Summer/Autumn 2014 (Vol. 42 Nos. 3 & 4)

Summer/Autumn 2014

Perspective:
The Masks We Wear by Wendy McDowell

Dialogue:
What Faith Communities Can Teach Psychiatrists about Depression 
by Dan G. Blazer
Psychiatrists are often blind to the many ways that faith communities can contribute toward soothing the emotional suffering of the depressed.
Conversations with Nuns by Amelia Perkins
After a year at a women’s monastery, the author reflects on Eastern Orthodox Christianity less as a religion and more as a therapeutic treatment to move closer to God.
Unsealed Memories by Melissa W. Bartholomew
Any work toward racial reconciliation and healing must start with facing up to the evils of our past.
A Protestant Poet's Theology of Sound by Nate Klug
Emily Dickinson’s sense of her own “slow idolatry” helps this poet/pastor struggle with some vocational conundrums.

Featured:
Devotion in the Study of Religion by Stephanie Paulsell
The best scholarship involves slow, painstaking, humble work to cherish the “unknowable more” in human beings and human experience, and to respond with creativity.
Two-Part Invention by Nancy J. Nordenson
Our vocational lives tend to be complex, unpredictable searches for meaning on many levels, from the quotidian to the transcendent.
The Work of Art and the Art of Life by Michael Jackson
Art, religion, ritual, dance, and song are not different phenomena, but moments in an existential struggle to act vicariously upon the world—bringing it into being.
Who is Jesus Today? by James Carroll
Recovering the permanent Jewishness—not just of “Jesus,” but also of “Christ”—defines the essential work that Christians must do after Auschwitz.

In Review:
The Prophetic Vocation(s) of Julia Budenz by Marion Torchia
Reflecting on Julia Budenz’s life and life’s work, a single 2,200-page poem, The Gardens of Flora Baum 
'Freedom Entered the Room' by Robert Israel
For Bill Cain, Jesuit playwright, writing is his priestly calling
Paying Attention to Pain by Sejal H. Patel
Leslie Jamison’s The Empahy Exams: Essays
Girls and Sarah Coakley, Through a Theological Lens of Desire by Peter Boumgarden    
Examining the relationship between desire and transformation in two disparate works: Girls and Sarah Coakley’s God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity”
Liberation Theology Redux? by Harvey Cox
In the Company of the Poor: Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez
, edited by Michael Griffin and Jennie Weiss Block

Poetry:
Two Poems by Anthony Opal
Two Poems by Mary Peelen

See also: Past Issue

'Freedom Entered the Room'

Robert Israel

In Review | Theater Bill Cain, 9 Circles, available from Dramatists Play Service, Inc., $8. Also: Equivocation, Dramatists Play Service, $8; Stand-Up Tragedy, Samuel French, $8.95.

Bill Cain

 

Bill Cain. Photo by Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times

 

In a scene from Bill Cain's one-act play 9 Circles, the actor who portrays fictional character Private Daniel Reeves stands onstage before a makeshift sink, rinsing his naked torso with a sponge. As the stage lights dimly illuminate his prison cell, many in the audience in the performance I attended1 audibly gasped at the raw physicality before them, as if gazing upon a man cleansing a gaping wound. As the actor washes himself in an act of ablution, it calls to mind an earlier discussion between prisoner and priest about the soldier's baptism. Some minutes later, before the final curtain, the actor delivers a seven-minute monologue, spoken in snippets of previously heard speeches. His gnarled words sputter forth, timed to rhythmic spasms of his torso, as his mind and body succumb to a lethal injection that has been administered by the court as punishment for the horrific crimes he committed during his tour of duty in Iraq. In this final scene, Private Reeves is bathed in bright, white light. Cain, the playwright, wrote a note to his 9 Circles script: "As the intensity of the light grew, the moment became a transfiguration."2

In 2013, the United States marked the tenth anniversary of its invasion of Iraq. The costs of that war are still being tallied. What is known is that tens of thousands of lives were lost, billions of dollars were spent on armaments, scores of refugees were scattered throughout the region, and countless acres of landscape were scorched and decimated. What has yet to be fully grasped is the repercussive emotional price paid in terms of human suffering.

Although a decade has passed, only a handful of American plays have probed the human cost of the Iraq war. Bill Cain—a Jesuit priest—has emerged as one of these playwrights. 9 Circles explores the Iraq conflict through characters who reveal the war's profound and transformative effects on the human condition. Composed of tense and terse scenes structured to emulate the nine "circles" of the Rings of Hell from Dante's Divine Comedy, the play premiered at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley, California, and has been subsequently produced by repertory companies in Boston and Gloucester, Massachusetts, as well as in Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Denver. In 2011, the play was recognized by the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association as one of the best scripts that premiered professionally outside New York City, winning the $25,000 New Play Award.3

"I am a Jesuit priest who is supposed to find the presence of God everywhere and to celebrate it," Cain said in an interview in his office at the Fordham Jesuit Community in New York City. "I had read a story about a soldier who tried not to be a killer, but he was unable to change. Indeed, he had become baptized during his basic training so he wouldn't have to kill."4

Cain's source for the play was the case of former 101st Airborne Division Pfc. Steven Dale Green, who was convicted in a federal court in 2009 of raping and killing an Iraqi fourteen-year-old girl, murdering her family, and later setting them on fire. Green, who said he was following orders from the other soldiers also involved in the murderous acts, is now serving five consecutive life sentences for his crimes.5

"My goal in the play was to create a lead character, an antihero, who ultimately achieves understanding about what he's done," Cain said. "He finally feels the pain of the enemy. He doesn't have to pretend he has to fight to see himself clearly. I have tremendous sympathy for Private Reeves. How does one say 'no' to war? It's not in the language we use. We use words like 'axis of evil,' and 'shock and awe.' I am asking audiences to look at themselves, to ask how, individually and as a nation, we can seek an answer to this question."


Cain's work questions God's purpose and gives voice to humankind's struggles to find redemption in an often indifferent world. His works stimulate public discourse and follow in the path of other Jesuits who have made similar forays in the fields of drama, academia, and politics. The late Father Robert F. Drinan, S.J., who devoted many years serving constituents as a U.S. representative from Massachusetts, is but one example. Another is Father Daniel J. Berrigan, S.J., a published poet and playwright, who, now well into his ninth decade, achieved notoriety when he and his brother Phillip were put on the FBI Most Wanted Fugitives list in 1968 for staging protests against the Vietnam War.

Cain met Father Berrigan when he was a teenager growing up in upstate New York. "I was impressed with Daniel Berrigan's outspoken views against the Vietnam War," he said. "He greatly influenced me to become aware politically."

When Cain left his home to enroll at Jesuit-run Boston College, he did not seek a career as a writer.

"When I began my studies in the late 1960s, I announced I wanted to work with the poor," Cain, now sixty-five, said. "But I was told, 'We really don't do that,' and that the development for a Jesuit at Boston College was meant to be more of an intellectual undertaking."

Cain joined the campus dramatic society and found himself in the company of other students seeking creative outlets.

"I don't remember a single class I took," he said, "but I have strong memories of being involved in theater."

One of those students he bonded with was Robert VerEecke, now an ordained Jesuit priest who ministers to congregants at an inner-city church in Boston and teaches as a tenured Jesuit artist-in-residence at Boston College.

"The Jesuits have a long tradition to be involved not just in theology, but to be motivational in faith and justice," Father VerEecke told me in a 2012 interview. "Bill and I are fortunate in that we had access to many priests who were composers and artists during the 1960s, and they influenced who we are today."6

After successfully performing on campus, Cain and several of his classmates made the collective decision to perform in the Greater Boston community.

"Our first performance was a children's show at a state mental hospital," Cain remembered. "We performed it with guitars, a washtub bass, and other instruments, all of us singing original songs. We were out of our league. When we entered the hospital room, there were no people there. And then they entered . . . from doors with locks so you couldn't open them to gain exit or entrance to other rooms. And something happened. The room ceased to be a prison. Freedom entered the room."

Emboldened by their success, Cain and his fellow ragtag thespians obtained permission to stage a similar show at Boston Children's Hospital.

"The same remarkable thing happened," Cain said. "We were in the leukemia ward. In the face of this terrible disease, in the face of leukemia, our performance made people human. Something happened . . . it is the presence of God. It is not a metaphor. This event, which erases differences, introduces us into something larger, and I knew then that I needed to do this for a lifetime."

Cain graduated from Boston College in 1970 and "ran away to join the circus," he said, taking up with a traveling troupe and learning how to juggle. He then returned to Boston, determined to "do art, to make it mine, in the marketplace." He founded the Boston Shakespeare Company (BSC) and stayed for seven seasons—from 1975 to 1982—housed first at a church and later at Horticultural Hall, an ornate, nineteenth-century edifice located in the Back Bay, across from Symphony Hall. Cain experienced numerous triumphs, including "All Night Bard," three Shakespeare plays staged back-to-back, starting at night and running through the entire next day. Television and screen stars Peter Gallagher, who was then studying at Tufts, and Courtney B. Vance, who was then enrolled at Harvard, performed at BSC during this time. The company is credited with paving the way for many local troupes that have since transformed Boston into a center for multiple, live stage events and numerous small, experimental troupes. When the BSC ran out of money, Cain moved to New York City's Lower East Side.

"I took a part-time job teaching at a nativity school," he said. "There were lots of drugs on the streets, and prostitutes, and I wrote a play about it called Stand-Up Tragedy."

Stand-Up Tragedy was a success, attracting the attention of producers at the ABC television network. He was hired to write Nothing Sacred, a series of teleplays about a fictional Catholic priest who wrestles with the tenets of his faith and the doctrines of his church, set against a backdrop of inner-city brutalities. The series received the Peabody Award and the Humanitas Prize. Despite this, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights boycotted the show, and ABC canceled it less than a year after it debuted.

Cain, who had found his métier as a playwright, completed Equivocation. First produced in 2009, it tells the story of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when Robert Catesby and a group of provincial English Catholics failed in their assassination attempt of King James I, resulting in the death of Henry Garnet, a Jesuit priest, who was hanged as a ringleader in 1606. In Cain's play, William Shakespeare and his friends dress in modern garb and speak in colloquial English. Equivocation, like 9 Circles, was awarded the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award.

Another recent play, How to Write a New Book for the Bible, an autobiographical work about Cain's family and the care he ministered to his elderly and infirm mother, had its premiere at the Seattle Repertory Company in 2011. It has subsequently been produced by repertory companies in Los Angeles and Silver Spring, Maryland.

"When you have success in L.A., all the television people take you out to lunch and hire you, and I haven't been out of work in twenty years," Cain said. "I don't find much difference between stage and television. I love them both for the same reason—gathering a community around a story—with any luck, with some laughter—always widening the circle of inclusion. I love theater for its intimacy and television for its vast reach."

Cain does not harbor any rancor toward ABC over the network's decision to cancel Nothing Sacred following the Catholic League's boycott of the series.

"We didn't last long—one season—but, while we lasted, we created a national community and it was an extraordinary experience," he said.


Stage directors who have worked with Cain's scripts find that his message of faith as a vehicle to attain enlightened self-awareness resonates with audiences.

Kent Nicholson, director of musical theater and literary associate at the Playwrights Horizons in New York, who has directed several productions of Cain's plays—including the West Coast premiere of 9 Circles at the Marin Theatre Company and How to Write a New Book for the Bible at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre—said audiences respond to Cain's message.

"Bill believes that God is perfect and that faith is an established path, but the real tough work is to apply God and faith with a belief in yourself and others," Nicholson said. "9 Circles, a work of dramatic fiction, came about when Bill read about an American soldier in Iraq on trial for committing atrocities. The role of the female psychiatrist in the play is based on real life, because this soldier confessed to her that he was about to commit atrocities. It's a hard play to do. But Bill believes, despite this character having committed these horrible acts of murder and rape, that he is able to find redemption because a belief in God is transformative."7

When director Eric C. Engel tackled Cain's 9 Circles for its east coast premiere at the Publick Theatre in Boston in 2011—later transporting it to the Gloucester Stage Company in 2012, with the same cast of three actors who played multiple roles—he wanted to emphasize the play's "linear and accessible" format.

"It's not so much a play about war," Engel said, "but about one man's personal salvation. Bill's work strips the character of Private Reeves bare. He's a naked man, physically, psychologically, and psychically. Bill's gift as a playwright is to give audiences this experience where you see, feel, and hear people to their very core."8

For Cain, it comes down to a simple maxim: "Faith and God are easy," he said, "it's believing that you matter that is very, very hard."

The process of creating a new work, either for stage or screen, is an arduous one, Cain noted. He workshops many of his plays at the Ojai Playwrights Conference, an arts enclave sixty-five miles north of Los Angeles, California; he credits the producers, directors, and fellow writers there with helping him shape his works, and he says he is always reworking his scripts.9

"Some of my current projects include writing an episode of House of Cards for Netflix, a play on Robert Lincoln and the birth of the Republican Party, and a play on painter Thomas Eakins," Cain told me. "And I'm still working on a screenplay on the life and work of Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who was my roommate for fifteen years, who ministers to young people in the Pico-Aliso district in East Los Angeles.10 I originally wrote it under contract for Columbia TriStar, but it didn't get made. So they turned it over to Greg, and I'll get back to work on it someday soon."

Cain said his priestly calling is writing. Like his friend and fellow Jesuit priest Father Robert VerEecke, he also regularly leads congregants in Mass at a parish in New York City.

When asked what else he might pursue if his writing muse were to abandon him, he replied by saying he would return to teaching.

"God wanted me to teach children, especially those children in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades in tough neighborhoods. But for now, it's all about the writing," he said.

 

Notes

  1. Robert Israel, review of 9 Circles by Bill Cain, directed by Eric C. Engel, Gloucester Stage Company. Edge Boston, August 20, 2012. www.edgeonthenet.com.
  2. Bill Cain, 9 Circles, unpublished script. Quotation used by permission from Cain's agent, Beth Blickers, Abrams Artists Agency, New York, NY; phone: 646.461.9322.
  3. Adam Hetrick, "Bill Cain Takes Steinberg/ATCA Award for Second Consecutive Year," Playbill, April 4, 2011, www.playbill.com.
  4. Bill Cain, interview by author, April 2013. All quotations attributed to Cain are from this interview.
  5. Brett Barrouquere, "Ex-US Soldier Gets 5 Life Sentences for Iraqi Deaths," Huffington Post, April 9, 2009, www.huffingtonpost.com.
  6. Robert VerEecke, S.J., interview by author, December 2012.
  7. Kent Nicholson, interview by author, December 2012.
  8.  Eric C. Engel, interview by author, December 2012.
  9. Adam Hetrick, "Ojaj Playwrights Conference to Develop Works by Bill Cain, Stephen Belber, Adam Duritz, Danai Gurira," Playbill, July 1, 2011, www.playbill.com.
  10. Carol Ann Morrow, "Jesuit Greg Boyle, Gang Priest," St. Anthony Messenger, August 1999, www.stanthonymessenger.org.
 

Robert Israel is a writer and editor who lives in Arlington, Massachusetts. He can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com.

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See also: Arts and Music

A Protestant Poet's Theology of Sound

Nate Klug

In the composition of a poem, sound comes first. A pattern of words descends, and I'm off, or caught, or begot.

Sound is generative but soon hidden in the meanings it generates. In this way, sound resembles light, as it unfolds across the first chapter of Genesis.

Though accompanied by significant pleasure, this feeling of beginning a poem, more like listening than speaking, can also disconcert. "Something startles me where I thought I was safest," reads the first line of Walt Whitman's "This Compost."

Adorning me with its demands, sound precedes what ideas I thought I possessed, what truths I knew I knew.

A fresh pattern shows up one day, like a charismatic prophet in the mind's town square. Morphemes and phonemes bristling, jockeying against each other, "wanting to go on," as Gertrude Stein said, sound promises a poem in exchange for my obedience, no questions asked.

Each time a string of sounds arrives, it keeps alive Ralph Waldo Emerson's ridiculous question: "Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?"


But my designs on originality cannot last forever. Most poems last not long at all. The nature of my faith in sound is inherently short-lived. Then silence, like a stone in the mouth—and then what?

There must be some link between poetry and grace, I tell myself, some shared identity between these occasional gifts of sound and God.

In the past, poets formulated viable connections between the experience of "present mercy" in the act of writing poetry and the "future mercy" that Christian doctrine promised. John Donne preached to his congregation at St. Paul's "that all the way to heaven is heaven." "A sight of happiness is happiness," Thomas Traherne avowed in Centuries of Meditation.

But the radical Protestant tradition to which I subscribe suspects any attempt to tie God's presence insolvably to earthly things. Idolatry is the replacement of God with what we can better understand, grasp onto—whether money, or bread and wine, or language itself.

In Philosophical Fragments, Søren Kierkegaard admitted that "at the very bottom of devoutness there lurks the capricious arbitrariness that knows itself has produced the god." Although he wasn't a poet, Kierke-gaard intuited the authority of the creative impulse and how, in its wake, faith and idolatry could feel identical.

For it becomes impossible to tell What is producing What.

On the other hand, there are no two better words to describe the way sound comes to me in a poem than Kierkegaard's capricious and arbitrary. Random, mischievous, lurking somewhere above or deep beneath, on their arrival poetic sounds might slyly claim the excuse of John Milton's fallen angels: "We know no time when we were not as now; / Know none before us, self-begot, self-rais'd / By our own quick'ning power."

Three or four words exactly juxtaposed radiate an energy that belies all prior creations—and all prior creators.


As a poet who is also a pastor, or as a pastor who is also a poet, my vocations can seem complementary. I am involved with someone else's words, in one way or another, all week.

But, just as often, I feel at the mercy of competing powers, a tension lively, if lonely, in its alternating pressures and torques. At those times, it helps to remember the productive conundrum of Emily Dickinson, especially her words from a late letter:  "I work to drive the awe away, yet awe impels the work."

For Dickinson, sonic visitations were far more relentless and consuming. She must have heard anagrams and off rhymes everywhere. "An Omen in the Bone." "Denominated morn." "The Lover – hovered – o'er."

Sound impelled her poetry, a fact she acknowledged both literally—"I heard a fly buzz"—and metaphorically—"He fumbles at your soul / As players at the keys." And in Dickinson's inspired moments, the very nature of existence was phonetic: "And Being but an Ear."

Can we say, then, that sound mediated God for Dickinson? That—as many people today seem eager to assert about themselves—poetry was her prayer?

Not so fast. Dickinson did explicitly compare God with sonic complexity in metaphors such as this one:

The Brain is just the weight of God –
For – Heft them – Pound for Pound –
And they will differ – if they do –
As Syllable from Sound –

But Dickinson's temperament was much closer to Søren Kierkegaard's than that of her Massachusetts neighbor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson envisioned a new church, revitalized, led by the artists of America. He shared Whitman's view that literature could "drop in the earth the germs of a greater religion."

Poetry planted a different germ for Dickinson, one that set her less at ease. "I heard of a thing called 'Redemption'—which rested men and women," she wrote in another of her letters. "You remember I asked you for it—you gave me something else."

Are poetic sounds gifts from God? At times, Dickinson's poems suggest the very opposite:

The Absolute – removed –
The Relative away –
That I unto Himself adjust
My slow idolatry –

The "undermining feet" of her vocation hindered Dickinson's capacity for belief. What must have felt utterly wrenching resulted in her finest art. Her elegy for George Eliot pins her own soul to the wall as well: "the gift of belief which her greatness denied her."


A pattern of words descends, and I'm off, or caught, or begot. And later, if I'm lucky, the poem can end, click shut.

As Dickinson puts it, the pursuit of sound points "Beyond the dip of Bell." Sound leads beyond the circumference of sound—and, therefore, beyond the circumference of poetry itself.

Beyond the dip of Bell, I know I can do no more. Sound has no more to do with me.

It is at this point, she writes, that "I and silence" form "some strange race." "Wrecked," no surprise. And "solitary" as ever. But "here," she attests. Here, here.

This location, this precision of thought and feeling, is the closest thing to a heaven in Dickinson's work.

Which begs one final question: if God does host Emily Dickinson, if—as she never stopped imagining—she did reach heaven, do poetry's sounds continue to visit her there? Does God finagle some ultimate reconciliation of powers, some merging of the light of great art with God's own splendor?

Or does she wander, saved but never quite herself, her poetry extinguished by grace and remembered only as a kind of phantom limb?

I should have been too saved – I see –
Too rescued – Fear too dim to me

 

Nate Klug is the author of Rude Woods (The Song Cave, 2013), his versions of Virgil's Eclogues, and of a book of poems, Anyone (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2015). A minister in the United Church of Christ, he has served congregations in North Guilford, Connecticut, and Grinnell, Iowa.

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Conversations with Nuns

Amelia Perkins

After graduating from Harvard Divinity School, I spent a year in a women's monastery in Greece. One nun I particularly liked, who had a very wry sense of humor, told me: "The monastery is a spiritual hospital. And as you can see, some of the patients are chronic."

All types came to the monastery. At any time, besides the sisters with their vast range of backgrounds and personalities, there might also be elegant wealthy ladies from Geneva, American tourists, or mentally deranged types who arrived without even a change of clothes and turned the place upside down.

The nuns would say:

Community life is like the rough rocks in the river that knock and grind together until they are made smooth.

The person you love is a gift from God, and the person you cannot stand is an even greater gift from God.

If you say that you love God, but you do not love your neighbor, then you are fooling yourself that you love God.

Living and working in community is a kind of martyrdom.

Two nuns who did not get along had to go to every person in the monastery and make prostrations before each one, saying, "We despise each other."

It's hard to hide when you are in community. It's an opportunity to bring everything dark within you out.

An Orthodox teaching says that heaven and hell are both experiences of God. For the pure of heart, God's light is a radiant joy. But for those not ready to see themselves clearly, the light burns like fire.

I got on with most of the sisters. But there was once a guest who came to stay in the monastery who I could not stand. She was pious and judgmental and kept comparing us good girls to the slutty girls who don't spend time in monasteries.

The nuns knew I did not like her and made me share a room with her.

One of the nuns said to me: "You must learn from everyone. Perhaps you must separate what in them is from God and what is from demons. But even the demons have something to teach you. Don't forget that the snake in the garden had the gift of Sophia, Wisdom."

What do you do when you meet the devil? Smile politely and continue to do your work.

Evagrius of Pontus, one of the most influential monastic authors, wrote, "The greatest weapon against the demons is gentleness."

This applies to both internal and external demons.

Logismoi are thoughts or thought forms. According to Orthodox ascetic teaching, although all kinds of awful thoughts may pass through our minds, this is not sin. Even momentary murderous thoughts are not a sin. This is just the state of being human after the Fall. The sin is to grab onto the thought and become involved with it, to enter into communion with the thought, to become entangled.

The nuns said we fall down a hundred times a day. Saints also fall down, but they get up again and it's a new moment.

The nuns made the distinction between forgiveness and being sorry. Forgiveness finishes everything. If you are sorry, you are still in the sin. You are still dwelling in the drama, the hurt, the situation. You feel bad. With forgiveness, every moment is a new moment. The past is past.

When I first became Orthodox, my father was very worried I would become too nice. "This would be a great loss," he said. And I did go through a phase in the monastery when I found myself following the rules and being polite. The longer I was there, the more I noted how things worked and found myself unconsciously moving to do what appeared to be the right thing, to follow the rule.

I started to be disturbed by this quality in myself and I told one of the nuns: "I've lost my sense of humor, my naughtiness. I'm becoming Goody Two-shoes. It's one thing to be an Orthodox Christian, but to be an Orthodox Christian Goody Two-shoes is horrifying to me."

And she replied: "Yes, this does not suit you. You must stop this immediately. You must be much more outrageous."

Occasionally monks would arrive who had been traveling from place to place or living in their cars for months. They would be wild-haired, unwashed. There was one I was always happy to see. He would arrive suddenly and I'd hear he had been living in the mountains with thieves and hooligans. "Those are my kind of people," he would say. "I cannot stand this scheduled life." He drank too much wine and made loud toasts during the silent mealtimes. But he also loved everyone and pressed cotton soaked in sweet-smelling myrrh into any nearby hands, telling us it had sprung from a holy icon of the Mother of God.

There is an idea I like but have yet to enter into—that Eastern Orthodox Christianity is not so much a religion as a therapeutic method to move closer to God.

Creation is inherently good. Humankind is inherently good. But the human soul suffers a malady, which distorts our relationship with God, other people, and nature. We see ourselves as separate and forget how to truly love. And so, more than any system of moral conduct or belief, we are in need of a therapeutic treatment to cure this rift and restore our relationship to the world, ourselves, and one another.

As one nun put it: "According to the Orthodox Church, people are meant to be gods. By our nature alone we cannot become gods, but by the grace of God we can. The problem with Adam was not that he wanted to be a god, but that he wanted to be a god alone, without communion with God. He did not ask for the fruit, but took it. He needed to ask to receive it."

I was told this movement toward God happens slowly, slowly by cleaning the heart through prayer, confession, and by cultivating the virtues. And the outcome is humility, wisdom, holiness—a perspective in which we are no longer the center of the world, God is at the center, as in the prayer describing God as "everywhere present and filling all things."

One nun said: "Everyone is always looking up to find God, but you must look down. God is so humble, he is under your foot."

Once, after I had been in the monastery for a few months, I came upon an icon that appeared to be crying, weeping real, wet tears. I didn't know what to make of it and so I went to tell the nuns. But none of them were interested in coming to see it. Finally, I found the nun in charge and made her come with me. She venerated the icon by making a prostration and kissing it. As we were walking away, I broke the silence and asked her, kind of crudely, "So, what do you think?"

She replied: "This is very good for those with little faith. But the real miracle is in seeing ourselves as we are and repenting for our sins. And when we do this, how much we can love. This is the real miracle."

 

Amelia Perkins received a Master of Theology degree from Harvard Divinity School in 2005. She currently works for a transformational leadership organization in Chicago.

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Devotion in the Study of Religion

Stephanie Paulsell

Lighthouse

 

Illustration by Gracia Lam

 
This year marks the tenth anniversary of a convocation address that had a tremendous impact on me and on Harvard Divinity School. It was an address that I listened to with mounting excitement, an address that stimulated long conversations with colleagues and students and that, ultimately, helped to shape the direction of our school. Janet Gyatso, Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies, titled her 2003 convocation address, "Where Do We Stand?" It was a good question.1 In 2003, we were, as a school, groping our way through a sea change. We knew our curricular structure no longer took account of everything we and our students were trying to do intellectually, but we didn't know what structure would give us more room to move. We knew that our degree programs needed to be reshaped, but we didn't know what those new shapes would be. We were dreaming of new faculty appointments in new fields of study, but nearly half of our current faculty had not yet joined us. And, after many years of holding our Divinity School Convocation in the Memorial Church in Harvard Yard, we were under a tent for the first time.

I still remember, so vividly, what it felt like sitting under that tent, on a beautiful, breezy day, listening to Janet Gyatso unspool her vision of the possibilities our changing school held within it. She imagined a master of divinity program in which a budding Zen priest would hone the wit and passion of her dharma talks in classes on Christian preaching, just as the ministries of budding Christian pastors had been shaped by their encounters with Buddhist ethics in their coursework. She imagined a curriculum that, instead of lumping the "religions of the world" into one area, would invite us to think with and learn from the scriptures, hermeneutics, ethics, theologies, histories, and practices of all the religious traditions studied here. She imagined a school in which passionate students and teachers not only studied religion together but inhabited the questions of religion together. In the ten years since she gave her address, many of her ideas have become realities, although certainly not in any complete or finished way. And that was Janet's point—that the place where we stand is in constant motion, always changing, always new.

Janet Gyatso sang a hymn that day to the multiplicity that marks our community: the multiplicity of religious traditions for which our school might train leaders, the undecidability of our questions as scholars of religion, and the hybrid nature of the mission of our school. But she also made a case that day for what we have in common. We have a common calling, she said, in the study of religion. But she went further than that. She called for our shared work to be animated by what she called a love of religion, a passionate religiosity. What would it mean, she asked us, to study religion religiously—not by claiming a generic, universal religion underlying all traditions, and not necessarily because we are devoted to a particular religion (although we might be), but because we are devoted to the study of this deeply human way of receiving and responding to the world, devoted to turning it in the light of our methodologies and commitments, our historical and philosophical questions, and our hopes for human freedom and flourishing? Of the many ideas that thrilled me that day, this one thrilled me the most. Because Janet was saying out loud something I'd always felt in studying religion and observing others study religion: that this is some of the most deeply devotional work one can do.

Now, some of you may be thinking, "Yes, that is my experience too!" But others of you may be thinking, "Uh-uh. Devotion is not what I signed up for when I decided to come to Harvard." If you're a visitor from another part of the University, you may be thinking, "I always suspected that what they were doing at HDS was devotional." Or else you're thinking, "Devotion? I thought those people at HDS didn't believe in God."

When I say devotion, I am thinking of the novelist Charles Johnson, who, in his book about Buddhism and writing, remembers how, as a teenager, the writings of W. E. B. DuBois and Martin Luther King Jr. kept him up late at night. Johnson's devotion to those writers, and their devotion to freedom, led him both to his embrace of Buddhism and to an understanding of the narrative problems he would encounter as a writer as moral, ethical problems.2 When I say devotion, I am thinking of the student in Clinical Pastoral Education at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute who devotes herself to listening not only to what patients say to her, but also to what they do not say; I am thinking of her deliberate cultivation of reverence for both the spoken and the unspoken. When I say devotion, I am thinking of the great African theologian Augustine of Hippo, who, in the midst of an anxious critique of his own education prays that everything he reads or writes or calculates or speaks may now be offered in the service of God. When I say devotion, I am thinking about the student of first-year Hebrew, or Arabic, or Sanskrit, who struggles through the same set of exercises over and over until those unfamiliar marks on the page begin to mean something.

In other words, there are as many manifestations of devotion in the study of religion as there are those of us who study it. Or, as Virginia Woolf's character, the artist Lily Briscoe, puts it in To the Lighthouse: Love has a thousand shapes.

Following Janet Gyasto's call to experiment with the love of religion as an animating force in our work, I'd like to try to describe two crucial dimensions in what I'm calling devotion in the study of religion, drawing from sources which may not seem, at first, to belong together: the Song of Songs, the beautiful poem of erotic love tucked away in the Hebrew Bible between Ecclesiastes and Isaiah, and the work of the great modernist Virginia Woolf. Woolf may seem an especially unlikely candidate for a teacher of devotion since she was not religious in any sort of conventional way—although God is invoked far more often in her work than in the Song of Songs—but I have learned a great deal about devotion from her, and from reading her in the light of the Song of Songs, a poem she also knew well.

The Song of Songs is a dialogue between two lovers, a woman and a man. The opening line is spoken by the woman—"Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!"—and the lovers spend the rest of the poem trading words back and forth, praising each other's beauty in ever more inventive ways, exploring the erotic possibilities of their relationship and of language itself. Modern readers—particularly Protestant Christian ones—sometimes regard the Song as an oddity. Elizabeth Cady Stanton is representative of such readers: she called the Song "a mere love poem," the religious interpretations of which were only an "excuse" for including it in the Bible in the first place. But for devoted readers over the centuries, the Song was a key hidden at the heart of the Bible, capable of unlocking its secrets. It was a fathomless pool of meaning one could swim in one's whole life long and never sound the bottom. It was a garden in which one might encounter God walking in the cool of the day. For these readers, the Song of Songs was a text of devotion par excellence: a text to be excavated through midrash and allegory, lingered over in lectio divina, prayed with individually and communally.

The best scholarship is marked by both the profound knowledge that comes with devoted study and the humility that acknowledges the limits of our knowing.

The Song of Songs is a small poem that has generated its weight in commentary many, many times over. Its capacity to mean many things at once accounts for its tremendous generative power; so does its beauty. It was so beautiful, the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila once wrote, that even when she heard it in Latin and could not understand the words, it moved her more than devotional texts whose language she could understand. Commentators like Teresa and many others, from the authors and compilers of the Midrash Rabbah to the Cistercian monk Bernard of Clairvaux, were drawn again and again to the Song, not, I think, to explain away the presence of an erotic poem in the Bible—there's just too much brilliant commentary to have been generated by that thin purpose—but because they recognized in the desire of the lovers for each other something akin to their own desire for God.

When the woman speaks in the Song, she often addresses herself to her lover's absence. "Where are you?" she asks, again and again, seeking him in the pastures of the countryside and the streets of their city, under the blazing noon sun and at night. The man, on the other hand, addresses himself to his lover's presence, which he finds overwhelming. In order to cope with it, he praises her one part at a time: her eyes, her hair, her teeth, her cheeks. If "where are you?" is the woman's question, "who are you?" is the man's.3 "Who is this that looks forth like the dawn, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army with banners?" (Song of Songs 6:10, NRSV).

The unknowableness born of devotion seems to me to be at the heart of what this poem is trying to say. No matter how intimate we are with one another, the Song teaches, we always remain mysteries to one another. As Bernard of Clairvaux put it in one of his many homilies on the Song,4 there is always something farther out or farther in. The lovers in the Song are so beautiful, and the poet makes us see that beauty in all its shining glory. But the lovers are also more than their beauty, more than the sum of their glorious body parts. That more is difficult to comprehend and to describe, but it is as worthy of our devotion as what we can see and know.

The unknowable more that is at the heart of intimate love is also at the heart of the study of religion. Whether we are scholars of the New Testament or of twelfth-century India; whether we have excavated our sources from the past or interviewed them in the present; whether our questions are pastoral or scholarly or a combination of both—there is always something farther out or farther in. This is why devotion is such a necessary part of our work. Because the more we devote ourselves to what we study, the more our familiarity with it both deepens and recedes. The greater the care we bring to our work, the more we can sense dimensions of the texts and ideas and objects and people we study that remain beyond the reach of our analysis.

The lure of the unknowable, of course, is a great generator of scholarship—our incomplete attempts to understand each other, our methodologies that both reveal and conceal. The best scholarship is marked by both the profound knowledge that comes with devoted study and the humility that acknowledges the limits of our knowing. The most elegant, convincing arguments are never completely watertight but always leave open a door or a window onto possibilities we had not yet imagined.

This is also true of ministry at its most humane. The sixth-century Christian theologian and reluctant pope Gregory the Great, in his book on pastoral care, defined ministry as the art of arts. Why? Because of what is hidden from even the most wise and compassionate minister. Because, as Gregory writes, the wounds of the mind are even more hidden than the wounds of the body. That is why Gregory teaches that one pastoral approach will not meet all the human needs that ministers are asked to address; because there is always more happening than the minister can see on the surface.5

And not only the best scholarship and the best ministry, but also the best art is marked by the unknowable more revealed through devotion. When Lily Briscoe, the artist of To the Lighthouse,6 tries to capture the object of her devotion, Mrs. Ramsay, in a painting, she thinks: "Fifty pairs of eyes were not enough to get round that one woman with. . . . One wanted most some secret sense, fine as air, with which to steal through keyholes and surround her where she sat knitting, talking, sitting silent in the window alone; which took to itself and treasured up like the air which held the smoke of the steamer, her thoughts, her imaginations, her desires" (198). Some secret sense, fine as air, able to slip into the space between ourselves and others—perhaps that is what can be cultivated at HDS.

The unknowable more is Woolf's great subject and her central artistic preoccupation. She sought new literary forms that reflected the "populous undifferentiated chaos of life," as she put it in The Waves (249)—more realistic, to her, than so-called realistic fiction. "Life," she wrote, "is always and inevitably much richer than we who try to express it."7 In her novels, Woolf reached toward the unspoken, undescribed dimensions of human experience: the interior "treasure" and "the unseen part" of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith; Mrs. Ramsay's "wedge-shaped core of darkness" in To the Lighthouse; "the unacted part" of the characters in Between the Acts.

Woolf's devotion to the unknowable more in human life represented for her not only an artistic challenge, but a moral one as well. Ninety-five years ago, in the last months of a war that would take tens of millions of lives, she wrote in her diary that "the reason why it is easy to kill another person must be that one's imagination is too sluggish to conceive what his life means to him—the infinite possibilities . . . furled in him."8 Just as she imagined in Three Guineas a new university that would teach its students not to love war, her literary project cultivates nonviolence by asking us to consider what is hidden in every person.

If you think that this also sounds a little like religious work, I agree. Woolf was the child of famous Victorian agnostics, and Woolf herself had no interest in joining any religious institutions, feeling, in religious settings, "dulled and bothered" by "the obstacle of not believing."9 Unlike her friend T. S. Eliot, whose conversion to Anglican Christianity scandalized her, Woolf never felt that Christian faith was adequate to the spiritual needs of her age. As her character Bernard,says in her novel The Waves: "the certainty, so sonorously repeated, of resurrection, of eternal life" (282) was too neat, too confident, too tidy. Like Bernard, Woolf trusted "nothing neat. Nothing that comes down with all its feet on the floor" (295). When it came to religion, she much preferred the "sadness at the back of life" that she found in ancient Greek thought and literature to what she called "Christianity and its consolations."10

Woolf was the daughter of agnostics, but she was also the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of activist evangelical Christians, known for their passionate commitment to the eradication of slavery and for the practices of devotion that gave shape to their lives. Although Woolf did not inherit the Christian convictions that undergirded her ancestors' life of devotion to God, she did inherit the sense that one's life and energies ought to bend in one direction, that one must discover one's work and dedicate oneself to it wholeheartedly. From childhood, Woolf committed herself, first to a long apprenticeship as a writer, and then to a long career as the pathbreaking author of eight novels, five works of nonfiction, and volumes and volumes of literary criticism, letters, short stories, and diaries. The practice of devotion that undergirds that incredible productivity derived, in part, from a book her Christian ancestors lived by and which she also read: William Law's A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. Devotion, Law wrote, is not prayer. "Devotion," he insisted, "signifies a life . . . devoted to God." The devout person "considers God in everything, . . . serves God in everything." "If we are to follow Christ," Law wrote, "it must be in our common way of spending every day."11 Substitute the word "art" for "God" and "Christ," and you have a pretty clear picture of the way Woolf lived her life: her friendships, her travels, her reading, her thinking, her marriage, her activism, the way she organized her days all supported her devotion to writing, and through writing, to the unknowable more, to the "infinite possibilities . . . furled" in human beings and in human experience.

Out of her devotion to her art, Woolf developed a literary response to those infinite possibilities that is also a fundamental religious practice. Students will learn very quickly at Harvard Divinity School never to generalize about religion. Here's some concrete advice: never begin a paper, or even a sentence, with words like "In every religion" or "For every religious person." I am going to go out on a limb, however, and say that there is no religious person—no matter how literally they read their holy book, no matter how convinced of a particular set of propositions—who does not create his faith or her religious account of the world through some kind of assemblage, some kind of mosaic-making with fragments of words and images, music and dreams, stories and histories, theological ideas and bodily experience. Religions are mosaics themselves, their emphases falling in different places as they move through history, encounter new cultures, intersect with particular lives.

'I am after a different kind of beauty,' Woolf wrote in her diary, to 'achieve a symmetry by means of infinite discords . . . some kind of whole made of shivering fragments.'

The making of a whole—a "globed compacted thing"—through placing fragments in new combinations was at the heart of Woolf's literary experimentation throughout her life. As a young woman of twenty-six, before she had ever published a single novel, she stood before the frescoes of Perugino on a trip to Italy and pondered the difference between the serene, sealed-up beauty of his figures and what she was trying to do in prose. "I am after a different kind of beauty," she wrote in her diary, trying to "achieve a symmetry by means of infinite discords . . . some kind of whole made of shivering fragments."12 Twenty years later, in To the Lighthouse, her most autobiographical novel, Lily Briscoe describes the work of creation from disparate elements as her vocation, as the work of a lover. It was the work Woolf had done in the novel itself, creating a work of art from the fragments of her parents' lives. She was the lover "whose gift it was to choose out the elements of things and place them together and so, giving them a wholeness not theirs in life, make of some scene, or meeting of people (all now gone and separate), one of those globed compacted things over which thought lingers and love plays" (192).

As always in Woolf's writing, her literary preoccupations have ethical implications. When she spins out a vision for a new college in Three Guineas, she writes that its aim should be "not to segregate and specialize, but to combine. It should explore the ways in which mind and body can be made to co-operate; discover what new combinations make good wholes in human life" (34).

In the late summer of 1940, as Great Britain grimly anticipated an invasion by Germany, Ben Nicolson, the son of Woolf's former lover, Vita Sackville-West, wrote to her and asked: Why didn't you and your brilliant circle of friends stop fascism? It was not an entirely fair question—Woolf's husband, Leonard, had helped found the League of Nations; her friend Maynard Keynes sought social reform through economics; she herself had, as she put it in a letter to a niece, tried "to catch Hitler in his home haunts and prod him if even with only the end of an old inky pen."13 She meant by this, I think, that she tried to fight the ways in which fascism manifested itself in her own society—especially through the oppression of women and inaccessibility of education to any but the very privileged—by organizing for women's suffrage, teaching night classes for working women, and writing her great feminist works A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas.

But it's a question that you can tell got under her skin. The only drafts that exist of any of her letters are those for her responses to Ben Nicolson. Indeed, that question seems to have been under her skin even before he asked it. In her extended meditation on the origins of her vocation as a writer, "A Sketch of the Past," written over the course of 1939 and 1940, she described the conception that drove her to write as her sense that there is a pattern hidden behind the cotton wool of nonbeing, and we are all a part of it. She expressed those convictions in the cadences of a creed:

 . . . it is a constant idea of mine; . . . that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.14

This conception of reality, she wrote, "affects me every day. I prove this, now, by spending the morning writing, when I might be walking, running a shop, or learning to do something that will be useful if war comes. I feel that by writing I am doing what is far more necessary than anything else" (73).

As American warships gather off the coast of Syria, you may be asking yourself if the study of religion is the thing that is far more necessary than anything else. Are the practices of devotion that we cultivate here—attention to the unknowable more in human experience, and the creation of new wholes from the fragments we find in our studies—too delicate, too specialized to make the kind of difference our world needs?

We were provided with an example of the power of precisely those devotional practices, when the country observed the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech—a speech that reflects King's devotion to both the study and the practice of religion. Without King's ability to see farther out and farther in, to see the infinite possibilities furled inside this nation, without his gift for putting disparate sources, ideas, and images together to create something "over which thought lingers and love plays," think how impoverished our common life would be.

But if that example feels too monumental to think about for your own life and work, think of something more recent. Think of Antoinette Tuff, bookkeeper at the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Georgia, who on August 23, 2013, talked a man, who had entered the elementary school armed with an AK-47 and five hundred rounds of ammunition, into laying down his weapons and surrendering before anyone got hurt.15 After a summer in which the killer of an unarmed African American teenager who argued that fear justified his actions was found not guilty by a jury of his peers, Antoinette Tuff's ability to reach across the boundaries of race and fear with the whole of her humanity feels like a miracle. What made her so skillful and so compassionate when confronted with a heavily armed young white man who told her he wasn't afraid to die? What allowed her to see the infinite possibilities furled in him, rather than seeing him as an all-too-familiar type? What made it possible for her to speak to him as if he were a member of her own family, to call him "baby," to tell him she loved him, to promise to stay with him until the police arrived and make sure they didn't shoot him? "I've never been so scared in all the days of my life," she told the 911 operator when it was all over. But why didn't fear drive her actions? Who is this that looks forth like the dawn?

Antoinette Tuff is obviously a remarkable person with deeply nonviolent instincts and a lightening-quick ability to bring the whole range of her experience to bear on a dangerous situation, and I certainly can't solve the mystery of her skillful, compassionate response. But we do know some things. She had been trained in crisis response by her school. She drew on her experiences of hopelessness, sharing stories of her own struggles with the gunman, reminding him how human it is to feel that you have come to the end of your rope. And she was able to make use of a religious practice that she had learned from her pastor. The previous Sunday, she told several interviewers, her pastor had begun a sermon series on how to anchor yourself in God. It so inspired her that she got up early on Monday morning to study. By the time the gunman walked into her school on Tuesday morning, she had been practicing anchoring herself in God, praying on the inside no matter what was going on around her. She could pray for him and talk to him at the same time, and that is what she did, anchoring herself in God in the midst of chaos, keeping the gunman in view as a struggling human being as clearly as she could see the danger he posed.

The practice of praying on the inside, of anchoring oneself in God, has a long history. It's been passed down through classrooms and communities, teachers and ministers, scholars and pilgrims and mystics. Antoinette Tuff learned the practice from her pastor. And we have learned from her something more about the infinite possibilities furled within human beings and their religious ways of responding to the world. Holding onto her humanity in the face of genuine danger, she offered the gunman—and all of us—a fresh glimpse of our own.

Nonviolent, compassionate possibilities are not the only possibilities religion holds, of course, and keeping particular practices alive through study is not the only thing scholars of religion—or even lovers of religion—do. But there's a common feeling, as fine as air, held by the poetry of the Song of Songs, the novels of Virginia Woolf, the genius of Antoinette Tuff, and, we hope, in our work: a devotion that cherishes the unknowable more in human beings and human experience itself. A devotion that responds to that unknowable more through creativity, through assembling the shivering fragments of what we study into new wholes that open new perspectives, cast new light, allow us to draw a little closer to what is just out of our reach, in others and in ourselves. This is slow, even painstaking work. It keeps us up late and wakes us up early. It sets us on a permanent quest.

Ten years ago, Janet Gyatso invited us to cultivate a shared love of religion as a way of fostering the possibilities our ever-evolving school holds within it. I have been inspired by her, by my colleagues on the faculty and staff, and by our students, who all do their work with such devotion. Love has a thousand shapes. We are the lovers—like the scholars and artists, the pastors and parishioners, the activists and pilgrims who have gone before us—whose work it is to explore the mysteries of our shared humanity, to reach out for the unsayable from the fragile bridge of language, and to create something from our studies that invites both thought and love. It is a joy and a privilege to begin a new year of this work of devotion with all of you.

 

Notes

  1. Janet Gyatso, "Where Do We Stand?" Harvard Divinity Bulletin 32, no. 1 (Fall/Winter 2003): 10–13.
  2. Charles Johnson, Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (Scribner, 2003).
  3. See Cheryl Exum's illuminating discussion of the gendered love-talk in the Song in Song of Songs: A Commentary (Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 13–28.
  4. Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, vol. 2, trans. Kilian Walsh, O.C.S.O. (Cistercian Publications, 1979).
  5. Gregory the Great, Pastoral Care, trans. Henry Davis (Newman Press, 1950).
  6. Parenthetical pages references to Virginia Woolf's works of fiction cited are to these editions: To the Lighthouse (Harcourt, 1927); The Waves (Harcourt, 1931); and Three Guineas (Harcourt, 1938).
  7. Virginia Woolf, "Poetry, Fiction and the Future," in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 4, 1925–1928, ed. Andrew McNeillie (Harcourt, 1994), 439.
  8. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. 1, 1915–1919, ed. Anne Olivier Bell (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), 186.
  9. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. 3, 1925–1930, ed. Anne Olivier Bell, with Andrew McNeillie (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), 181.
  10. Virginia Woolf, "On Not Knowing Greek," in The Common Reader, First Series (Harcourt, 1925), 38.
  11. William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (reprint ed. 2010, available from ReadaClassic.com), 7, 11.
  12. Virginia Woolf, A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897–1909, ed. Mitchell A. Leaska (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990), 393.
  13. The Letters of Virginia Woolf, vol. 6, 1936–1941, ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), 372.
  14. Virginia Woolf, "A Sketch of the Past," in Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings, ed. Jeanne Schulkind (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985), 72.
  15. Gary Younge, "The Heroism of Antoinette Tuff Reveals What's Missing from Politics," The Guardian, August 25, 2013, www.theguardian.com.
 

Stephanie Paulsell is Houghton Professor of the Practice of Ministry Studies at Harvard Divinity School. She presented this address on August 29, 2013, at the Divinity School's Convocation opening its 198th academic year.

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Girls and Sarah Coakley, Through a Theological Lens of Desire

Peter Boumgarden

In Review | Television | Books Girls, created by Lena Dunham, Home Box Office. Season one available on DVD; seasons one through three available on iTunes or with a subscription to HBO.
God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay "On the Trinity," by Sarah Coakley. Cambridge University Press, 384 pages, $19.99 paper.

Girls

 

Lena Dunham's Girls is a powerful, humorous, and sometimes painful exploration of modern-day relationships and their role in identity formation. In this award-winning HBO series, the audience walks alongside four twenty-something women in New York City—Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa—as they grow up, however slowly, in a world anxiously constructing new norms of gender and sexuality. Dunham portrays Hannah Horvath, the "girl" at the show's center, as an aspiring essayist who is furiously accumulating the experiences she thinks are needed to make her authorial mark on this world. In partnership with noted director and producer Judd Apatow, Dunham has created a dark comedy. In interviews, Dunham denies that she intended the show to contain an ideological statement—feminist or otherwise—and that her goal is merely to chart the way these girls grow up, sexually and otherwise.

Sarah Coakley's 2013 book, God, Sexuality and the Self, the opening volume of her four-part systematic theology, was much anticipated by those who follow her work. In this text, Coakley carefully outlines her method of "théologie totale," a tool she then rigorously applies to the question of what we might learn about God through a focused attention on desire. Across four volumes, Coakley aims at developing "a complete, and inviting, vision of Christian doctrine in its various parts" (36), while acknowledging up front that this is a contentious task in the postmodern age. After all, in our time, attempts to systematize God can be seen as theologically false and idolatrous (the ontotheological critique), inherently suppressive of the minority voice (moral or political critique), or, by their very method, submissive to a male-oriented way of thinking (post-Freudian critique).

By all accounts, the world of Girls stands far from the theologizing of Sarah Coakley. After all, Lena Dunham's project has very little to do with anything religious, and especially not anything specific to the Trinity and contemplative prayer in particular—the areas of Coakley's focus. Transformation of desire in Girls, if it is to come at all, will be a decidedly secular project. As for Coakley, when it comes to outlining specific implications for sexuality that might be relevant to Lena Dunham and company, God, Sexuality and the Self remains decidedly silent. So why relate the two at all?

I want to suggest that we might let these two texts read each other, and perhaps, in their pairing, each project may come away enlivened. This is especially true, given the centrality of the relationship between desire and transformation in both works. Coakley's innovative method moves theology toward rather than away from experience and the social sciences, and she therefore positions herself in a unique space to begin filling the gaping void between talk about sex and talk about God. As a result, I think we can see in the lives of the fictional characters Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa a needed field study to build on Coakley's insights about learning from the divine through attention to the sexual. Drawing on the work of Paul Ricoeur and Hans-Georg Gadamer, Coakley suggests we must let "the medium speak here in all its creative messiness and multivalence" (192). The goal is not merely to find the original meaning of the text, because "all interpretation involves a 'fusion of horizons' " (193). Instead, we might seek the insights that come from creative fusions. If Coakley's book shows what can result from a faithful application of her method to more traditional theological contexts, might it have a similar effect when applied to a television show about a set of twenty-somethings in New York City? What will exploring this "creative fusion" yield?


The season two episode "One Man's Trash," directed by Emmy Award–winning Richard Shepard and starring Patrick Wilson, stands stylistically apart from the rest of the show. This "bottle episode" focuses on two characters alone: Hannah (Dunham) and Joshua (Wilson). The plot flows with a dreamlike feel that is enacted visually in the bright, airy Brooklyn brownstone and thematically in its depiction of a romantic encounter between strangers that seems to make the rest of the world stand still. Despite the episode's stylistic differences, in other ways it parallels Girls as a whole. For central to this story is the potential for individual transformation and the concomitant pitfalls that come by way of desire, or what theologian Sarah Coakley calls the "physical, emotional, or intellectual longing that is directed towards something or someone that is wanted" (346).

The episode begins with Wilson's character, Joshua, approaching the local coffee shop, Grumpies, to complain about their trash being left in his bin. Hannah works at the shop for her friend Ray, the shop's manager. Throughout the first scene, Hannah squirms in discomfort as Ray berates Joshua for what he sees as ridiculous accusations against his staff.

In the next scene, Hannah walks up to Joshua's Greenpoint residence. He opens the door. After reintroductions—Joshua fails to remember her—Hannah says she has something to confess. Joshua asks her inside to share a drink. Inside the beautiful home, Hannah admits to the crime: it was she who dropped off the trash bags filled with coffee grounds. Surprised at first, Joshua is then intrigued as Hannah describes the rush of the act—the breaking of a law, the secret from her manager, running from the scene. Then, just as Hannah prepares to leave, she kisses him, he kisses back, and they have sex on the kitchen counter.

In the rest of the episode, Dunham and Shepard paint a compelling portrayal of the intimacy that develops over a few days between two tucked-away strangers. In Hannah and Joshua, we see intimacy that extends beyond the physical. Their communication includes an easy laughter, the early sharing of insecurities, and a comfort beyond language. Even their sexual encounter displays easy gender role reversals, fluid shifts between who is to lead and who is to follow, and what it means to listen. By the middle of the episode, we have almost forgotten the awkwardness of their first encounter.

When Hannah wakes up the first morning in Joshua's place, she walks downstairs to enter a bright, airy foyer. Shepard scores the moment with the lilt of Father John Misty's song "Nancy from Now On"—"Oh . . . pour . . . me another drink," J. Tillman croons as Hannah joins Joshua for coffee—giving the encounter a sense of light, comfort, and ease.

But their comfort doesn't last long. As New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum writes, it is a "crash course in intimacy—which begins with her dream-like impulse to pursue a handsome stranger, ends with a vulnerable fiasco of a speech, and is punctuated by her refusal to call the guy 'Joshua' instead of 'Josh,' no matter how many times he asks."1 Insomuch as Hannah is changed by the weekend at all, she still ends it by emotionally over-sharing with Joshua, not in the service of intimacy, but rather as a way to elicit being comforted, being affirmed. "Oh . . . pour . . . me another drink. . . . And punch me in the face"—the song continues, just as Joshua and Hannah's connection abruptly dissolves.

Nussbaum believes there is a transformation in Hannah in this moment, that something "changes her in ways that won't necessarily be visible to anyone she knows." But where is this invisible transformation? Is Hannah any more woman than girl following this encounter? "I can fend for myself, with what I have left," the Father John Misty song continues, paralleling the next morning, as Hannah wakes in the apartment alone, reads the paper, makes herself a piece of toast, and then takes out the trash before leaving to head home, seemingly never to speak of the event again. Where is the transformative power of desire? What might we learn from such crash courses in intimacy?


While Coakley focuses her attention on desire, she is also interested in systems, theories, doctrines, and iconography that have been developed and critiqued for hundreds of years. The art form in which she works is a refined theological method she calls théologie totale. This method, Coakley writes, "attempts to incorporate insights from every level of society and to integrate intellectual, affective, and imaginative approaches to doctrine and practice" (352). Building from the Annales School of French historians, and its histoire totale, Coakley works to identify rich layers in historical understanding, in part through explicit utilization of the social sciences, namely, the sociology of religion and feminist theory. By learning from these methods while resisting their reductionist tendencies, Coakley suggests that theology might expose the ills and abuses of the church while seeing doctrine worked afresh. Coakley's additional insistence on contemplative and ascetic practices comes from theology's fundamental interest in seeking God's face and being transformed through submission to this mystery.

Coakley goes on to apply this method to multiple, distinct but interrelated spaces. In chapter three, she explains the development of trinitarian doctrine by focusing on its theorist's conflicting understandings of desire and gender. In chapter four, she examines the life of prayer in a charismatic Anglican community in northern England, looking to tease out the implications of this community's vibrant engagement with the Spirit and how it relates to their attitude toward women in the church and their approach to desire. In chapter five, Coakley explores different iconographic representations of the Trinity, highlighting the recurring tendency toward reducing the Trinity to father-son relationships, or clouding it over with implicit understandings of gender and desire. She moves in chapter six to a sustained reflection on the points of intersection of Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine, especially in regard to their understandings of desire. In chapter seven she ends by looking toward Dionysius the Areopagite to help enliven the potential links between desire for God and desire for others. Coakley's project takes her readers on a magisterial journey, one difficult to distill into a singular argument.

Given its relationship to the HBO show, one piece of Coakley's argument worthy of sustained attention is her recasting of sexual desire in terms of what it might say about the divine. While sexual desire is a fruitful metaphor for the divine, as in its use in the Song of Songs and in the work of various saints of the Christian church, Coakley suggests its power extends beyond metaphor alone. Consider Bernard of Clairvaux, whose work highlights the power of the erotic metaphor in helping us connect with God. Coakley reminds us that even he said: "To be always with a woman and not to have sexual relations with her is more difficult than to raise the dead" (341).

How might we, then, best understand desire in relationship to this goal of divine connection? Coakley writes that Dionysius's work in Divine Names provides one revealing direction. Using eros rather than agape to discuss the nature of yearning for God, Dionysius suggests that a distinction between the two would not make sense to the ancient writers. In other words, while not escaping the Platonic tendencies in his thinking, Dionysius concludes that "the protoerotic dimension for him is divine" (313). Coakley continues:

Dionysius' more ancient vision means that, in contemporary terms, Freud is turned on his head. Instead of "God" language "really" being about sex, sex is really about God— the potent reminder woven into our earthy existence of the divine "unity," "alliance," and "commingling" that we seek. This in turn has profound ascetical implications, of course; for no one can move simply from earthly, physical love (tainted as it so often is by sin and misdirection of desire) to divine love—unless it is via a Christo-logical transformation. (316)

Coakley's insight is profound. But in this first volume, her work to tease out its implications remains significantly less developed. What her work needs is an extension of the method of théologie totale to the potential transformation and theological insight that might come from a starting point of desire, whether Christologically transformed or not.

Girls


When she originally met with HBO executives, Dunham pitched: "Here's the kind of show I would want to see. Here's what my friends are like. They don't totally have jobs but they're really smart. They take Ritalin for fun, but they're not that fucked up. They're having these kind [of] degrading sexual relationships yet they're feminists."2 Coakley, too, sees within us tension and mixed motives or desires, even in spaces as "religious" as the formation of the church's doctrine and iconography. Specific to sexuality, our desires for one another are often conflated with desires for other things.

Given this starting point of fracture, where is the hope for transformation? For Coakley, transformation is Christological, forged on one's knees in prayer through encounter with the living God. In a posture of contemplation, Coakley says, we might be made aware of our "psychic bag and baggage . . . its hauntings by parents, lovers, and friends, good and bad, saintly and sinful," in the hope of something being "retrieved, sorted, and held up for healing" (323).

Dunham similarly identifies the "psychic bag and baggage" we bring to the table. "There are people, obviously, making ridiculous, fumbling sexual moves," Dunham acknowledges, "but the badness is sort of coming more from just a place of being unformed people trying to connect."3 Importantly, where Dunham reads innocent motives, Coakley shows a desire for control, power, or self-experience at the expense of others—decidedly less innocent means. For this reason and others, these two conceive of the agency of transformation differently. Recasting Dunham's mechanism in Coakley's words, we hold ourselves up for healing, we are the healer.

In Girls, one central narrative for transformation is the empowerment that comes from accumulated sexual experiences. Dunham speaks of maturity over reordered loves, and does so without access or reference to Coakley's resources—whether theological language or intentional contemplative practices. In the world of the show, characters are transformed by these experiences, which expand their understanding of themselves and the world. For Hannah in particular, this comes with the added benefit of stories for her writing, something that is especially important to her, given her desire to become "the voice of a generation."

But can experience alone be transformative, when desires are conflicted and conflated (as Coakley suggests)? For example, Hannah's desire to capture her generation's voice means she approaches sexual experience through the lens of its potential transcription, a posture that changes the experience itself. As Susan Sontag writes, "The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people's reality, and eventually in one's own."4 Dunham, too, seems aware of the problems that result from coming to the table with mixed motives. She suggests that these characters lose some of their ability to experience transformation in the sexual encounter. Take her interpretation of Hannah and her boyfriend, Adam:

Hannah thinks about sex as a way to learn more about herself and she kind of feels like she needs to accept whatever opportunity to learn is offered to her. And Adam is continually testing the boundaries and also using sex as a way to experience to be close and also not to be close. And so he's not going to have the kind of sex where you, you know, move slowly and look into each other's eyes. He wants to be near another person but in the least intimate way possible. . . . [I]t's a complicated dance.5

In stark contrast to Hannah and Adam, the uptight Marnie (marvelously played by Allison Williams) seeks transformation through an alignment with more traditional notions of sexuality and romance. Early in the show, this desire plays out in her monogamous relationship with Charlie, and, later, through her tendency to get easily caught up in romantic narratives.

But transformation does not come easily here, either. For when Marnie enters these moments—for example, Charlie's expression of desire woven together with a painful-to-watch vulnerability—she remains unmoved, even disgusted. And in the third season, when Marnie finds in Ray the potential for a relationship that might actually bring transformation (there is a depth of connection and the ability to be seen and spoken to with honest but painful truths), she runs away. Marnie seems open to potential transformation only when a relationship fits her calculation of optimal looks and talent for cocktail-party performance and child-producing fitness. Whether these characters seek transformation in experience or alignment with traditional expectations, the "psychic bag and baggage" that Coakley describes still prevents transformation.

Near the end of God, Sexuality and the Self, Coakley writes of the ways in which the experience of unmediated sexual intimacy may at times offer potential for transformation. Looking to the insights of the French feminist Luce Irigaray, Coakley agrees that there is, in the dissolving boundaries between lovers, "a shared space, a shared breath" that in itself is the third party6—creating a trinitarian moment of sorts. As Coakley explains:

. . . we may perhaps glimpse how human ecstatic loves (at their best) might ultimately relate to divine ecstatic love . . . by the "interruption" by the Spirit of any merely "egological" duality inherent in their relationship, such that the human lovers are themselves aware of a necessary "third" between them—both uniting them and protecting their integrity in their new ecstasy of exchange. What then is happening may even be a degree of participation in the divine life; but it comes with both the cost and the joy of truly "ecstatic" attention to the other. (318)

Perhaps this is the power of the encounter between Hannah and Joshua in "One Man's Trash." Finally, Hannah is free from her need to add another chapter to the memoir. She opens up to another for an encounter that just might overcome the conflicting goals that each brings to the exchange—Joshua's desire for a sexual escape, and the acquisition of a transcribable sexual fantasy for Hannah. While not guaranteed in any moment, or any formula, there is nonetheless potential for transformation in these "human ecstatic loves."


Two other spaces for transformation emerge across the show and in the book: transformation by community, and transformation by contemplation. For Coakley, community happens through the church or at its boundaries, through the role of the "sect" and "mystic." Hannah's community is in the relationship with her three close friends. And for Hannah, contemplation and reflection come in writing, whereas Coakley thinks of reflection in terms of the dialogue of prayer.

To explore the power of community, Coakley recapitulates Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch's distinction of "church," "sect," and "mystic," arguing that the former needs the latter two to push against the boundaries of orthodoxy. Transformation of desire happens when orthodoxy is seen as a process, more dynamic than static. In her fieldwork with a charismatic Anglican community, Coakley shows the potential value that comes when a "church" listens to the Spirit through the voices of the "sect" and "mystic" within a discerning community.

In contrast, the organic community in Girls tends to be forged in the absence of formal institutions. One of the more poignant explorations into this kind of community comes in season three's episode "Beach House." In this episode, Marnie seeks to create a healing space for her three friends by inviting them to a friend's place near the Hamptons. While not embracing the formal liturgy and institutional structures of Troeltsch's understanding of the church, Marnie works to ritualize a transformative moment across the weekend. She controls the social time at the beach and plans a shared dinner where there might be space for healing. But rather than participate in this liturgy, the other girls, Hannah in particular, push against the forced structure. When Hannah runs into her gay ex-boyfriend Elijah and his friends, she invites them over to crash the intervention, much to Marnie's dismay.

Late in a night of drinking, the girls decide to learn a choreographed dance from one of Elijah's friends. As the music plays, the girls flow and move in concert with one another, and the tension of the weekend begins to bleed away. But as they finish the dance, Marnie again asserts her desire for control, asking the group to do it again because of Hannah's disjointed rhythm. Marnie's critique plunges the group into one of the more honest and hurtful conversations among these four friends that viewers have seen. After this blowout, it seems that all opportunity for any kind of positive, transformative experience is lost. But something restorative manages to break in. The episode ends with the four girls waiting silently on a curb for a bus back to the city. In this silence, they again mirror the dance moves on the curb, and we see a glimpse of hope in the embodied liturgy of dance.

While transformation may happen in community, Coakley's insistence on the contemplative posture reminds us of the need for a quiet listening space amid the communal liturgy of dance. The church needs the mystic, Coakley reminds us. In Girls, Hannah's contemplation involves not the posture of prayer in search of a more authentic, vertical dialogue, but rather the monologue of writing and the channeling of experience. She sees this creative vocation as a way to pursue an authentic self. But the author's eye is rarely only attentive to what is authentic and can easily veer toward what people want. For Hannah, this imagined "other" continually pushes her to consider what is legitimate to write about and what is necessary to convey. Again, there is an intrusion of conflicted desires. However, it must be said that prayer is not without these same pitfalls and that prayer receives legitimate criticism at times for merely channeling the voice of the ego or what the institutional "church" finds viable. Nonetheless, both women hold out hope for the transformative potential of their respective contemplative spaces.


Throughout God, Sexuality and the Self, Sarah Coakley illuminates the complicated interplay among desire, contemplative spirituality, and the historic and modern church. Given the immense task she has set for herself in this systematic theology, Coakley focuses primarily on the ways our understandings of God reflect gendered assumptions, and only briefly on one of her more provocative conclusions: that all talk about sex is really talk about God. As a result, while there are a number of important theological insights in Coakley's work—an illuminating history of the Trinity, a helpful understanding of the church's need for and suspicion of the voice of the mystic, and some provocative comments on the unity between agape and eros—she leaves her readers with questions about the personal and experiential implications of the project.

Perhaps this is why I think we can learn something from Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa about the theological parallels and interpretive challenges that come in personal encounters fraught with desire. Dunham's characters live in a post-Christian culture where, as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor suggests, our relationship with the divine is buffered rather than porous: the theological is quickly replaced by internal explanations. When Hannah experiences moments of "encounter," she speaks of them, not with theological language or within the institution of a church (or other religious institutions or practices), but rather with psychological mechanisms. She describes journeys toward maturity undertaken in communities of friends. But is this enough? Will we see Hannah and company transformed in this space without access to the practices or language that Coakley highlights as crucial?

When read together, Coakley and Dunham raise crucial questions on the role of religious practices in a modern, "buffered" world. For example, does individual and communal transformation require a numinous or spiritual experience? And how do the language and practices we inhabit prevent or enable these encounters? For Coakley, transformation means an alteration of spiritual senses—the ability to see and engage with the Risen Christ. For Hannah and friends, transformation involves the easing of anxiety, an authenticity of experience, individual empowerment, and learning to express sexuality in more healthy relationships. In this way, Coakley might see Girls as failing to explicate a deeper grounding for transformation, and with good reason. While empowerment and authenticity may be appropriate ends in and of themselves, I believe Charles Taylor is convincing in his argument that the power of these projects comes from their alignment with deeper frameworks of meaning, grounding in "agapē, or one of the secular claimants to its succession."7

Maybe this is why, at a certain point, dialogue between these works breaks down. Coakley assumes from the start that God exists; as a result, it is through engagement with this reality that we are transformed. Dunham, on the other hand, does not feel a need to walk through the spirituality of human experience, either because it does not exist or because she sees it as irrelevant. But if Coakley is right that God exists and is a reality beyond our conceptions (or lack thereof), wouldn't access to Coakley's theological language and religious practices make an encounter more possible? With such grounding, would Dunham's character's sexual experiences, journeys in community, or moments of silence at the writer's desk become enlivened with transformative potential?

Coakley's insight comes in part from showing how language and practices cultivate attention, and how this impacts the nature and ends of transformation. In contrast, the crux of transformation for Dunham is experience, lived through individual empowerment (at its best) and unaware narcissism (at its worst). While these might have religious corollaries, Hannah and company's focus, practices, and experience are far from those of Coakley. "I can fend for myself, with what I have left," Father John Misty sings on in the background, as apt an anthem for the show as any. While I want to believe that transformation can happen in spite of ourselves, our language, and our practices, I also have a hard time believing that merely by experience alone are we transformed. Attention to practices and language is needed, because experiences can be mediated more or less effectively. While Coakley's may not be the only system (hence Taylor's reference to agape, or its various secular varieties), it is hard to have much faith that the systems these girls bring to their experience are enough.

At the end of season three, Hannah still seeks transformation. This time it is through a potential escape from New York City to attend the Iowa's Writer's Workshop and focus on her craft. Will Hannah find in this place a kind of secular asceticism with transformative power? If so, what will transformation entail? The answers to these questions may say more about the nonreligious potential for spiritual transformation than Hannah's life trajectory alone. Maybe Dunham can be "the voice of a generation," as Hannah nervously foreshadows to her parents in the pilot episode of the first season—just not in the way she originally expected.

 

Notes

  1. Emily Nussbaum, "That Sex Scene on Last Night's 'Girls'," Culture Desk (blog), The New Yorker, February 11, 2013.
  2. James Poniewozik, "Lena Dunham Interview, Part One: What Girls Is Made Of," Tuned In (blog), Time, posted April 12, 2012.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Susan Sontag, "Shooting America," New York Review of Books, April 18, 1974.
  5. Terry Gross, "Lena Dunham Addresses Criticism Aimed at Girls," Fresh Air, NPR, May 7, 2012 (transcript online: www.npr.org).
  6. Luce Irigaray, "Questions to Emmanuel Lévinas: On the Divinity of Love," in Re-Reading Lévinas, ed. Robert Bernasconi and Simon Critchley (Athlone, 1991), 109–118.
  7. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Harvard University Press, 1989), 516.
 

Peter Boumgarden is Assistant Professor of Management at Hope College and a faculty associate for the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan. His work on theology and culture has appeared in Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Christian Century, and in the 2013 book Corners in the City of God: Theology, Philosophy and "The Wire."

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Liberation Theology Redux?

Harvey Cox

In Review | Books In the Company of the Poor: Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, edited by Michael Griffin and Jennie Weiss Block. Orbis Books, 192 pages, $24.

Farmer and Gutierrez

 

Paul Farmer, left, and Gustavo Gutiérrez at the University of Notre Dame in 2011. Courtesy of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, University of Notre Dame

 

Why, on a cold evening in February 2014, did more than four hundred students and townspeople crowd into First Church, Cambridge, to listen to Dr. Paul Farmer be interviewed by Professor Davíd Carrasco of Harvard Divinity School? This book helps to answer that question. It is true that Farmer, chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, enjoys a well-earned reputation as a pacesetter in world health. He is also the founding director of Partners In Health, an international nonprofit network that provides health care services and undertakes research and advocacy for people suffering from both illness and poverty. His group's innovative practices in Africa and Haiti model new, even revolutionary, approaches to health care.

Harvard is already replete with people doing extraordinary things, so why should Farmer draw such a throng that included not only medical students, but church people and divinity students? The answer is that Farmer makes it explicit that his ongoing motivation comes from liberation theology in particular, which he calls "an inexhaustible font of inspiration" (19). He told the audience that, like many college students, he had drifted away from his Catholic faith. But, as he began to work among the poorest in the global South, he "kept running into people who seemed to be guided by liberation theology," especially the example of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of El Salvador, and by the writings of Peru's Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, whose book A Theology of Liberation (Orbis Books, 1973), with its focus on "a preferential option for the poor," is often considered to be the intellectual fountainhead of liberation theology.

Farmer met Gutiérrez in the early 1990s in Lima. The two quickly became friends, and this book, a conversation between the two, is the fruit of this long interdisciplinary and intercontinental friendship.1 In the first chapter, "Reimagining Accompaniment: A Doctor's Tribute to Gustavo Gutiérrez," Farmer says he learned three things from Gutiérrez that have guided his work ever since. "First, that real service to the poor involves understanding global poverty," which means it must be seen as structural and systemic (19). "Second, an understanding of poverty must be linked to efforts to end it," and this suggests that praxis is the key (21). "Third, as science and technology advance, our structural sin deepens" (22). Farmer translates this into medical terms; using the example of cholera, which has now become "a disease exclusively of the poor," he says, "the pathogen has made a far more radical preferential option for the poor than have those fighting it" (33).2 Gutiérrez suggests that the church and theology today must frontally engage world poverty, and writes: "poverty for billions on this planet means an early death. We need to be clear . . . that poverty is an evil" (29).

Probably the main reason why the event at First Church drew such a huge crowd is that, often, the many young people who are determined to do something to alleviate sickness and destitution become discouraged. They hunger for something or someone to inspire and encourage them. And many students of religion want to find a way to apply their spirituality in a concrete way. The examples of Farmer and Gutiérrez respond to these needs and desires. As both men acknowledge, working amid those who are suffering is "hard and often painful" (24), but Farmer writes that he also learned from Gutiérrez "to look for the hermeneutics of hope that might follow the hermeneutics of generosity" (19).

From my perspective as a religion scholar, the well-attended event and this book also signal something else: the reinvigoration of liberation theology. Already in 1968, the Latin American bishops had issued a document that became the Magna Carta of what is among the most influential theological movements of the twentieth century. When a death squad murdered six liberationist Jesuits, gunmen killed four women church workers, and Archbishop Oscar Romero was murdered while saying mass in El Salvador in 1980, instead of giving up, liberation theology refused to die. Instead, the "preferential option for the poor" rapidly spread throughout Latin America, where it inspired both laypeople and clergy to wade into the struggle against political and economic injustice. Meanwhile, the message spread to Korea (Minjung theology), to India (Dalit theology), and all around the world. Soon Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, and Evangelical liberation theologies appeared. Still, however, liberation theology was censored by the Vatican and treated dismissively by most academic theologians.

In spite of this early tenacity in the face of violence and opposition, not long ago theologians were writing obituaries for liberation theology. Some said it had been just a passing fad, and that it was time to move on to something else. It is true that for a time liberation theology's prospects looked grim. When Cardinal Josef Ratzinger was selected pope in 2005, Christians all over the world who had found hope in the rise of liberation theology held their collective breath. This was the man who, as prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had been its severest critic. He had issued warnings, silencings, and excommunications to nearly every quarter of the Catholic Church. He wrote two official documents criticizing the liberationist movement. He oversaw the appointment of bishops who were either opposed or not supportive. In addition to the Vatican's disapproval, church leaders and laypeople inspired by liberation theology have continued to face more lethal threats.

Then came an unexpected but decisive reversal of fortune. When Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Jesuit bishop of Buenos Aires, was consecrated as the 266th pope in March 2013, one of his first acts was to call the eighty-five-year-old Gutiérrez and invite him to Rome for a conversation. The two concelebrated mass, then ate breakfast and talked. It was a short meeting, but it had enormous significance. In short, it demonstrated that Rome's campaign against liberation theology was over. Since then, Pope Francis has called economic inequality a grave threat and criticized the pieties of the market worshipers.

Meanwhile, a courageous physician, his heart touched by liberation theology's basic impulse, continues to demonstrate to young people all over the world that, as he puts it in his tribute to Gustavo Gutiérrez: "As long as poverty and inequality persist, as long as people are wounded and imprisoned and despised, we humans will need accompaniment—practical, spiritual, intellectual" (24).3

The theme of accompaniment is threaded throughout the essays and conversations in this book, and both men clearly admire each other for the stalwart commitment each has made to living and working with people who are, as Gutiérrez reminds us, "the poorest and weakest" (29). Gutiérrez suggests that Farmer's work with Partners In Health is a paradigmatic example of praxis and tells Farmer directly, "I think very much about the witness of your work: accompaniment which is reflection" (165). Farmer states that what has always struck him, even from the early days of reading Gutiérrez and then meeting him, is Gutiérrez's "understanding that fighting poverty is a humbling kind of engagement, even for a well-known theologian" (162). Gutiérrez responds that "one part of this humility is diligence, because . . . [e]ven if we cannot explain situations of suffering, we can be close to the people suffering" (164–165).

As Gutiérrez opens up about the ravages of cholera and other diseases among the communities he serves, and Farmer discusses what "the ministry of being a doctor or nurse means" (171), it is evident that, though they may have chosen different professions, they have learned much from each other. Because their ethical commitments come from the same "inexhaustible font" of liberation theology, they are able to serve as fonts of inspiration for others.

 

Notes

  1. The book includes essays by Farmer and Gutiérrez that give tribute and respond to each other, and concludes with the transcript of a public conversation the two had at the University of Notre Dame.
  2. Elsewhere, Farmer writes: "a preferential option for the poor offers both a challenge and an insight. It challenges doctors and other health providers to make an option—a choice—for the poor, to work on their behalf. The insight is, in a sense, an epidemiological one: most often, diseases themselves make a preferential option for the poor. Every careful survey, across boundaries of time and space, shows us that the poor are sicker than the nonpoor" (36).
  3. During the conversation at Notre Dame, Farmer is careful to note that "Partners In Health . . . is not a religious organization. It is a secular organization." But, he goes on: "That does not mean that people in it cannot derive inspiration, spiritual or otherwise, from liberation theology" (175).
 

Harvey Cox is Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. His next book, How to Read the Bible, will be published by HarperCollins in spring 2015.

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Paying Attention to Pain

Sejal H. Patel

In Review | Books The Empathy Exams: Essays, by Leslie Jamison. Graywolf Press, 256 pages, $15.

A young woman decides to terminate a pregnancy a month before she was scheduled for heart surgery. She intended to share the news of her abortion only with those closest to her, like her boyfriend and her parents. But her mother insists that she tell her cardiologist, in case the procedure threatens her vascular condition. The patient, feeling ashamed, musters the courage to tell the doctor, a small, curt woman who had never been warm to her.

"And what do you want to know from me?" the cardiologist responded, her voice cold and blunt.

The patient's mind went blank. She started crying, then asked: Did the abortion doctor need to know anything about her heart procedure?

"No," the doctor said. She paused. "Is that it?"

That sharp question, "Is that it?" well represents what motivated author Leslie Jamison to write The Empathy Exams, an essay compilation that won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. The doctor's lack of empathy trivialized the patient's feelings, causing her to question whether she was "making a big deal out of nothing." Jamison was the young patient in this story. Through eleven essays, Jamison serves as her own protagonist, sometimes as the giver and sometimes as the recipient of empathy. On other occasions, like that in the example above, she is denied empathy. Jamison explores empathy as it relates to guilt, shame, trauma, power, agency, blame, and forgiveness. Her essays appeared in nine different literary journals before Jamison published them together in this book. The meaning of empathy floats throughout the collection, presenting itself as a fluid feeling, without discrete edges, rather than as a dictionary-defined word. Jamison steers through the topics with masterful prose, no doubt honed by her studies at Harvard, Iowa, and now Yale, as a doctoral student in English literature. Jamison is also an accomplished fiction writer, and her first novel, The Gin Closet, won awards from the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. In taking on a topic as complex as empathy, perhaps Jamison intended for the reader to define the word, using her book as inspiration.

Though she doesn't quite frame it this way, Jamison's essays appear to converge on this point: empathy is the salve for human loneliness. "We care in order to be cared for. We care because we are porous," Jamison writes. She aims to prove this point empirically. She tackles subjects that include her own medical history, the unexplained disorders of others, prisons, marathon races, murder cases, and feminine pain. She moves the narrative from Austin, Texas, to Mexico, from Nicaragua to West Virginia. The philosophical, geographical, and topical scope of The Empathy Exams, with Jamison playing both narrator and character, leads the reader to consider how voicing empathy heals the giver as much as the recipient.

The book begins with the title essay. Here, we see Jamison trying to make ends meet as a writer by playing a medical actor for $13.50 an hour. Her job is to dramatize ailments as spelled out in fictional case studies. Medical students enter examination rooms and interview actors like Jamison, trying to diagnose their pretend disease. For example, Jamison's specialty is playing a twenty-three-year-old woman who has a psychiatric disorder borne of grieving. She reveals bits and pieces of her symptoms to the medical students based on their questions and emotional connectivity with her. After the skits, the actors evaluate the medical students' performances. The more information a medical student convinces the actor to divulge, the better the actors will grade the aspiring doctor.

Checklist item 31 of the evaluation reads: "Voiced empathy for my situation/problem." The hospital personnel running the program underscore "voiced" as the critical component of this metric. Jamison does not delve into the fact that this is item thirty-one, after thirty previous questions about the diagnosis itself. Empathy in this setting is relegated to part two of the evaluation, with diagnostic science taking precedence over emotional connectivity. Jamison's interaction with her cardiologist reflects that ordering. The essay toggles between Jamison's role as medical actor and her life predicament as patient; in the one case, empathy is dramatized, and in the other situation, it really matters to her.

Part memoir and part journalism, the mixed genre of The Empathy Exams also allows Jamison to investigate a wide range of emotions, both as observer and as participant. She divulges her guilt and shame over her unplanned pregnancy. She exposes the superficiality of comments such as "That must be really hard," or "I couldn't even imagine"—banal offerings that exacerbate the isolation of trauma instead of alleviating it. She discusses the tension over needing to handle trauma alone and simultaneously needing emotional support.

Jamison's eclectic writing style models her apparent philosophy that there are no tidy solutions to human pain. Her approach to writing is interdisciplinary, and she attempts to bridge academic disciplines with popular writing. She defies market pressures that sort books into rigid categories: academic or trade, nonfiction or memoir, anthropology or psychology. She cites an expansive range of sources, including Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Guns N' Roses, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Readers from academic circles may search through her text for how empathy relates to broader frameworks like feminism, race, class, or moral philosophy. Nonacademics might find the external references distracting. But Jamison's mixed style results in a book just sophisticated enough for anyone to take away an emotional and intellectual education about a universal human feeling. The essays offer insights about empathy without insisting on answers. Jamison's approach to empathy is, well, empathetic.

Jamison discusses what I view as a loneliness-empathy construct in each of the other essays in the book. In the essay "Devil's Bait," for example, she travels to Austin, Texas, to attend a conference about Morgellons disease, a condition where matter like long fibers, fuzz, crystals, and specks mysteriously grow out of people's bodies. She exposes, in graphic detail, the symptoms of the disease and how isolated those afflicted with it feel. Morgellons patients suffer severe dermatological disfigurement, aching to scratch out the invaders lying under their skin. Yet medical studies and doctors question the disease, considering it one of delusion, made up, or a joke. There is no known cure for Morgellons. Patients end up defending a disease that is a living nightmare. Jamison wonders whether the disease is contagious after she spends several days locked in an Austin church with a group of self-diagnosed patients. She feels guilty about her relief over leaving the conference early. As an author who craves empathetic care, she recognizes the difficulties in giving empathy.

Through the essays, Jamison also probes at how isolation and empathy feel in different spaces. The intimacy of a hospital examination room, for example, can inspire empathy or emphasize isolation, depending on eye contact, tone of voice, and reaction to someone's pain. The church conference room gathered sick people who needed to feel validated. Still, after sitting through lectures about how frustrating the ailment was and how powerless its victims felt, Jamison asks, "When does empathy actually reinforce the pain it wants to console?" She explores in another essay the difference between Watts and Santa Monica when a person says they are "from" Southern California, citing the shame of privilege in saying that a person is from "here" when their sense of "here" is wildly different in Santa Monica than it is in Watts.

Prisons also affect empathic feeling, in Jamison's view. Jamison compares her freedom, without walls, restrictive routine, or shackles, to an inmate's opposite predicament. However, she pays little regard to the volitional criminal acts that land inmates in jail. In her two essays about inmates, Jamison expresses greater empathy for inmates than for victims or the correctional system. Perhaps the judgment here derives from her role as observer rather than participant. Jamison devotes no time to thinking about why our system incarcerates people. Or, again recalling the title essay of the book, she neglects discussing why empathy ranks thirty-one on the list of questions after thirty diagnostic questions. There is a flaw in Jamison's policy critiques when her empathy serves only one person, without considering how large systems process human trauma.

That said, her witness perspective has value. She identifies how both the health care and the criminal justice systems can grow emotionally mechanical in handling social problems. People working in health care or criminal justice see illness, crime, pain, and punishment so often that they can become desensitized. Observations that shock Jamison and many of her readers may feel banal or commonplace to those working inside hospitals, jails, and courtrooms. Jamison's cardiologist, for example, brushed her question off as perfunctory because, to her, it probably was. That desensitization might exist because pain loses its novelty to these insiders, or because actors within the system would burn out if they constantly invoked empathy for the causes they serve. Jamison urges the reader to consider whether we can afford for empathy to be an afterthought in medical and legal contexts. She suggests that we must summon empathetic responses in these situations.

Barkley Marathon
A race with only thirty-five runners who compete at risk of grave injury, the Barkley Marathons is an event that requires an understanding of why and how people need this paradoxical sense of shared solitude. Photos: Geoffrey Baker.

This need for empathy plays itself out in another essay about extreme sports and the Barkley Marathons, a trail race that grew out of a famous attempted prison break. James Earl Ray, the man who shot Martin Luther King Jr., escaped from a penitentiary in northern Tennessee in 1977 and was caught after more than fifty hours of running and covering a distance of barely eight miles. The terrain he covered is so treacherous that since the race began, in 1986, only a dozen men have finished it. The runners begin, lost deep in the woods, and then make their way alone across one hundred miles of steep hills, brutal saw briars, and a tunnel under the old penitentiary grounds. Men (and a few women) compete in this ultra-marathon at risk of grave injury. Taking part in this race is a driving need for its participants, even if health concerns and pragmatism counsel against running it.

This extreme sport is Jamison's way of depicting what happens when someone makes a confounding choice. For her, that choice was to have an abortion, or, in other essays, to cut her skin, to drink heavily, and to live with an eating disorder. She also writes about a grandmother who contracts a sexually transmitted disease while having an affair. When an outsider observes something that seems inexplicable, incomprehensible, or morally wrong, Jamison asks us to consider how that reaction affects both the actor and the observer. In the context of an extreme sport, being alone is a deliberate choice. This essay probes whether we should feel empathy for those who have made questionable choices and whether they need us to feel empathy for their situation. Her answer to the first question is "yes," while she leaves the latter question open. Jamison writes: "Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see." A race with only thirty-five runners a year, the Barkley Marathons is an event that requires an understanding of why and how people need this paradoxical sense of shared solitude.

Making this effort to be empathetic, in Jamison's view, is a deliberate act. The empathy need not be tailored to one situation or to one script. "Empathy isn't just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain," Jamison says. "[I]t's also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves." She admits in two essays, "In Defense of Saccharin(e)" and "Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain," that her view on empathy may be sentimental. Parts of her book are melodramatic, a risk in the genre of self-writing. But Jamison anticipates this critique, arguing that melodrama should be understood as an acceptable, even necessary, human indulgence. There should be no shame in expressing pain or self-pity, she says, admitting, "I'm not sure how to say it right, with the kind of language that would be sentimental enough to support its point but not too sentimental to damn it." Jamison's book pays homage to the idea of sharing pain, as the essays themselves narrate the author's own experiences as observer and participant in life's traumas. "I don't believe in a finite economy of empathy," she insists, "I happen to think that paying attention yields as much as it takes. You learn to start seeing."

Jamison's clarity of vision, as an author, academic, journalist, and ordinary person, offers readers multidimensional representations of some of the most difficult experiences a human can face. The eleven essays leave the reader feeling emotionally spent but also hopeful that caring for someone else helps heal our own pain. We all make mistakes, fail at something, fall ill, or judge too harshly. Jamison insists that we are wrong to believe that we carry guilt, shame, and self-blame alone. Quoting Joan Didion, Jamison reminds us: "We tell ourselves stories in order to survive." The Empathy Exams is one author's manifesto of survival out of loneliness—her petition for empathetic connection. "I want our hearts to be open," Jamison concludes. "I mean it."

 

Sejal H. Patel is a former federal prosecutor and criminal defense attorney. She recently graduated from Harvard Divinity School (MTS '14), where she finished her first book and produced documentary films.

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See also: Books, Spirituality

The Masks We Wear

Wendy McDowell

Now I become myself. It's taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people's faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
"Hurry, you will be dead before—"
—May Sarton1

Years ago, I attended a farewell party for a work colleague, a Disciples of Christ minister and expert on Indonesia who was serving as the Southern Asia director at a humanitarian agency.2 At the age of sixty-four, this man planned to retire within the year and had already moved to be closer to his family, when he received a devastating diagnosis of advanced cancer. At the party, we were disheartened to see that he was an emaciated, almost spectral version of his former self, though he was still the same spirited advocate for others we knew him to be.3 Instead of delivering a typical farewell speech, he told us a story about a difficult goodbye from his own past (I believe it was when leaving one of his missionary stints in North Sumatra). He recounted his sadness as he brought around farewell gifts and wishes to people he had grown to cherish. But as he was saying one particularly emotional goodbye to an aged friend (well aware that they might never see each other again), his Indonesian friend told him to take heart, explaining, "When we say goodbye to a friend, we get to take off our masks!"

Of course, in some Indonesian cultures—as in many cultures throughout the world—there is a rich tradition of masks used in rituals, dances, or theatrical performances. The mask has multiple designs, meanings, and purposes that are specific to the cultures, times, and contexts in which it is used. Ritual masks are often worn for shamanistic purposes—to mark rites of transition, to heal, and to communicate with ancestors. These deliberate masks function to bind the wearers (and the watchers, too) to the social, biological, and cosmic order.

In contrast, the mask we get to take off when we say a final goodbye is "the mask that grins and lies,"4 the often unconscious "false face" we wear for social acceptance or survival. Concealing ourselves is a normal part of our social life—sometimes only in concealing ourselves do we feel free to reveal ourselves. But the masks we wear to express role, social class, race, or sexuality (especially when they are infixed with an aspect of superiority) can obscure our authentic humanity, or make us blind to the "torn and bleeding hearts" in our midst.5

Perhaps it seems strange to introduce an issue on vocation with talk of goodbyes, dying, and masks. But May Sarton's stark language suggests that any journey to "become myself" includes trying on different faces, saying goodbye to loved ones (and to past selves), and stripping away false fantasies and illusions to replace them with ones that feel more "true" to us. Yet we tend to resist being "dissolved," because such experiences come with an acute awareness of our own mortality, fallibility, and unknowability.

On the jagged path to fulfillment are terror and wonder, as Michael Jackson reveals. Jackson quotes a Gola mask carver who describes "intense and mysterious fulfillment" but also comments, "It is a fearful thing that I do." Jackson explores the mysterious, "regenerative process of coming out and going in," compared with giving birth. Thus, when Jackson discusses "the work of art," he is not only referring to a painting or poem; he means the process we all engage in (no matter what our "profession"/work) "to bring some semblance of continuity, comprehension, and control to [our] relationship with unknown forces, both within and without."

In this issue, there is not a sense of "landing" on certainties (it is no coincidence that three different authors quote from The Cloud of Unknowing), but more a feeling of "dreaming" (in all its connotations).6 The authors bring us insights like: "Living and working in community is a kind of martyrdom" (Amelia Perkins); "We are the problem to ourselves" (James Carroll); and "We are the lovers . . . whose work it is to explore the mysteries of our shared humanity" (Stephanie Paulsell).

Thus, what you will not find in this issue is self-help advice about how to "discover your vocation." Nor will you find clear divisions between "religious" vocations and "nonreligious" ones (though there are priests and nuns and pastors in these pages). What you will find are reflections on the conundrums our vocational lives can bring. Nate Klug sometimes feels "at the mercy of competing powers" in his roles as pastor and poet; Marion Torchia explores the "three intertwined roles" that drove Julia Budenz to produce an epic work of poetry; and Nancy J. Nordenson rebels against the idea of wholeheartedness in one pursuit being the key to vocation: "To operate on one level here and another level there, is this not the same as a woman nursing one child while reading to another?" After all, most of us juggle multiple callings simultaneously. These "nestled" vocations may inform each other, but, like siblings, they may sometimes squabble or jockey for position.

Also here are learnings across vocations: the lessons psychiatrist Dan G. Blazer has gleaned from faith communities on treating depressive patients, or in the long and fruitful dialogue between the doctor Paul Farmer and the priest Gustavo Gutiérrez about their "preferential option for the poor" (discussed by Harvey Cox).

Throughout the issue, there is a shared sense of "bearing witness to the world," whether in art (a Virginia Woolf novel or a Bill Cain play), or in lived experience (Dietrich Bonhoeffer's resistance to the Nazis, or Melissa Bartholomew's current work building racial reconciliation). When there is true "accompaniment" (Farmer's term), our masks can be peeled off, and humble but hopeful encounters can occur. In her poem aptly titled "Witness," Budenz writes:

There are some cracks in the world.
There are some windows in the sky.

 

Notes

  1. "Now I Become Myself," in Collected Poems, 1930–1993 (W.W. Norton, 1993).
  2. In this role, he was known for his tireless efforts to alleviate the suffering wrought by natural and manmade disasters alike, especially in Indonesia, India, and East Timor.
  3. This man continued to write letters and make calls about the East Timorese struggle for self-determination until his final days.
  4. From Paul Laurence Dunbar's famous poem on the double nature of the black experience, "We Wear the Mask." The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, ed. Joanne M. Braxton (University of Virginia Press, 1993).
  5. Dunbar's words again.
  6. Nocturnal dreams are mysterious creations with multivocal interpretations, but dreams are also imagined vocations that sustain us (as in "follow your dreams").
 

Wendy McDowell is senior editor of the Bulletin.

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The Prophetic Vocation(s) of Julia Budenz

Marion Torchia

In Review | Books The Gardens of Flora Baum, five vols., by Julia Budenz. Carpathia Press, 2,254 pages, $175 (cloth set; order from www.carpathiapress.com); $90 (paper set, individual volumes also sold separately; order from www.lulu.com).

Elm Tree by Gracia Lam

Illustration by Gracia Lam

 

Can a former Roman Catholic nun turned poet offer help to religious leaders struggling with such problems as the exhaustion of religious vocabulary, loss of belief in ancient doctrine and myth, failure of long-established religious institutions, hostility of secular materialists, and despair of individuals deprived of faith? Julia Budenz lived a quasi-monastic life in Cambridge, Massachusetts, supported herself primarily as a research assistant, and spent her creative life addressing these issues through the writing of a single 2,200-page poem. Reeling from her own religious trauma, she embarked on a highly individual intellectual and spiritual quest. Making selective use of the resources of the past, she formulated her own definition of what it means to be religious, and in the process produced some magnificent poetry.

The Gardens of Flora Baum, recently published in five volumes by Carpathia Press,1 chronicles the epic journey of Julia Budenz's heroine, Flora Urania Baum, through the entire expanse of Greek, Roman, and later Western civilization in search of beauty, knowledge, rightness in human relations, and wholeness of life. The task of evaluating her contribution awaits us, but this will not be a simple undertaking.2 As the poet Frederick Turner wrote in his World Literature Today review of Budenz's "masterwork," not only is it "a work so enormous in size and meaning," but "because the style, assumptions, aesthetics, and logic of the poem are so radically different from . . . our contemporary literary culture," it may be that "the word 'review' is inadequate for what needs to be done at this point."3

Turner goes on to suggest that this "newcomer" to the literary world "is in many ways a larger entity than the community itself," and "it is the community that should be knocking on her door" rather than the other way around. He describes the vast scope and style of the work:

It may be the longest poem by any single author, rivaling Spenser's The Faerie Queene. . . . Flora Baum encompasses many genres: lyrics, narratives, treatises, prayers, invocations, letters, riddles, birthday cards for the dead, autobiography, philosophical speculation, eulogies, diary entries, and many others; it contains many languages, including Latin, Greek, Italian, German, French, in all of which she was fluent. Its subjects range from the latest science to the most ancient history and mythology. She was a world traveler, in the flesh and in her imagination, and this poem is in many ways a world epic as well as one rooted in the tradition of Rome.

Turner and the Scottish poet Tessa Ransford are both awed by Budenz's ability to work in the "hardest of all forms in English" (Turner)—the Petrarchan sonnet—and indeed, Budenz includes an entire sequence of them in the third book, which Ransford declares to be "this remarkable tour de force of sonnets."4

These "review" essays begin to do the important work of describing and understanding Budenz's accomplishment as a poet, and I hope there will be many more. However, I am more interested in Julia's life story, and in how her sense of vocation changed, expanded, and challenged the way that institutions can limit us to prescribed paths. Though she had self-doubt and faced difficulties along the way, Julia's life and work reveal someone who took her sense of vocation seriously.


I first knew Julia Budenz as mother Miriam Budenz, O.S.U. (Order of Saint Ursula). She was an instructor in classics at the College of New Rochelle in New York, and I was one of her students in 1962–63. I remember her as a brilliant scholar, but also as an engaging and enthusiastic young teacher, kind to us and tolerant of our ignorance. I met her again in Boston in 1967 or thereabouts, soon after she had left the convent and enrolled at Harvard as a graduate student in comparative literature, but we did not stay in touch.

Just this past year I learned that Julia had died and that her poem had been published. I bought the five-volume set partly out of curiosity and partly to see what insight it might offer about my own life trajectory. After all, Julia and I had gone to the same college. We had in common our choice of an esoteric academic discipline. We had both been deeply immersed in religion during the course of our Catholic schooling. And we had both left the Catholic Church, possibly the same year, 1965. I wanted to see how these common formative influences had played out in Julia's life and poetry.

My initial reaction was one of appalled amazement at the poem's length and vast scope. Why would someone try to write a single poem of such complexity? Why not just let one's poetic message emerge over the course of a lifetime? The answer seems to be simply that she felt called to do so. The poem found her. The writing of it became her vocation. It became both the vehicle of her search and the documentation of its results. It was a spiritual autobiography, to be completed as Julia lived. But it is definitely not a raw diary; it has a complex circular and forward-moving structure planned out in advance. Nor is it primarily "confessional" poetry, though it does offer personal revelations about aspiration and failure. It is more like a modern-day Divine Comedy or Pilgrim's Progress, showing us how a post-Christian heroine can find meaning in life.

Perhaps because our paths were parallel, I can best understand how the poem came to be by reference to Julia's personal history, especially the events that led her into and eventually out of the Roman Catholic Church.

"Vocation," of course, is a religious idea. According to Roman Catholic tradition, God has assigned everyone a special life-task. But he has favored some people by a vocation to the religious life. In the American Catholic social context of the 1950s, young women who announced that they had a vocation to become nuns were held in high esteem. The nuns who taught and recruited them celebrated the call. And good Catholic families, though they may have felt a daughter's entering the convent as a loss, generally supported her decision and were proud to have a nun in the family.

However, Julia's was not a typical Catholic family. Her father, Louis Budenz, had been a leading American Communist, editor of the Daily Worker. In about 1945 he had had a change of heart, and he and his family were converted to Catholicism by the charismatic Monsignor (later Bishop) Fulton J. Sheen. In the aftermath of his conversion, Budenz cooperated with the FBI and testified against his former comrades.5 He was praised by the notorious Communist-hunter Senator Joseph McCarthy and denounced accordingly by liberals.

Imagine, then, that Julia was initially raised as an atheist, but just as she came to early adolescence (at the age of eleven), she had her worldview redescribed for her. Under the circumstances, it would not be at all surprising if she found politics and current affairs uncongenial. She was of a naturally bookish disposition, and no doubt had always been surrounded by books and ideas. So, enrolled in a Catholic academy, she studied Latin and won prizes. She continued these studies at the College of New Rochelle, graduating summa cum laude in 1956.

Entering the convent at age twenty-two may have seemed a logical extension of this movement away from the family trauma and toward an intellectual life. In any case, Julia believed she had heard and responded to God's call:

It was such a love
And it was such a choice
And such a being chosen.
(Bk. 5, pt. 2, 112)

She experienced the ecstasy of a religious experience:

I sleep, and my heart watches.
The voice of my beloved, behold he comes
This night, this hour.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Awake, yes, awake, O my soul, I will dress in the dawn.
Yes, arise, I will put on the sun.
I tremble. Yes. I will. I will don this day.

Your eyes are flames. And now
I come. And now I follow.
And now with all my heart I watch and listen and follow.
(Bk. 1, pt. 3, "The Candle," 37)

Given the intensity of her experience, it is not surprising that an emotional letdown followed. Everyday life was gray, and worse, her religious colleagues were unsympathetic. In a piece titled "Criticism," she recalls:

They wouldn't let her say
That she had a soul.
They wouldn't let her explain

What was caged behind bars
Of bones, within stones of flesh.
They didn't like the song

That her soul was singing through the chinks,
Feeling the whitest fire
Of the bluest garden.

They didn't want to hear
The loud beats of the wings of the swan
Splashing the green river of speech.
(Bk. 1, pt. 4, "Criticism," 61)

Nevertheless, Julia stayed in the convent for nine years, from 1956 to 1965. She went through the entire induction process, which included a six- to twelve-month candidacy, a two-year novitiate, temporary profession, and final vows. During her first year as a novice, called the "canonical" year because it was required by canon law, she was cut off from the intellectual life of the outside world, forbidden even to listen to the radio or read a newspaper, so that she could focus entirely on theological studies.

Once she took the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, Julia was permanently cut off from property ownership, marriage, and the independent choice of a career. In addition, the Ursulines in the 1950s and early 1960s were a cloistered order. The nuns were free to interact with students on the campus where they taught, but could not go off campus without special permission. Julia knew all this, chose it, stuck with it through final vows—and then, almost immediately, realized that it was wrong for her. She documents this in verse:

Why only after I pronounced my vows
Forever did I know I would be wrong
To keep not to abandon them? The truth
Comes when it comes. . . .
(Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 162, 372)

I can speculate about what propelled her out of the convent. The Second Vatican Council, initiated by Pope John XXIII to bring the church more into tune with the modern world and its needs, was causing enormous disruption. The location of the altar was shifted forward so that the priest would face the people; Latin was replaced by the vernacular. Nuns were asked to adopt civilian dress. Naturally, many older nuns found these changes distressing; but what about young nuns like Julia? We who were her undergraduate students had certainly welcomed the breath of fresh air that seemed to be sweeping through the church. Did these changes come too slowly for her? Did the loss of the esthetic support of an ancient tradition cause her fragile faith to collapse? Or was it that she was reading more broadly and beginning to feel intellectually compromised?

Based on my recollections of the seminar I took with Julia, I would put the greatest weight on the intellectual impetus. Julia didn't limit us only to a close reading of the Greek and Latin texts. She had us reading and discussing modern literary theory. She was already straining beyond the limits of a single academic discipline.

Of course, many priests and nuns leave the religious life without leaving the church. Often, they just decide that they are not suited to the life, or they may have quarrels with church institutions while retaining their religious faith. But Julia apparently experienced a deeper disillusionment. In 2006, she looked back on her time in the convent with horror, as "the darkness / Of the unreasoning of belief," and as "the torture / Of the slaughtering of the self" (Bk. 5, pt. 2, 119). Although she continued to say that religion was very important to her (Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 31, 207), she left the institutional church once and for all. She called herself an atheist, though she wondered what "atheism" meant and whether religion and atheism might coexist.6 Interestingly, her protagonist, Flora, attests to the essential continuity of Julia's religious life after she left the convent: "Everything changed except what was everything, a secret depth and an aspiring height, vaguer but even greater, in desire and intention, if not, alas, in attention and execution, than all that preceded" (Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 47, 236). When Julia finally left the convent in 1965, she had to reframe her life plan for herself. It must have been frightening to be thrown out into the world after so many years of seclusion, lacking an easily marketable profession. Though she had the beginnings of good scholarly credentials—a master's degree in classics from Catholic University, a Harvard summer program on Greek tragedy, and several years of college teaching experience—still she faced an enormous adjustment.

She initially enrolled at New York University, and then in 1966 began a PhD program at Harvard in comparative literature. But she found herself being drawn to writing poetry, and she eventually terminated her academic studies at the master's level, obtained a job assisting I. Bernard Cohen with his Isaac Newton project, and in 1969, at the age of thirty-five, began the poem that would be her life's work.

Julia's new vocation actually entailed three intertwined roles: scholar, mystic, and poet. She set herself the task of writing erudite poetry that would bear witness to transcendence. As Turner puts it, the point of her work seems to be "to live, not just advocate, the reincarnation of paradise into the world." In Flora Baum, she sums up her multiple callings (she calls them "my religions") in retrospect:

For ten years I knew nothing of religion.
I was still, on my tenth birthday, The Atheist.
At twelve I felt the stirring of my spirit
To hope, to strive, to pray, to be made The Mystic.
At thirty-one I confirmed myself as The Scholar.
At thirty-five I began to write The Poem.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

These are my religions.
I have not chosen them,
For they have chosen me. Should I not choose?
If I reject their choice, what do I lose?
(Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 33, 214)

Julia answers this last question for herself, writing that "To fail is not to do what one must do" (Bk. 5, pt. 2, 104). Even after leaving the convent and the church, she still felt she had a vocation, that it was religious in nature, and that she was compelled to answer the call. Yet, very likely, Julia "confirmed herself" as a scholar because, consciously or not, she felt she needed to equip herself with a new vocabulary and a new set of metaphors to replace the resources of Catholic theology, philosophy, and liturgy that she had just rejected. She naturally fell back on her resources from her study of Greco-Roman civilization. But just as she could not bear the restraints of the church, it seems that she found the traditional academic path to be constraining, as well (perhaps because it would not allow her mysticism to flourish?). She did not stop in a career in comparative literature, but instead began to write "The Poem." True to form, she wouldn't be constrained by any one time period; she felt free to traverse the entire range of Western literature, history, and mythology, and to use whatever she found however she pleased. It seems that poetry promised her the freedom to travel (intellectually and spiritually), to be the scholar and the mystic all at once.

The Scholar

Classical mythology offered significant advantages for Julia. Its cosmic orientation must have offered a welcome counterbalance to the introspective emphasis of Catholicism. The Greek and Roman divinities are forces of nature, and Julia loved nature, especially the sky, trees, and flowers. Multiple divinities offered flexibility: Julia was able to relate the old divinities to the new; she didn't have to deny the validity of her earlier mystical experience in order to find new inspiration. As she describes it, she—or rather, her alter ego, Flora—had experienced successive, not contradictory, hierophanies, or appearances of the divine:

She wanted to tell her tale.
The sky spoke to her once and once the hammering Jehovah and once the sweet Jesus with sad brown eyes
And once the anointed victor, the living Christ, leaning from above the heavens, reaching to her with fire,
And Esse glistening crystalline far over sunrise and Scire like scarlet sunset around the bend
And once Zeus raining the golden petals with which she trembled,
And once she was shot up, up, and up the glimmering redwood,
And once she was caught in the lovely lingering tentacles of the elm.
(Bk. 2, pt. 1, "Hierophanies," 71)

Interestingly, Scire (knowledge) lay "around the bend," just out of reach. In the poem, Flora visits the Oracle at Delphi, to call on the god Apollo for insight about her vocation—

And begged the god: "What great thing shall I do?"

"Be your own prophet." The answer shimmered in glare.
(Bk. 2, pt. 3, "Oracles," 144)

This answer places the responsibility squarely back on Julia's shoulders. The poet would have to figure out the message; she would have to instruct herself.

Classical literature also offered the theme of descent into the underworld. The epic heroes Odysseus and Aeneas had gone down to Hades to commune with their ancestors, to gain insight about their missions. Dante's Divine Comedy expanded on the theme. Julia draws on this literary history. In Flora Baum, she envisions a sort of manhole, a "local municipal mundus" or opening leading to the underworld, located on the Harvard campus precisely between Harvard Hall, Hollis Hall, and Holden Chapel, through which she and nineteenth-century progressive thinkers, especially the feminist Margaret Fuller, could come and go (Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 92, 299–301).7 In the poem, she and Margaret have an extended series of conversations, with more than three hundred entries (Bk. 5, pt. 3, sec. 1, "The Margaret-Ghost," nos. 1–310). Julia saw Margaret as having lived a life eerily parallel to her own. She felt that Margaret's calling, to work "as a woman / For woman and for women," was similar to hers (Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 62, 262).8 Julia had entered a religious order dedicated to the education of women. She also treasured her privilege of studying in Harvard's libraries, a privilege Margaret was denied. Julia especially feared that Margaret's tragic ending—she drowned and her last book was lost with her—might be repeated in her own life (Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 212, 427).

Julia acknowledges that the Greek gods belong to a world long gone. The heroine, Flora, visits Greece. She holds the hands of "the dancing Attic ghosts," and the divinities watched from their thrones—

Gazing till the scene became the sea.
The Attic ghosts all sank.
(Bk. 2, pt. 3, "Mneme," 146)

Flora is left stumbling through the rubble, and Flora's creator is left to explore the problem of how to make ancient intellectual resources relevant.

Turning to Rome for inspiration in Book 3, Flora examines the value of scholarship by means of a series of reflections about the politician-philosopher Cicero's experiences in the civil war that led to Rome's transition from republic to imperial rule. She tries to pin down the facts and at the same time decide what is worth studying. Her repeated refrain, with variations, is—

I don't know, no, I do not know.
It seems so, yes, it does seem so.
How delicately, how deeply can I dig
In time's soil with my ascertaining twig?
(Bk. 3, pt. 1, no. 11, "Entry," 99)

Cicero backed the wrong side in the war and was banished from Rome. Julia is very concerned about what this kind of dislocation does to an individual's or a social group's sense of identity. Cicero complains to his friend:

I've lost
Not just my possessions,
Not only my family and friends,
But my self.
(Bk. 3, pt. 1, no. 7, "Exile," 35)

Julia's heroine, Flora, is in a similar predicament. She's lost somewhere in the country, perhaps on the West Coast of North America, literally in a fog. She feels bovine, as though she's been turned into a cow. Traveling back in time, the poem relates a skewed version of the myth of Io, a princess who, much like Julia, was a precocious scholar and spent nine years in a convent, until Jove, the father of the gods, desired her beauty and his jealous wife, Juno, turned her into a heifer. Io had to wander over land and waters (giving her name to the Ionian Sea); eventually, as the story is told here, she found relief by appealing to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and patroness of scholars. The poem "Exile" concludes with Io's affirmation, which
Julia and Flora presumably share:

A central self,
A mind,
Is my desire.
(Bk. 3, pt. 1, no. 7, 63).

Similarly, Cicero and his friends recovered their identity with the help of the philosophical and literary works of their friend, the philosopher, linguist, and satirist Marcus Terentius Varro:

We were visitors, strangers, and lost
In our own city, Rome,
But your books brought us home,
And who and where we were we could tell at last—
As Cicero said, not of Caesar,
Of Varro, of the scholar.
(Bk. 3, pt. 1, no. 11, "Entry," 88)

At the same time, the symbols of the Roman Catholic liturgy, so much a part of Julia's life as a nun, remained readily available for her to use. She used them freely, connecting them with comparable symbols in classical mythology and in folklore, melding them all together and relating them to her own current experience. Her use of the symbolism of the color red illustrates this process.

Red is a multivalent symbol in the Roman Catholic liturgy, referring both to the blood of martyrs and the fire of witness, as exemplified in the flaming tongues of Pentecost. Another connection, with power, is superimposed on these meanings. The Romans had connected red with Mars, the god of war, with the army, and with power and authority in general. The Catholic Church adopted this connection by dressing the cardinals in red.

Red can also symbolize knowledge, as the red apple of the Garden of Eden is the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Perhaps for this reason, red is prominent in academic regalia.

A letter Julia wrote to Margaret Fuller from an Arlington, Massachusetts, rehabilitation hospital is dated June 29, the Roman Catholic feast day commemorating the martyrdom in Rome of Saints Peter and Paul, and contains an extended meditation on the fact that the priests wore red vestments on that day (Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 61, 259–60). Julia draws these meanings of red together and adds several of her own. She reminds Margaret Fuller of the red of the road to Rome that she and Fuller traveled—the road traveled by the "crimsoned imperator." She is reminded of the red brick of her apartment building, which houses her books and papers, and of the library she misses so much. She remarks that the red brick rehabilitation hospital, her current residence, has a guardian beech tree, which she thinks of as "gleaming with dark red leaves." In this environment, she says, "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil feeds me chiefly the knowledge of evil."

The letter is a deeply personal, anguished meditation. She asks, "Does this feeling reveal the evil deep within me? Am I Eve?" She makes the connection between the tree of Eden and the cross of Calvary, between martyrdom and witness to the truth. She asks, "Does knowledge demand blood? Does knowledge produce fire? Must I be ready to bleed as a martyr? Will I be willing to flame as a witness?"

Here and elsewhere, Julia acknowledged that pedantry was a temptation for her. She was a natural-born scholar; she reveled in reading and research. But she recognized that nature was a source of knowledge as valuable as the library. In one poem, written on one of the three days of the year when, according to the ancients, the gates to the underworld are open, Flora expresses relief that the library (very likely Harvard's Widener Library) was open and the system working, but also gratitude that even in November some leaves remained on the trees. She concludes:

And still
I have rushed once again between this and that leaf
To gobble knowledge, never tasting truth.
(Bk. 5, pt. 1, "Diary of Flora Baum, November 8, Mundus patet," 61)

Flora reports that Julia found the path to knowledge arduous and frustrating; it was at war in her heart with her appreciation of beauty—her mystical side. She described a "huge conflagration" in Julia's heart, with two flames—one blue, one red. The blue flame, representing beauty, yielded serenity and was perpetually replenished. But the hunger for knowledge, represented by the red flame, was never to be satisfied. It was a goal which would be "yearningly, diligently, sought, searched for, over and over, which entices and excites, which eludes and evades, which is glimpsed and is grasped and is tasted and is dropped and is lost" (Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 30, 205).

The Mystic

"Witness," the opening poem of Book 1 of The Gardens of Flora Baum, is Julia's manifesto. She announces that her vocation is to bear witness to the reality of the world beyond the everyday:

I don't ask you to believe what I have seen.
I don't believe it myself. I only see it,
And I tell you as a point of information.
There are some cracks in the world.
There are some windows in the sky.
(Bk. 1, pt. 1, "Witness," 5)

She acknowledges that her mystical experience defies logic, but nevertheless has a validity that she wants to attest to. She is an unbeliever, a skeptic, but also a visionary. In spite of her skepticism, she heard the harps of heaven while admiring an oak tree.9

Nature became her sourcebook, mostly trees and flowers, illustrating universal aspects of reality. Elm trees appear again and again, showing her "the immense effort / Of motionless motion" (Bk. 2, pt. 1, "Cell," 52), "Thrusting, groping, wrestling into the sky, / Pouring, prodding, probing into the ground" (Bk. 2, pt. 1, "Rotation," 57).

In one poem, she concludes that the beauty of the flowers, with their gorgeous colors, can be a sufficient connection to transcendence. "It can if it must," she says (Bk. 2, pt. 1, "Florale," 25). In another poem, Flora announces that, in her role as Julia's literary persona, she knows Julia as well as anyone can know someone else (including oneself). She reports that Julia has stopped suddenly to look at the first rose of the season:

What is that roundness and that brightness and that closed openness unfolding?
What is that scent that whispers in the air?
I think it is the message of life's adventure, of a life's venture,
I say it is the rose-colored message
Of the authentic thought of the rose's smile
That is the smile of the rose, at the rose, with the rose.
There were dimensions and implications
And explications and exhalations.
There were depths penetrated, were profundities fathomed,
In a second of time,
In a glint of an eye,
In an intake of breath.

The poem concludes:

She [Julia] said: Julia does not matter.
She said: Only Flora matters—
Only Flora and the rident rose.
(Bk. 4, pt. 3, "Diary of Flora Baum, May 31, 2004," 343–44)

Transcendence, then, means getting beyond the narrow concerns of self, losing oneself in what is important, acknowledging the mystery of all that is. It also means losing oneself in a creative project, the creation of Flora, the poem. This is how Julia saw her vocation as mystic.

 

The Poet

In a 1997 article in Poetry Porch, Julia explained the poem's rationale and organizational structure in some detail.10 The five books are five successive gardens, with the third garden taking central place. They are: 1) the garden of the holy, a "paradise lost" that draws on imagery from the Bible and liturgy; 2) the garden of the beautiful, "a paradise regained" that makes use of Greek literature, mythology, and geography; 3) the garden of the true, which emphasizes academic knowledge and is centered in Rome; 4) the garden of the good, based in the British Isles, which utilizes English and Scottish literature, folklore, and geography to talk about human relations; and finally, 5) the garden of the whole, a conclusive philosophical meditation, situated partly in America but also in Flora's wider homeland, the earth and the universe. This last book, which Julia hoped to live long enough and become wise enough to write, would draw on the insights of social science and physical science as well as philosophy.

Julia also explained that the name of the protagonist, Flora Urania Baum, refers to flowers and trees, plus the additional imagery of the sky; that it also refers to the poem's particularly fruitful linguistic sources, Greek, Latin, and Germanic; and, furthermore, that the heroine's name in the pivotal third book takes the special form of Julia Flora of the Tiber, to indicate the centrality of Rome in the poem.

Turner, Ransford, and other reviewers also focus on the carefully conceived structure of Julia's epic work. Turner describes the five books as being "organized both as a concentric or chiastic structure and as an ongoing journey or argument," and Ransford calls the five books "poem-gardens" (though she points out that "they were not written and do not need to be read sequentially," since "Time is kairos, the now-time, spiralling and patterned").

Did Julia have a fully articulated theory of poetry? I leave the answer to this question to those qualified to discuss poetics. There are hints in her poem, however. She believed that poems, like gods and goddesses, exist in the "paracosm," a parallel universe (Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 283, 514), but the existence of a poem is somehow more necessary than that of gods and goddesses. Literary personalities like Flora and Margaret Fuller's character Leila11 exist in a sacred space and time, and their existence is a hint of divinity (Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 28, 201–202).

However Julia saw her specific task as a poet, she was plagued by doubt. She often asks anxious questions like, "And who are we who fill pages with words?" (Bk. 5, pt. 1, "Diary of Flora Baum, May 24," 29). She calls herself a "poetaster," a would-be poet (Bk. 5, pt. 2, 95). But in a more optimistic moment, she expresses the hope that—

Of that without and of that deep within,
My mouth and pen will make it all anew.
(Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 29, 203)

Later, in a letter to Margaret, she expresses—

My little tunes
Do not demean.
My rudest runes
Construct. They mean.
(Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 138, 348)

Flora, in a series of couplets addressed to Leila, asks questions that must torment every poet, about the worth of their enterprise:

Is it a way of thinking?
Is it a substitute for thinking?

Is it doing, creating, control, Apollo?
Is it helpless servitude to the Muse?

Is it the most serious, most liberating, commitment?
Is it the addiction to a game?

and so on, until finally Flora asks—

Is it the choice of life?
Is it the voice of death?
(Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 163, 373–74)

As it turned out, life caught up with the poem. Julia's health failed in her last several years, and she died before she could bring the project to completion. Book 5 in particular does not fulfill her earlier expectations. Instead, it is the repository of Julia's anguished questions about the value of her life and her poetry. It also contains grim documentation of her suffering, despair, and loneliness, and of the insults of being shuttled back and forth from hospital to nursing home. It lapses into prose as her ability to compose poetry gives way. And it contains an unforgettable prayer that reflects back on Jesus's death on the cross:

Deus meus, quare me dereliquisti?
My God, is it that I abandoned you?
(Bk. 5, pt. 2, 76)

Still, in the poem she indicates that she found a solution to these vexing existential questions related to her concept of vocation. Her poem is a kind of offering to the universe. Even if it is valueless or meaningless on its own terms, and even if the universe to which it is offered is mindless, the poem has value because it is a gift:

Suddenly I seem to see it:
The poem must be the offering.
As once the self was sacrificed,
Was given, was devoted,
With joy and fervor to the Absolute,
So now the poem, the other self,
Is offered to what it may be offered to,
Even if this is an emptiness,
Even if this is the nothingness,
Even if the poem is null and void.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Here is a kind of meaning
Even in meaninglessness:
The poem as the gift,
The poem as the tribute
To the possibles,
Here to the slim green blade of grass,
There to the round orange ball of fruit,
There to the violet hour before the dark,
Here to the violet bloom beside the path
Of grayness to impossibility.
(Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 33, 211–12)

The argument within Julia continues, never to be completely settled. In a letter to Fuller in which she alludes to the latter's drowning, Julia concludes that—

It is better to write
Than not to write

Even if the leaves go flying out into the whirlwind,
Even if the sheets sink sodden down underneath the waves
(Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 212, 427).

'Paintings do not have conclusions'

It is too soon to judge Julia's place in literary or religious history. However, we can certainly say that she participated in an important religious enterprise, one made necessary by strains within traditional Christianity. Having left the convent and her Catholic faith, she engaged in a lifelong struggle to create a new form of religion for herself, one that called on her to acknowledge the deep mystery at the core of reality, appreciate beauty and goodness, and live a life of integrity and dedication to the work she felt called to do. In her sense of religion, the power of language was key. Poetry was an important, or maybe the primary, vehicle of discovery. There is another message that may be of use to twenty-first-century religious leaders. Julia's poem calls attention to the fact that Greek and Roman literature and history, and the folklore of northern Europe as well, offer valuable alternative religious resources, resources that have coexisted, albeit in a subsidiary or suppressed mode, right alongside Christianity for two millennia. Perhaps it is time to look with fresh eyes at the pagan religious resources of our ancestors.

The clarity of Julia's voice, the unblinking way she looked at life, her ability to span the centuries in a scholarly effort, all these qualities make her poem worth reading. But what is most awe-inspiring to me is her tenacity, the faithfulness with which she fulfilled her vocation, in spite of her own skepticism and the suffering imposed on her at the end of her life. She continued writing her poem until just days before she died. At the end she was able to say—

This is a picture.
Paintings do not have conclusions.
I have watched five gardens wanting to bloom.
The tree is an epic without an end.
The beauty is breaking my heart.
(Bk. 5, pt. 7, no. 5, 583)12

 

Notes

  1. The individual titles of the five volumes are: Book 1, By the Tree of Life; Book 2, Towards a Greek Garden; Book 3, Rome; Book 4, Towards Farthest Thule; and Book 5, By the Tree of Knowledge.
  2. Julia's personal papers are now held in Harvard's Houghton Library, available for readers and researchers. See Julia Budenz papers, ca. 1960–2010. Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, oasis.lib.harvard.edu/oasis/deliver/~hou02364.
  3. Frederick Turner, "A Garden of Forking Paths," World Literature Today, January 2014, www.worldliteraturetoday.org.
  4. Tessa Ransford, "Arborified," Arion 20, no. 2 (Fall 2012): 164.
  5. He told his side of the story in Louis Francis Budenz, This Is My Story (McGraw-Hill, 1947). His wife also wrote a memoir: Margaret Rodgers Budenz, Streets (Our Sunday Visitor, 1979).
  6. She explicitly wonders this in verse: Flora asks: ". . . Will some reasoning show her how her religion can coexist, perhaps must coexist, with atheism? Or is this logic not necessary? Is it even logic? // The religiousness may be her self. Maybe her true self is that being which is both atheistic and religious." (Bk. 5, pt. 3, no. 36, 221)
  7. In the wikipedia entry about the Roman goddess Ceres, under "The mundus of Ceres," it states that the gates to the underworld were open on three days each year: August 24, October 5, and November 8.
  8. They had both embarked on their vocation near Fishkill Landing (now Beacon), New York. There, Margaret had devoted herself to writing her feminist manifesto, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, published as a full-length book in 1845. And the Ursuline novitiate that Julia entered was also located in Beacon, New York.
  9. See "To Hear the Harps of Heaven," in Bk. 2, pt. 1, 6.
  10. Julia Budenz, "Query Re One's Work," The Poetry Porch, 1997, pt. 3, Poetics, www.poetryporch.com/jbessay.html.
  11. Leila is a character in a story about female self-reliance and creativity first published by Margaret Fuller in 1841 in the transcendental journal The Dial; see arcadiasystems.org. Julia's Flora is a similar character. In Book 5 of The Gardens of Flora Baum, Flora and Leila engage in worried conversations about Julia.
  12. Thanks are due to several friends of Julia's for their helpful comments on drafts of this essay: Emily Lyle, Frederick Turner, Roger W. Sinnott, and Barbara F. McManus. Thanks also to Mary Freeman, Julia's poet-friend, who shared her memories and showed me many of Julia's letters. And finally, thanks to my teacher Kim Roberts; my college classmates Dana Greene, Jane Perkinson, and Nancy Shashaty; and my cousin Sister Barbara Lucas, O.S.F. (Order of Saint Francis), for their advice and encouragement.
 

Marion Torchia, a retired editor, lives in Rockville, Maryland. She is a member of the Unitarian Universalist denomination.

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See also: Books, Poetry

The Work of Art and the Art of Life

Michael Jackson

Arrernte Country by Wenton Rubuntja

 

Wenten Rubuntja, Arrernte Country © estate of the artist, licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd.

 

 


The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne,
Th'assay so hard, so sharp the conquerynge . . .
—Geoffrey Chaucer, The Parliament of Fowls
 

Painting runs in my family, but not religion. My mother's maternal uncle, Walter Tempest, was a late nineteenth-century watercolorist and member of the British Royal Academy, and my mother was an acclaimed painter of abstract landscapes. In my early twenties, I vacillated between painting and writing before deciding on anthropology as my vocation. In recent years, my daughters, Heidi and Freya, have excelled in the arts I chose not to pursue.1 Where some people bear witness to a religious tradition, sustained over many generations, I marvel at the artistic trait that has given my family members a very present help in times of trouble. My mother's accidental landscapes often appear to be outward expressions of her inward struggle with the pain of rheumatoid arthritis.2 The death of Heidi's mother when she was thirteen, and her attenuated ties with her homeland following our decision to embark on a new life in Australia, undoubtedly found expression in Heidi's New Zealand landscapes. And Freya frequently turned to painting and drawing when the confusions of her adolescent years overwhelmed her.

In writing about art, I have drawn inspiration from my family history as well as from my ethnographic fieldwork in West Africa and Central Australia, focusing not on art as an expression of individual genius or as an aesthetic, but on the work of art, where "work" is to be read as a verb rather than a noun and understood as a technê for making life more meaningful, enjoyable, and manageable. Art opens up an artificial—one might say a ritual or utopian—space for getting around or beyond the mundane difficulties that beset us and the tragedies that befall us. Crucial to this point of view is the pragmatist assumption that art (ars) and technê are intimately linked, and that the work of art is a matter of making, acting, and doing before it is a form of knowledge, an object of contemplation, or a thing of beauty. The same might be said of religion. Like art, it is a resource for exploring how our individual lives intersect with the lives of others and may be made more fulfilling through the consummation of a relationship with life itself. Rather than identify religion with belief and liturgy, I prefer to focus on the existential situations in which divinities and spiritual entities, as well as ideas of ultimate reality, fate, and morality, come into play as potential means whereby human beings gain some purchase on shattering experiences and regain some measure of comprehension and control over their lives. Limit experiences, however, do not necessarily bring us to religion, as my own family history makes clear. Nor do post-Enlightenment notions of religion necessarily illuminate the African and Aboriginal lifeworlds I have described in my ethnographies. Nor are "spiritual" resources the only resources available to us in crisis, despite our tendency to use a quasi-theological language in recounting experiences that confounded and overwhelmed us. For these reasons, many of the forms of life we refer to as "cultural"—including religion, art, ritual, ideology, and belief—may be construed as ways of circumventing immediate reality,3 ways of affirming "another nature,"4 ways of living by other means.

My approach reflects the work of several contemporary anthropologists of religion whose starting point is neither religious experience, construed as belief, faith, or other forms of consciousness, nor institutionalized religion, defined monothetically as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Animism, and so on. Rather, their emphasis is on the varieties of religious experience and practice—the quasi-propositional dimensions of religious experience in a "minor" rather than institutional mode.5 This echoes the polythetic6 and nonreductionist approach of several scholars of religion who have sought to identify what Ann Taves calls the "building blocks of religious experience"7 and Jonathan Z. Smith calls "the bare facts of ritual."8 Ann Taves calls this approach "ascriptive," because it avoids any sui generis model of religious experience; instead, it construes "religion" as those experiences we decide to import into a box we have predesignated in this way, or that scholarly consensus has agreed to label "religious."

It is this ascriptive approach that I use in exploring the work of art. Rather than make a priori assumptions about the intrinsic nature of religion, ritual, and art, I seek to identify attributes that are shared by the phenomena that we conventionally classify under these headings. What we call art or music is thus defined by whatever the art or music world accepts under such rubrics. Think, for example, of the urinal Marcel Duchamp placed in an art gallery and called Fountain, or John Cage's provocative questions, "Which is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school? Are the people inside the school musical and the ones outside unmusical?"9 To assign a similar arbitrariness to the term "religion" is to echo Mark Rothko's view that art dramatizes the struggles of human existence, and though these struggles find expression in religious texts and ancient myths, they are grounded in recurring human anxieties and questions, "no matter in which land or what time, changing only in detail but never in substance":10

 I'm not interested in relationships of color or forms. . . . I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on—and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions. . . . The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!11


In exploring what Durkheim called the elementary forms of religious life, we cannot assume that forms may be identified in so-called societies without history, whose worldviews are allegedly animistic, totemic, pantheistic, and anthropomorphic.12 Rather, we must turn our attention from what is evolutionarily prior to what is existentially ever-present. This requires bracketing out some of the conventional academic language that fosters the illusion of mutually exclusive domains of reality—sacred/secular, art/religion, subject/object, modern/premodern—in order to bring into relief some of the recurring questions, perennial quandaries, and basic experiences that characterize the human condition. James Davies puts this succinctly in a discussion of the fictive character of words like "secular" and "sacred."

 Surely it is the way a person lives and practices, or treats his neighbor or those in need, that is more expressive of religious living than the conventional markers of affiliation and action. Practices and beliefs, after all, are not primary phenomena, but are rooted in social and psychological processes that may or may not have as their central aim the full realization of the religious life.13

Thus, when Louise Bourgeois speaks of art as her "religion,"14 or the Arrernte painter Wenten Rubuntja compares his Dreaming to the Bible15 (as revealed truth), or the great Anmatyerre painter Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri identifies the Dreaming with God,16 or an Aboriginal elder in the Pilbara points to a rock on which the oldest sketch of a human face can be discerned and says "this is a bible for us," we cannot conclude that Aboriginal religiosity can be understood through a Judeo-Christian lens. Indeed, it may be that the reverse is true—as one can see in the way Wenten Rubuntja emphasizes the complementarity of agnatic (Aknganentye) and uterine (Altyerre) kinship ties in his Arrernte version of the story of Jesus:

Jesus has two places—his father's father's place is Heaven and his mother's father's place is the world. The relationship through his father's father is called Aknganentye. Jesus is related to Heaven through his father's father. The world—his mother's father's country—is what he called Altyerre. . . . That's a true story.17

If art implies religion, it is not religion in any orthodox sense of the word. It is religion as mystics might understand it—something one discovers for oneself through direct experience and articulates in one's own way.18 Consider Joseph Beuys's views in this regard. Opposed to bourgeois Christianity, he sought "a religion of his own," "not imposed from the outside, but . . . germinated from [his] own depths."19 Or Lucian Freud's dilemma, seeking to distance himself from his mother, whose interest in his welfare the son found suffocating, humiliating, and oppressive. Only when his mother had been rendered ineffectual after a drug overdose did the painter take an interest in her—now as a submissive "model" that gave him the upper hand, and whose image he could vicariously control.20

What is at play here is a struggle to bring some semblance of continuity, comprehension, and control to a person's relationship with unknown forces, both within and without. One avails oneself of extant ritual, artistic, or narrative forms and has recourse to what is given in one's particular tradition; but what is given is inevitably changed under the impress of one's own existential needs. This is why it is never enough to declare that art is a process of creating coherence out of confusion,21 or encouraging cognitive play.22 We have to understand what existential quandaries and questions compel these activities, and come to terms with the distinctively human impulse to perennially re-create the world as if it were one's own. In this process of world-making, one avails oneself of whatever materials come to hand—fire and water, wood and blood, sand and ocher—as well as whatever experiences weigh on one's mind—birth and death, separation and loss, sickness and health—and through bricolage reconfigure one's sense of being-in-the-world.


One of the most compelling articulations of the mysterious interplay between the world within and the world without is the Aboriginal worldview known as the Dreaming. Because the Dreaming, as myth and ancestral law, often makes its appearance in the nocturnal dreams of individuals (particularly women), an understanding of what Freud called the dream work may help us understand the work of art. For in dreams and art alike we unconsciously process past experiences in ways that make it possible to begin a new day, helped rather than hindered by the residues of the past.23

Yet, as Jung pointed out, "one cannot recount a dream without having to add the history of half a lifetime in order to represent the individual foundations of the dream."24

Such is the case with Aboriginal dream interpretation.

In the course of fieldwork in Central Australia in the 1990s, I discovered that, rather than focus on static conditions—being and nothingness, life and death, presence and absence, subject and object—Warlpiri emphasize metamorphic processes, phases, or passages. Moreover, organic experiences, such as gestation and birth, sexual intercourse, digestion and defecation, sleeping and waking, fullness and emptiness, were the basic ontological metaphors Warlpiri used in conceptualizing and naming these transformations through which all things pass.

In Warlpiri thought, life is a continual interplay between what is latent (inchoate and invisible) and what is apparent (articulated and embodied).25 The process of "coming into being" is compared with "giving birth" (palka jarrimi). Thus, the quickening of new life in the womb, the greening of the desert after rain, the ritual performance of an episode from ancestral times (recaptured in a dream), and the chanting of ancestral song-cycles to the clapping of boomerangs are all ways in which latent or potential life is "drawn out" and realized in embodied form.26 The contrary movement is manifest in a person fainting, feeling homesick, accursed ("sung"), drained of energy, separated from kith and kin (who are out of sight and out of mind), or "passing away" (dying).

Nancy Munn, whose fieldwork among the Warlpiri was carried out in 1956–1958, glosses this relational mode of thinking slightly differently: "If we examine Walbiri statements and narratives about the Dreaming, we find that a particular kind of process in which phenomena 'come out' (wilibari) and 'go in' (yuga) recurs in a variety of contexts and is figured in different concrete images." A primary image is of the ancestors emerging from the ground, traveling about performing ceremony, impregnating the ground with their vital essence, before growing weary and re-entering the earth whence they came. The process of coming out is not only associated with the ancestral creation of the world but with sexual intercourse ("the erection of the penis as well as birth") and increase ceremonies,27 while the counter-process of going in is associated with detumescence and death.

Death, though, is not the end of a life but the beginning of a period in which the name of the deceased is taken out of circulation and all trace of his or her identity erased from the earth and from the memory of the bereaved. This period of latency is followed by a "rebirth," or reappearance, in which the name is brought back into circulation. Just as the generative potential of the ancestors steeped the ground on which they walked or where they camped, only to be drawn out and made present again in ceremony and in the conception of children (the ancestral essence is genitor, not the actual father), so life itself comes and goes in a perpetual reproductive cycle. This explains why rituals to multiply animals and rituals to reanimate the ancestors depend on the same sexual imagery.

Nancy Munn describes how the interplay of coming out and going in is basic to stories of the Dreaming, the sand drawing that accompanies storytelling, conventional wisdom, and the "various visual constructions and enactments of men's ceremonial dramas."28 One such construction was created for the 'increase ceremony' of a flying ant (pamapardu) Dreaming. Uterine kinsmen (kurdungurlu) "began the painting at the centre: a hole was dug and water poured on the ground. After blood had been rubbed on the wet soil, concentric circles of red-ochred fluff were laid around the sides of the hole and circling it on the surface of the ground. Additional graphic elements were added and white fluff attached to complete the design. The post was decorated with white dots representing numerous ants. Bloodwood leaves, which Walbiri always interpret in ritual contexts as 'life-giving' (gudugulu, child-having) were attached to its top, and it was placed in the hole. Men identified the post as the ant hill, while the hole (concentric circle) was their camp."29 When the construction was completed, patrilineal custodians (kirda) of the site and its Dreaming crouched on the sand painting and beat the ground with leaves as they shuffled toward the pole. These men were "ants crawling toward their camp," and then entering their hole. "This movement towards the centre (dying) is a procreative act."30

This drama encapsulates the thesis I am proposing: that art, religion, ritual, dance, and song are not essentially different phenomena but modalities or moments in an existential struggle to act obliquely and vicariously upon the world—bringing it into being, in this instance, by increasing the flying ants (pamapardu) that played an important part in the desert economy. Flying ants build earth mounds (mingkirri) that are common throughout the Tanami Desert. When heavy rains come in summer the mingkirri get flooded out, so the pamapardu grow wings and fly off to make new homes, following their queens to dry mounds or to build anew. When they have found their new home they drop their wings. In this stage they can be collected, lightly cooked in coals, and eaten. As they fall to the ground women collect them to eat, because they are tasty and sweet. Moreover, when certain species of acacia and grass are in seed, ants collect the seed for their own use, often carrying it great distances to their holes in the ground. Because the ants only eat the white thread by which the seeds were attached to a pod or grass stem, the discarded seeds can be found in great abundance around their holes.

Nowadays, no one depends on ants to maximize seed gathering for food. But, though the economic value of ceremony has changed, its existential value endures. Over the last half century, Aboriginal art has become a symbolic supplement to initiatory journeys and the performance of ceremony—a way of articulating one's imperiled sense of cosmological connectedness, of working through traumas of displacement and loss, and of ensuring that secret-sacred knowledge is passed on to the next generation. These changes belie the continuities that underlie them, such as the symbolic equivalence of different colored paints with menstrual, venous, or urethral blood, semen, milk, urine, and excrement.31

The increase of natural species may be less important these days than ethnic survival and an income, and painting has become critical to the articulation of political claims to land, national recognition, and indigenous self-determination. As Wenten Rubuntja puts it: "I can't die for nothing! I've got to leave something back. . . . We can't just let things die out, and the children get lost. The children will all lose themselves, and then they'll go mad, being confused and not knowing what to do."32

This regenerative process of coming out and going in also survives changes in media. Though painting with acrylics may have eclipsed some forms of ceremonial life, Warlpiri readily identify ceremonial sand painting or body painting with acrylic painting on canvas.33 Whether retouching a rock painting, making a film, painting one's Dreaming, or preaching a sermon, the same images recur, the same cooperation between patrikin (kirda) and matrikin (kurdungurlu) is required,34 and the same consummation is sought. One's intimate relationship with country and ancestry is brought to light and kept alive, again and again and again, both in body and in mind.

All these media express iconographically a geo-mythological matrix that a person experiences viscerally, emotionally, and conceptually as the ground of his or her individual being—in Warlpiri, his or her walya (earth, ground, or country). Wenten Rubuntja nicely captures this anthropomorphic fusion of self and country: "Landscape painting is the country himself, with Tywerrenge (sacred object, Law) himself. Tywerrenge come out of there. Songs come out of all that body [of the country]."35


The interplay between what is potentially within and what is presently without broaches the mystery of birth. Does a person enter the world as a tabula rasa, or is he or she already bearing the imprint of experiences that go back many generations? Whether genetically or epigenetically, we carry the lives of predecessors into our own lives, just as we influence the lives of generations to come by what we do or do not do in the course of our own life span. From this perspective, even our physical birth is a rebirth. And every person's lifetime is punctuated by separations and losses in which we die a little and from which we are, in a sense, perennially reborn. Our relationship to earlier chapters in our life resembles, in this respect, the relationship between an artwork and the artist. The latter is never a mirror image of the former, and it may be impossible to read what has been from what comes into being, whether that new issue is a child, a reinvention of oneself, a personal story, or a work of art. From this arises the mystery of where art comes from. The Gola of Liberia find it so incredible that the marvelous Sande and Poro masks are carved by human hands that they declare them to be the "visible form of a supernatural being" (a jinni), and impose a ban on speaking of the masks as having been made by ordinary men.36 Alfred Gell calls this "enchantment," and he relates it to our inability to reconcile the object we see with a source we cannot fathom: "It is the way an art object is construed as having come into the world which is the source of the power such objects have over us—their becoming rather than their being."37

That this mystery is intimately connected to the mystery one experiences when one first takes one's newborn infant into one's arms and gazes into his or her face, is beautifully captured in a Gola carver's experience of "intense and mysterious fulfillment" as he watches his masks "come to life."

I see the thing I have made coming out of the women's bush. It is now a proud man jina with plenty of women running after him. It is not possible to see anything more wonderful in this world. His face is shining, he looks this way and that, and all the people wonder about this beautiful and terrible thing. To me, it is like what I see when I am dreaming. I say to myself, this is what my neme38 has brought into my mind. I say, I have made this. How can a man make such a thing? It is a fearful thing I can do. No other man can do it unless he has the right knowledge. No woman can do it. I feel that I have borne children.39

It is not only the Gola who are filled with wonderment at the work of art or who compare its appearance with the birth of a child, mystified as to how perfection can be produced by imperfect human beings. The readiness with which we call great music "divine" or soulful, speak of stories as spellbinding, and evoke the language of spirituality or even spirit possession when speaking of great art calls to mind Rudolf Otto's notion of the numinous—the experience that allegedly underlies all religion. Hearing voices, divining portents, experiencing divine grace, being inspired, or being moved by the spirit may be compared to the process of creativity in art. As mysterium, the numinous is "wholly other," entirely different from anything we experience in ordinary life. It takes our breath away. We become speechless with wonder. But the numinous is also a mysterium tremendum. It provokes terror because it presents itself as overwhelming power. Finally, the numinous presents itself as fascinans, as merciful and gracious.40

But can we understand the emergence of art without evoking supernatural agencies, spiritual sources, artistic genius, or the concept of the unconscious?

Natality is a generative capacity to make something of what one was made—to realize one's potential—and to live that which is given—genetically, parentally, or culturally—in ways that simultaneously reproduce the world and produce one's own world.

That sexuality implies natality, and natality implies many forms of symbolic birth, means that we may speak of the work of art and the labor of childbirth as linked ontological metaphors. And rather than the narrow Freudian view of creativity as the sublimation of sexual drives, we see creativity—whether in art, storytelling, ritual, or everyday life—as any world-making or world-sustaining activity.

Such a view, however, flies in the face of widespread assumptions about an allegedly natural division of labor between men and women that defines women's work as the bearing and raising of children and men's work as making a living and, by extension, making art.

If this assumption were true, why is it that male production—whether of food, ritual, or art—is so often couched in terms of reproduction? And why do initiation rites the world over involve role reversals, in which men pretend to bring children into the world and women imitate men?

In Central Australia, men's ritual is analogous to coitus, conjoining human beings with natural species and uniting ancestral beings with their living counterparts.41 This process is vividly enacted by the erotic wriggling, trembling, and quivering, which scatters feathers or down from a performer's body. This symbolic semen (associated with the Dreaming ancestors) brings new life into being.

What is most illuminating for our purposes, however, is that all secret-sacred materials have, as Róheim puts it, "a double aspect." On the one hand, they represent the beings with whom life on earth began (the ancestors and, by extension, all parents) and the human beings who devote such care and attention to the correct use of these materials in ritual. Performing a ritual may thus be likened to creating a work of art; it involves, as Róheim points out, a narcissistic aspect.42 In both ritual and art, one is simultaneously channeling one's forebears, projecting oneself into the world, and participating in the re-creation of the social order. One is, as it were, at once dutiful midwife, self-absorbed child, and parent-progenitor.

Methodologically, however, I consider it imperative that we break a longstanding academic habit of reducing human actions to some unconscious meaning, ulterior motive, or hidden cause. For what the hermeneutics of suspicion all too often means in practice is not only an academic subversion of nonacademic perspectives, but an interpretive license that avails itself of indigenous exegesis to justify its own excessive claims. That initiated Aboriginal men compare the subincised penis with a woman's vulva does not necessarily mean that they envy women's capacity to bear children or equate the bleeding penis with a woman's menses.43 We may draw an analogy between male initiation and childbirth without implying that men are at the mercy of an unconscious wish to arrogate the role of mothers to themselves. A similar argument may be made against the Freudian view that making art is a way of sublimating sexual drives.

What is at stake here is our understanding of analogical thought.

All communication involves saying one thing by way of something else. And metaphor is one of humanity's original techniques for expressing one's own immediate experiences in an outward form that can be grasped with others. In controlling patterns of sound, names for things, and images of exterior objects that captured the essence of some interior reality, sociality itself was born, for how would social relations be possible unless the state of one individual's mind could be translated into a form—either gestural, graphic, or linguistic—that others could recognize and read?

But to draw a distinction between tenor and vehicle, as if one term of the metaphorical relationship were prior or more fundamental, is a little like privileging one party to a conversation over the other. Rather than construe metaphor as a way of saying something "in terms of" or "by way of" something else—claiming, for instance, that Central Australia totemism originates as a psychic defense against "the primal scene," or that all long objects are "basically" phallic symbols, and all round objects "basically" breasts or wombs44—I prefer to place both terms on a par, each disclosing properties of the other, but neither being regarded as prior or primary.45

Only in this way can we avoid the kind of subject-object splitting that leads us to interpret works of art as either expressions of unconscious subjective processes or of aesthetic conventions, market forces, and objective realities. If, as Lygia Clark says, "the inside is the outside" (the name she gives to her 1963 stainless steel sculpture in the New York Museum of Modern Art), surely the reciprocal is also true—the outside is the inside?

In fact, it is never a matter of either-or, nor of both-and, but of the mysterious and indeterminate relationship between what is deemed to be within and what is supposed to be without. One never knows whether the outward form mirrors the artist's original intention, or betrays it. And one can never predict what people will make of a piece of art when it begins its second life, circulating in the wider world.

My own focus is on the interplay of an artist's consciousness and the work of art, by which I mean to imply both the "first life" of producing an object and the "second life" that the object begins when it is taken out of the hands of its maker and put into circulation in the public sphere. This relational approach implies that the meaning of an art object resides neither in the intentions of the producer nor the interpretations of the consumer.

It is because meaning cannot be traced to one identifiable source that the work of art is always mysterious. As Gell observes, art creates the real world in an enchanted form, and the magical property of any work of art derives from the mystery of how and from whence such a thing could be brought into being.46 It is this enigmatic and mysterious quality of an artwork that leads us to associate art with religion and spirituality—words that conjure our relationships with the ultimately unknowable.

Philosophically, this relationship is one of nonidentity. Being and thought are not congruent. Concepts may appear to subsume a diverse body of characteristics, but in truth they privilege one trait over others in order to create the illusion of a perfect fit between the signified and the signifier.47 Similarly, the world within is not entirely explicable in terms of the world without, and objective expressions are never entirely explicable in terms of subjective experiences. What is on one's mind or in one's heart influences what one says and what one does, and vice versa, but there is never complete overlap, fusion, or synthesis between these dimensions of human reality. As Jacques Derrida puts it: "The logocentricism of Greek metaphysics will always be haunted . . . by the 'absolutely other' to the extent that the Logos can never englobe everything. There is always something which escapes, something different, other and opaque which refuses to be totalized into a homogeneous identity."48

Ars longa, vita brevis. Art always falls short of life. It fails to do it justice. And life is never long enough to perfect one's art, let alone the art of living.

 

Notes

  1. Heidi Jackson exhibits regularly in Sydney and teaches art for a living, while Freya Jackson, now studying art in college, already promises to follow in her sister's and grandmother's footsteps.
  2. Michael Jackson, The Palm at the End of the Mind: Relatedness, Religiosity, and the Real (Duke University Press, 2009), 62–102.
  3. James Faubion, "Paranomics: On the Semiotics of Sacral Action," in The Limits of Meaning: Case Studies in the Anthropology of Christianity, ed. Matthew Engelke and Matt Tomlinson (Berghahn, 2006), 189–209.
  4. Jean Duvignaud, The Sociology of Art, trans. Timothy Wilson (Paladin, 1972), 30–32.
  5. See Dan Sperber, "Culturally Transmitted Misbeliefs," Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32 (2009): 534–535; Albert Piette, Le fait religieux: Une théorie de la religion ordinaire (Economica, 2005); T. M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (Vintage, 2012); and Ordinary Lives and Grand Schemes: An Anthropology of Everyday Religion, ed. Samuli Schielke and Liza Debevec (Berghahn, 2012).
  6. Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago University Press, 1982), 1–18.
  7. Ann Taves, Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things (Princeton University Press, 2009). See also Religion: Beyond a Concept, ed. Hent de Vries (Fordham University Press, 2008), 4–5, 13.
  8. Smith, Imagining Religion, 53–65. These recent explorations of the indeterminate relationship between normative schemes and "how people actually live [their] religious lives" (Ordinary Lives and Grand Schemes, ed. Schielke and Debevec, 2) reflect earlier critiques of reification and Eurocentricity in religious studies by Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Talal Asad.
  9. John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings (Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 41
  10. Cited in Stephen Polcari, "Mark Rothko: Heritage, Environment, and Tradition," Smithsonian Studies in American Art 2, no. 2 (Spring 1988): 34.
  11. Mark Rothko, quoted in Selden Rodman, Conversations with Artists (Capricorn Books, 1961), 93–94.
  12. Unfortunately, even the most trenchant critiques of the post-Enlightenment bias in the ways we frame our understandings of religion continue to invoke pejorative notions of primitiveness, simplicity, and lack of sophistication when describing religions among "the noncivilizational peoples of the world" (Smith, Meaning and End of Religion, 53–54). Jacques Derrida speaks of a "globalatinized," Greco-Roman bias, in his "Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of 'Religion' at the Limits of Reason Alone," in Religion, ed. Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo (Stanford University Press, 1998), 4, 30.
  13. James Davies, "The Rationalization of Suffering," Harvard Divinity Bulletin 39, no. 1/2 (Winter/Spring 2011): 56.
  14. "I have a religious temperament. . . . There are 140 religions or so, so one more doesn't matter. My religion is art. It allows me to make sense of everything"; Louise Bourgeois (Phaidon, 2003), 183.
  15. Wenten Rubuntja with Jenny Green, The Town Grew Up Dancing: The Life and Art of Wenten Rubuntja (Jukurrpa Books, 2002), 128.
  16. "But this Dreaming, that's God for us"; cited in Vivien Johnson, The Art of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri (Gordon and Breach Arts International, 1994), 17.
  17. Rubuntja, The Town Grew Up Dancing, 173. Fred Myers recounts an equally compelling biography of the Aboriginal artist Linda Syddick (Tjungkaya Napaltjarri), whose work obliquely references Christian motifs, traumatic childhood experiences, and her participation in Pintupi ritual life; Fred R. Myers, Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art (Duke University Press, 2002), 304–310.
  18. "Art and Religion are, then, two roads by which men escape from circumstance to ecstasy. Between aesthetic and religious rapture there is a family alliance. Art and Religion are means to similar states of mind"; Clive Bell, Art (1914), pt. 2, "Art and Life," chap. 1, "Art and Religion."
  19. Lucrezia De Domizio Durini, The Felt Hat: Joseph Beuys: A Life Told (Charta, 1997), 23–24. For Beuys, hierarchies of high or low art, and even the concepts "culture" and "the artist" are called into question: "When I say everybody is an artist, I mean everybody can determine the content of life in his particular sphere, whether in painting, music, engineering, caring for the sick, the economy or whatever. All around us the fundamentals of life are crying out to be shaped or created."
  20. Geordie Greig, Breakfast with Lucian: The Astounding Life and Outrageous Times of Britain's Great Modern Painter (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 55–61.
  21. Elinor Ochs and Lisa Capps, Living Narrative: Creating Lives in Everyday Storytelling (Harvard University Press, 2001).
  22. Brian Boyd, On the Origins of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (Harvard University Press, 2009), 3–4.
  23. Carl Jung presages this current understanding of the process of dreaming: "The dream, we would say, originates in an unknown part of the psyche and prepares the dreamer for the events of the following day"; C. G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation: An Analysis of the Prelude to a Case of Schizophrenia, 2nd ed., trans. R. F. C. Hull (Princeton University Press, 1967), 7.
  24. Ibid., 8.
  25. Nancy Munn's famous essay is very relevant here: "The Transformation of Subjects into Objects in Walbiri and Pitjantjatjara Myth," in Australian Aboriginal Anthropology: Modern Studies in the Social Anthropology of the Australian Aborigines, ed. Ronald M. Berndt (University of Western Australia Press for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1970), 141–163.
  26. Michael Jackson, At Home in the World (Duke University Press, 1995), 26, 57–58, 113. See also Myers, Painting Culture, 5, on Pintupi notions of "making visible" (yurtininpa). Peter Sutton draws an analogy between the body and ceremonial knowledge. Both have "an outside, more or less readily available to perception, and an inside, which becomes grasped only with revelation"; Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia (George Braziller, 1988), 76.
  27. Nancy Munn, "Spatial Presentation of Cosmic Order in Walbiri Iconography," in Primitive Art and Society, ed. Anthony Forge (Oxford University Press, 1973), 193–220 (200).
  28. Ibid., 208.
  29. Ibid., 208–209, emphasis added.
  30. Ibid., 209.
  31. Géza Róheim, The Eternal Ones of the Dream: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Australian Myth and Ritual (International Universities Press, 1969), 219–220.
  32. Rubuntja, The Town Grew Up Dancing, 94, 150.
  33. In her afterword to the 1986 edition of Walbiri Iconography, Nancy Munn alludes to this transition from "traditional graphic forms" to acrylic painting; Walbiri Iconography: Graphic Representation and Cultural Symbolism in a Central Australian Society (University of Chicago Press, 1986), 223n3. Pintupi also draw analogies between painting designs on the body and painting on canvas or canvas boards; see Myers, Painting Culture, 58–59.
  34. See Michael Nelson Jakamarra's remarks in Sutton, Dreamings, 102.
  35. Rubuntja, The Town Grew Up Dancing.
  36. Warren L. d'Azevedo, "Mask Makers and Myth in Western Liberia," in Primitive Art and Society, ed. Anthony Forge (Oxford University Press, 1973), 126–150 (140).
  37. Alfred Gell, "The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology," in The Art of Anthropology: Essays and Diagrams, ed. Eric Hirsch (Athlone Press, 1999), 166.
  38. Neme is etymologically cognate with the Mande nyama, life energy, "energy of action"; Patrick R. McNaughton, The Mande Blacksmiths: Knowledge, Power, and Art in West Africa (Indiana University Press, 1988), 15–16.
  39. D'Azevedo, "Mask Makers and Myth," 148, emphasis added.
  40. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John W. Harvey, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 1950).
  41. Róheim, The Eternal Ones of the Dream, 101.
  42. Ibid., 100, 99.
  43. Ibid., 166–167. Cf. Bruno Bettelheim, Symbolic Wounds: Puberty Rites and the Envious Male (The Free Press, 1954).
  44. Róheim, The Eternal Ones of the Dream, 195; Munn, "Spatial Presentation of Cosmic Order," 199.
  45. Michael Jackson, "Thinking Through the Body," in Paths Toward a Clearing: Radical Empiricism and Ethnographic Inquiry (Indiana University Press, 1989), 137–155 (142).
  46. Gell, "The Technology of Enchantment."
  47. Theodor W. Adorno, Lectures on Negative Dialectics: Fragments of a Lecture Course 1965/1966, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Polity, 2008), 6, 7, 80–83.
  48. Jacques Derrida, "Deconstruction and the Other," interview with Richard Kearney, in Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers: The Phenomenological Heritage, ed. Richard Kearney (Manchester University Press, 1984), 117.
 

Michael Jackson is Distinguished Visiting Professor of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School and the faculty adviser to the Bulletin. This essay is excerpted from the preface to a book he is currently writing on art and religion. He recently received a faculty research grant from the Center for the Study of World Religions in support of this research.

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See also: Arts and Music

Two Poems

Anthony Opal

Outside the Monastery

The body's syntax
shaking before the cloud
of unknowing
is completely normal
the monk says
to the novice, out below
the lemon trees,
as the other monks
harvest potatoes.
Can you smell the smell
that the breeze is bringing
from the brewery?
It smells good. These lemons
smell good. Find peace
in this reality,
and knowing will proceed
to be less of a concern.
 



 


The Mummies

I saw two mummified
birds in a shoebox
coffin at the Field
Museum last night;
some pottery
with my wife, a mother
and her newborn
child entombed
in palm leaves; CT's
of sarcophagi
projected on flat screens.
I'm enamored
by conservation,
less so by heaven.
Perhaps the body is all
there is.

 

Anthony Opal is the author of ACTION (Punctum/Peanut Books, 2014). His poems have recently appeared in Poetry, Sixth Finch, Notre Dame Review, and elsewhere. He lives near Chicago with his wife and daughter.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

Two Poems

Mary Peelen

Prognosis

In the long winter of our
histological battle,

blood feuds and the
subsequent insanity,

we call out for the sanctuary
of predictable outcomes

like the parabolic arc
of a free-falling body

like the summer of
rickety wheelbarrows

hauled under the breezeway
that yielded a garden,

wildly fragrant and
resistant to drought.

If cancer strikes you
as random or chaotic,

remember that like
every other algorithm,

it too has a unique function,
the elegance of its own logic.
 

 


One

Foliage of the Warren pear
is shiny as light.

Red-shifted at dusk,
the sun's last scatter of photons

gathers from each leaf
a thousand shades of green.

Blue jays got the pears
before they were ripe,

pecked them full of holes,
all but one.

Mathematics
can't prove everything.

Gödel proved that some things
are a matter of faith.

When I come to you
offering one small green pear,

I'm asking you to believe in
every green there is,

at every hour.
The whole tree.

 

Mary Peelen, MDiv, MFA, is a poet whose work has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She lives in San Francisco.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

Two-Part Invention

Perhaps we need a bifocal perspective on our vocational lives.

Nancy J. Nordenson

I have invented a driver who stopped his car next to the cab in which I rode on the backed-up freeway entrance ramp and did a double take at the sight of the flute. He looked inside and saw a passenger, eyes closed, resting her head against the back seat's top arc. Maybe it occurred to him that this was only a cabbie's ploy for tips, but he turned off his radio, rolled down his window, and listened just the same.

I've invented this driver because I want a witness to the music. When I was a little girl, my parent's Ford sedan had no radio. Stopped at a red light next to any car with music streaming out through an open window, my older brother and I would look at each other, smiling and laughing at our good fortune to snatch a taste of what lay beyond our own four doors. We imagined ourselves in a car that wasn't ours, going who knows where, singing along to music and even snapping our fingers to the beat as we went.

We travelers are at the mercy of traffic, and Chicago traffic had stopped on the Foster Avenue entrance ramp to the Kennedy. Young and in college, I was headed home for a break. Next stop, O'Hare, could be fifteen minutes or an hour away. The memory of my cabbie's appearance isn't clear beyond his dark hair, clean shave, and olive complexion. He must have hoisted my suitcase into the trunk when he picked me up, a slate-blue hardcover Samsonite with light-blue satin lining. The suitcase had been my grandmother's, then my mother's, then mine, and it had been to places I had not. No doubt I'd sat on it, I always had to, my weight pushing the overstuffed sides to meet before the case would close and the two latches click shut. At that age I was smack in the middle of planning a life, hoping for a career, trying to figure out if I could indeed have it all, wondering and worrying about many things. I wanted to fly but instead was in a cab in a traffic jam with twelve hundred miles of airspace between departure and arrival. From the front seat came a flash of silver, and the driver lifted a flute to his mouth.

Into the traffic a space opened for the music to fill.

The plans, the rush, the plane up ahead vanished. In this cab were stillness and beauty. Around the driver, no piccolos or clarinets joined in, no trumpets or trombones, no conductor led the way. The man at his steering wheel played his flute for seconds or minutes until traffic began again to move, and he stopped and placed the flute back on the seat.

I asked him about his playing after we merged onto the northbound Kennedy. He said he did it for his customers.

They are stressed and anxious, he said, my music brings them peace.

I expect that the flute rolled into the seat's crack where it waited within reach, in one piece, ready to play again. When traffic moves, there is no time to separate the parts and press them into a velvet-lined case; when traffic stops and it is time again to play, there is not a moment to waste reassembling. Alongside the flute would be his logbook where he records his miles and times, passengers and destinations. Maybe a grocery list, too, and a check waiting to be cashed.

To be sure, he picked up and played the flute later that day and the next, again and again, for there is no lack of traffic jams or anxiety on these streets.

♦♦♦

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "but do your work, and I shall know you." So here is a question: the cab or the flute—which was the cabbie's work?

On yellowed college-ruled paper, in bright blue ink and the kind of loop-de-loop handwriting that betrays an earnestness just short of maturity, are pages of notes I took long ago from a professor's talk on career advice: "Nothing is for positive in life and thus any of these—money, prestige—may be lost overnight. . . . If one chooses a career in the context of a calling, so much worry is eliminated. . . . Your calling encompasses everything you are as a person. Use every part of yourself! . . . Study to explore the great infinite capacity which lies within yourself." At that age, there were so many things that one could yet be, but driving a cab was a job I knew I'd never have. Give me a job with glass beakers, Bunsen burners, and petri dishes, a job of science that gets my hands dirty.

In the cracks between college biology and chemistry classes and labs, I took piano lessons from the music department for liberal arts credit. The practice rooms were off a single gray corridor in the basement of the music building. The sign-up sheet hung on a wall at the bottom of the stairs. I knew I didn't belong there, even though the lessons granted me permission, and so I wrote my name in time slots when no one was looking, stealing an hour a day from those who were making music their livelihood.

My piano teacher assigned scales and selections from an assortment of music books. I remember Mendelssohn's Songs without Words and Bach's two-part Inventions. In high school, I had started to learn these inventions and was happy to revisit them. Each hand, left and right, seemed to have its own business, which suited me. Thrilled me even. The voice of the left hand did not bow to a single grand melody delivered by the voice of the right. Each hand played its part, which was a whole in itself, dipping and weaving and synced in time against the other hand's part until both parts ended in a paced rush on a single, harmonizing beat.

I am paging through the old music book, its gold cover long gone, my teacher's handwriting here and there, marking fingering or dates by which to finish. The introduction tells us that Johann Sebastian Bach had composed these tutorial-like pieces for his students so that, in his own translated words, they could be shown "a plain Method of learning not only to play clean in two Parts, but likewise in further Progress to manage three obbligato Parts well and correctly, and at the same time not merely how to get good Inventions [ideas], but also how to develop the same well." Look at the scores and what you see in parallel tracts is a series of ascents—higher and higher—then descents before rising again. Mordents and reversed mordents could keep two or three fingers trilling forever if there was no need to keep time. To earn my final credit, I came up from the basement practice rooms for a recital. Washed and scrubbed from dissections, the Krebs cycle neatly memorized, Bunsen burner extinguished, qualitative and quantitative analyses of every sort accounted for in my blue-gridded laboratory notebook, I seated myself at a piano on a stage and played Mendelssohn's "Agitation," a six-page piece played presto agitato in the key of B-flat major.

Emerson also wrote, "Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself." Which work shall this be? Here is one work, and there alongside it or simultaneously just beyond it is another work. You pick something, and then you pick something else to put into that first something, and then you pick something else to put into that other something in a vocational mise en abyme, like one Russian doll nested inside the other. But the metaphor fails because there can be no predesigned, linear stacking.

♦♦♦

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. A minister I know thinks that we should raise our voices in doxology—word or song—far more often than we do. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. "Walk around all day humming it," he said with a laugh, a challenge in his smiling eyes.

Poet and essayist Adam Zagajewski tells the story of being at a chamber music concert in the courtyard of a Tuscan palace that had once been a monastery. In response to a quartet's playing of Mozart, the audience gave only sparse applause. Troubled at this inadequate response to the music, he launched a defense of ardor, winding through examinations of irony, intellectual poverty, and the loss of the sacred before landing on the concept of metaxu.

The word traces back to the Greek word "metaxy" in Plato's Symposium and means one or more variations of "between." The word links two disparate points: earth and heaven, seen and unseen, beginning and never-endingness, human and divine. Zagajewski suggests that perhaps those who could barely muster a clap when confronted with the music had difficulty moving in the space between quotidian and transcendent, point A to B—or B to A, depending on one's starting perspective. Like looking through a pair of binoculars, the trick is to look boldly, one eye on the left and the other on the right, and see what you can see when the two vision fields overlap and the images merge.

Bifocal glimpses of reality come along all the time. Three-and-a-half hours into the flight of Apollo 8, astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell—the first humans ever to be pulled into the gravitational field of a non-earth force—looked back at the view as their spacecraft hurtled up and away. "We see the earth now," said Borman, "almost as a disk." Through the window, the world registered in a glance. Lovell narrated a widescreen view of Florida and West Africa en route to the far side of the moon. Cape Canaveral in one eye and Gibraltar in the other.

World without end. This doxology ends with a roar through space, from starting note to no end in sight, like a train set in motion long ago that won't be stopped. When my sons were little, I told them over and over, "I love you infinity." Amen.

♦♦♦

My applied science education expanded to include needles and tubes and blood. Our white lab coats crisp and buttoned, my classmates and I sat one day in the laboratory at its black Formica counter. In front of us and standing upright in racks were tubes of our own blood that we had obtained while practicing venipuncture, the art of drawing blood, on each other. The boxes and boxes of glass microscope slides sealed in cellophane wrap suggested that here would be an extravagance of practice. Our instructor knew this would take awhile to get right.

Start with two slides on the counter: slide one receives the drop of blood; slide two spreads the blood across slide one's surface. We were learning to make "peripheral blood smears," which is a way to prepare blood so that it can be examined on a cellular level under a microscope. Machines can tell you a lot about the blood fed into them—for example, how many platelets it contains, the concentration of hemoglobin, the proportion of different kinds of white blood cells, and even the diameter of its average red blood cell—but only the human eye, trained and open, can both count cells and perceive subtle variations.

Place a drop of blood the size of a small garnet bead on slide one, centered and about half an inch from the end. Work fast. Press the narrow edge of slide two against the surface of slide one directly in front of the blood at about a 60-degree angle. Drag it backward until it has passed through almost the entire drop. The blood runs out along the edge in both directions, and just before it reaches across the slide's full width, reduce slide two's angle to about 45 degrees and pull the blood quickly across the length of slide one. The resulting smear looks like a feather if you did it right, dense toward the bottom and center and thinner along the edges with a feather's characteristic wispy fringe along the top. Under a microscope, there in the fringe but not its edge, is where you'll find cells presenting themselves for examination, single-layered and single file. Make another and another, finish the box, rip cellophane wrap, and finish that box too. Spend the supply. Memorizing facts can be rushed, but developing small motor skills, eye-hand coordination, and muscle memory takes time and practice.

Practice doesn't stop there. Practice staining slides. Practice counting cells. Practice identifying normal and abnormal cells under the microscope. Practice words of taxonomy and description.

Writing this now, years after I last made a smear, I can still feel the movements in my hand. I pick up two index cards loaded with words and press and spread them one against the other, hoping for a fringe, and in my mind's eye they are ready for the scope.

♦♦♦

I have recently read the most beautiful phrase: "a beholding that ascends." The thing beheld is a bridge. Metaxu. The gaze draws you up.

Pavel Florensky, a late nineteenth-century Russian scientist and ordained Orthodox priest, wrote that phrase. Florensky's dream was to be a monk, but rather than have him waste his scientific training, his bishop refused to give him the required blessing. Instead of a life of monastic contemplation, he reported for daily duty as head of research in a plastics plant and to university lecture halls where he taught physics and engineering wearing his cassock, cross, and priest's cap while under the watchful eye of Kremlin authorities. Eventually, he ended up on a train to a Siberian gulag, where he died four years later, but not before he wrote those words—a beholding that ascends—and more about the experience of seeing Orthodox religious icons, mediators between earth and heaven.

Not long ago, I read advice by the unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing: pick a word and hold it in your mind against the push of all words or impressions to the contrary. I like the idea of a word helping steer one's course. Choosing ahead of time that this is what I'll be about. I am practicing Behold as that word that steers me. Behold as a modus operandi, a way to witness, but more. In that gaze, to dwell, to linger. To hold. Open your hands and cup them together; receive what is given without dropping a crumb; pay attention and wait. Who can imagine all the places from which data come, pointing the eye to space beyond and back again? Julian of Norwich saw in a hazelnut all that was ever made.

I am placing blank index cards and a pad of paper alongside my work, in the cracks between journal articles on blood gone wrong, PowerPoint slides on hepatitis, and meeting notes on bone cancer. For seconds or minutes, I am stopping the words that are usually in my head during a workday—faster, harder, better, longer—and practicing writing about something other than disease. Practicing building bridges with words from seen to unseen and back again. Practicing seeing bridges already here. Practicing crossing the bridges found.

The experts say wholeheartedness is a key to fulfillment in work. Give yourself wholly, they urge. In a contrarian act of willful unwholeheartedness, I allow a fault line. To operate on one level here and another level there, is this not the same as a woman nursing one child while reading to another? Or perhaps this is wholeheartedness after all, but with a directional force that lies in another plane.

Call it a proof-of-concept trial, the endpoint being some measure of meaning, an invention yet to be and practiced even now. In the long line of progress from what is unknown to known, from a need unmet to met, this sort of trial is an early step. You prove one thing and it takes you to a next step you may or may not have predicted.

Next to my computer hangs a copy of Andrei Rublev's Holy Trinity icon, which reflects the story of Abraham's hospitality from Genesis. Three figures are seated at a round table. Two of the figures are robed in brilliant blue, and the third in gold. They are seated at the nine, twelve, and three o'clock positions. On the table is a gold chalice. You look at the icon, see it, and the image with the table's open space at the six o'clock position invites you to step up to the scene and take a seat.

♦♦♦

The morning is new and I am reading from the Old Testament, my eyes moving left to right across the lines, top to bottom down the page, covering one word after another with their gaze, and here now is a chapter break. My thoughts meet the page at the white space, and I realize that my mind and my eyes had split almost from the start, my mind focused as it is so often on work and the tasks of yesterday and what will come today.

I am retracing the visual path, right to left, bottom to top, and beginning again. Behold. There is Elijah at the widow's home; the jar of flour that was not used up and the jug of oil that did not run dry; the widow's son ill and not breathing; Elijah with the boy in his arms, crying out to the Lord; Elijah stretched out on the boy, flesh on flesh. And now, the boy without breath breathes. He lives. This drama of life and love had been before my eyes without even the pause due a beautiful peach.

With brain busy and eyes dazed, what else have I missed?

May the Lord make him to live was Elijah's prayer and, likewise, I pray for myself.

 

Nancy Nordenson is a medical writer and a creative writer. Her work has appeared in Indiana Review, Comment, Under the Sun, and other publications and anthologies, including Becoming: What Makes a Woman (University of Nebraska Gender Studies). Her work has also earned multiple "notable" recognitions in the Best American Essays and Best Spiritual Writing anthologies and Pushcart Prize nominations. Her book, Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Vocation, will be published by Kalos Press in 2015.

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See also: Arts and Music

Unsealed Memories

Melissa W. Bartholomew

Veritas

 

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

 

 

April 6, 2014, was the twentieth anniversary of the start of the genocide in Rwanda, where over the course of about one hundred days, an estimated one million people were killed. Twenty years later, while not a perfect society, Rwanda is a transformed society—one actively engaged in the difficult work of forgiveness and reconciliation and trauma healing.

One of the ways Rwandans have been able to heal is by not forgetting their past. Memories of the genocide still linger and remain an active part of their lives. My ministry focus is racial reconciliation and healing through forgiveness, so I traveled to Rwanda to study forgiveness and reconciliation. While I was there, I visited one of the genocide memorials, at a site where fifty thousand people were killed and are buried. The memorial contains several rooms where the exhumed skeletons of hundreds of the dead are laid on tables, still frozen in the positions in which they died. Rwandans maintain these open graves so that they will never forget that painful part of their history. They fear that forgetting will create the space for it to happen again.

We have no open graves in this country to remind us of the genocide of the indigenous people of this land, and of the people who were enslaved, or of the millions lost at sea during the transatlantic slave trade. Our memories have been sealed. I recently participated in a program in a Harvard Divinity School graduate seminar, in which we engaged Emilie M. Townes, dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, and her work Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil. In reading and reflecting on this book, I realized that Townes is inviting us to join her in the work of unsealing our memories and dismantling the evil that is designed to keep them shut. I also felt that our ancestors are talking through Townes's book. They are crying out to us, to wake us up from our collective sleep. Our silence, the "forgottenness,"1 is keeping them from resting in peace. They are beckoning us to remember. It's the only way to save our lives.

Emilie Townes's text is a call to action. It is a summons to gather the strength and the courage to face ourselves, and the world we have created, by going through our past. It's our time to do the work, but, in order to do it, our painful memories must be resurrected. We have to face the truth—that our country was birthed in deception and fear, through genocide and slavery—and that there are centuries of evil productions that need to be dismantled. But where do we begin?

We can begin by looking back at our own history. For example, in 2007, there was an undergraduate research seminar at Harvard whose aim was to research the historical connections between Harvard and slavery. The students' findings are summarized in the document Harvard and Slavery: Seeking a Forgotten History. Their research reveals that slaves accompanied the children of prominent slave owners to Harvard and labored on campus, and that Harvard faculty and presidents also owned slaves. As their work shows, "slaves were part of daily life at Harvard." The document captures the magnitude of the impact of slavery on Harvard, reporting that "For the first 150 years of Harvard's history, slaves not only served Harvard leaders, slave labor played a vital role in the unprecedented appreciation of wealth by New England merchants that laid the foundation of Harvard's status as a world-class educational institution."2

The group's findings also demonstrate that there were some abolitionists within the faculty and the student body. In May 1838, a group of students decided to openly debate the issue of slavery. Students from Harvard Divinity School who belonged to "The Philanthropic Society" had planned to debate abolition at one of its meetings. But on the day of the meeting, Harvard's president, Josiah Quincy, "sent a letter to Divinity School faculty members requesting that they reconsider the 'wisdom and prudence' " of such discussions, which would be open to the public, as many of their meetings were. In a second letter, President Quincy used the public accessibility issue as grounds for forbidding the students to hold the debate. He stated that "it was not prudent to debate abolition 'in a seminary of learning, composed of young men from every quarter of the country; among whom are many whose prejudices, passions and interests are deeply implicated.' "3

Thankfully, the issue of slavery is no longer a legal issue requiring debate. What is still pressing for all of us, however, are the lingering effects of the trauma that the brutal life of slavery produced in the mind, body, and spirit of enslaved people and their descendants, and on the psyche of every person who breathed in the tainted air of that time. These lingering effects are real and are revealed in many areas of our society, such as in the disparities in our criminal justice system, which results in the mass incarceration of black and brown people. All of us, whether we were born here or not, are living in a country that experienced a cosmic disruption4 caused by slavery and genocide, and we are living in the breach that has not been repaired. Whether we realize it or not, we are all the walking wounded.

How can we begin to heal? Townes reminds us that "we need each other."5 As students of religion, we can decide to face our fears and address the cultural production of race and racism. I propose two ways for us to consider. First, we can create safe, sacred spaces for intimate dialogue where we can share our own personal stories, which will help us to peel back the layers and expose our connectedness. In these intimate spaces, we can share the ways in which we each know God, or the ways in which we interact with the Divine, or however we define that space in our lives where we experience peace and love. Engaging with each other in this way will help us to begin to know each other through our own particularity, and this will animate the spirit of love that binds us together. In a part of our memory that we have forgotten—a piece that has been engulfed by the pain and division—is the knowledge that we are love. We can use these intimate spaces to rediscover that truth, through each other. Loving each other is our first action step.

Within these intimate spaces, we can begin to have more courageous conversations about race and racism. We can create a theology of interracial dialogue that is designed to help us explore the dimensions of these complex issues through a method that leads with love and integrity. As Townes contends, it is our theoethical responsibility to engage in "critical dialogue that enlarges the boundaries of our humanness."6 And she urges us to remember that we cannot just frame the discussion in a black-and-white binary, because doing so does not describe the reality of who we have become as a richly diverse nation. She also compels us to explore "how whiteness has been constructed and how it is maintained as a largely uninterrogated phenomenon of alleged neutrality."7

Another step that we students can take in furthering this work is to connect with other academic institutions that are engaged in dialogues on race. Last fall, Tufts University's Center for the Study of Race and Democracy convened its first National Dialogue on Race Day. The center invited institutions from all over the country to send representatives to attend and encouraged participating institutions to hold their own local dialogue events during the same time. The goal of the dialogues was to create recommendations that would result in substantive public policy changes at the local and national levels. Harvard Divinity School could join this program and stand in solidarity with the other institutions engaging in this work. This is one way that we, as members of an academic institution, can begin to heed Townes's call to commit to a more "rigorous theoethical analysis of race and racism."8 When we are no longer students, we can continue to seek out these kinds of programs and events in our workplaces and communities, and, if we discover they do not exist, we can work to initiate or create them.

There are signs of hope. When I visited Rwanda, I observed a reconciliation and healing workshop involving young people who were babies, or were not even born, at the time of the genocide. During the workshop, they learned about the history of their country, of a time before the European colonizers, when the Hutus and Tutsis were united. The team leading the workshop stressed that the young people needed this work, as they had inherited a country of traumatized people. The young people heard that their elders are relying on them to ensure that the country never falls back into despair.

I have the same hope for the young people in our country. I have the privilege of working with young people in a racial reconciliation and healing program at the Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center in Massachusetts. It is a model of racial reconciliation and healing that connects health to racial and social justice. The students, who are from various racial backgrounds and cultures, meet twice a week throughout the school year to learn about the history of race in this country and about the current inequities resulting from structural racism. They engage in dialogue and in interactive role-playing and healing work. The program empowers the youth by giving them the tools they need to become agents of change. These young people are so brave. They courageously address critical issues, such as white privilege and internalized oppression, and it's not easy. There is emotion, at times even tears, but they are committed to this work and to each other. Their work demonstrates love in action. Each week, they actively engage in dismantling the cultural production of racism. They are my inspiration. If they can do it, I know that I can do it. We all can do it. Will you join me?

 

Notes

  1. Emilie M. Townes, Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 26.
  2. Sven Beckert, Katherine Stevens, and the students of the Harvard and Slavery Research Seminar, Harvard and Slavery: Seeking a Forgotten History (2011), 7–8.
  3. Ibid., 19, 20.
  4. David Gordis, "Jewish Reflection," in Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War, ed. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 70.
  5. Townes, Womanist Ethics, 114.
  6. Ibid., 76.
  7. Ibid., 72.
  8. Ibid., 77.
 

Melissa W. Bartholomew is a third-year MDiv student at Harvard Divinity School. This was adapted from a talk she presented at "The Role of the Student of Religion in Dismantling the Cultural Production of Evil," a special program engaging Emilie M. Townes and her work, Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil, during the April 9, 2014, meeting of the HDS course Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion.

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What Faith Communities Can Teach Psychiatrists about Depression

Dan G. Blazer

Community support

 

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

 

 

For centuries, faith communities took care of the depressed. After Greek and Roman times, the depressed, if severely ill, were often housed in religious institutions such as priories or monasteries. As a result, depressive-like symptoms have long been of great interest to the Christian community. Though monasteries were cut off from Greek medicine, a knowledge of medicine was included in the general education of monastics, and many monasteries (such as Chartres) were centers of learning. Caregivers of the depressed in these institutions held the prevailing view of the humors, so they took a biological approach (such as baths for eliminating black bile). Even so, depression (melancholia) was closely associated with the moral strength of the individual, and the care was very crude.

According to Andrew Crislip, Evagrius of Pontus (ca. 345–399 CE) characterized depression (acedia) as "the most troublesome of all" of the eight genera of evil thoughts and equated it with "the noonday demon" (a term Andrew Solomon used for the title of his 2001 book describing his own depression). Crislip notes that Evagrius is in line with a "long tradition in Christian moral theology" that understood acedia as "the sin of sloth."1 In describing religious melancholy (in his famous 1661 text Anatomy of Melancholy), Robert Burton suggested that one variety of melancholy was "that God himself is a cause for the punishment of sin, and satisfaction of his justice, many examples and testimonies of holy Scriptures make evident unto us" (citing King Saul as one such example). Melancholia was a malady that was visited on a person because he or she had wandered from the ways of God. Belief in God and the practice of religion were not the cause of melancholy, but melancholy could derive from religious excess or aberration. Despite Burton's interest in the humors that could cause melancholy, one cannot ignore the religious context.

Searching for meaning is an important part of the experience of depression, and in a nonjudgmental faith community, such a search is encouraged and supported.

Today, a few within faith communities may still consider depression a sin, but this is not the prevailing view, and clergy are much more willing to refer the severely depressed to a psychiatrist. Thus, faith communities become the recipients of the expertise psychiatrists have to offer in helping the depressed among them. But psychiatrists are often blind to what faith communities can contribute toward soothing the emotional suffering of the depressed. Faith communities, in my view, have some important lessons to teach psychiatrists.

In this discussion, when I refer to faith communities, I am assuming they are true to their mission, and that this mission involves supporting mental health and human flourishing.2 I speak from the perspective of a Christian faith community, because that is what I know best, but I believe that what faith communities can teach psychiatrists does not depend on the particular religious orientation, so long as that faith community functions well in support of its members.

Studies of religious groups, from Orthodox Jews to evangelical Christians,3 reveal no evidence that the frequency of depression varies across religious groups. Therefore, the mere existence of a faith community has nothing to teach psychiatrists. However, I have seen firsthand that there are ways that faith communities can minister to the depressed, if they are committed to their mission of ministry.

To make my case, I will use the example of "Richard"—an example based on a real person, though I have disguised his identity enough that even he would not recognize himself. Richard is a physician who knew he was experiencing all the symptoms of a major depressive disorder. He ended up seeking not only professional help, but also help from his own faith community. Through this example, I will describe seven areas in which psychiatrists can learn something from faith communities. Each of these lessons may seem self-evident but, in the midst of a busy practice, they can, all too easily, be forgotten.

Depression is at once both biological and spiritual. We are embodied souls and, from the vantage point of the patient, there is no room for either Cartesian dualism or a totally materialistic approach (unless the patient is a philosopher, and, even then, I am not certain he would appreciate such an approach in the midst of illness). Describing his own depression, Andrew Solomon said that when he became depressed, he found a soul; he broadened his range of emotion and felt more connected to what was deep inside of him.

Likewise, even though Richard was a physician, had read the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and knew others who had experienced depression, about his own depression he said that he suffered from a "sick soul." He knew that there was an emptiness that had plagued him most of his life, and his major depression brought this emptiness to the fore. He did not totally regret the experience, even though it was very painful. For healing to occur, the road Richard had to travel to recovery passed through a spiritual, as well as a biological and a psychological, landscape. Faith communities consider spirituality to be a central property of personhood, so they are equipped to address this sense of having a "sick soul."

Psychiatrists count symptoms, but patients tell stories. These days, psychiatrists go through a checklist to determine whether a patient suffers from a disorder, as defined in DSM-5. There is nothing wrong with this process of diagnosis, but there is always a story behind the symptoms, and the patient wants his doctor (and his pastor, rabbi, or priest) to hear that story. There was a time, prior to the DSM-3, when a psychiatrist did not possess these checklists and had only the story as a basis for diagnosis: if the story was despairing, then melancholia; if bizarre, then perhaps schizophrenia. We are better off today (the diagnoses are certainly more reliable), and stories alone cannot direct modern therapies such as medication, or perhaps even cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Still, from the patient's perspective, there is a story, and it is important.

Richard had a story to tell, though he had difficulty telling it. His story was one of guilt over his failed marriage and estrangement from his two daughters, hard work in search of perfection, a sense of being stifled by never reaching his goals. His psychiatrist gave him meds, but his faith community listened patiently and tried to understand his story, especially the pain over his failed marriage. After all, faith communities are based on stories. Each faith community tells a larger story (a metanarrative), and the individual stories of its heroes (prophets, saints) fit into this larger story. For example, in Judaism, Passover is about remembering a metanarrative. Or, our stories of depression may lead us to identify with Job. In turn, each member of the community works to understand her or his story in relationship to the community's story. In Richard's case, the members of his church did not act in the way Job's friends did. Instead, the community listened to his pain but did not provide ready answers. Nor did they suggest that the pain was somehow not congruent with a strong faith or a proper understanding of God. Richard's story was one among many shared and equally valuable stories.

Faith communities help the depressed person search for meaning in the depression. Depression is an emotion in search of a meaning, yet that meaning may never be found while someone is in the midst of a severe depression. At times, the meaning is more or less apparent, but at other times, it is not apparent at all. Regardless, that searching for meaning is an important part of the experience of depression (it's not like such illnesses as a gallbladder attack). With the illness of depression, it is the search that counts, and a nonjudgmental faith community is an environment that encourages searching. Such communities tolerate uncertainty and futility in the search for meaning and adapt to their congregants.

Richard believed at first that his depression was caused by his failure as a husband and father, given the eighty to ninety hours a week he spent working. As he searched deeper, he realized that work was not the root cause of the failure of his marriage or of his depression. In fact, he found relief in his work, and his faith community affirmed his spiritual call to his secular work. He discovered how his story of being lost and eventually being redeemed fit into the Christian story of redemption. He had been only a nominal Christian until his illness; after his depression, he became much more active, studied more, and prayed more, which led to a gradual but definite improvement of his symptoms. He never did find an adequate answer to why his marriage failed, and he remained cut off from his two daughters. Stories do not have simple and neat endings, and supportive faith communities allow for this messiness.

Faith communities help us name our depression. We all search for a name for our infirmities. This has been called the Rumpelstiltskin effect. In that story, the maiden captured by the terrible little creature was promised freedom if she could name him. When we seek help from doctors, we want a diagnosis. Yet, for emotional suffering, a diagnosis often falls far short of giving us control over our pain. Again, this is in contrast to a pain in the abdomen, which can be better tolerated, even cured, once we identify it as a gallbladder attack and remove the gallbladder. Faith communities can help by providing different names for what might seem like such a sterile term ("depression"): "the dark night of the soul," a pilgrim's progress, fellow strugglers (such as Job), or growth through pain toward something better. These names evoke a sense of community by suggesting that all people within the community are walking the same path and slogging through the same tough times.

Richard needed a communal name for his pain. The theme of his faith community was "the journey," and congregants referred to themselves as fellow travelers. The journey was not easy, and was more difficult for some than for others. Richard was a hiker, so the metaphor of traveling a long road through life, often a difficult road, provided a name for his emotional suffering that resonated with him. Although he did not initially notice it during his severe depression, he came to discover that others were traveling that road with him.

Some caveats are important here. Faith communities that buy wholly into positive psychology, discouraging any negative comments or anything but a smiling countenance, do not function as they should to help the depressed. Likewise with communities which isolate the depressed into small support groups, walled off from the rest of the faith community. Even supportive religious communities that emphasize growth need to be careful about suggesting that all suffering has an apparent reason, because this may get in the way of recovery from depression.

Faith communities teach us that there is a "social psychiatry." We have virtually lost our appreciation for the importance of the social environment in the causation and the healing of psychiatric disorders such as depression. But such factors as social support, social integration, a retreat to alternative social groups, and instrumental support (with the activities of daily living, like home repair) can be most important in the healing process of depression. Faith communities can be invaluable sources of such support; indeed, they are among the most natural places in our society to find it.

Richard found much tangible support within his faith community. Given his marital problems, he faced significant financial strain, which was alleviated through financial counseling offered in his faith community. He joined a small study group that met weekly, with equal time spent in study and in getting to know one another. Richard rarely missed a meeting, became friends with people in the group, and even led some of the sessions. Until this small group experience, he had been isolated (even before his depression) and might even have been labeled as borderline Asperger's or schizotypal. The support he felt helped him to defy these definitions and to become intentionally more social.4

Faith communities teach that hope and purpose are critical to healing depression. Depression often seals off those who are suffering from a sense of hope. They see no future, and our society does not always provide messages of hope to counter this perception. Faith communities almost invariably look to a future that is better than the present, finding hope in that future. Faith communities also work well if they stress finding a purpose—not a purpose that comes from someone else, but an individual purpose, a sense of discovering one's own unique mission.

Richard found hope and a mission. Despite his busy work schedule, he started helping others in his faith community by sharing his unique skills as a handyman and computer expert. In his personal study, he focused increasingly on hope in the future. This opening up to hope eventually brought him a wife from within the community, which in turn acted as confirmation that hope would bear fruit.

Faith communities teach that helping those who are depressed is a "family affair." Depression occurs in context. It is not isolated. At some level this is obvious, but psychiatrists may overlook it, thinking they do not need to worry about the context. Depression doesn't work that way. To understand an individual's depression, a psychiatrist must understand the person, the family, the workplace, and the community (including the faith community) in which that person exists.

Richard's depression was very much related to his context, especially his workplace and his faith community. He worked exceedingly hard as a radiologist. He could not say "no" and had a very poor recognition of his limits (such that he might work to the point that he was not as accurate as he was when he was rested). Because of his severe depression, one of his colleagues stepped in and became an informal mentor to him, meeting two or three times a week to monitor his work and encourage him to set limits for himself. During Richard's deepest lows, he was suicidal, and it was the support from his faith community that saw him through those crises. He was single at that point and had few friends, but the pastors and members of his community were "on call" for him. He frequently reached out to them during a crisis and they talked him through it. And, as noted, Richard met a woman through his faith community. They were married after about a year, and Richard's mood improved remarkably after the marriage. (They have been married five years now, both considering it to be a "marriage made in heaven.")

In terms of his recovery from depression, Richard is a success story. Not all stories have such happy conclusions, but I hope his helps illuminate how and what faith communities might teach psychiatrists about emotional suffering and the road to healing. And, I hope his story encourages those of us in the profession to focus on holistic care for our patients, whether a faith community is involved or not.

 

Notes

  1. Andrew Crislip, "The Sin of Sloth or the Illness of the Demons? The Demon of Acedia in Early Christian Monasticism," Harvard Theological Review 98, no. 2 (April 2005): 143–169. Crislip notes that these depictions of acedia, which covered "a variety of psychological states, behaviors, or existential conditions: primarily laziness, ennui, or boredom," were transmitted through Evagrius's contemporary, the Latin-speaking desert father John Cassian.
  2. Of course, this is not always the case. Groups we would classify as cults, such as those led by Jim Jones or David Koresh, those with rigid fundamentalist tenants, militant religious groups at war, and some isolated sects, tend not to tolerate the depressed.
  3. So far, these are the groups where virtually all empirical studies have been fielded.
  4. Again, it is important to note that faith communities can also be among the most destructive social environments for people with psychiatric disorders, especially if these communities are controlling, isolating, or abusive.
 

Dan G. Blazer, MD, PhD, is the J. P. Gibbons Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University School of Medicine. He is a member of the Institute of Medicine and a recipient of the American Psychiatric Association's Oskar Pfister Award for work integrating religion and psychiatry. This is adapted from an April 3, 2014, talk in the Harvard Divinity School–Harvard Medical School Lecture Series on Religion and Medicine.

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Who is Jesus Today?

Bonhoeffer, Tillich, and the future of Jesus Christ.

James Carroll

Nimbus 2010 by Berndnaut Smilde

 

Berndnaut Smilde, Nimbus, 2010, courtesy of the artist and Ronchini Gallery.

 


In March 1943, two bomb attempts were made on Hitler's life. They failed, but in early April the Gestapo arrested a number of the conspirators. One of these was a young Lutheran theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For two years, he was imprisoned—first at Tegel military prison in Berlin, ultimately at Buchenwald and Flossenbürg concentration camps. A committed pacifist entangled in a plot to kill a tyrant, he wrote, "The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live."

Bonhoeffer was executed three weeks before the war ended, before the full horrors of 1945 were laid bare. Yet there is a hint in his statement that, in the thick of the evil, he had grasped what was now at stake—nothing less than the moral self-destruction, and perhaps the physical self-extinction, of the human species; its "continuing to live." In subsequent years, the fragments of thought he left flashed through Christian theology like crystal shards through a darkened conscience. That was especially so once Auschwitz was paired with Hiroshima—absolute evil absolutely armed: the death camp and the genocidal weapon all at once bracketing the human future. The mad nuclear competition that followed then made the problem of human survival literal.

A year before his death, Bonhoeffer declared himself in a letter to his student and friend Eberhard Bethge:1 "What keeps gnawing at me," he wrote, "is the question, What Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today?" That line, written in a Nazi cell, is a shorthand proclamation of Bonhoeffer's penetration to the deepest question about the human condition, which raised, for a serious Christian, an equally grave question about Jesus Christ and the tradition that takes its name from him. Bonhoeffer was a first witness to the apocalyptic fervor of the Third Reich, the millennial character of the crisis—and the fact that "Christendom," a culture in place since Charlemagne and nearly the sole context within which Jesus Christ had been understood, was mortally undermined by racist Nazi imperialism. He grasped how the ethical shattering of Christendom extended to the keystone of Christian faith—to Jesus himself. It falls to us to confront far more directly than Bonhoeffer could what precisely has happened. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, Auschwitz and Hiroshima changed everything, except human ways of thinking and believing. Here is more from Bonhoeffer's statement to Bethge:

We are approaching a completely religionless age; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore . . . [I]f we eventually must judge even the Western form of Christianity to be only a preliminary stage of a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ become Lord of the religionless as well? . . . The questions to be answered would be: What does a church, a congregation, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world? How do we talk about God—without religion? . . . Christ would then no longer be the object of religion, but something else entirely, truly lord of the world. But what does that mean?2

It is clear from this passage that Bonhoeffer was groping for words to express what remained an unspeakable experience.

Paul Tillich, a German Lutheran twenty years Bonhoeffer's senior, lived to carry on the postwar inquiry.3 Tillich had been dismissed from his Frankfurt professorship by the Nazis, and he, too, found the crisis of Nazism at the center of his reflection. Like Bonhoeffer, he saw a consequent religionlessness as somehow necessary, but also as revelatory. Indeed, it formed the basis of his existentialist theology, which came to fruition in his postwar reflections.4 Here, in slightly more abstract language, is Tillich's echo of Bonhoeffer's letter:

The relation of man to the ultimate undergoes changes. Contents of ultimate concern vanish or are replaced by others. . . . Symbols which for a certain period, or in a certain place, expressed the truth of faith for a certain group now only remind of the faith of the past. They have lost their truth, and it is an open question whether dead symbols can be revived. Probably not for those to whom they have died!5

The most important symbol that had "lost its truth" for Tillich was the primordial symbol of God, which, after Hitler, had been irrevocably undermined.6

Whether obsequies for "theological theism" are a function of maturity is debatable—think of the twenty-first-century phenomenon of so-called fundamentalism—yet Bonhoeffer's seemed an uncanny anticipation of Europe's broad postwar exodus from religion, with the resulting mass redundancy of church buildings, and the muting of the voices of clergy. Today, apart from the hollow formalism of royalty-ruled churches in Britain and Scandinavia, institutional religion has entirely vacated the public realm of Europe—and, in some places, the private conscience, too.7

I locate this question, first, not in poll numbers or philosophical debates, but in a deeply personal problem: Having myself imbued—and learned to take for granted—basic assumptions of the so-called Secular Age, what of my own religious inheritance can I believe without being dishonest? I am no fundamentalist, and the limits of religion, even its perversity, are fully apparent to me. If the faith continues to impose itself as a primal option, it does so in my case despite—or is it because of?—the crises of 1945. What happens when traditional belief falls into the abyss of Hiroshima? Or even more, for a Christian, when it slams into the wall of the Holocaust?

Here is my simple proposition: Even more than the challenges of secularity, or of, in Tillich's phrase "justified atheism," a Christian retrieval of the meaning of Jesus in the twenty-first century can only be accomplished by a much fuller reckoning with the famously necessary, if insufficient cause of the Shoah—the long-in-coming catastrophe of Christian anti-Semitism. A widespread church refusal to reckon with an essential Christian failure about the Jews, for that matter, is at least part of why the spirit bled from mainstream Christian denominations in the decades since the failure showed itself. And it is why—I hold—the only form of Christian belief to actually grow in these years is a faith dedicated to the restoration of the very biblical literalism that put "Christ-killer" Jews at risk in the first place. ("Let his blood be upon us and upon our children.") Bonhoeffer's death-row recognition was simple, and may yet prove timeless: "An expulsion of the Jews from the west," he wrote, "must necessarily bring with it the expulsion of Christ. For Jesus Christ was a Jew."8 If Jesus were remembered across most of two thousand years as the Jew he was, the history of those millennia, and their climax in the crimes of the Thousand Year Reich, would be very different.

But memory is uncertain. Jesus is elusive. If he were not, he would be useless to us. An ultimate paradox lies at the heart of Christian belief: Jesus is fully human; Jesus is fully divine. Best to say frankly at the outset of a post-Holocaust and—dare I say?—postmodern attempt at retrieval: Jesus-as-God and Jesus-as-man are the brackets within which this inquiry will unfold.

Jesus is fully divine? What can that mean now? If Jesus were not regarded as God almost from the start of his movement, he would be of no interest to us. We would never have heard of him. Nothing but his divinity accounts for his place in Western culture (or in my heart): not his ethic, which was admirable, but hardly uncommon; not his preaching, which was firmly in line with Jewish proclamation; not his heroic suffering, which was typical of many anti-Roman Jewish resisters; not his wonder-working, which was attributed to all kinds of charismatic figures in the ancient world.

The God-Man affirmation need not condemn this pursuit to irrationality or absurdity—or to a separate "non-overlapping magisterium."9 Instead, it can sponsor a recovery of the light, depth, and beauty of Christian tradition at its best, even while offering a new way to say that Jesus is Christ; that Jesus Christ is God. Speaking quite personally again, nothing matters more to me than that.

Nimbus II 2012 by Berndnaut Smilde
Berndnaut Smilde, Nimbus II, 2012, Cloud in Room, c-type print on dibond, 75 x 112 cm, Hotel Maria Kapel, Hoorn, NL, courtesy the artist and Ronchini Gallery

To renounce the divinity of Jesus—as do a corps of the new Jesus scholars, never mind the new atheists—is to attribute, paradoxically, some reality to divinity itself. Isn't it better to acknowledge an essential ignorance about what—or who—lies, as we say, "beyond"? The intuition that Jesus is the Christ, and therefore somehow "of God," far from being the product of naïveté or superstition, can be rooted in a profoundly sophisticated grasp of the meaning of existence. It pushes past the boundaries of what is readily known and suggests that the realm "out there" is real.10

Believers directly confront an ultimate mystery: all that we know for certain about God is that we do not know God. Here, for Christians, is the pointed relevance of Jesus Christ, for in him we have the knowledge of God that matters. Only if we accommodate and protect some kind of belief in the divinity of Christ, as critically informed as it is true to the tradition—let's call it a postmodern faith—does Jesus Christ have a future as more than a misunderstood victim, a mere practitioner of the good deed, or, perhaps, as an avatar of rebellion—a "zealot."

But when we assert, presumably with far less complication, that Jesus was a human being, is the matter, really, any clearer? We do not know with certainty what or who God is, but it is equally true, in fact, that we do not actually know what a human is.11 The inability to grasp the mystery of our own meaning as humans defines the contemporary crisis of identity more sharply than anything. God is not the problem. We are the problem to ourselves.

Realities as basic as time and space are not the distinct realms they seem to be, any more than energy and matter are truly separate entities. We used to think matter was the solid unmovable ground of being, but now we know that matter is motion. Physics tells us that what we imagine to be solid is actually mostly emptiness within which waves fluctuate. And not just physics, metaphysics: Every universal truth is perceived from a particular perspective, which can seem to undercut universality. All is flux, which humans have felt forever. But now, because of Kant, Einstein, Wittgenstein, and their heirs, we see flux for what it is: everything. "God" is not fixed. "Jesus" is not fixed. "We" are not fixed. We humans can no longer take the measure of our world with anything like precision, because the measures themselves are always changing.

The Cloud carries a positive connotation, too, with its invitation to value the mystery, paradox, and ambiguity that remain forever foreign to machines.

To be human, therefore, is to be on the way to becoming something else. We can see this right in front of our faces now, every time we hunch over a handheld smartphone, or save a file to the Cloud, a meta-world that exists everywhere and nowhere. It may seem a stretch to find in suddenly ubiquitous but profoundly mundane technologies an image of world-historic evolutionary mutation, but perhaps this is the way evolution has always worked, a "secular" process in which life's most sacred secret is embedded.

The Cloud, as James Gleick tells us, is one of the new era's defining metaphors, but it carries implications of its own.12 Clouds were an early emblem of Heaven, the idealized afterlife where humans come into their reward. Indeed, it was on clouds that the Son of Man was to make his appearance on the Last Day. As we know from the Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin's work on the Gospels and the book of Daniel, the Son of Man coming on clouds was itself an early—and profoundly Jewish—assertion of the godliness of Jesus. " 'I am,' said Jesus," we read in Mark. "And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.' "13

One problem both with the ancient use of this metaphor and with its adaptation today by a techno-elevation of disembodied intelligence is the way in which the insubstantial and immaterial cloud stands in contrast to the gritty earth, as if the destiny of humans is to be freed from the bondage of the body, the physical brain denigrated as the "meat computer"—a technological Neoplatonism.

But the Cloud carries a positive connotation, too, with its invitation to value the mystery, paradox, and ambiguity that remain forever foreign to machines—an elevation of immateriality in a materialistic age. An anonymous genius of the fourteenth century wrote The Cloud of Unknowing, in which the obscuring and elusive mist itself offered an image of breakthrough understanding that awareness of life's ultimate unknowability, far from being mere ignorance, is the permanent precondition of the knowledge that makes us human: "For he can well be loved, but he cannot be thought." The author's "he" here is a word for "God," but in this ingenious turn on the tradition, both "he" and "God" are words for the ineffable itself:

By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.14

This "stepping above . . . stoutly . . . deftly" can open into a realm of value and truth in which norms of certitude simply do not apply. Contemporary experience, with social and technical mutations on the march, is understandably threatening, but it can also be taken as an invitation to a more spacious world marked less by clinging than by letting go. The meaning of intelligence, of consciousness, and of self-consciousness is changing with every advance in technology, a process that continually surpasses expectation, and is showing itself to be radically open-ended. Some version of this has been going on in the human story since the primeval ancestor chipped a stone into a blade, but in the scientific age the pace of change has momentously accelerated.

Humans must now be reckoned as mere accidents of natural selection, the random outcome of evolution, beings on the way to being something else. Humans are bits of straw blowing in the wind, in Blaise Pascal's image. Perhaps so, but with this one footnote, first provided by Pascal: humans are reeds of straw who think. Reeds of straw who know. Reeds of straw who choose. Reeds of straw who willingly surpass themselves. The glory of Man, more evident now than ever, is this in-built capacity for—and no other word will do—transcendence. For some, transcendence has a name.

The phrase "Son of Man," rooted in the book of Daniel and amounting, in the way it was applied to Jesus, to an early and at least implicit assertion of his divinity, can also be translated as "The Human Being"—a thinly veiled suggestion that we all have the Son of Man's capacity for transcendence. The tension between his two titles—Son of Man and Son of God—is full of implication here. Jesus reveals humanity as much as he reveals divinity. Indeed, what Jesus reveals, when taken to be Christ, is that divinity abides not just in him but in all of us. Here is where the traditional faith in Jesus Christ as Lord God, far from being outmoded in the Secular Age, meshes perfectly with the postmodern recognition of history's radical fluidity. The ancient Christian expectation of a future fulfilled in being taken up into God is wholly consonant with the dawning contemporary sense of an open-ended evolution ever surpassing itself. This is how we "partake," in St. Peter's phrase, "of the divine nature."15 The biblical tradition asserts that God is present with special focus in Israel, and in Jesus, but first God is present in Creation. Of that holy presence, Israel is but the sign among the nations; and of that holy presence, Jesus Christ is simply the sacrament. The human person—not just Christ—is the creature in whom this mystery is revealed, because the human person participates in the life of Creation, and knows it. Thus, consciousness and self-consciousness, the unbounded scope of which were not fully grasped until the Secular Age, have come to be recognized as modes of the supreme consciousness known in the tradition as God—of whom we, yes, are the image.

When we proclaim, with the tradition, that Jesus is "Christ," that Jesus Christ is "Risen," that Jesus Christ is "God," we know that we are not asserting scientific facts. We are offering interpretations of a bottomless mystery, ever to be plumbed, never mastered. And, actually, Christian believers have always had language for this imprecise, ambiguous, and unfinished faith. The church has, despite appearances, never claimed to possess the whole truth about Jesus, for the memory of his having come is always paired with the expectation that he will come again—in fulfillment of all human longing at the end of time.16 "Son of Man," we see again, is the name this culminating figure goes by. To expect him is to believe that history is headed somewhere, and has an ultimate purpose, which gives it present meaning.17

Whatever sort of God Jesus is understood to be, it must be the God who is like humans, not different. If that seems impossible, then what we think of God—and of humans—must change.

The idea captured the essential truth of what Jesus promised: that the unfinished will be finished, ambiguities resolved. Humanity will surpass itself in something more than humanity—a something that goes by the name of God. And this expectation, whether Christians remembered it or not, permanently rooted Christianity within Jewish Messianic hope, where it remains. Recovering that sense of Christian Jewishness, like recovering the permanent Jewishness—not just of "Jesus," but also of "Christ"—defines the essential work that Christians must do after Auschwitz.

What does this leave us with? A simple Jesus. An ordinary Christ. One whom the simplest person can imitate, the most ordinary person bringing Christ once more to life—day by day, word by word, bread by bread, cup by cup: what Bonhoeffer called "discipleship." Discipleship is a commitment to the memory and presence of Jesus Christ that makes a difference in how a life is lived, driving thought and behavior week in and week out. Thought, yes. As honed, informed, and critical as we can make it. But also behavior, what we call "practice," measured against justice, compassion, and love. How do we reclaim Jesus as God? By behaving as if he is.

Whatever sort of God Jesus is understood to be, it must be the God who is like humans, not different. If that seems impossible, then what we think of God—and of humans—must change. And the truest argument, finally and again, for the divinity of Jesus—argument, not proof—is in the one undenied fact of this history: that billions upon billions of ordinary human beings, in their thought and their practice, have found in this faith an immediate and saving experience of the real presence of God, "partaking" of God—becoming God. Even unto here and now, tonight. We come to Jesus, in the end as in the beginning, only through the Jesus people.

The God to whom Jesus points is the God beyond "God." We recognize in Jesus all that we need to know about the God who, otherwise, remains incomprehensible. And this recognition, because well rooted in the past, is powerful enough to carry us into the open-ended future, even extending beyond what can be imagined.

And can it be a surprise, after all of this, that one of the first to sense what is, after all, a necessary disenchantment with Christianity's anthropomorphic naïveté was Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Whether he fully grasped the meaning of his intuition or not, we cannot miss the implications when we read today what he wrote in prison in 1944: "The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God, we live without God."18

 

Notes

  1. Eberhard Bethge himself delivered the Tillich Lecture at Harvard Divinity School in 1993.
  2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 8, ed. John W. de Gruchy (Fortress Press, 2010), 362–364.
  3. He did this first in New York and eventually at Harvard; hence the memorial lecture series, first introduced at Harvard in 1990, in which this talk was presented.
  4. Especially in his books The Courage to Be (1952) and Dynamics of Faith (1957).
  5. Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (Harper Perennial Classics Edition, 2001), 111.
  6. In The Courage to Be (Yale University Press, 1952), Tillich wrote: "God appears as the invincible tyrant, the being in contrast with whom all other beings are without freedom and subjectivity. He is equated with the recent tyrants who with the help of terror try to transform everything into a mere object, a thing among things, a cog in the machine they control. He becomes the model of everything against which Existentialism revolted. This is the God Nietzsche said had to be killed because nobody can tolerate being made into a mere object of absolute knowledge and absolute control. This is the deepest root of atheism. It is an atheism which is justified as the reaction against theological theism and its disturbing implications" (185).
  7. To take only one example, three-quarters of the once devout Czech Republic are now religiously unaffiliated, according to a demographic study by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life (www.pewforum.org/global-religious-landscape-exec.aspx).
  8. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Macmillan, 1955), 90–91.
  9. This is Stephen Jay Gould's formulation, where normal rules of logic do not apply; Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (Bantam, 1999).
  10. I recall Albert Einstein's assertion that humans have the capacity for grasping "the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty" but, because we do the grasping with "our dull faculties," we can perceive such transcendent mysteries only "in their most primitive forms." Atheists and theists can, perhaps, meet one another in the field of limits, the limits of skepticism and the limits of faith, if they can agree to acknowledge such limits, which are parallel, even overlapping. See Living Philosophies: The Reflections of Some Eminent Men and Women of Our Time, ed. Clifton Fadiman (Doubleday, 1990), 6.
  11. I came to this understanding in reading John Macquarrie's masterwork, Jesus Christ in Modern Thought.
  12. James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (Pantheon, 2011).
  13. Mark 14:62 (New International Version).
  14. The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, trans. A. C. Spearing (Penguin, 2001), 27–28.
  15. 2 Peter 1:4.
  16. "Parousia" is the technical name for this expectation; "eschatology" is another.
  17. The tradition of the Second Coming of Jesus, in fact, defines the fallible character of this peculiar faith, for it began in a misunderstanding. The first followers of Jesus, thinking of him in Jewish apocalyptic terms drawn from the book of Daniel, thought he would return soon in Messianic glory: St. Paul said the longed-for return would occur within the lifetimes of his readers (1 Thessalonians 4:16). But they were wrong.
  18. Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Macmillan, 1971), 360–361.
 

 

Christ Actually

From Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age by James Carroll. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC. Copyright © 2014 by James Carroll.

James Carroll, an award-winning author and columnist for The Boston Globe, is distinguished scholar-in-residence at Suffolk University. This is an edited version of the 2014 Paul Tillich Lecture at Harvard, which he presented on April 30 in the Memorial Church.

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