Spirituality, Art, and Contemplation
“The unexamined life is not worth living,” so said Socrates at his trial for heresy. Some people are not equipped mentally or in terms of cultural experience to be able to ponder the meaning of life. Others are plenty capable, but they don’t see the value of investing the time and energy to do so. And others—like most Silversiders, I assume—can’t help it.
Some ponderers ponder enough to get a sense of what they can bring to the table of shared human responsibility; that’s enough for them. Others may be drawn to dig more deeply and wonder how they and other humans too, for that matter, ended up here in the first place. Still others may not be inclined to think of origins but instead be wired to speculate about what happens to humans when all is said and done in terms both of their own exits from life in this world of time and space and in terms of what will go on after this whole chapter in human history closes—when the world has, if you will, come to an end.
Surely, especially those Pennsylvanians among us, heard that the world ended again a week and a half ago. Yes, and once again here all of us Silversiders are, LEFT BEHIND as usual. Oh well. Anyway, if you missed the big news and the dramatic event about which it warned, you need to know that the eBible Fellowship headquartered in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania, did its best to warn us sufficiently to be ready for the annihilation of all things on Wednesday October 7. But did we bother to get ourselves ready, or to have Blaine create a world-end warning for our digital sign in its last hours of existence? Why, no.
Marie was here cooking for the Wednesday night meal. Melissa was giving piano lessons. And I was busy being pious, which is what I do best EVERY day! :/ (laugher uncalled for!) Since I’d been left behind as usual I at least hoped when I got home I’d find that everyone else in Elsmere had been taken, but nope. They were all still there too so the theory that hell is on earth continues to be a probable truth!
In contrast to apocalyptic expectations about the end, T. S. Eliot closes his poem, “The Hollow Men,” with an odd-sounding prediction: “...the world ends—not with a bang, but a whimper.”
Thankfully, fretting about the end of time isn’t the only kind of contemplation and not the kind of contemplation many want to invest in. With contemplation comes potentially greater understanding of context as human beings in a cosmos. With contemplation comes potentially greater self-understanding, an awareness of true values and gifts or talents. With contemplation potentially comes connection with God. That is an appealing concept for many and a scary concept for others. Does God even want us so close?
An insightful “improvisation” on the eighth Psalm:
Many-Named One beyond imagining,
when I contemplate the night sky,
the cosmos that all unfolded from a speck;
galaxies, stars, and earth;
who are we humans that you attend to us?
mere mortals in our tiny corner that you love us?
[This is contemplation.]
We are life created to know and feel!
The whole world is in our hands—
plants and animals, oceans and ice caps, rain forests,
atmosphere and ecosystem!
Touch our hearts, O God;
make us courageous and thoughtful enough
to embrace your love for us and your confidence in us.
(Psalm 8, Psalms for a New World, adapted)
When I was in college the chair of our Religion department decided he was also interested in psychology so he began taking graduate courses in psychology and counseling; and in that chapter of his life and career, he devised a course called “Growing Up Human” that was sort of a mix of psychology, religion, and self-understanding. I eventually took it and benefited tremendously from it, but the first time I signed up for the course and went to class I couldn't wait for the session to end so I could run out the door to get to the Registrar’s Office to drop that course. Dr. Blevins said in his opening remarks about the course, and this is what scared me away, “During this semester, we're going to get to know ourselves much better, which is a requirement for getting to know God better.”
I was not by that point an untutored or naive fundamentalist--not that all fundamentalists are those things, but I had been; yet I knew emotionally I was just not ready to deal with the idea that somehow understanding God is interwoven in self-understanding though I absolutely believe it and had it confirmed when I signed up for the course a second time and saw it through to the end. Getting to know ourselves better requires contemplation, and self-understanding is a requirement for meaningful connection to God.
Participating in the sermon series was a real challenge for our photographer of the day, Bill Westerhoff. This is true for several reasons one of which is that Bill doesn't like to call attention to himself or his work. He is happy to share it with others always, but he is a modest gentleman. And the other thing is that I asked each of the photographers and painters participating in this series to give me at least a few basic tidbits to help me do my interpretation on what the art piece should possibly convey as I study it.
Bill does not like to name his photographs. He likes for those who look at his photographs to draw their own conclusions about what it is they see. Nonetheless Bill who is a master photographer gave me a title and a bit of an explanation—though it caused him great anguish.
What he saw in the face of the woman in the picture looking as she seems to be doing into space was contemplation. More specifically he imagined her contemplating not just her present moment, but also what came before she was a part of the land of the living and what will become of her and those dear to her who will remain when she is no longer part of life on planet Earth.
So there you have the artist’s commentary, which is much more than you would get if you saw Bill’s work on display and had to come up with an interpretation or an impression on your own. Bill is a gifted and versatile photographer, and he could have taken this picture in color or developed in color, but he didn't. The picture is suggestive of tintype coloration. The woman whose clothing suggests to us that she has been working and working hard and her age, which I would guess is her fifties, let us know that she's had some experience with life. And those of us who have been weathered by the challenges and difficulties in life recognize the facial expressions of others who have had their own challenges.
We have no way of knowing if God is a part of what the woman in Bill’s photograph is contemplating. The fact that she does her thinking in what appears to be a place of quietness, if it is, could enhance her God-awareness.
About four and a half years before I arrived on the doorstep of Southern Seminary in Louisville ready to begin seminary studies one of the most highly respected professors on that faculty had published a volume that became a classic in the study of spirituality. E. Glenn Hinson’s book, A Serious Call to a Contemplative Lifestyle, released in 1974, warned modern women and men of how our hectic paces and our increasing discomfort with silence were negatively impacting our spirituality. Some heeded my great teacher’s gentle warning; but, we look around us and see that most of us obviously did not.
The pace at which the majority of us lives what we call “life” is much more likely to kill us than make us whole, and discomfort with silence has become for many disdain for silence.
Jean Arp, the German-French abstract artist, wrote:
Soon silence will have passed into legend. People have turned their backs on silence. Day after day we invent machines and devices that increase noise and distract us from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation.
We have no time to pause and wait for God—just Sears delivery or Comcast repair; God either has to come knocking on our doors, or God has to do something dramatic enough to get our attention. Helping us win the lottery, for example, would work quite nicely. Short of that, God could grab our attention by getting our favored presidential candidate into the Oval Office or erasing Putin from the human family. Uhm, if you think God works this way I have a terrific multi-volume set of fairy tales I can sell you for an unbelievably low price!
The prophet Elijah wanted God to work in dramatic ways, and, when God did not oblige, Elijah got his nose out of joint and decided that he needed a time-out from God, during which time God might come to God’s senses and realize how important Elijah was and, thus, why things in his life should go the way Elijah wanted them to go.
There’s no question about the fact that Elijah was in crisis despite his exemplary service to God; his life was being threatened by Queen Jezebel, who was devoted to the god Ba’al, and she didn’t care very much about the Hebrew religion or its clergy even though her husband, King Ahab, was presumably a devout Jew. He made no effort to stop his wife’s efforts to do Elijah in, though. Jezebel calls on the military to put together a group of special ops to run Elijah down like an escaped animal and, on sight, stab to kill.
Elijah eventually takes cover in a cave. And there is this intriguing encounter between God and Elijah at that cave, the gist of which was read for us earlier in our reflective reading. God asks Elijah why he is in the situation he is in, and Elijah says essentially, “I am NOT appreciated by my countrypersons or my God even though I'm the ONLY person in the whole Hebrew nation really doing what she or he is supposed to be doing. You, God, are letting these bad things happen to me even though I have been so faithful to you."
God replied, “I haven’t neglected you at all, Elijah. It’s just that not every visit with you means something dramatic. As well as you thought you knew me, you didn’t know me so well after all. It’s time for an object lesson. Go stand outside the cave.” Elijah did.
Now quoting the writer of 1 Kings:
…there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a "sound" of sheer silence.
I was in DC most of this past week with my advanced preaching students from Palmer Seminary. I was teaching the main core of a course I titled “Preaching and Presidents.” It was a wonderfully enriching experience for me, and I certainly hope for my 14 grad students.
We visited five churches where Presidents have participated on a regular basis while in the oval office and studied the sermons of the preachers who preached to Presidents in those contexts. We started our focused study Thursday morning at St Mark's Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill where President Johnson attended with the great regularity--initially because Mrs. Johnson, Lady Bird, was Episcopalian. Mrs Johnson typically made the calls with reference to where they as a family went to church. The President eventually grew very close to the church and its rector, the Reverend Bill Baxter.
Before that appreciation developed, Johnson uttered one of his highly favored sayings. "Greater love hath no man than to attend the Episcopal Church with his wife."
President Kennedy was assassinated on a Thursday; late Friday evening Baxter got word from the Secret Service that President Johnson planned to attend worship at St. Mark's on his first Sunday as President of the United States. In short order there not being much prep time and with a pressure of preaching to this powerful political leader at a crisis for the President and the nation Baxter hit a home run in every respect.
The very gracious staff and congregation invited us to join them on Thursday noon for their midweek midday Eucharist. The associate rector of the church led the communion and gave during the service a brief homily focused on Teresa of Avila. Teresa was a 16th century Spanish Carmelite nun who in many respects perfected contemplative prayer.
In contemplation, Teresa panned this prayer. Many of you have heard it, at least in part.
God* has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which God** looks compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which God** walks to do good.
Yours are the hands with which God** blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes...
God* has no body now but yours....
*She has in her prayer "Christ."
**She has in her prayer "He."