooper from the Collect of the Feast of the Transfiguration | Music by J.J. Wright | Performed by the J.J. Wright Trio (J.J. Wright on piano, Ike Sturm on bass, and Nate Wood on drums) and vocalists Sharon Harms and Ashley Daneman on Vespers for the Feast of the Transfiguration (2017)

Seeing your glory in the face of your Son,
Hearing his words, and knowing what he has done,
Now we pray that just what we behold
In him we may become.

That, as the prophets spoke in days long before,
We may be heirs through faith with him we adore:
With the Spirit and with you he reigns
Now and forevermore.

Find the full program of J.J. Wright’s Jazz Vespers service for the feast of the Transfiguration, including a lead sheet for this song and others, at http://www.transfigurationvespers.com/program.

+++

In many Protestant liturgical calendars, the last Sunday in the Epiphany season (this year, February 23) is known as Transfiguration Sunday. To view Artful Devotions from previous Transfiguration Sundays, see https://artandtheology.org/2019/02/26/radiant-artful-devotion/ and https://artandtheology.org/2018/02/06/light-of-knowledge-glory-artful-devotion/.


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 Transfiguration Sunday, cycle A, click here.

Book Review: A Lent Sourcebook

Published in 1990 by Liturgy Training Publications, A Lent Sourcebook: The Forty Days is an anthology of hymns, poems, prayers, homilies, and reflections gathered from ancient and modern sources on a variety of Lenten themes, interspersed with scripture passages. The thousand-plus entries were compiled and edited by J. Robert Baker, Evelyn Kaehler, and Peter Mazar, with additional compilation help from James P. Barron, OP; Thomas Cademartrie; Elizabeth Hoffman; Gabe Huck; Mary McGann, RSCJ; G. Michael Thompson; and Elizabeth-Anne Vanek. The introduction is by Peter Mazar.

A Lent Sourcebook

I really love the scope of the selections, which come from church fathers, mystics, novelists, poets, songwriters, activists, theologians, saints and martyrs, the Roman Missal and the Byzantine Rite. There’s Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Elie Wiesel, John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot, Rainer Maria Rilke, Ambrose, Bonaventure, Dante, Negro spirituals and Shaker hymns and medieval carols, Jewish and Celtic blessings, Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Dag Hammarskjöld, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Sayers, Simone Weil, C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Daniel Berrigan, Oscar Romero, Desmond Tutu, Robert Farrar Capon, Walter Brueggemann, and many more.

These are some of the better-known names, but there are also names and texts that were new to me, some coming from obscure, out-of-print books or journal articles, and some of the selections that originated in Greek or Polish being translated afresh for this volume. There are a few African and Latin American voices represented, but most voices come from the West—a limitation that is understandable. Several compilation-style Lent devotionals I’ve used in the past feature only British and American writers, and this goes far beyond that, I’m glad to say. Just be aware that because A Lent Sourcebook is now three decades old, it doesn’t include any of the significant Christian voices that have emerged in more recent years.

Also be aware that this book was published by a Catholic institution, and the make-up of the compilation team was (from what I can tell) entirely Catholic, so that theology and tradition is heavily reflected. As a Protestant, that was not a barrier at all to me enjoying the book. There were a few selections that I take issue with on theological or practical grounds—but I never expect to agree with or to gravitate toward everything I read in an anthology! I appreciated learning more about the Catholic liturgies that surround Lent and some of the sources that inform or respond to them, as well as historical practices that developed in different locales. Eastern Orthodox liturgies are also featured, as are Protestant writings (including, in abundance, hymns!). There were several pleasant surprises for me.

I’ve read a handful of volumes from LTP’s Sourcebook series (which includes other liturgical seasons as well as topics like Baptism, Eucharist, Marriage, and so on), and they’re all great.

Because of the way I’m constituted, I tend to get more out of devotionals that integrate the arts rather than those that start off with a scripture passage followed by a lengthy prose reflection ending with a moral lesson or present-day application. I do appreciate discursive prose very much, but I like how this anthology also incorporates poetry, song, and fiction to stoke the imagination and showcase the beauty and multifacetedness of the gospel. Repentance, renewal, feasting and fasting, temptation, purity, divine love and mercy, prayer, silence, and eternity are among the themes addressed, and the biblical texts span from the Genesis narratives to the Pauline epistles.

A Lent Sourcebook is available in two different formats: a single, 462-page, perfect-bound volume (ISBN 9780929650364), which appears to be the only option available on the publisher’s website, or two spiral-bound volumes (9780929650203, 9780929650357), which is what came to me through my local library’s interlibrary loan system. The entries are organized by week (Week of Ash Wednesday, First Week of Lent, . . . Sixth Week of Lent), and those “chapters” are broken down further by day (First Sunday of Lent, etc.), extending from Carnival to Holy Thursday. Basic attributions are given in the margins of each page, with fuller citations available in the back of the book. Also, each page spread contains a simple square (woodcut? linocut?) illustration, printed in magenta, by Suzanne M. Novak.

A Lent Sourcebook sample spread

A Lent Sourcebook sample spread

Below is a sampling of passages I encountered here for the first time.

PURCHASE A LENT SOURCEBOOK:

+++

An effigy of the Carnival is, in a great many places, “condemned to death” and executed (the method of execution varies—sometimes it is burnt, sometimes drowned, sometimes beheaded). The “putting to death of Carnival” is often accompanied by general tussles; nuts are thrown at the grotesque creature itself, or everyone pelts everyone else with flowers or vegetables. In other places (around Tübingen, for instance) the figure of the Carnival is condemned, decapitated and buried in a coffin in the cemetery after a mock ceremony. This is called “Carnival’s funeral.”

The other episode which is of the same sort is the driving out or killing of “Death” in various forms. The most widespread custom in Europe is this: Children make a guy from straw and branches and carry it out of the village saying: “We are carrying Death to the water,” or something of the sort; they then throw it into a lake or well, or else burn it. In Austria, all the audience fight round Death’s funeral pyre to get hold of a bit of the effigy. There we see the fertilizing power of Death—a power attaching to all the symbols of vegetation, and to the ashes of the wood burnt during all the various festivals of the regeneration of nature and the beginning of the New Year. As soon as Death has been driven out or killed, Spring is brought in.

—Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion (1963)

+++

Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed and not a “mystery” to be explained. Religion and secularism, by explaining death, give it a “status,” a rationale, make it “normal.” Only Christianity proclaims it to be abnormal and, therefore, truly horrible.

—Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (1973)

+++

I was entrusted with a sinless and living land,
but I sowed the ground with sin
and reaped with a sickle the ears of laziness;
in thick sheaves I garnered my actions,
but winnowed them not on the threshing-floor of repentance.
I beg of you, my God, the eternal farmer,
with the wind of your loving-kindness
winnow the chaff of my works,
and grant to my soul the harvest of forgiveness;
shut me in your heavenly storehouse, and save me!

—Byzantine Vespers, from The Lenten Triodion, translated by G. Michael Thompson

+++

Alas, dear Christ, the snake is here again.
Alas, it is here: terror has seized me, and fear.
Alas that I ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge.
Alas that its envy led me to envy too.
I did not become like God; I was cast out of paradise.
Temper, sword, awhile, the heat of your flames
and let me go again about the garden,
entering with Christ, a thief from another tree.

—Gregory of Nazianzus, from Poemata Dogmatica (382 AD), translated from the Latin by Walter Mitchell and published in Early Christian Prayers, ed. Adalbert Hammon, OFM (1961)

(In this prayer the speaker likens himself to the thief who was executed on a “tree” beside Jesus on Calvary. I am “a thief from another tree,” Gregory confesses, having given in to temptation and stolen the fruit that was not mine. He apostrophizes the cherubim’s flaming sword that bars entry to Eden, begging it to cool down so that he might, by the merits of Christ, pass [back] into paradise, as did that penitent thief on Good Friday.)

+++

Even after several years with the reformed liturgy, it still comes as something of a shock to hear Lent described in the first Lenten preface as “this joyful season.” For those of us conditioned to imagine Lent as a grim, unpleasant time, the temptation will be either to shrug it off as poetic license or to associate it with a mother’s attempt to persuade a child to take its medicine.

But there is always C. S. Lewis. In his account of his youth and his journey of faith, Surprised by Joy (1955), Lewis gives us an inveigling definition of joy as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any satisfaction.” Here, perhaps, is something we can latch onto as we confront the notion of Lent as a “joyful season.”

Lent, in this perspective, is a time for eschewing pleasure in order to be surprised by joy, that unsatisfied desire more desirable than any satisfaction. Conversely, it is a time for recognizing the habit we have of seeking satisfactions that dull the deepest longing of the heart; the habit of having to have and not wanting to want. “The very notion of joy,” writes C. S. Lewis, “makes nonsense of our common distinction between having and wanting. There to have is to want and to want is to have.” Lent would then be a time for discovering what it is we really want, the heart’s desire, the restlessness which for Augustine is a symptom of our being made for something we can never possess. Paradoxically, knowing that longing brings joy.

—Mark Searle, “The Spirit of Lent,” in Assembly 8, no. 3 (1981), published by the University of Notre Dame Press

 +++

Each day may I remember the sources of the mercies thou hast bestowed on me gently and generously;
Each day may I be fuller in love to thyself.

Each thing I have received, from thee it came,
Each thing for which I hope, from thy love it will come,
Each thing I enjoy, it is of thy bounty,
Each thing I ask comes of thy disposing.

Holy God, loving Father, of the word everlasting,
Grant me to have of thee this living prayer:
Lighten my understanding, kindle my will, begin my doing,
Incite my love, strengthen my weakness, enfold my desire.

[. . .]

And grant thou to me, Father beloved,
From whom each thing that is freely flows,
That no tie over-strict, no tie over-dear
May be between myself and this world below.

—Celtic prayer compiled in the Carmina Gadelica, vol. 3, pp. 59–61, translated from the Gaelic by James Carmichael Watson (1940)

+++

“O Healing River” | Words by Fran Minkoff and music by Fred Hellerman, 1964

O healing river, send down your waters,
Send down your waters upon this land.
O healing river, send down your waters,
And wash the blood from off the sand.

This land is parching; this land is burning;
No seed is growing in the barren ground.
O healing river, send down your waters;
O healing river, send your waters down.

Let the seed of freedom awake and flourish;
Let the deep roots nourish; let the tall stalks rise.
O healing river, send down your waters,
O healing river, from out of the skies.

+++

“The Cast” by Sharon Olds (1985)

When the doctor cut off my son’s cast the
high scream of the saw filled the room
and the boy’s lap was covered with fluff like the
chaff of a new thing emerging, the
down in the hen-yard. . . . [Read the rest at poetryfoundation.org]

+++

Enter into the mystery of silence.

Your goal in life is not to hold your tongue but to love, to know yourself and to receive your God. You need to learn how to listen, how to retreat into the depths, how to rise above yourself.

Silence leads you to all this, so seek it lovingly and vigilantly. But beware of false silence: Yours should be neither taciturnity nor glumness, nor should it be systematic or inflexible, or torpid. Authentic silence is the gateway to peace, adoration and love.

Live your silence, don’t merely endure it.

—Pierre-Marie Delfieux, from the preface to A City Not Forsaken: Jerusalem Community Rule of Life (1985)

 

No Hard Feelings (Artful Devotion)

Reconciliation between knights
Detail from a 14th-century Sienese panel painting, showing two enemies being reconciled by an archangel, embracing each other after having cast aside their weapons. Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

—Matthew 5:21–24

+++

SONG: “No Hard Feelings” by the Avett Brothers, on True Sadness (2016)

I could listen to Seth Avett [previously] sing all day—and sometimes I do. (Lately I’ve been gorging on his cover of the Tom Waits song “Fish and Bird”!) His light, plaintive, silvery voice moves my soul in a way that producer Rick Rubin embodies in the 2018 HBO documentary May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers, as in the clip below. (He’s the long-bearded guy swaying around with his eyes closed.) “No Hard Feelings” is the crux of the film, and it made me cry when I first watched it. It’s an aspiration to live without bitterness, without malice, without enemies—an aspiration arrived at by contemplating one’s eventual death.

When my body won’t hold me anymore
And it finally lets me free
Will I be ready?
When my feet won’t walk another mile
And my lips give their last kiss goodbye
Will my hands be steady?

When I lay down my fears
My hopes and my doubts
The rings on my fingers
And the keys to my house
With no hard feelings

When the sun hangs low in the west
And the light in my chest
Won’t be kept held at bay any longer
When the jealousy fades away
And it’s ash and dust for cash and lust
And it’s just hallelujah
And love in thoughts and love in the words
Love in the songs they sing in the church
And no hard feelings

Lord knows they haven’t done
Much good for anyone
Kept me afraid and cold
With so much to have and hold

When my body won’t hold me anymore
And it finally lets me free
Where will I go?
Will the trade winds take me south
Through Georgia grain or tropical rain
Or snow from the heavens?

Will I join with the ocean blue
Or run into the Savior true
And shake hands laughing
And walk through the night
Straight to the light
Holding the love I’ve known in my life
And no hard feelings

Lord knows they haven’t done
Much good for anyone
Kept me afraid and cold
With so much to have and hold

Under the curving sky
I’m finally learning why
It matters for me and you
To say it and mean it too
For life and its loveliness
And all of its ugliness
Good as it’s been to me
I have no enemies
I have no enemies
I have no enemies
I have no enemies

[Related post: “The Way of Love (Artful Devotion)”]

Directed by Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio and filmed over the course of two years, May It Last charts the rise of the North Carolina folk rock band the Avett Brothers (Scott Avett [previously], Seth Avett, Bob Crawford, Joe Kwon) and follows them in the present during the creation of their multi-Grammy-nominated album True Sadness. The nucleus of the film is the brotherhood of Scott and Seth—their growing up in the South, their creative collaborations, and their constant love, respect, and support for one another. Marriage, divorce, parenthood, and illness are also highlighted, as these inform the songs on True Sadness, of which Seth says, “There are moments of undeniable celebration and camaraderie, others of quiet and lonely exhalation.” (This could really describe the Avett Brothers’ whole catalog.)

The documentary is wonderful; you should see it. It’s streaming for free on HBO or can be rented from YouTube, Amazon Prime, or Vudu.

+++

SALT Project paraphrases and expands on Jesus’ words from Sunday’s lectionary:

When God gave us this commandment, do you think the idea was that we would form a community in which we constantly antagonize each other, hate each other, abuse each other, wound each other—and then, at the last moment, refrain from murdering each other? Of course not. The spirit of “You shall not murder” is that your bearing toward your neighbors—both in your actions and in your dispositions, your hand and your heart—should never be enmity. Think of it this way: when you’re angry at your brother or sister, when you lash out with hateful words, isn’t that, too, in its own way a kind of violence, a lesser form of “murder”? Isn’t that, too, in its own way a violation of the commandment, an act of ruin against the healthy community the commandment is meant to help you create?


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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, cycle A, click here.

“noctilucent” by Matthew Pfaff

Bomer, Grace Carol_Song of the Nightengale
Grace Carol Bomer (Canadian American, 1948–), Song of the Nightengale, 2018. Mixed media, 24 × 18 in.

father, fill me w/ beauty
& call me beyond

to a training in weight & grandeur
& the glory of small birds.

& father, teach me yr depths & yr heights
& the silences that fill you

and fill me! pull back the tatter of ribs
& take out the stone that sits there,

replace it w/ the gospel
of dawn birds—father, if only

the right words were here this world
would be born anew—what is this thing

you’ve placed in me that shines
w/ precarious substance?

“noctilucent” by Matthew Pfaff was originally published in Rock & Sling in 2013.

This Little Light of Mine (Artful Devotion)

Schalcken, Godfried_A Boy Blowing on a Firebrand
Godfried Schalcken (Dutch, 1643–1706), A Boy Blowing on a Firebrand to Light a Candle, 1692–98. Oil on canvas, 75 × 63.5 cm. Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. Photo: Antonia Reeve.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

—Matthew 5:14–16

+++

SONG: “This Little Light of Mine,” American folk song, early twentieth century

[DaNell Daymon and Greater Works, feat. Kenisha Blackman, on America’s Got Talent, episode 1204, in 2017]

“This Little Light of Mine” is often attributed, with a date of 1920, to composer Harry Dixon Loes (1895–1965), a white man from the Midwestern United States; sometimes Avis B. Christiansen (1895–1985), a regular collaborator of his, is credited as lyricist. But according to NPR, “researchers at Moody Bible Institute, where Loes taught for 21 years, say they found no evidence he wrote the song or claimed to write it.” Other sources call the song a Negro spiritual, but because it doesn’t appear in any collection of plantation songs from the nineteenth century, that’s probably not true. It’s possible either the lyrics or melody or both originated in postbellum African American communities, and that Loes acted as an adapter/arranger. Either way, documentation is lacking. For more on the song’s attribution difficulties, see this blog post by the Rev. Daniel Harper, who concludes that it’s probably best to cite the song’s author as “Unknown.”

The earliest recording of the song is a version sung by Doris McMurray, a black inmate at Gorree State Farm prison in Huntsville, Texas, which music preservationists John and Ruby Lomax collected during their 1939 Southern States recording trip. Thereafter it became popular on a wider scale in both the black gospel and white folk traditions.

In 1952 it was recorded by the Ward Singers with a bridge—again, whose authorship is unknown:

On Monday, he gave me the gift of love;
On Tuesday, peace came from above.
On Wednesday, he told me to have more faith;
On Thursday, he gave me a little more grace.
On Friday, he told me to watch and pray;
On Saturday, he told me just what to say.
On Sunday, he gave me power divine
Just to let my little light shine.

This version is the one sung by folkies Pete Seeger and Bob Gibson.

During the 1950s and ’60s, “This Little Light of Mine” became an important civil rights anthem, a special favorite of Fannie Lou Hamer’s. The lyrics were adapted by Zilphia Horton, among others, to suit the context of freedom marches, etc. In 1959 Moe Asch of Folkway Records recorded an impromptu session at a Highlander Center workshop for activists in Tennessee, featuring a trio of high school students from the Montgomery Improvement Association: Mary Ethel Dozier, Minnie Hendrick, and Gladys Burnette Carter. The guitar accompaniment is by Guy Carawan, and the bass voice is Sam Collier of the Nashville Quartet from American Baptist Theological Seminary:

They sing, “Deep down in the South, I’m gonna let it shine . . .” and “We’ve got the light of freedom . . . God gave it to us . . .”

Bettie Mae Fikes, a song leader from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Selma, Alabama, markedly inserted the names of oppressors into the verses, such as Selma’s then sheriff: “Tell Jim Clark, I’m gonna let it shine!” Or “Tell the KKK,” or “our president.” Bold lines like these really bring out the defiance aspect of the song.

Although a piece of Americana, “This Little Light of Mine” caught on worldwide. It is part of the repertoire of the Soweto Gospel Choir from South Africa, who sings it in English and Zulu (“M’Lilo Vutha Mathanjeni”), often in medley with “If You Ever Needed the Lord”:

The song is also sometimes sung in medley with Jester Hairston’s “Amen,” as at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on May 19, 2018, where it was performed by the Kingdom Choir. This mashup has been recorded over the years by such soul artists as Sam Cooke (1964), Otis Redding (1966), and Etta James (1982).

Some notable renditions from the twenty-first century are by Odetta with the Boys Choir of Harlem (sung on The Late Show with David Letterman just after 9/11) (2001), Joss Stone and Buick Audra (2009), The Lower Lights (2009), and Bruce Springsteen with the Seeger Sessions Band:

In public arenas the song is sometimes decoupled from its Christian-specific context and used to proclaim more generally one’s inherent dignity or one’s uniqueness or potential or agency or the fire in one’s belly. That’s not incompatible with the intent of the passage in Matthew’s Gospel on which the song is based, but it stops a bit short, as the Gospel writer implies that the light is the light of the Christ who lives in us, and says that by letting him shine through—by letting people see the beauty of his gospel, expressed in deeds—we draw others into a state of gratitude and praise to 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 the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, cycle A, click here.