Thursday, August 30, 2007

Questioning God IV - Psalm 6

Continuing on in the questioning of God in the Psalms, I hope to explore several individual Psalms. Psalm 6 seems like a good place to start.

Peter C. Craigie calls Psalm 6 a psalm of sickness[1] that affects both body and soul. It is quite easy to imagine the state of the individual, near death, crying out to God for help and health. The question in vs. 3 says, “My soul also is struck with terror, while you, O Lord, how long?” This question, among others, is particularly evocative. The psalmist, “gasping as a stammerer”[2] cannot even finish the question. It is a poetic portrayal of the psalmist desperation and critical state. However, Mays notes that this state of affliction is not “mutely accepted” but is opposed to it by saying, “‘Don’t…heal…turn…save,’ the prayer pleads, as though it were certain that God’s usual and preferred way with human beings favored health and life.”[3] Such fear of death and discipline has brought the psalmist to plea his case.

We see the theme of the righteous sufferer emerge in verses one and two for the request not to rebuke or discipline the psalmist in God’s anger. From this perspective, we can see the underlying question of protest. If the psalmist is innocent, and there is no direct confession of sin in the psalm,[4] then it seems to implicate Yahweh in his sickness. Craigie notes that the psalmist’s plea for deliverance in vs. 4-7, “Return, O LORD, save my life” is based on God’s “steadfast” or covenant love.[5] Yet the underlying implication is that God has deserted him.
Within Psalm 6 is the profound role of memory that was noted in the beginning. Verse 5 states, “In death there is no remembrance of you.” The question functions liturgically where Israel’s memory of God’s past action brings about praise. But the re-enacting of human memory before God, also reminds God of his past actions and covenant.[6] It is a reminding God to be God.
This psalm is also a fine example of Westermann’s three-fold typology of participants: Yahweh, humans, and enemies. Verse 8-10 introduces the enemies as the third participant. But in the course of the psalm, God has heard the plea and protest and come to the aid of the psalmist and thus vanquishing also his enemies. That which was offered in plea and protest successfully motivated Yahweh to act on his behalf.

[1] Peter C. Craigie, Psalms: 1-50, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 19, (Waco, TX: Word Books Publisher, 1983), 91.
[2] Artur Weiser, The Psalms, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962), 130.
[3] Mays, 60.
[4] Weiser states, “The recognition of the psalmist’s sinfulness indeed forms the background of the psalm and is implied within it, but the actual confession of sin is entirely lacking” (Weiser, 130). Craigie also mentions the possible sin interpretation but prefers the “righteous sufferer” interpretation (Craigie, 92).
[5] Craigie, 92-93. This is one of the generalizing adjectives that became normative for Israel’s speech about who Yahweh was. See Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 213 and note 12.
[6] Craigie, 93.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Questioning God pt. III

Continuing on in this series:

Claus Westermann argues that there are typically three main participants in protests and laments: Israel, who speaks the protest and petition; Yahweh, who is being addressed; and often the enemy, whom Israel is seeking help against.[1] Yet these forms appear with variations between the individual and corporately enacted psalms. Westermann has said that the individual is still never an “isolated individual standing alone” rather he is always in some relations to another.[2] He builds on that saying, “prayer always has a communal or social aspect: a man is never alone with God…Here we see social relationship, in sharp contrast to any idea of an inner piety: living with God cannot be separated from living with others, the two belong together.”[3] These are encouraging and needed words in our radically individualistic culture.

Westermann also points out that the three participants mirror a unified nature of humanity: theology (God), sociology (others), psychology (self).[4] By way of example, if the psalmist is facing death, it is not as an isolated entity. He does so as a member of a community. But as the faithful one faces the realities of death, it leads them to ask “why” and question the nature or source of the suffering, and thus drawn to God.

The “how long” form is the second most frequent question of God, to the “why” question posed to and at Yahweh in an apparent long enduring of suffering. The “How long?” questions ask about the absence of God and are predominated with terms of anger.[5] Within the communal lament, God is often portrayed as the direct or indirect cause of the current distress, often including clashes with the enemies.[6] Westermann notes that these complaints against God “tread that thin line between reproach and judgment. But never do they condemn God, for the utterances are never objective statements.”[7] And despite all the confusion and frustration the psalmist feels, they are never portrayed as abandoning God.

The psalmist’s suffering is the second participant in lament psalms and occupies a less significant role than the complaint against Yahweh, though the two are intimately bound together. The corporate lament is often tinged with both suffering and disgrace of the second participant. While a little more complicated in the lament of the individual, the causes of distress vary from physical and spiritual suffering, the immanence of death, and more general laments.[8]

Complaints about the enemy, the third participant in laments, occur in both individual and corporate experiences. The enemy constitutes a basic component during times of war and is closely related to the corporate complaint against God. Often the accusation against the enemy contains two foci: a) what they have done to Yahweh’s people, and b) their slander and abuse.[9] In the individual experiences of the enemy, statements often concern either an act of the enemy upon the lamenter (which are most frequent) or are statements about the nature of the enemy.[10]

[1] Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, 169, 174-194. See also Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 375. Also Philip S. Johnston seems to utilize Westermann’s 3-fold typology but renames them “agents of distress” in Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and Approaches, ed. David Firth & Johnston (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005), 74-78.
[2] Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, 170.
[3] Westermann, The Living Psalms, 70.
[4] Ibid., 70.
[5] Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, 177.
[6] Johnston, in Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and Approaches, 74.
[7] Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, 177. Does this mean they are just emotional eruptions? How seriously does God take them then?
[8] Ibid., 186.
[9] Ibid., 180.
[10] Ibid., 189-194.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Questioning God pt. II

The question, “How long” seems to function with two different, but interrelated, intentions. Israel’s questions were not abstract or generic musings, but were immersed in concrete life experiences. First and foremost, the queries are pleas from the rugged and overwhelming depths of human experience to the One whom they trusted could rectify their situation. And yet, they are not simply about receiving a time-table from God. While the questions are in one sense, an avowal of trust that Yahweh is good and faithful and will act on their behalf, experience and expectation do not always meet. Brueggemann states:
"Israel is profoundly aware of the incongruity between the core claims of covenantal faith and the lived experience of its life. Covenantal faith had dared to make the claim that the world is completely coherent under the rule of Yahweh, so that obedience leads to shalom. Israel’s lived experience, however, makes clear that an obedient life on occasion goes unrewarded or even suffers trouble in ways that should not have happened.”[1]

Within this disparity, the questions function secondarily to probe Yahweh’s actions and various states of “hiddenness, ambiguity, instability, or negativity.”[2] Israel’s position, which generates the plea, is also a near indictment of Yahweh’s lack of accountability and responsibility in their state, in contrast to that which was promised them. It is a critical comment on the covenantal relationship.

Israel’s interrogations seem to ask if their covenantal partner is faithful. Are Yahweh’s self-revelations in word and deed are ultimately correlative of Yahweh’s character? Israel, having accepted what Brueggemann terms the normative adjectives from Exodus 34.6-7[3] (merciful, gracious, slow to anger, steadfast love, abounds in faithfulness, forgiving) as central testimony about who Yahweh is, calls these very same things into question in their cross-examination of Yahweh.[4] We begin to see that Israel’s questions are not only to Yahweh about their suffering state, but accusatorily at Yahweh for perceived infidelity to the covenant and Yahweh’s own self revelation and character. The seriousness of Israel’s petition to God is now escalated to confrontational levels in hopes to engage Yahweh.[5]

It is proper to examine the question in other non-psalmic scripture to see if the dual functions follow. We see the question asked by both Yahweh and Joshua as a rebuke of Israel in Exodus 16.28; Numbers 14.11, 27; Joshua 18.3. Also, shows up in Moses attempt to aright Pharaoh in Exodus 10.3; as Eli censures Hannah in 1 Samuel 1.14; and in Job’s interactions with his critics in 8.2 and 18.2. Gerstenberger notes that all of these instances introduce “reproachful speech apparently after repeated efforts to amend the situation have failed...The undertone in all these passages is that a change is overdue.”[6]

And yet it is the very serious state of crisis which propels Israel to approach Yahweh in simultaneous speech of hope and doubt of Yahweh’s true integrity. The laments and complaints speak both about the utter collapse of all poles of orientation and yet claim that Yahweh, though perhaps not hidden, is still in control.[7] But then again, if Yahweh is in control, he is either explicitly or implicitly responsible for their misfortunes. It is an insistent and forceful hope where the crisis of doubt proves Israel’s faith. The lament structure itself seems to lead the speaker into, through, and out of the darkness.[8] Thus Israel’s hopeful plea to Yahweh, out weighs the underlying critique. It is a hopeful appeal and provocation for Yahweh to remedy the unbearable situation on the basis of covenantal faithfulness and Yahweh’s own integrity.[9]

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 378-9.
[2] Ibid., 318.
[3] Exodus 34.6-7 - The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.
[4] Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 213-14.
[5] I cannot help but to wonder if this is Israel’s attempt at manipulating Yahweh to action with the threat of maligning his character.
[6] Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Psalms: Part 1 With an Introduction to Cultic Poetry, Vol. XIV, The Forms of the Old Testament Literature, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 84.
[7] Brueggemann, Message of the Psalms, 54.
[8] Ibid., 54.
[9] There seems to be some debate over the categorization many of the Psalms. While lament is one of the main categories, Westermann suggests that the “appeal” to God represents the core of the lament psalm. Westermann chooses to retain the traditional wording, with this point having been made. Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), 33-34. While Brueggemann would like to make another subdivision or clarification, not on petition, but like more in line with provocation regarding the complaint nature of the psalms. He states, “It is important to note that these psalms are indeed voices of complaint or judicial protest, and not lamentations, as they are often called” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 374).

Thursday, August 23, 2007

the Trumpet Child

Last Thursday a wonderful package arrived in my mailbox at the seminary. Quivering with delight to receive anything in a media mail envelope I tore through its adhesive tape to find Over the Rhine’s latest studio album: The Trumpet Child. Ever the artists, this album is no different. That is to say it is an artistic beauty. A wandering through American music…folk, jazz, and alt-country. OTR has released 2 live albums, a Christmas album and a greatest hits album since their last studio set Drunkard’s Prayer. Drunkard’s Prayer was an amazing album of confession and truth telling describing the reclaiming of Karin and Linford’s marriage its honesty and weight is palpable. TC, their 10th album carries a welcomed lighter and more playful tone and exploration of their craft. But again, this is no pop album. It is a poetic and musical wrestling with topics ranging from sexuality to eschatology.

Despite the wonderful variety of songs on the cd, the title track to the album was the one that caught my attention. In the liner notes of Films For Radio, the pair picks up on Flannery O’Conner’s phrase describing their music as “Christ haunted.” While their music is definitely that, some songs are a little more explicit…like the Trumpet Child. It is eschatology in a musical key. The creative pairing of Gabriel and Satchmo (Louis Armstrong) to beautifully announce the return is captivating. In the second section we see a present reality to what will happen. The third tells us why…God’s love for creation. They also continue on with the musical theme by referencing Thelonious Monk, the well known jazz drummer. And this kingdom to come moves by a different cadence than this one. OTR seems to be a pan-millennialist (i.e. that it will all pan out in the end), cherishing mystery over certainty. Their vision of the return certainly shows a social re-orientation where the rich exchange what is lesser for what is greater and the hunter rests with the hunted. And again, the two return to the theme of love and joy for God’s greater purposes in spite of humanity’s destructive tendencies. A beautiful song.

the Trumpet Child
The trumpet child will blow his horn
Will blast the sky till it’s reborn
With Gabriel’s power and Satchmo’s grace
He will surprise the human race

The trumpet he will use to blow
Is being fashioned out of fire
The mouthpiece is a glowing coal
The bell a burst of wild desire

The trumpet child will riff on love
Thelonious notes from up above
He’ll improvise a kingdom come
Accompanied by a different drum
The trumpet child will banquet here
Until the lost are truly found
A thousand days, a thousand years
Nobody knows for sure how long

The rich forget about their gold
The meek and mild are strangely bold
A lion lies beside a lamb
And licks a murderer’s outstretched hand

The trumpet child will lift a glass
His bride now leaning in at last
His final aim to fill with joy
The earth that man all but destroyed

Monday, August 20, 2007

Breadbasket Profanity?

Since I was a child I have had a strange fascination with war. I would ask for picture books and check them out of the library as it was one of the few things I would read about. I had youthful plans of joining the military, but what once was a naïve patriotism has in the past 10 years become soundly checked by a growing theology and pacifism. But while I strongly disagree with war, I am still fascinated by its machinery and history.

This summer I had the opportunity to explore a bit further in the beautiful land of our northern neighbor: North Dakota. I had never been much beyond Bismark. But this year brought two trips to Turtle Lake, ND and north through Minot on our journey home. One of the nuggets of knowledge that I grew up knowing was the presence of the nuclear silos across ND. It never really seemed strange to me rather a matter of fact. And yet this summer when we started passing them on the road, they were startling to me. They had been part of my mental understanding of the world but I had never had the opportunity to experience them. What seemed strange was how near they were to the road and family farms. For me, the farm I grew up on is a sacred space and I would imagine that for many in my wife’s family, the homestead is sacred as well. And yet, the missile silo just down the road for them has become a common place. To my pacifist leanings, something like that in my “backyard” would qualify a profane space. A profane space I was still attracted to and would jump at the chance to tour and explore if I had the opportunity. What are we to do with place like this that really can serve little good? Should we consider them as profane because of what is housed in the ground? or because of what it represents? or has the potential to do? If this place is profane, can it be redeemed? And then how?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Questioning God

Several years ago, likely after the events of 9/11, I began to hear a call to renew or return to the language of lament within our worship. It was such a novel idea that I had no conception of what lament should look like within any shape of liturgy. But it was Don Saliers who first gave me the freedom to find such an expression and necessity in the language of our liturgies. This project has given me another opportunity to explore the language of lament and in particular the questions of complaint that the psalmist posed, not just to God, but at God.

Saliers thoughts are directed toward the shape and theology of our liturgies and how the language of lament forms an essential component of our worship. In his view, “Christian liturgy transforms and empowers when the vulnerability of human pathos is met by the ethos of God’s vulnerability in word and sacrament.”[1] Truly authentic worship lifts up human reality, in all of its complexities and roughness to transformation by the Holy Spirit. Liturgy without lament would seem to ring false, becoming “anorexic, starving for honest emotional range.”[2] And yet, it is so often left out or even suppressed from our worship language. Perhaps their omission is rooted in a fear of sinfulness, unfaith, or an overwrought politeness that these questions concerning the brutality of human experience in the light of God’s promised goodness and past actions, are rarely given full exploration. Simply put, “lament is seen as a negative way of speaking, unfitted for a prayer to God.”[3] Unfortunately this has resulted in our ecclesial communities losing the language of lament, it may serve as a corrective for those that wish to withdraw from life as it really is, to pretense and romance in the unreal world of heavenly or holy things.”[4]

What struck me was that we are so incredibly polite with God. At times, this is rightly so. But there is also a confidence that our faith brings, combined with out utter neediness that we may boldly approach God baring the ugly realities of all that is wrong to the only One who can set things aright. The psalmist’s testimonies left nothing out of their purview: praise and bitterness, hope and fear, life and death. And a good number of psalms emerging from this emotional gamut also contain brute and penetrating questions of Yahweh: Why? Where? How long? Saliers says that their laments (and these questions of complaint) are firmly rooted in the covenant, utilizing memory of the individual and community of God’s past actions. But more provocatively, they remind God of God’s own past actions. In other words, they remind God to be God.[5]

These questions posed to and at Yahweh, emanate from the individual or communal nerve rubbed raw, furnishing an expression of Israel’s deepest needs and concerns in response to Yahweh’s personal invitation. Hans-Joachim Kraus speaks of the summons:
Yahweh himself calls to the men and women of Israel and invites them, ‘Seek ye my face’ (Ps. 27.8)… ‘Call upon me in the day of trouble’ (Ps. 50.15). The call and invitation are accompanied by God’s promises, ‘I will deliver you’ (Ps. 50.15); ‘Fear not, I will help you’ (Isa. 41.13). Yahweh’s word opens the way to petition and thanks. The one who comes to pray comes in the assurance of God’s help. Therefore the institutions of worship bare the sign of God’s accessibility.[6]

But this “open way” and “accessibility” of Yahweh also opens the proverbial door to more than Israel’s petitions and thanks. At times, Israel takes advantage or opportunity of Yahweh’s accessibility and vulnerability in their intimate partnership, to question Yahweh in the disparate light of experience and covenant. This exchange clearly shows that “biblical faith, as it faces life fully, is uncompromisingly and unembarrassedly dialogic.”[7] Brueggemann contrasts Israel and Yahweh’s dialogical partnership with how “gingerly” this reciprocity is treated today in the church. He states,
"If we are dialogic at all, we think it must be polite and positive and filled only with gratitude. So little do our liturgies bring expression to our anger and hatred, our sense of betrayal and absurdity. But even more acutely, with our failure of nerve and our refusal to presume upon our partner in dialogue, we are seduced into nondialogical forms of faith, as though we were the only ones there; and so we settle for meditation and reflection."[8]

Ultimately, our biblical example of Israel’s interactive expression with Yahweh is based in their intimate relationship which gives rise to profound questioning of Yahweh. The lament and complaint simultaneously give “witness to a robust form of faith that affirms that God seriously honors God’s part of the exchange”[9] as well as, the worth of humanness and our experience. Human experience in a fallen world is sure to encounter that which seems unfair and disproportionately wrong. But these laments and complaints give free expression to that which is overwhelmingly incongruent and are not just petty or trivial whining about their condition. Israel saw within their respected relationship with Yahweh, the right to come before the Lord and make complaints and protests grounded in covenantal faithfulness. Israel refused the mute acceptance of their conditions as “God’s will” as so often found in our spiritual vocabularies today. Nor were these vigorous protests to Yahweh acts of unfaith, but vocalized uprisings of their freedom and responsibility.

[1] Don Saliers, Worship As Theology: Foretaste of Glory Divine, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1994), 22.
[2] Ibid., 121.
[3] Claus Westermann, The Living Psalms, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 67. Westermann notes that since the middle ages and into the more recent times, “most people generally regarded suffering as a consequence of sin and a punishment for sin” (67).
[4] Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D. Miller, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 67. Elsewhere Brueggemann says similar things, “It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not what to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to come, not from faith, but from wishful optimism of our culture.” (Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), 51.
[5] Saliers, 35.
[6] Hans-Joachim Kraus, Theology of the Psalms, Translated by Keith Crim, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing, 1979), 141.
[7] Brueggemann, Psalms and the Life of Faith, 68.
[8] Ibid., 68.
[9] Ibid.

Monday, August 13, 2007

March of the Penguins

A week or two ago, Karina and I took a detour from our pursuit of AFI’s 100 greatest film quest to be thoroughly entertained by March of the Penguins. And while it was an Academy Award winner, I was always intrigued but for reasons I could not fully explain. The film is largely concerned with the amazing migration and breeding of the Antarctic’s Emperor Penguins. While the multiple 70 mile journeys that the nearly 4 foot creatures take on is impressive in and of itself, it is the sacrifice that this semi-monogamous couple (as they one new mate every year) make to each other for the sake of the egg that stands out. Once the egg has been laid, it is entrusted to the male who rests it on his feet to keep it warm during the next 2-3 months while the female returns 70 miles to the sea to feed for she has lost up to 1/3 of her body weight. After the females have quenched their hunger they must hurry back to the breeding grounds to relieve their starving mate and by the time of their return, feed their fuzzy newborn. Both taking turns with the egg and baby they give the other rest and time to regain health before going their separate ways.

The film is utterly captivating with not only with the dramatic story, but also visually. The cinematography is remarkable. The detail of feathers makes you want to reach out to touch. My only small critique is that at times, the anthropomorphism that narrator Morgan Freeman imbues these creatures with feels stretched...but then again it is a G-rated movie suited for children. Highly Recommend.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Last week I had the opportunity to visit one of my favorite cities: Chicago. The trip was capped off with a visit to one of my favorite places in Chicago: the Art Institute. I have become old friends with many pieces of the collection. There are some paintings that I must simply see with every visit and without those moments spent with these friends the visit is incomplete. Often my best friends are out on loan and I leave with sort of unfulfilled desire. Among my favorites is Picasso’s Old Guitarist. I remember the time I stood drawing it for my own record and the post card purchased at the gift shop to compare. I also continued my love affair with the Woman With Necklace by Modigliani. I cannot say in any conclusive way what draws me to this beautiful woman with her tilted head with a sort of arrogant beauty. Perhaps it is her red hair or her pursed lips. Regardless...she is beautiful.

We were also privileged to see two wonderful photographers: Angela Strassheim and Sarah Hobbs. Hobbs series “Does This Look Like You?” explores a variety of psychological states: perfectionism (seen to the right), over-compensation, walking on eggshells and others. They were all wonderfully rich with color and composition.

But it was Strassheim that made the trip to the basement worth while. The exhibit contained works from two series including “Left Behind.” The title is instantly familiar to any evangelical Christian from Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins fictional series.

“Photographs of Strassheim’s born again Christian family are juxtaposed with images of domestic narratives, inspired by childhood and adult life experiences. The result is an unsettling world involving complacency, control, and belief. Her images vacillate between what is immediately revealed on the surface and the unsettling nature of what is discovered upon further inspection. The combination of the visually seductive surface with the seemingly banal subject matter elicits an involved interpretation of the many layers within the images. These narratives and portraits retain an element of mystery that asks the viewer to question the acts that lead up to or follow each scenario.Drawing from her experience as a forensic photographer, Angela Strassheim has developed a style remarkably original in its obsessively careful compositions and lighting, in its uncanny sharpness. Apparently simple scenes acquire a suspended atmosphere, in which religion, suburban life and personal memories converge.Left Behind refers not only to the “unsaved” spoken about by her born again Christian family but also the memory and evidence people create that outlives them. It is both, being left behind and leaving, either of our own free will or having life taken away.” (From the press release regarding the show at Marvelli Gallery in NYC.)

I am not sure where Strassheim comes from in terms of her own faith but the imagery is fascinating. Her carefully arranged compositions and flawless lighting seem to suggest a moral perfection and yet there is a tension between the presentation of and yet subtle sexual posturing in many of the figures.

This image was particularly arresting. The boy on the left is asleep and the one on the right is afraid and hiding under the bed. And the girl, alive with imagination is silhouetted in a (divine?) light. Do the boys represent a sort of critique of Christians themselves as aloof or passively asleep and the other afraid of the world? Are the collection of animals streaming from the doorway have some symbolic connection to the ark? Do the wings on the young girl make her the ideal between the poles of indifference and fear?

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

One of the places I consider sacred is St. Patrick's Cathedral in NYC. Below are a few of my reflections following my few visits accompanied by my photography.

My first visit (Fig. 1)
touring artist
versed in aesthetics & arches
vaults & buttresses.
I was confronted
with its sheer size.
But, in the end
it felt cold
and barren of any true spiritual passion.
A container without
corresponding content.
Almost a year later (Fig. 2)
I stood outside in the cold March air
moved by its powerful architectural frame
the symmetry and texture of the brick
all while carefully protecting its ornate windows.
Portals from chaos to cosmos.
Trafficking in mystery and grace (Fig. 3)
bread, wine & water
rather than
taxis and horns.
symbol and reality.
Inside (Fig. 4)
I spent my time watching penitent
and hopeful old women
lighting votives and whispering
prayers heavenward.

Five years later
on a Saturday night pilgrimage
I wandered in after the Mass.
I sat.
I prayed.
I listened.
I heard languages not my own
German, Russian and Spanish.

All strata of humanity (Fig. 5)
equally welcomed
pass through these aisles and seats.
Within the embrace of these walls
and windows.
true human identity may be inherited.

Before me,
Or perhaps within me
that dead symbol
gulping in air
nave and transepts heaving
and filling
like lungs of some
half-drowned swimmer. (Fig. 6)

It was then
as if I were a bell
and struck
I rang into the distant vaulted ceiling
echoed off each pew
and finally absorbed into the
hearts of the surrounding humanity.
Living stones no doubt!

It is not as some have said
a sign of human potential
but God’s exalted reality made poetic.
Microcosm of a macrocosm.

I understood its majesty.
I understood our poverty.

A three dimensional
six planed
theology of stone.

From the towering height and harmony
of the spires
the strength and complexity of its forms

The distant made close.
The empty made full.
The old made new.

And I was newly aware of God.
I was newly aware of myself
my lacking
my thinness
held securely
in Christ’s sufficiency.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Mircea Eliade, the renowned religious historian, spoke of the axis mundi as the sacred cosmic center connecting heaven and earth as distinct from the secular world. [1] Often the axis mundi has been reflected in religion and mythology as a pole or tree, Jewish and Christian traditions has also tended to utilize the axis mundi in the Genesis narrative as the original Garden and the Tree of Life in particular, as well as the temple as the pathway between heaven and earth. Christian traditions would also place the cross in this same avenue of thought as the sacred tree that restored humanity to God.

The Christian landscape is oriented, first and foremost, around the Christ-event: the incarnation. Yet, the physical or geographical spaces in which we encounter the Christ anew, in our ongoing salvation, retain for us special significance associated with the revelatory event. Sacred geography is sacramentally rooted in Christ enabling the geographical landscape to become a tangible record of our spiritual journey. Places and things become holy where we have met the incarnate Axis Mundi. They become an axis of access where God takes the initiative to establish a personal and historic covenant.

It is these places which linger in my memory and are invigorated by my imagination. And it is to further the discussion of the roles that place, memory, and imagination play in our lives that this blog is dedicated to.

[1] Mircea Eliade (The Sacred & Profane: The Nature of Religion (San Diego: Harvest Book, 1957), 53. Jon Pahl also suggests that while Eliade’s conception of sacred space as “hierophany” or manifestation of the holy is still widely used, it has also come under significant critique. Beyond the critique of origination for sacred spaces, Eliade’s second step of orientation remains a very helpful aspect from his thought (Jon Pahl, Shopping Malls and other Sacred Spaces: Putting God in Place (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003), 45-48.).