Lent, Day 5

LOOK: Lessons of Hearing by Laura Makabresku

Makabresku, Laura_Lessons of Hearing
Laura Makabresku (Polish, 1987–), Lessons of Hearing, 2021, photograph

Laura Makabresku is the artist pseudonym of Kamila Kansy, whose photographs are inspired by dreams, fairy tales, and the Christian story. Surreal and spiritual, her body of work moves me immensely. It’s so poetic. Divine and human love and suffering are recurring themes, and animals—doves, crows, deer, lambs, foxes—often appear. Follow her on Instagram @lauramakabresku and on Facebook.

Lessons of Hearing shows a young woman alone in a shadowy domestic space, listening intently to the Spirit. A crucifix and an icon of the Virgin and Child hang above her on the wall. A limited edition of this photograph is available for sale—signed, numbered, printed on archival Hahnemühle Baryta paper, and framed. Contact the artist if interested.

LISTEN: “Bring Forth” | Words by John Ernest Bode, 1869, with adaptations and refrain by Ben Thomas, 2015 | Music by Ben Thomas, 2015 | Album: Bring Forth

O Jesus, I have promised
To serve thee to the end;
Open my eyes within
To see your everlasting hand.
I shall not fear the struggle
If thou art by my side,
Nor wander from the pathway
If you will be my guide.

[Refrain] Bring forth the truth and beauty
Embedded deep inside.
Breathe life in every moment.
You will not leave my side.

O let me hear thee speaking
In accents clear and still,
Above the storms of trials,
The murmurs of self-will.
O speak to reassure me,
Strengthen and make me whole;
O speak, and let me listen,
Creator of my soul.

[Bridge] Bring forth the beauty (×8)

O Jesus, I have promised
To serve thee to the end.

Edicam pulchritudine (×8)

This song is about coming home to who we were created to be—good and beautiful, reflections of our Maker. Sadly, sin often leads us away from home, and God’s image that we bear becomes marred. But Christ walks alongside us, calling forth our truest selves, reminding us that we are God’s beloved. We have been redeemed, made alive by God’s Spirit, and are being sanctified. God is bringing forth the beauty he embedded in us at creation.

The speaker of the song seeks Christ’s guidance, illumination, strength, and wholeness. He prays for the ability to discern God’s voice above all the voices of this world that try to tell us we are less than, or that only such and such will satisfy us. And he prays for the will to obey. His desire is that he be animated moment by moment by the Holy Spirit (see Romans 8).

The last line, which I take to be in God’s voice, is Latin for “I will bring forth the beauty.”

This song appears on the Art & Theology Lent Playlist.

Roundup: Facing up to our faults, “How Prayer Works,” and more

Sundays are not counted toward the forty days of Lent (as they are feast days, not fast days), so I’m taking a break from my usual Lenten format today and for the next four Sundays to offer some supplemental content, such as a roundup of video, article, podcast, and event links, or a poem. Tomorrow I’ll resume with “Day 5” of the music-art pairings.

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DANCE VIDEO: “Lord, Forgive Me,” choreographed by Keone Madrid: A short dance number to a penitential song by hip-hop/R&B artist Mali Music, choreographed by Keone Madrid. The dancers embody stumbling, floundering, aching, weakness, shame, and pleading, as well as openness, humility, surrender, and peace—various postures/feelings associated with the act of confession. Starting at 42 seconds in, a succession of individuals stand or kneel in relative stillness at the right side of the frame, as if receiving the forgiveness they seek, while their dancing form is visible in the mirror.  

Keone, the man in the maroon shirt in the opening shot of the video, is one-half of the choreo, dancing, and directing duo Keone and Mari [previously], whose other recent work includes choreographing the adorable (!) 2021 Disney animated short Us Again (see trailer). Storytelling is at the root of their work, with themes including marriage, family, faith, and struggle.

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NEW SONG: “No More Hiding” by Ben Thomas: For the past few years singer-songwriter and spiritual teacher Ben Thomas has been writing what he calls “Mantrasongs,” songs “infused with intention” that are meant to get stuck in our head and connect us more fully to ourselves, others, and the Divine. Inspired by Fr. Richard Rohr’s book Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, this January Thomas started releasing a series of Mantrasongs on YouTube based on the Twelve Steps of Recovery, a tool developed in 1938 for Alcoholics Anonymous. “The 12 Steps of Recovery aren’t just for those addicted to substances,” Thomas writes. “They’re for all of us learning how to create lives of health and wholeness, free of the addictive patterns of thinking, seeing, and being that keep us living at a fraction of our capacity.”

“No More Hiding” is the fifth song in Thomas’s Twelve Steps series. It corresponds to step 5 of the twelve-step program: “Admit to God, to yourself, and to another human being the exact nature of your wrongs.” Christians would call this process “confessing our sins.” It can be a scary thing to do. It requires tremendous vulnerability and honesty. But oh, what freedom comes from confession! He sings here with Jenny Miller. The preceding songs in the series are:

  1. “A New Level of Let Go” (Admit that you are powerless over your addiction—that your life has become unmanageable.)
  2. “Make Me Whole Again” (Believe that a Power greater than yourself can restore you to sanity.)
  3. “To Know What Is” (Make a decision to turn your will and your life over to the care of God.)
  4. “Freedom in the Light” (Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself.)

Look out for a new Mantrasong each week. You can receive free song downloads from Ben Thomas by becoming a Patreon supporter.

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VIRTUAL EVENT: “Writing on Music, Meaning, and the Ineffable,” March 24, 2022, 6 p.m. ET: It’s been said that writing about music (or visual art, for that matter) is as pointless and impossible as dancing about architecture. Music and art need only be experienced; studied analysis or explanation lessens their impact and is reductive. While I can see the reasoning behind this assertion, and I often debate whether to comment on specific pieces that I post here versus let the art do its work without my intervention, I do (obviously!) feel that there is value in writing about the arts, and music writer Joel Heng Hartse does too. In this virtual launch event for his new book Dancing about Architecture Is a Reasonable Thing to Do, Hartse will be joined in conversation with poet Mischa Willett and musician John Van Deusen about art, faith, and criticism. Organized by Image journal.

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POETRY UNBOUND PODCAST EPISODES:

Poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama hosts these wonderful fifteen-minute immersive readings of contemporary poems selected from diverse sources. Here are two from last season that I particularly appreciated.

>> “How Prayer Works” by Kaveh Akbar: Kaveh Akbar is an Iranian American Muslim poet and scholar. In this narrative prose poem of his, two brothers, seven years apart, turn to face east in their small shared room when their prayer is interrupted by a surprising noise, setting off an eruption of laughter. “This poem holds the idea of prayer, which can often be an abstract one, with the physical sensation of what’s right in front of you, what’s happening, who’s right in front of you, how are you being with each other, what’s going on, how can you be drawn towards each other—and that that itself is the answer to prayer.”

>> “The Only Cab Service of Farmington, Maine” by Aria Abner: “This is a poem, really, that’s an exploration of place and all of the emotion and pain and beauty that can be gathered into memory of place,” Ó Tuama says. “A poem about conversation and about how you reach the edge of conversation.” Poet Aria Abner was born in Germany to Afghan parents but has lived in the United States since age eighteen. She writes about being picked up in a cab by a man who served in Afghanistan in the US Marines, and how he tries to connect with her through that geographic commonality but to little avail. “She is feeling estranged by the ways foreigners are speaking about a place that she’s from but hasn’t been able to grow up in.”

Advent, Day 12

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”

—Luke 1:5–25

LOOK: Zacharias and Elizabeth by Stanley Spencer

Spencer, Stanley_Zacharias and Elizabeth
Stanley Spencer (British, 1891–1959), Zacharias and Elizabeth, 1913–14. Oil and graphite on canvas, 142.6 × 142.8 cm. Tate Britain, London.

The modern British artist Stanley Spencer is famous for his paintings depicting the New Testament narrative unfolding in his small village of Cookham on the River Thames. The English countryside was a balm for him after his return from World War I, as in it he sensed the Divine. “Quite suddenly I became aware that everything was full of special meaning, and this made everything holy,” he said. “The instinct of Moses to take his shoes off when he saw the burning bush was very similar to my feelings. I saw many burning bushes in Cookham. I observed the sacred quality in the most unexpected quarters.”

Like Spencer’s other biblical paintings, Zacharias and Elizabeth features people and places that were familiar to him. Tate Britain, the museum that owns the work, describes it like this:

In the foreground of the composition is Zacharias, an elderly male figure dressed in white who is holding a pair of tongs over a flame, while another aged male, also wearing white – the Archangel Gabriel – approaches him stealthily from behind. The figure of Zacharias is also repeated in the background of the painting: behind a wood and metal fence, staring blankly outward while the auburn-haired Elizabeth stands to his right with her arms outstretched. A large, smooth, curved wall divides the painting vertically, separating these two scenes. The figure of Elizabeth appears again behind the wall, with only her upper body visible. Two further figures are also depicted in the painting: a gardener who resembles traditional representations of both Jesus and John the Baptist is seen at the right dragging an ivy branch, a conventional symbol of everlasting life and Resurrection, and an unidentified woman wearing a dark claret dress kneels behind a gravestone while touching the curved dividing wall with her right hand.

Art critic and curator Sarah Milroy interprets this woman in the left midground as a surrogate for Spencer. She writes,

In childhood, Spencer believed that the Bible stories his father read aloud to the family at night could be glimpsed in Cookham, if only he could get a peek over top of the cottage walls. The little girl with her feverish, ember-red eyes, spying on the holy scene from her hiding place behind the curved white wall, serves as a stand-in for the artist himself.

For another meditation I wrote on a Spencer painting, see “Resurrection Now,” part of the Visual Commentary on Scripture project.

LISTEN: “Zechariah and the Least Expected Places” by Ben Thomas, on The Bewildering Light by So Elated (2008)

Jerusalem and the holy temple filled with smoke
Zechariah shuns the news from the angel of hope
Stuck behind an incense cloud of religion and disappointment

God keeps slipping out of underneath rocks
In alleys off the beaten path
Open both your eyes

Prophets and kings and poets can contribute their work
Just like eggs in a nest are alive with the promise of birds
But the Lord of creation will not be subjected to expectation

God keeps slipping out of underneath rocks
In alleys off the beaten path
Open both your eyes

Elizabeth, barren, her knees black and dirty like coal
Her consistent prayers float to the sky and revive her soul
God, we will wait though we don’t understand your redemptive story

God keeps slipping out of underneath rocks
In alleys off the beaten path
Open both our eyes

Roundup: Virtual Advent concerts, dreams deferred, pop-up floral memorials, and more

The Christmas–Epiphany 2020/21 edition of the Daily Prayer Project [previously], a publication I work for part-time, released this week! The cover image is from the sanctuary mural at Holy Angels Catholic Church in Chicago, by Cameroonian artist-priest Engelbert Mveng. (See the full mural here.) Also in this edition are images of Grace Carol Bomer’s From Strength to Strength, showing Light stepping into darkness, and the Piper-Reyntiens stained glass window in Coventry Cathedral, with its yellow sunburst amid an abstract pattern of reds, blues, and greens. We include visual art as a supplement to the prayers, scripture readings, and songs with the understanding that it, too, can promote spiritual development and a deeper communion with God.

You can purchase a digital copy (PDF) of the Christmas–Epiphany edition (December 24–February 16) through the website, and if in the future you’d like to receive hard copies, starting with Lent 2021, you can become a monthly subscriber. Part of the money goes to supporting artists.

On a related note: My colleagues at the DPP have curated an excellent Spotify playlist, “DPP Advent Songbook,” that is reflective of the types of music featured in the prayerbooks (in the form of simplified lead sheets, typically four songs per edition). Check it out!

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Whenever I see a Helena Sorensen [previously] byline, I perk up, because I always find myself connecting so much with her writing. She’s a regular contributor to the Rabbit Room blog. Her two most recent posts are “Things Fall Apart” and “Advent, Week One: Hope.” They’re both great.

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Unburden: A Virtual Interactive Exhibit, December 4, 2020–January 8, 2021: The Gallery at W83 is part of a 45,000-square-foot cultural center built by Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan’s Upper West Side as a service to the city’s artists and larger community. W83 Events and Programming Director Eva Ting has curated a virtual exhibition of photographs and stories from Kristina Libby’s Floral Heart Project, a series of living memorials to those lost to or suffering from COVID-19. Libby initiated the project in New York City in May, partnering with 1800Flowers.com to place floral heart garlands all around the city to create space for ceremony and to invite the community to process and mourn. The project has since grown nationwide.

“Many of us are carrying burdens of loss, anxiety, and uncertainty as we move towards the end of 2020,” Ting writes. “We have all been impacted in some way by the events of this year, and we bear fatigue weighed heavier by the inability to gather as a community to collectively grieve. In this interactive virtual exhibit Unburden, the Gallery at W83 invites you to participate in an unburdening of the load we carry.”

The exhibition webpage invites you to release personal burdens by writing down any grief, fears, loss, or anxiety you wish to let go of (can be submitted anonymously if desired). These words will be incorporated into a new floral heart laying on December 20 at Fort Tryon Park, an event that will be livestreamed. You can also ask for prayer, and members of the W83 team will pray for your requests. “Through these individual and collective acts of unburdening, may we imagine what it would look like to truly let go of these burdens.”

Floral Heart Project (Brooklyn Bridge)
Photo by Erica Reade

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I enjoyed attending the virtual “Songs of Hope: A TGC Advent Concert,” featuring music and spoken-word performances from a variety of artists (see YouTube description), interspersed with Advent readings. It was a truly meaningful worship experience.

I’m sure there are many more virtual Advent/Christmas concerts and other online events coming up. What ones are you most looking forward to?

One that I’ll probably be tuning in to is “We Three Queens Holiday Show” by Pegasis, a sister trio, on December 17, 8:30 p.m. EST (7:30 p.m. CST). It will be live on Facebook and and Instagram. (Update, 12/17/20: View the performance here. My favorite two songs are probably “Poncho Andino” at 19:04 and “Mary Had a Baby” at 45:24—such a unique arrangement!)

There’s also “A Candlelit (Virtual) Room: The Advent Christmas Music of Ben Thomas” on December 11 and 12 (10 p.m. EST and 8 p.m. EST, respectively), two private Zoom concerts open to the first twenty-five registrants each. He’ll be performing original songs from his albums The Bewildering Light, The Wilderness Voice, and Peace Here, all of which I recommend. My favorite tracks: “Justice Will Sprout from the Ground,” “Zechariah and the Least Expected Places,” and “Shepherds and Angels.” (The latter two were recorded under the name So Elated.)

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POEM: “Harlem” by Langston Hughes: This is a brilliant poem—its sensory images, its rhythm, its rhyme, its multivalence (especially the last line). I loved it so much when I first read it in ninth grade that I memorized it unbidden. When writer and podcaster Joy Clarkson posted a reflection on the poem for her Patreon community in October, resulting in a lively conversation thread in the comments section, it reignited my enthusiasm for and got me thinking more deeply about “Harlem.” She opened by quoting Proverbs 13:12: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, / But desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”

“What happens to a dream deferred? // Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?” Written in 1951 as part of a sequence of poems exploring black life in Harlem, “Harlem” is inextricably tied to the civic discourse of the contemporary American moment, writes Scott Challener in Poetry Foundation’s guide to the poem. The “dream” he refers to is the so-called American Dream, unattainable for so many due to racial inequalities and oppression. (Also assigned in the ninth-grade English curriculum is Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which takes its title from and addresses the questions of “Harlem.”)

While not wishing to strip the poem of its specific context, I have been thinking about all the dreams that have been deferred this year—put on hold, or even irretrievably lost, because of COVID-19. Hughes posits a string of descriptive similes for a deferred dream: a dried-up raisin, a festering sore, rotting meat, a crusted-over sweet, a sagging load. One commenter on Joy’s Patreon observed how a raisin can’t turn back into a grape, rotten meat can’t be made fresh again, and an overcooked dessert can’t be cooked back down (though perhaps the burnt bits could be scraped off), but a sore can heal and a load can be lifted.

The final suggestion—“or does it explode?”—can be read in myriad ways. In one respect it could refer to the explosion of cultural output, of creativity, that results from deferred dreams—i.e., the Harlem Renaissance. I’ve definitely seen this happen this year, as people, in the face of crushing personal and professional disappointments, have found unique ways to come together and produce and share works of beauty within the restrictiveness of health and safety protocols. One example—speaking of Harlem—is the Dance Theatre of Harlem, a groundbreaking neoclassical ballet company founded at the height of the civil rights movement in 1969 and still active today. Bans on gatherings of certain numbers have meant that dancers and other performers have had to find alternative ways of reaching their audiences, so DTH artists Derek Brockington and Alexandra Hutchinson created “Dancing Through Harlem,” taking choreography from Robert Garland’s “New Bach” out into the streets and capturing it on video for people to enjoy from home. To help support the DTH during this time, you can donate easily through the fundraising sidebar on the video’s YouTube page or through the company’s website.

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SONG: “400 Years” by Sarah Sparks: This original song, sung with Kate Lab, appears on Sarah Sparks’s new album, Advent, Pt. One. It’s about how the centuries-long silence of God between the ministry of Malachi (ca. 420 BCE) and the appearance of John the Baptist in the early first century CE was broken with the birth of Jesus—the Word made flesh. Its refrain, “For the first time, not a silent night,” cleverly turns on its head the sweet, familiar carol “Silent Night.” Through the incarnation, God spoke to all who would listen.

Girded with Joy (Artful Devotion)

Klee, Paul_Joyful Mountain Landscape
Paul Klee (Swiss, 1879–1940), Heitere Gebirgslandschaft (Joyful Mountain Landscape), 1929. Oil on board, 17 5/16 × 24 13/16 in. (43.9 × 63.1 cm). Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut.

By awesome deeds you answer us with righteousness,
O God of our salvation,
the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas;
the one who by his strength established the mountains,
being girded with might;
who stills the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
the tumult of the peoples,
so that those who dwell at the ends of the earth are in awe at your signs.
You make the going out of the morning and the evening to shout for joy.

You visit the earth and water it;
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide their grain,
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with abundance.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.

—Psalm 65:5–13

Psalm 65 is a such a magnificent praise song, and I especially love the expression in verse 12: “the hills gird themselves with joy” (ESV). Other translations have “the little hills rejoice on every side” (KJV), “the hillsides blossom with joy” (NLT), and “the hills [are set] to dancing” (MSG). The picture extends into the final verse, where, along with pastures, meadows, and valleys, the mountains “shout and sing” to their Creator. Last year when I saw Paul Klee’s Joyful Mountain Landscape at the Yale University Art Gallery, I instantly thought of this psalm—of how nature sings praises to God simply by being itself.

Human beings are called to join in creation’s joyful song.

[Related post: “Creation’s Praise” (Artful Devotion)]

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SONG: “I Sing the Mighty Power of God” | Words by Isaac Watts, 1715 | Music (tune: ELLACOMBE) from Gesangbuch der Herzogl, Württemberg, 1784

I sing the mighty power of God
that made the mountains rise,
that spread the flowing seas abroad
and built the lofty skies.
I sing the wisdom that ordained
the sun to rule the day;
the moon shines full at his command,
and all the stars obey.

I sing the goodness of the Lord
that filled the earth with food;
he formed the creatures with his word
and then pronounced them good.
Lord, how thy wonders are displayed,
where’er I turn my eye,
if I survey the ground I tread
or gaze upon the sky.

There’s not a plant or flower below
but makes thy glories known,
and clouds arise and tempests blow
by order from thy throne;
while all that borrows life from thee
is ever in thy care,
and everywhere that man can be,
thou, God, art present there.

For a fairly traditional rendition of this classic hymn, here’s a three-part a cappella arrangement performed by the Ball Brothers in 2012:

If you prefer a more modern sound, check out the version by Ben Thomas on the 2015 album Bring Forth. Thomas wrote a new melody for the song and recorded it under the title “I Sing the Goodness” (using the language of verse 2 instead of 1).

The whole Bring Forth album is great, which takes as its basis thirteen hymn lyrics dating from the fourth through twentieth centuries—“all seeking to find the Divine in the everyday elements of our existence,” Thomas says. Thomas adapted and retuned the hymns and released them in three movements that echo the cycle of time: Dawn, Day, and Dusk. To guide you through your listening, there is a meditation and prayer for each movement published on his website.

Other favorites of mine from the album are “Creator God, Creating Still,” “Tell Me the Old, Old Story,” “Lord of All Being,” “Peace, Troubled Soul,” and “Bring Forth.”


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 10, cycle A, click here.