Treasure (Artful Devotion)

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

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

—Matthew 6:19–21

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

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

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In her poem “Storage,” Mary Oliver describes the total emptying of a storage unit she rented for years:

I felt like the little donkey when
his burden is finally lifted. Things!
Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful
fire! More room in your heart for love,
for the trees! For the birds who own
nothing—the reason they can fly.

Lent, which begins Wednesday, is a season for throwing out that which has been weighing us down—whether that be physical possessions, or things of the heart (such as unhealthy attitudes, habits, or dependencies; in a word, sins). It’s a spring cleaning of sorts, where we clear out those accumulations that have subtly edged out God. “Make a beautiful fire!” Oliver exclaims. A bonfire of vanities. Once you relinquish your burdens to the fire, you will be light as a bird, and free to fly.

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Giorgio Vasari described the floor of Siena Cathedral as “the most beautiful . . . , largest and most magnificent . . . ever made.” Read an excellent, beautifully photographed introduction to this allegorical masterwork, unique in terms of its technique and message, at https://operaduomo.siena.it/en/sites/floor/.

Siena Cathedral
View down the nave of Siena Cathedral

Is it a contradiction for the church to have poured much of its wealth into the making of this magnificent floor whose imagery, in part, categorizes earthly wealth as a potential pitfall on the path to Wisdom? No, I don’t think so. Its beauty glorifies Christ, proclaiming him the ultimate Treasure. This is not wealth hoarded away for personal security but wealth poured out before God, for the soul-nourishment of others. The spending of large sums of money on art when poverty persists is and will always remain a tricky conundrum (not least during Lent, when an ethic of simplicity and almsgiving are emphasized), but artist Makoto Fujimura navigates it quite well in his 1996 essay “The Extravagance of God.”


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To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Ash Wednesday, cycle C, click here.

Mary Oliver, poet of quietude and wonder

Articles and essays have been pouring forth from the web in tribute to the poet Mary Oliver since her passing on January 17. America’s most-read contemporary poet by far, Oliver approached the world with open-eyed wonder and delight, writing simply about nature and spirituality. “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement,” she wrote in “When Death Comes.”

Mary Oliver
Photo: Angel Valentin / New York Times

Although Oliver won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, she has been dismissed by many poetry critics as trivial, unsubtle, just an old-fashioned romantic. But that’s precisely what so many of her readers love about her: her uncomplicated free verse that finds beauty and mystery in the ordinariness of the natural world. She always insisted that poetry “mustn’t be fancy”; it should be clear, so as to be understood.

The subjects of most of her poems are the flora and fauna of, most especially, New England, where she lived most of her adult life. Herons, egrets, swans, geese, goldfinches, owls, loons; turtles, snakes, and toads; foxes, porcupines, moles, bears, deer, and dogs (a whole volume on dogs!); ants and grasshoppers, beetles and bees; whelks and whales and sea mice; daisies and goldenrod, roses and poppies and peonies; and so forth.

Oliver, though influenced by the Christianity of her youth, did not ultimately join the church. But, like Whitman and Thoreau before her, she perceived an unseen, transcendental Presence within the natural world. She even sometimes called that Presence “God” and even “Lord,” especially in her later poems. She carried on the long tradition of reading with relish the “book of nature”—nature as a source of divine revelation, a teacher of spiritual lessons. For example, in “Some Herons,” she describes the bird as “a blue preacher,” and in “The Chat,” she writes,

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

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

how I would like to sing to you
all night
in the dark
just like that.

Oliver’s “How the Grass and the Flowers Came to Exist, a God-Tale” is one of my favorite Creation poems, and this isn’t the only poem of hers that acknowledges a Creator God. “Spring at Blackwater: I Go Through the Lessons Already Learned” opens tenderly, sweetly, “He gave the fish / her coat of foil, / and her soft eggs.”

Some things I’ve learned from Mary Oliver: Gratitude. Awe. Silence. Prayer. Attention. And these five qualities are all interconnected. Her personal manifesto can be summed up by the fourth section of her poem “Sometimes”:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

If you’d like to read Mary Oliver, I highly recommend her final book, Devotions (2017), a compilation of 200+ previously published poems selected by Oliver herself and put out by Penguin. Spanning her career of more than fifty years, the book, though not exhaustive, presently serves as the definitive collection of her work.

Devotions by Mary Oliver

Coincidentally, I was in the middle of reading this volume when I found out about Oliver’s death. Several of her poems confront mortality, the transience of life, and many of her obituary writers have been fond of recalling those oft-quoted final lines of “The Summer Day.” But I am drawn to her “Prayer,” which when I read it instantly made me think of my play-full, wonder-full aunt whose ashes, too, now dance in the ocean:

May I never not be frisky,
May I never not be risqué.
May my ashes, when you have them, friend,
and give them to the ocean,
leap in the froth of the waves,
still loving movement,
still ready, beyond all else,
to dance for the world.


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Roundup: Liturgical video installation; Mynheer profile; SYTYCD; natural-world mystic poetry; lament song

“Mark Dean Projects Stations of the Cross Videos on Henry Moore Altar,” exhibition review and artist interview by Jonathan Evens: On April 15–16 St. Stephen Walbrook in London hosted an all-night Easter Eve vigil that featured a fourteen-video installation by artist-priest Mark Dean. Inspired by the Stations of the Cross, these videos were projected, in sequence and interspersed with readings and periods of silence, onto the church’s round stone altar by the famous modern artist Henry Moore (Dean wanted his work to be presented as an offering). The vigil culminated with a dance performance by Lizzi Kew Ross & Co and a dawn Eucharist. Evens writes,

Mark Dean’s videos are not literal depictions of the Stations of the Cross, the journey Jesus walked on the day of his crucifixion. Instead, Dean appropriated a few frames of iconic film footage together with extracts of popular music and then slowed down, reversed, looped or otherwise altered these so that the images he selected were amplified through their repetition. As an example, in the first Stations of the Cross video, a clip of Julie Andrews as the novice Maria from the opening scenes of The Sound of Music was layered over an extract, from the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho, of a car arriving at Bates Motel where Marion Crane would be murdered by Norman Bates. The blue of the sky and the innocence suggested by Maria’s religious vocation was in contrast with the footage from Psycho, which was indicative of the violent death to which Jesus was condemned. [Read more of the review, plus an interview with the artist, here.]

Stations of the Cross by Mark Dean
Mark Dean, “I. The Royal Road,” from Stations of the Cross cycle. Video projected on Henry Moore altar at St. Stephen Walbrook, London, April 15–16, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Evens
Stations of the Cross by Mark Dean
Mark Dean, “VIII. Daughters of Jerusalem,” from Stations of the Cross cycle. Video projected on Henry Moore altar at St. Stephen Walbrook, London, April 15–16, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Evens
Stations of the Cross by Mark Dean
Mark Dean, “IX. In Freundschaft,” from Stations of the Cross cycle. Video projected on Henry Moore altar at St. Stephen Walbrook, London, April 15–16, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Evens

Sounds like an exemplary integration of art and liturgy! You can read the catalog essay and watch the videos on Dean’s website, tailbiter.com. See also the interview with curator Lucy Newman Cleeve published in Elephant magazine.

“Featured Artist: Nicholas Mynheer” by Victoria Emily Jones: This month I wrote a profile on British artist Nicholas Mynheer for Transpositions, the official blog of the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. (There’s a glitch with their publishing tool that is preventing all the artworks from displaying, but all the ones I discuss in the article can be found at www.mynheer-art.co.uk.) A painter, sculptor, and glass designer, Nick works almost exclusively on religious subjects, in a style that blends influences from medieval, primitive, and expressionist art. I met him in 2013 and got to see his studio and his work in situ in various Oxford churches. His love of God and place was obvious from my spending just one afternoon with him. Other articles I’ve written are on Nick’s Wilcote Altarpiece, Islip Screen, and 1991 Crucifixion painting (which I own).

Harvest by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), Harvest, 2010. Oil on canvas, 70 × 70 cm.
Michaelmas Term Window by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), Michaelmas Term Window, 2012. Fused glass. Abingdon School Chapel, Oxfordshire, England.
Corpus of Christ by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), Corpus of Christ, 2010. English limestone, 85 cm tall.

Season 14 of So You Think You Can Dance premiered last Monday (the only TV show I never miss!). Watching dancers draws me into a deeper awe of God, as I see all the creative potentialities of the human body he designed. Here are my two favorite auditions from episode 1. The first is husband-wife duo Kristina Androsenko and Vasily Anokhin performing ballroom. The second is a modern dance number performed by Russian twins Anastasiia and Viktoriia; they gave no comment on the dance’s motivation or meaning, but it’s clear that it represents trauma of some kind.

“Why we need Mary Oliver’s poems” by Debra Dean Murphy: “Oliver is a mystic of the natural world, not a theologian of the church. . . . Her theological orientation is not that of orthodox Christianity. Nevertheless, Christians have much to gain from reading Oliver . . .” Her poems are “occasions for transfiguring the imagination and a summons to wonder and delight”; they remind us “of what it means to attend to what is before us in any given moment,” teach us to adopt “a posture of receptivity that Christians sometimes speak of as part of our vocation—the calling to live more fully into our humanity as persons bearing the imago dei, to mirror the divine dance of mutual presence, mutual receptivity, mutual love.” Some of my favorite Oliver poems are “Praying,” “I Wake Close to Morning,” “Messenger,” “The Summer Day,” and “How the Grass and the Flowers Came to Exist, a God-Tale.”

NEW SONG: “Weep with Me” by Rend Collective: Written last month in response to the Manchester Arena bombing, “Weep with Me” is a contemporary lament psalm in which the speaker asks God to do what the title says: weep with him. To feel his pain and respond. It’s introduced and performed acoustically by band member Chris Llewellyn in the video below.

On the video’s YouTube page, Rend Collective writes,

Can worship and suffering co-exist? Can pain and praise inhabit the same space? Can we sing that God is good when life is not? When there are more questions than answers? The Bible says a resounding yes: these songs are called laments and they make up a massive portion of the Psalms.

We felt it was fitting to let you hear this lament we’ve written today as we prepare to play tonight in Manchester. We can’t make the pain go away. We refuse to provide cheap, shallow answers. But hopefully this song can give us some vocabulary to bring our raw, open wounds before the wounded healer, who weeps with us in our distress. We pray that we can begin to raise a costly, honest and broken hallelujah. That is what it means to worship in Spirit and in Truth.