Jesus Helps from Behind

No comment.

No comment.

Justin Tse of Religion Ethnicity Wired originally posted this. From my own shoddy research it looks like the picture originates from the ECLA Lutherans. It was their suggested bulletin accompaniment to a Gospel reading:

‘And a woman was there who for eighteen years had been crippled by a spirit; she was bent over, completely incapable of standing erect. When Jesus saw her, he called to her and said, “Woman, you are set free of your infirmity.” He laid his hands on her, and she at once stood up straight and glorified God’ (Luke 13).

It makes sense that Jesus touched where it hurts most, as he did with the blind man.

But what I want to know is: Why does he look so bored?

Would “Get thee behind me Satan” (Mat. 16:23) jokes be totally out of place here?

Heaven is Not an Atom

Manoussakis: taking theology up a notch.

Manoussakis: taking theology up a notch.

I knew there was a reason why I took my “Top 10 Theology Books of the Last 10 Years (That I’ve Read)” up to 11. Somehow I just knew that I had to read the extra book I added.

Well, actually, Fr. Peter Nguyen, SJ (one of the good ones) read the book on my semi-blind recommendation about a year ago. He came away with a glowing face full of new insights. Now that I’ve started reading God After Metaphysics: A Theological Aesthetic, I know why it’s been haunting me.

God-after-Metaphysics-Manoussakis-John-EB9780253116949

“I have not seen anything in breadth, importance, and intensity!,” says Jean-Luc Marion about God After Metaphysics. That’s praise which is beyond good.

John Panteleimon Manoussakis, a Greek Orthodox theologian, begins with a quote from Chesterton (who was the subject of yesterday’s post). God After Metaphysics is ecumenical in its engagement with all the best in the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions. The following epigraph from The Everlasting Man is just one example of the intellectual hospitality of God After Metaphysics and its author:

“It is nothing less than the loud assertion that this mysterious maker of the world has visited his world in person. It declares that really and even recently, or right in the middle of historic times, there did walk into the world this original invisible being; about whom the thinkers make theories and the mythologists hand down myths; the Man Who Made the World. That such a higher personality exists behind all things had indeed always been implied by all the best thinkers, as well as by all the most beautiful legends. But nothing of this sort had ever been implied in any of them. It is simply false to say that the other sages and heroes had claimed to be that mysterious master and maker, of whom the world had dreamed and disputed. Not one of them had ever claimed to be anything of the sort. Not one of their sects or schools had even claimed that they had claimed to be anything of the sort. The most that any religious prophet had said was that he was the true servant of such a being. The most that any visionary had ever said was that men might catch glimpses of the glory of that spiritual being; or much more often of lesser spiritual beings. The most that any primitive myth had even suggested was that the Creator was present at the Creation. But that the Creator was present at scenes a little subsequent to the supper-parties of Horace, and talked with tax-collectors and government officials in the detailed daily life of the Roman Empire, and that this fact continued to be firmly asserted by the whole of that great civilisation for more than a thousand years– that is something utterly unlike anything else in nature. It is the one great startling statement that man has made since he spoke his first articulate word… it makes nothing but dust and nonsense of comparative religion.”

Manoussakis finds and deftly comments upon such gems throughout his book. It’s as if he wants you to go broke collecting a library as you read.

Now, the importance of the Greek intellectual heritage for understanding the uniqueness of Christianity is something we’ve previously addressed in a post related to the work of Jaroslav Pelikan here. Manoussakis points out how the notion of a human person as a relational reality is something that developed within the Greek literary and philosophical traditions. In fact, relation (between persons) was so crucial to the notion of a person that early Greek literary texts used the plural (prosopa) almost exclusively even when referring to individuals. What’s more, the antonym of person (prosopon) is atomon. A-tomon can be etymologically parsed as that which cannot be cut any further. The same implication is embedded within the English word individual (that which cannot be divided anymore, an atom).

“If life is an illusion it's a pretty painful one,” says the author of The Elementary Particles.

The flip side of Manoussakis: “If life is an illusion it’s a pretty painful one,” says the nihilistic but compassionate author of The Elementary Particles.

All of this reminds me of Michel Houellebecq’s contemporary classic novel of social fragmentation The Elementary Particles. Even though the novel charts the free-fall of the two main characters, who are half-brothers, into different forms of deadly isolation Houllebecq leaves threads like these for his readers to hang onto, “Love binds, and it binds forever. Good binds while evil unravels. Separation is another word for evil; it is also another word for deceit.” Hell as I’ve suggested elsewhere is the life of elementary particles. This insight seems to be true for Houllebecq the author, even though his characters never achieve it.

The novelistic dictum is at bottom in concert with the implications of the Incarnation, our fundamental relation to God, as explained by Manoussakis:

“The urgency for particularity, however, was forced upon philosophy by an event that lay entirely outside its proper scope. As a number of studies, both old and new, have shown, the thought of the classical World lacked the the notion of the uniqueness of the human person. The cruel Spartan law which demanded that every baby born with some physical or or mental defect be discarded at the outskirts of the city was consistent with the classical mentality. The classical worldview was turned upside down in the wake of the Incarnation. The Christian dogma of the ‘Word made flesh’ bestowed upon any person an infinite value–or rather, the value of the infinite.”

It is as if the relationality built into the Greek language needed the Gospel to bring out its most radical implications. And the practical implications of this passage continue to be fundamental for the most controversial contemporary debates such as abortion or euthanasia. Ultimately, the task comes down to facilitating a parallax shift from talk about individuals to talk about persons.

Theology is not a spectator sport. You might just have to change your life.

The classic film Seconds poignantly highlights this need for personal engagement in a final tragic monologue before the protagonist’s death:

“I couldn’t help it, Charlie. I had to find out where I went wrong. The years I’ve spent trying to get all the things I was told were important – that I was supposed to want! Things! Not people… or meaning. Just things. And California was the same. They made the decisions for me all over again and they were the same things, really. It’s going to be different from now on. A new face and a name. I’ll do the rest. I know it’s going to be different. I suppose you do too.”

[Its opening sequence is filled with some of the most hellish images of fragmentation caught on film.]

Brother Roger Saying What Everybody Knows

everybody knows

everybody knows

[For those of you landing on my home page and looking for my recent posts on literature: please scroll down after you read this first.]

I haven’t had a real vacation in ages. So you can understand why I’m a little envious of this Frenchman driving an Italian car that was spotted in Germany. There is one more picture and commentary in Italian here.

These charming pictures almost immediately evoked the following lyrics from Leonard Cohen‘s “Everybody Knows” in my mind:

“…And everybody knows that you’re in trouble
Everybody knows what youve been through
From the bloody cross on top of Calvary
To the beach of Malibu
Everybody knows it’s coming apart
Take one last look at this Sacred Heart
Before it blows
And everybody knows…”

[Below: That moment when you realize a 70 y/o man blows everything you hear on the radio out of the water]

Yesterday was the eighth anniversary of Brother Roger‘s untimely death.

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“The more you draw energies from prayer, the more you will discover a capacity to build together with others,” says Brother Roger in the Essential Writings.

The following words from his Essential Writings are in harmony with Cohen’s struggles and relate (perhaps more than tangentially?) to the chapel on wheels:

“The more you draw energies from prayer, the more you will discover a capacity to build together with others. Can you sense that struggle and contemplation have one and the same source? If you pray, it is out of love. If you struggle, taking on responsibilities to make the world more fit to live in, that too is for love.”

Requiescat in pacem:

A True Opium for the People is a Belief in Nothingness After Death!

Hans Memling, Last Jugdment, stolen by pirates bought by the city of Gdansk, PL: Hell Ain't What it Used to Be

Hell ain’t what it used to be!  (Hans Memling, Last Judgment, stolen by pirates & bought by the city of Gdansk, Poland. YESSS.)

When was the last time any of you (who don’t attend fundamentalist churches) heard a good and theologically sound hellfire sermon? The last, no the only one, I’ve ever heard was in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Here it is in its glorious entirety if you need a memory refresher (BE AFRAID!):

Over the last two centuries Hell has been banished from the Catholic imagination more effectively than Adam and Eve from Eden. I suppose the last blows came sometime during the long 19th century dominated by Napoleon, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and Feuerbach.

The infernal trenches of World War I gave hellfire a slight rebound. The whole messy experience cast hell from oblivion back into our world, but not the underworld. It became a truism to say that people not infrequently make hell on earth. The concentration camps and gulags of World War II firmly entrenched hell upon the face of the earth.

Now, to some extent, we also still half-heartedly believe that sin is its own punishment. But why can’t Hell be both the state after life and a state in this present life? I’m all for a Catholic both/and here.

Now, you might ask yourself, why is the author obsessing about hell? Reading the headlines has left me in a bit of a foul mood. Consider what the AP recently said about poverty in the United States:

“Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream.”

Four out of five is not a misprint as far as I know. It has unfortunately checked out on all the searches I’ve done so far. I’m still hoping it’s wrong, after all, this is supposed to be one of the richest countries in the world. Then again, our family of five has always been well below the poverty line, so it’s a little comforting to know we’re not alone.

Then this picture showed up on my social media radar as if to drive the point home:

"A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death--the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged." --Czeslaw Milosz

“A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death–the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.” –Czeslaw Milosz

I also happened to be reading (because who doesn’t read five things at time?) the book-length dialogue between the then Cardinal Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka entitled On Heaven and Earth. There the future Pope Francis forcefully reminds us of the close tie between authentic religion and social justice:

“Hence the [classical] liberal conception of religion being allowed only in places of worship, and the elimination of religion outside of it, is not convincing. There are actions that are consistently done in places of worship, like the adoration, praise and worship of God. But there are others that are done outside, like the entire social dimension of religion. It starts in a community encounter with God, who is near and walks with His people, and is developed over the course of one’s life with ethical, religious, and fraternal guidelines, among others. There is something that regulates the conduct of others: justice. I believe that one who worships God has, through that experience, a mandate of justice toward his brothers.”

One should not forget that the mandate toward social justice is solely a Judeo-Christian invention. The pay raises of Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman, coupled with the poverty awaiting most of us, signal a return to the much more cruel gods of Graeco-Roman religion. Whether we like it or not, we can look forward to a massive, but unintentional, experiment in comparative religion. It’s unavoidable, since I don’t foresee CEOs suddenly having epiphanies like this one:

Finally, these perfidies of American betrayal and greed bring us to my dissertation topic (what else?), the poet Czeslaw Milosz. After you read a passage from one of his works below you will agree he also happened to have a finely-honed feel for theological reflection.  The following reflection, which comes from the section “The Discreet Charm of Nihilism” (props to Bunuel) in the collection Road-Side Dog, turns Marx upside down, or at least shakes up a well-known phrase of his real good.

“Religion, opium for the people. To those suffering pain, humiliation, illness, and serfdom, it promised a reward in an afterlife. And now we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death–the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.”

It's a dog's life.

It’s a dog’s life.

You might object by saying that you can be a nice lad or lass (even point out Sweden as a sociological examplewithout the afterlife and the threat of judgment hanging over your head. But Sweet Viking Jesus would tell you otherwise. Swedish ethics are influenced by revelation through and through, as is the rest of the West, and everyone influenced by globalism, meaning… pretty much everyone.

What’s more, those who aren’t believers (Swedes aren’t the only ones. Jag är ledsen!), but hang on to the Christian ethic of protecting the weak and the victims, are probably the worst fideists of all!

They are embedded in something they can’t justify, something whose origins they’ve willfully obscured, but deep down they know that empty phrases about Gilgamesh, Odin, or Kant won’t get them anywhere.

So, given where the world is heading, our eviscerated public square, and who is at the helm… how about we pray that there’s a Hell?

There is a caveat: nobody gets a free pass.

The musical coda is a song from Bill Mallonee that first got me thinking seriously about these issues way back when.

Eternity in a Dunghill: Infinity & Perspective

Two spirits preside over the book: Alberti, the Renaissance author on art and architecture, whose passionate interest in perspective and point of view offers a key to modernity; and Nicolaus Cusanus, the fifteenth-century cardinal, whose work shows that such interest cannot be divorced from speculations on the infinity of God. The title Infinity and Perspective connects the two to each other and to the shape of modernity.

Publisher blurb: Two spirits preside over the book: Alberti, the Renaissance author on art and architecture, whose passionate interest in perspective and point of view offers a key to modernity; and Nicolaus Cusanus, the fifteenth-century cardinal, whose work shows that such interest cannot be divorced from speculations on the infinity of God. The title Infinity and Perspective connects the two to each other and to the shape of modernity.

You’ve no doubt encountered Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence.” It begins with:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

I’ve stepped into a variation upon this theme. It appears in the remarkable work, Infinity and Perspective, by Karsten Harries (who seems to be a former student of Louis Dupre). Take in the full glory of my serendipity with this photo and caption tag-team :

" . . . God's creative power is fully present in every thing: even in the tree we were considering, even in a dunghill, God is fully present." --Karsten Harries

” . . . God’s creative power is fully present in every thing: even in the tree we were considering, even in a dunghill, God is fully present.” –Karsten Harries

In some ways this statement makes Timothy Treadwell’s nature mysticism more palatable and orthodox than it seemed when I first watched Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man (“It’s her life!”):

Now, Infinity and Pespective roots the origins of (post-)modernity and its critique in the thought of Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464). Harries notes how this is due to a shift in metaphor usage (one that encourages my mash-up above) that occurs in the writings of Cusanus (not Copernicus [Kopernik in the Polish original], not Galileo, not Bruno):

“But what about Cusanus’s transference of this metaphor [of an infinite sphere whose center is nowhere and whose circumference is everywhere] from God to the cosmos? I suspect that to Cusanus it seemed only obvious. As a Christian thinker he believed that everything created has its origin and measure in God. As he puts it in book 2, chapter 2 [of On Learned Ignorance] “every created thing is, as it were, a finite infinity or a created god” (II.2, p. 93). Our tree, for example, is such a finite infinity. Like every part of creation it shares, if Cusanus is right, in infinity. It is a contracted infinity.”

Clerics, always up to no good. I recently read one of them also invented the fax machine. Anathema sit!

Clerics: always up to no good. I recently read one of them also invented the fax machine. Anathema sit!

He continues:

“Similarly Cusanus understands the universe as such a finite infinite: like God in its infinity, unlike God in that instead of divine unity, we now have a multiplicity, a manifold spread out in space and time. If both oneness and difference are accepted, not only will the metaphor’s transference from God to the cosmos seem justified; but, since the metaphor joins extension and infinity, it can be said that it does greater justice to the cosmos than to God, who is beyond extension.”

How much more exciting is this than our heresy of the definite, bounded, and measurable?  It is exemplified by words frequently attributed to Robert F. Kennedy (Eternal rest grant unto him!), “What gets measured, matters.”

All in all, I’d like to return to the Orientalization of Poland as Catholiclandia sometime. I’ve already gestured toward my native realm’s “finite infinity” in posts here, and in the comments section of a post here. Might as well start the endless hermeneutic, probably tomorrow.

Top 10 Theology Books of the Last 10 Years (That I’ve Read)

Here is a list of what I consider to be the ten most important theology-related books (I’ve read) of the past ten years. They’re in no particular order (kinda). If given another chance to make this list I’d probably choose (mostly) the same books, or I’d make the list longer. The books are accompanied by publisher blurbs, which should explain why these books are so important. I’d like to see what your top 10/10 list looks like. Feel free to submit one in the comment section of this post. Please order books via the links provided here if you’d like to help put some diapers on little Rosman butts!

There's plenty of theology in there.

There’s plenty of theology in there.

The Modern Philosophical Revolution breaks new ground by demonstrating the continuity of European philosophy from Kant to Derrida. Much of the literature on European philosophy has emphasized the breaks that have occurred in the course of two centuries of thinking. But as David Walsh argues, such a reading overlooks the extent to which Kant, Hegel, and Schelling were already engaged in the turn toward existence as the only viable mode of philosophizing. Where many similar studies summarize individual thinkers, this book provides a framework for understanding the relationships between them. Walsh thus dispels much of the confusion that assails readers when they are only exposed to the bewildering range of positions taken by the philosophers he examines. His book serves as an indispensable guide to a philosophical [and theological] tradition that continues to have resonance in the post-modern world.

Hug an atheist today.

Hug an atheist today.

In this stimulating book, Denying and Disclosing God, distinguished theologian Michael J. Buckley, S.J., reflects upon the career of atheism from the beginnings of modernity to the present day. Extending the discussion he began in his highly acclaimed At the Origins of Modern Atheism, the author argues that atheism as ideology was generated neither by the rise of hostile sciences in the Renaissance nor by the medieval and inferential theology of Thomas Aquinas.

Professor Buckley locates the origins of atheistic consciousness in modernity’s bracketing of interpersonal religious experience as of no cognitive value. Atheism was generated by the very strategies formulated to counter it. This dialectical character of modern atheism suggests the further possibility of the negation of this negation, thereby bringing about the retrieval of the religious in form and content along with a new admission of the cogency of religious experience.

Lovely.

Lovely.

In seven essays that draw from metaphysics, phenomenology, literature, Christological theology, and Biblical exegesis,Marion sketches several prolegomena to a future fuller thinking and saying of love’s paradoxical reasons, exploring evil, freedom, bedazzlement, and the loving gaze; crisis, absence, and knowing.

Swirly things and a cross.

Swirly things and a cross.

Theopolitical Imagination is a critique of modern Western civilization, including contemporary concerns of consumerism, capitalism, globalization, and poverty, from the perspective of a believing Catholic.

Responding to Enlightenment and Postmodernist views of the social and economic realities of our time, Cavanaugh engages with contemporary concerns–consumerism, late capitalism, globalization, poverty–in a way reminiscent of Rowan Williams (Lost Icons), Nicholas Boyle (Who Are We Now?) and Michel de Certeau. “Consumption of the Eucharist,” he argues, “consumes one into the narrative of the pilgrim City of God, whose reach extends beyond the global to embrace all times and places.” He develops the theme of the Eucharist as the basis for Christian resistance to the violent disciplines of state, civil society and globalization.

Trust me, this book is big.

Trust me, this book is big.

In The God of Covenant and Creation Larry Chapp develops a true ‘theology of nature’ that begins and ends with strictly confessional Christian warrants. He begins by showing how modern naturalism arose out of a theological matrix and how it lost its way specifically as naturalism as soon as it rejected that theological matrix. Indeed, modern naturalism is not so much a-theological as it is a rival theology to that of the Church. All claims of ultimacy, including those of natural science, have inherently theological orientations embedded within them – however unconsciously. Therefore, what confronts us in the modern world is not so much a choice between a non-theological naturalism and a theological naturalism. Rather, what confronts us is a choice between two rival theologies – one agnostic and a-theistic in its implications while the other is revelocentric and Christian.

Not for the birds.

Not for the birds.

This landmark work presents prayer in all its richness and variety throughout history, across traditions, and around the globe. In a thorough and fascinating look at this spiritual practice, two of today’s most versatile and admired authorities on religion probe the language and fruits of prayer, its controversies, and its prospects for the future. With a focus on extraordinary stories of lives changed by prayer and on great works of literature and art inspired by it, Prayer: A History promises to be the standard on the subject for readers of all faiths.

Empty throne.

Empty throne.

Why has power in the West assumed the form of an “economy,” that is, of a government of men and things? If power is essentially government, why does it need glory, that is, the ceremonial and liturgical apparatus that has always accompanied it?

In the early centuries of the Church, in order to reconcile monotheism with God’s threefold nature, the doctrine of Trinity was introduced in the guise of an economy of divine life. It was as if the Trinity amounted to nothing more than a problem of managing and governing the heavenly house and the world. Agamben shows that, when combined with the idea of providence, this theological-economic paradigm unexpectedly lies at the origin of many of the most important categories of modern politics, from the democratic theory of the division of powers to the strategic doctrine of collateral damage, from the invisible hand of Smith’s liberalism to ideas of order and security.

But the greatest novelty to emerge from The Kingdom and the Glory is that modern power is not only government but also glory, and that the ceremonial, liturgical, and acclamatory aspects that we have regarded as vestiges of the past actually constitute the basis of Western power.

King Artur?

King Artur?

How does worship work? How exactly does liturgical formation shape people? And how does the Spirit marshal the dynamics of such transformation? In the second of James K. A. Smith’s three-volume theology of culture, the author expands and deepens the analysis of cultural liturgies and Christian worship he developed in his acclaimed Desiring the Kingdom. Drawing on the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu, Imagining the Kingdom helps readers understand and appreciate the bodily basis of habit formation and how liturgical formation–both “secular” and Christian–affects one’s fundamental orientation to the world. Worship “works” by leveraging one’s body to transform his or her imagination, and it does this through stories understood on a register that is closer to body than mind. This has critical implications for thinking about the nature of Christian formation and the role of the arts in Christian mission.

Hurts so good.

Hurts so good.

In this classic treatise on Christian spirituality, Rowan Williams takes us with a new eye along a road marked out by Paul, John, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and finally to Luther and St. John of the Cross. The Wound of Knowledge is a penetrating psychological and intellectual analysis of Christian spirituality.

Monkey see, monkey don't.

Monkey see, monkey don’t.

According to British scholar Conor Cunningham, the debate today between religion and evolution has been hijacked by extremists: on one side stand fundamentalist believers who reject evolution outright; on the opposing side are fundamentalist atheists who claim that Darwin’s theory rules out the possibility of God. Both sides are dead wrong, argues Cunningham, who is at once a Christian and a firm believer in the theory of evolution. In Darwin’s Pious Idea Cunningham puts forth a trenchant, compelling case for both creation and evolution, drawing skillfully on an array of philosophical, theological, historical, and scientific sources to buttress his arguments.

Glowing blurbs all over this one.

Glowing blurbs all over the back of this one.

And 1.  I’ll be reading this soon:

While philosophy believes it is impossible to have an experience of God without the senses, theology claims that such an experience is possible, though potentially idolatrous. In this engagingly creative book, John Panteleimon Manoussakis ends the impasse by proposing an aesthetic allowing for a sensuous experience of God that is not subordinated to imposed categories or concepts. In God After Metaphysics Manoussakis draws upon the theological traditions of the Eastern Church, including patristic and liturgical resources, to build a theological aesthetic founded on the inverted gaze of icons, the augmented language of hymns, and the reciprocity of touch. Manoussakis explores how a relational interpretation of being develops a fuller and more meaningful view of the phenomenology of religious experience beyond metaphysics and onto-theology.

Nota Bene: Cosmos The In Lost also features a top 10 list of books about heaven and hell.

Musical coda:

Disconsolate Karłowicz & Dostoevsky Tarry with Theological Corpses

Hans Holbein, Dead Christ, 1522. Dostoevsky's inspiration in the Idiot.

Hans Holbein, Dead Christ, 1522. Dostoevsky’s inspiration in the Idiot.

My esteemed friend over at Catholic Culture and Society, a blog about organic Catholicism, has been chiding my obsession with the negative aspects of life.

Why not look at a happy integrated family, or the beauty of God’s creation? Why think about violence, death, and perversion?

I confess to writing mostly about the latter.  For example, I have written about Nowosielski’s dark iconic vision here, or Kristeva’s obsession with the Baroque here, or dirty Rabelaisian Catholicism here and here,  or even Cromwell as Karl Hungus here.

I talk abut these because they are aspects of my own experience that need to be integrated. You should also remember that I come from a country, Poland, that lost roughly one-sixth of its population during World War II.

What follows below is a florilegium that will hopefully suggest Manichean tendencies (of which I’ve been accused) aren’t the only thing behind these posts.

“‘The thought steps in, whether one likes it or no, that death is so terrible and so powerful, that even He who conquered it in His miracles during life was unable to triumph over it at the last. He who called to Lazarus, ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ and the dead man lived—He was now Himself a prey to nature and death. Nature appears to one, looking at this picture, as some huge, implacable, dumb monster; or still better—a stranger simile—some enormous mechanical engine of modern days which has seized and crushed and swallowed up a great and invaluable Being, a Being worth nature and all her laws, worth the whole earth, which was perhaps created merely for the sake of the advent of that Being.

‘This blind, dumb, implacable, eternal, unreasoning force is well shown in the picture, and the absolute subordination of all men and things to it is so well expressed that the idea unconsciously arises in the mind of anyone who looks at it. All those faithful people who were gazing at the cross and its mutilated occupant must have suffered agony of mind that evening; for they must have felt that all their hopes and almost all their faith had been shattered at a blow. They must have separated in terror and dread that night, though each perhaps carried away with him one great thought which was never eradicated from his mind for ever afterwards. If this great Teacher of theirs could have seen Himself after the Crucifixion, how could He have consented to mount the Cross and to die as He did? This thought also comes into the mind of the man who gazes at this picture. I thought of all this by snatches probably between my attacks of delirium—for an hour and a half or so before Colia’s departure.

‘Can there be an appearance of that which has no form? And yet it seemed to me, at certain moments, that I beheld in some strange and impossible form, that dark, dumb, irresistibly powerful, eternal force.”

—Dostoevsky, The Idiot, trans. Eva Martin.

Mantegna, Lamentation of Christ, c. 1480.

Mantegna, Lamentation of Christ, c. 1480.

“Holy Saturday. The drama of Holy Week dies down for a moment. However, our thoughts race ahead, because they are hesitant about stopping near scenes of mourning, at physically repelling pietas, or by the corpse of Christ that has turned blue (as Mantegna saw it during a moment of religious dread). It is difficult to stay with a dead God, if only because his very death negates the logic of all consolations—doubt strikes not only the object of hope, but also its very possibility. We run away. Even though the tortured body of Christ rests in its grave, we live in the inevitable arrival of Sunday. The encouraging signs: rolled away stone, empty grave, angels, glory! It’s as if the final battle with the gates of hell is already behind us. But why does God wait nonetheless? Why does he leave us at the grave? Why is the One who is capable of rebuilding the temple in three days incapable of rebuilding it immediately?

The temptation to run away from the silence of Holy Saturday is not new. These same waters—disgust with the foolishness of an actual incarnation and an actual sacrifice—water the Docetist heresy. In the apocryphal Gospel of Bartholomew (dated back to the third century) the harrowing of hell occurs already on Friday, even before the deposition from the cross.  However this only makes Christ’s tomb into a mere theatrical decoration, and Saturday a problem of rhetoric not philosophy. I believe that Irenaeus of Lyons, who thought the Savior was in hell from his death until his resurrection, has the backing of some weighty theological reasons.”

—Dariusz Karlowicz, Koniec snu Konstantyna [The End of Constantine’s Dream], my own translation.

Acquainted with the Night: The Art of Jerzy Nowosielski (An IMAGE Journal Essay)

What follows is an essay I published with IMAGE Journal with the help of the Starmach Gallery in Krakow (You too can own a Nowosielski!).

IMAGE needs your generous emergency donations more than ever. They are in serious financial trouble through no fault of their own.  I know many of you read IMAGE, so please step up.

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Jerzy Nowosielski. Wings of the Archangel, 1947. Oil on canvas.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
A luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

—Robert Frost

Lately I’ve become acquainted with the night coursing through my veins. Like any good diabetic, I have to draw murky drops of blood several times daily to measure my sugar levels. This all began with a hospital visit some seven months ago. That was when I discovered my bloody secret. Around midnight I was led into a darkened hospital room which would be my home for the next week. My two octogenarian companions lay sleeping. Their diapers filled our temporary camp with a smell that outdid anything the corpse of Father Zosima could have emitted.

You might wonder what a grad-student-for-life does in situations like these. He reads this in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science: “After Buddha was dead people showed his shadow for centuries afterwards in a cave—an immense frightful shadow. God is dead: but as the human race is constituted, there will perhaps be caves for millenniums yet, in which people will show his shadow.” The Prussian was probably right. The shadow of God has accompanied me since time out of mind, yet I continually reach for his light—never overcoming the shadowy impression that I’m neither quite wrong, nor really ever right.

The Bible’s sacred history is typically associated with the metaphor of light—the blinding light of revelation banishing darkness. But what, someone might ask, does revelation have to do with the murky ambiguity of so much human experience? For many of us, the light of revelation seems to leave the dim regions of our lives untouched. The paintings of Jerzy Nowosielski address the shadowy, opaque dimensions of experience. His art proposes a spectral shift in our reading of the biblical story—and therefore of our own stories. Nowosielski’s paintings seem to imply that there is something deeply human, and therefore perhaps also divine, about the darker aspects of our existence. No wonder one Polish art critic called him “the most secular religious artist and the greatest theologian among secular artists.”

But before we look at his paintings, we should dim the lights theologically. If we look at the foundational events of the Bible, the ones that guide the lives of Jews and Christians, we cannot help but notice the obscure register that reigns there: God appears to be a creature of the night, hidden when he reveals himself, seen “as through a glass, darkly.” One of the first things we read is, “Darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” A bit later, the foundation of the Israelite religion is built upon Moses receiving the tablets from a God clad in a cloud of darkness. During the Exodus, God’s people are saved by the dark waters which consume Pharaoh’s soldiers. Think also of Jesus in Mary’s dark womb, the dark night of the nativity, the midday darkness falling upon the land during the crucifixion, the darkness of the tomb and the descent into hell; add to it all the blindness of Paul en route to Damascus. I could multiply the examples here (for example, the Apocalypse, a dark unveiling indeed), but I’ll leave that up to you.

The darkness of the Bible is murky but enriching, a bit like a blood transfusion—and the paintings and icons of Jerzy Nowosielski share this quality. Nowosielski inscribes the canvas with the full range of our fears, disappointments, cruelties, and passions (in both senses of the word). “We must honestly admit to ourselves that we find ourselves on the edge of an immense metaphysical black hole,” he says. Yet something more is going on here: he dips his brush into these dark regions and then proceeds to mix them with a transfusion from the clouded streams around the Sacred Heart. Echoing Dostoyevsky’s dictum that “Beauty will save the world,” he writes: “Everything will capsize into the other side. Only art will help us carry our reality onto that other side. Art will save us.” Grace does not cross nature out; even at the general ressurection, we will still bear the marks of our humiliating sufferings, but then they will be accepted and transfigured—just as Christ still had the marks of his passion after his resurrection.

When I think of abstract painting (with the possible exceptions of Congdon, Kandinsky, and Rothko), I think of a personalized vision that dims all connections with reality. Personally, the schizophrenic solipsism of abstract art can be so bleak that it makes me want to stop reproducing and consider suicide.

So how did somebody like Nowosielski, who trained to become an Orthodox monk and icon writer during World War II in a Kiev monastery, first come to public attention with a series of abstract paintings? These works took the theologically saturated Polish art scene by storm during a 1948 exhibition in Krakow. A long-time resident of that city recently told me that the two poles of Sunday recreation that year were the Dominican church and the gallery where Nowosielski and his like-minded friends, the Krakow Group, displayed their paintings.

Nowosielski said that he lost his faith sometime during the Second World War. Though he never systematically addressed why it happened, he came to see that loss as a religiously fruitful experience. It led him to a state where “there is no metaphysical reality, which in essence is a highly metaphysical state, when the consciousness hits some absolute rock-bottom.” For Nowosielski, the way down turned out to be the same as grappling in the dark for the way up. “I started seeking the metaphysical roots of painting in this state of certain uncertainty about what I’m doing in art and where I stand. That’s when my ‘abstract painting’ was born,” he says. His statement echoes the Eastern Orthodox practice of apophatic mysticism (known in the West as the Via Negativa). In this tradition one begins by “cleaning the house” of one’s mind, negating all images of God and letting go of all ties to the world. Paradoxically, the practice has a positive and practical aim: clearing our minds of the concepts which screen us from the immanent energies of the transcendent God.

In the 1947 painting Wing of the Archangel, playful, wing-like dark blue triangles poke through in several locations, seeming to push out of the blue-gray areas on the sides and bottom of the canvas [see front cover]. This activity creates an expanding, luminous area of subtly variegated blue calm in the center portion. The orange rectangle and triangle just to the right of the middle emanate a sense of controlled passion.

Theology aside, abstract works like these were in part a rebellion against the mandatory Socialist Realist style imposed by the Soviets, kitschy art that papered over the gray reality of life in the Warsaw Bloc after World War II, a land overwhelmed by memories of atrocities and beaten into the ground by brutal foreign domination that would continue for four more decades. Then again, history is always theological. If there is one thing we learn from Nowosielski’s art it’s that there is no clear distinction between the sacred and the profane, believer and atheist. Everything can and must be taken into the eschatological realism proposed by the resurrection. As Karl Barth loved to say, God’s “no” also contains his ever greater “yes.” Nowosielski continued to follow his abstract intuitions throughout his career and later came to see them within a theological horizon. “The angel is abstract painting,” he once said—albeit sometimes a fallen angel.

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Plate 1. Jerzy Nowosielski. Woman in Darkness, 1971. Oil on canvas. 31 ½ x 47 ¼ inches.

Nowosielski’s love for painting the female body saves him from an abstract, heavenly escapism. He has painted sportswomen, housewives, women fully dressed, women in front of mirrors, women near windows, half-nudes, nudes, Madonnas, women in the ambivalent situations of ancient mystery rites, even women undergoing torture. As regards the last three categories, he once said that “art must always be suspect, because it redeems hell.” He meant all of his art, but what subject needs more redeeming than our representation of the female body, reproduced endlessly and demeaningly on billboards and internet sites? Something of this predicament is present in Nowosielski’s Woman in Darkness (1971), a work that suggests a coming to terms with painful secrets or fears about the future [see Plate 1]. The painting uses a dividing wall reminiscent of icon painting or the Stations of the Cross. Here, however, the boundaries seem permeable, intertwined. The bodies participate in a circling exchange, like the perichoresis of the Trinity. The ocher body is either screaming at or reconciling herself to the part of herself in blue, divided from her by the deep gray-blue wall. At the same time, some ochre part of herself seems to pass through that wall. She is merging with or emerging from the blue aspects of herself, which are turned away from us in a gesture of shame or despair.

A bold aspect of many of Nowosielski’s secular paintings is how they resemble icons. The rumor is that Eastern Orthodox faithful often complain that they cannot pray with Nowosielski’s actual icons, because his work consciously breaks so many conventions. I must admit that I would have no qualms about praying with one of Nowosielski’s nudes. I believe him when he says, “When it comes to my so-called secular paintings I am convinced that my theology of the body expressed there ‘speaks’ about problems similar to the ones expressed by the pope in words.” (He refers here to the late John Paul II’s collection of 129 Wednesday audiences on the theology of the body in which he says, among other things, that sexuality can potentially be an image of the Trinity.)

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Plate 3. Jerzy Nowosielski. Black Half-nude, 1971. Oil on canvas. 39 x 32 ¼ inches.

Compare the theology implicit in Nowosielski’s Black Half-nude (1971) [see Plate 3] with any of the nudes by the consensus nude painter par excellence, Lucian Freud. Freud’s cadaverous nudes, like the rest of his paintings, seem to be overwhelmed by the weight of sin, which they bear reluctantly like the tree which bore the weight of Judas’s body. For example, search for the painting of the pregnant Kate Moss entitled Naked Portrait. What should be an annunciation of life, Freud turns into a bloodless and dispiriting vivisection, despite his almost Polaroid realism. On the other hand, Nowosielski’s Black Half-nude is all the more real for all the elements of iconic abstraction it employs. Thanks to this, there is a gravity to the body which I can only compare with Michelangelo’s Pietà. Then come all the theological quotations: The white towel around her hips resembles a perizonium (the cloth usually worn by Christ on crucifixes). She sits on a heavenly azure seat, an iconic convention of both East and West in early Christian mosaics representing the coronation of the Virgin.

The cloth around her face creates a mix of theological and secular ambiguities. It could be Veronica’s veil with an imprint of a suffering face, invisible to us, or maybe the woman is taking off her blouse. In a secular inversion of da Messina’s Annunciation, perhaps she is anticipating a sexual encounter with the person facing her: the viewer. While enunciating a theology of the body, the painting playfully breaks with the iconic convention of concentrating upon the face and eyes. To paraphrase an Image editorial [from Issue 41], if we cannot incarnate God in our blood, guts, shit, piss, semen, saliva, bellies, knees, and breasts—he vanishes into the ether. Then again, our conventional iconic expectations are not completely denied: her torso, breasts, and shapely stomach are arranged to resemble a face smiling back at us. I don’t know if they’re telling us to change our lives, but that ambiguity is just how Nowosielski would have it. Finally, there is the orange and yellow glow around her, which at first looks like the neon of a red-light district. But the glow also resembles what Pavel Florensky called “admixtureless light”—that is, gold, the color of the backgrounds of icons. And yet, iconic conventions are again turned inside out here. The background is black, and black penetrates most of the body. According to the painter, this mixing of boundaries is part of the plan of salvation, and therefore art: “There is a mysterious bond between sin and holiness. It can be partly seen with the aid of art. Eros illuminates matter, but this cannot be described with words. Some small part of it can be painted.” Then again, the connection between religious art and eroticism has been part of the tradition for a long time, running from the Song of Songs to any number of Saint Sebastians (most notably Mantegna’s), Bernini’s sculptures, and Donne’s poetry, to name just a few examples.

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Plate 4. Jerzy Nowosielski. Mountainous Landscape, 1955. Oil on canvas. 25 ½ x 30 ¾ inches.

Despite his redemptive vision, Nowosielski shows a marked pessimism in his landscapes. This is not because he has any distaste for nature. Quite the contrary. Mountainous Landscape (1955) is typical of his complex understanding of the natural world [see Plate 4]. This landscape has less to do with saccharine Hudson River School canvases than T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland—that is, the metaphysical black hole applied to the natural world. The scorched brown of the mountain turns into black. The green pasture is infected by a mold-like brown. The only unspoiled element is the little blue lake at the top of the mountain. A tiny abstraction built into the scene, integrated yet standing apart, it is a small window of hope. From a purely aesthetic vantage point, there is as much alienation here as in all of de Chirico’s claustrophobic cityscapes (which employ similar compositional structures). But why?

The real subject of the painting can be interpreted as absence. Nowosielski’s theoretical writings are especially helpful here. Asking most modern painters to explain the worldview behind their works is usually as fruitful as asking an art critic to paint something: vanity of vanities. But Nowosielski’s writings and paintings co-inhere, one interpreting the other. Poland is a nation where meat is served at almost every meal. Pretty much the only vegetarians are practicing Catholics on Fridays—and this despite a thriving Franciscan community. In this context, one of the more controversial aspects of Nowosielski’s writings is his outrage at our instrumentalization of the animal world. Orthodoxy is historically more sensitive to the suffering of animals and puts an emphasis on the salvation of the whole world: man, animal, vegetable, and rock. Even so, statements like these from Nowosielski have caused considerable outrage among both professional Catholic and Orthodox theologians: “We all participate in the suffering and death of Christ. Animals also participate, as does the whole of nature. For example, the Paschal Man is not named a lamb as a symbol; it is not a symbol! The suffering of animals is the real suffering of God.”

Mountainous Landscape shows us an apocalyptic nightmare of a world without animals—a world after an environmental Armageddon which might not be that far off. In the negative sense, this landscape is also in the image of fallen man, much like the lonely city-wrecks of de Chirico. It is a prophetic lament for a devastated creation and for a humanity unconsciously losing a salvific opportunity through an ecological crisis. The antidote to all of this could be an embrace of the Christian roots of the environmental movement, which cannot and should not be divorced from the doctrine of creation. Rid of its current quasi-soteriological and Manichean tendencies, environmentalism might become more appealing to a wider group of people. Its historic connections with a more generous worldview are there, if one is willing to look. The green and the sustainable-community movements were heavily influenced by the book Small Is Beautiful, published by Catholic economist E.F. Schumacher during the energy crisis of 1973. And there are ecumenical patron saints of conservation waiting in the wings: Seraphim of Sarov, Francis of Assisi and, more recently, Wendell Berry.

Plate 2. Jerzy Nowosielski. City Landscape, 1959. Oil on canvas. 23 x 32 inches.

Plate 2. Jerzy Nowosielski. City Landscape, 1959. Oil on canvas. 23 x 32 inches.

City Landscape (1959) reverses the schema, showing an urban setting as a desert [see Plate 2]. The streets are sparsely peopled, the trams seem more symbolic than real, scantily clad women (or are they mannequins?) stand behind windows on either side of the street, and a possible flasher or drunkard in a yellow coat walks briskly away from the viewer, as if he has something to hide. Townhouses oppressively press upon the earthy brown of the streets, and at the top of the painting, the tram tracks fork into the shape of a snake’s flickering tongue. The man in white pants and black coat, despite his dandy hat, has downcast eyes and keeps his hands in his pockets in a reserved, modest, self-aware, almost pious gesture. Is he thumbing rosary beads in his pocket? The colors of his outfit are probably not incidental, as a mysterious drama of good and evil plays itself out at the edges of the painting. Why shouldn’t we see this man as a modern-day Saint Anthony, fighting temptation, loneliness, and maybe a hangover in an urban desert? The strange women and the drunkard-flasher seem to fit this motif, and the trams slither like demythologized serpents.

All of this is seen from above, as if from a bird’s-eye, or God’s-eye view. Nowosielski frequently uses this perspective in otherwise lonely and bleak paintings of cities. It forms the impression of a downward movement toward the earth, as if we are seeing through the eyes of one of Wim Wenders’s angels or the “descending Dove” of Charles Williams. Madeleine Delbrel, sometimes called the French Dorothy Day, captures this iconic vision of the modern urban desert better than anyone I have read: “In those crowds marked by the sins of hatred, lust, and drunkenness, we find a desert of silence, and we recollect ourselves with great ease, so that God can ring out his name: Vox clamans in deserto.” Elsewhere she describes the intersection of this desert of urban sin with the dark ray of divine love in words borrowed avant la lettre from Nowosielski: “Our Christian life is a pathway between two abysses. One is the measurable abyss of the world’s rejections of God. The other is the unfathomable abyss of the mysteries of God. We will come to see that we are walking the adjoining line where these two abysses intersect. And we will thus understand how we are mediators and why we are mediators.”

There are chronological and intellectual reasons to save a discussion of Nowosielski’s explicitly religious works for last. First of all, he regained his faith fairly late in his life and creative career, some time in the late 1950s. Also, his journey back to the church, and to icons, was quite original. Surprisingly, the importance of modern art cannot be underestimated here. “Who is responsible for my being this way? Certainly my fate, but also experience, the lessons of surrealism,” he says. Surrealism proved to be a liberating experience for Nowosielski, because it opened him up to viewing art of all periods, especially Orthodox iconography, as a living and anarchically liberating reality. This freed him from the widespread prejudices of nineteenth-century historicism, which saw art simplistically as a march of progress that consigned all so-called “archaic” forms to the dustbin of history. The spiritual pedigree of the modern avant-garde is well attested theoretically and artistically by Kandinsky (among others), a Russian who drew inspiration from icons.

Ever since the late fifties, Nowosielski has consistently produced sacral art of the highest quality and inspiration. However, he had greater aspirations: “From childhood on I dreamed about designing a sacred space. I worked with architects, made polychromes, but these were just fragments. I wanted to create something from the ground up.” Nowosielski got his chance in 1992 in the small town of Biały Bór, population about 2,200. The town is a center of Orthodox and Greek-Catholic culture in northwestern Poland. This unique geographical and cultural situation led Nowosielski to some creative solutions. The dark and womb-like interior has both a traditional and modern feel to it. Its modernity is not in the way of most American churches, which often feel little different from Starbucks.

Plate 5. Jerzy Nowosielski. Church in Biały Bór, Poland, 1992-97. View of Main Nave from the Entrance.

Plate 5. Jerzy Nowosielski. Church in Biały Bór, Poland, 1992-97. View of Main Nave from the Entrance.

Nowosielski’s modernism digs deep into history without turning into archaeology. The church’s center area, where the liturgy is performed, is notably lower than the raised sides where the faithful congregate [see Plate 5]. This is a direct quotation from the Greek stage, as are the columns and the triple red arches, which imitate the doors through which Greek actors used to enter the stage. It is not incidental that these doors through which the Trinity enters into the drama of the congregation’s lives are colored red, the liturgical color of the Lord’s passion—and also of sexual flush. This understanding of the liturgy as a transforming drama where our salvation and damnation are at stake is confirmed by the artist himself: “As a person who is well nigh obsessively concerned with liturgical questions, I consider the Christian liturgy to be a transformation of the Greek theater, and also as a kind of sacred circus.”

The interior’s color is difficult to render in a photograph, which tends to make it look black; it’s actually a very dark shade of green. In the Orthodox Church green is the liturgical color of several feasts and seasons: the Feasts for Ascetics and Fools for Christ (that is, the holy circus), Pentecost, and Palm Sunday. It is also the liturgical color of hope and resurrection, but as the list suggests, it is a hope achieved by going into the darkness (even the darkness of madness) with God instead of circumventing it with Prozac. At the center is the tetrapod upon which icons are placed for veneration. Directly above, like a top hat floating down upon the congregation below, is a cupola with Christ as Pantokrator. This setting is one of the best spatial representations I know of the Pauline imperative to put on Christ’s mind. Really, it seems like it might fit. We just have to be raised toward it.

Plate 6. Jerzy Nowosielski. Church in Biały Bór, Poland. Exterior.

Plate 6. Jerzy Nowosielski. Church in Biały Bór, Poland. Exterior.

The exterior facade of the church deliberately resembles an iconostasis (the wall of icons that separates the nave from the sanctuary in an Orthodox church) [see Plate 6]. In part, this is an outgrowth of demographics. During the ordinary parts of the liturgical year the church serves a small congregation. However, during the high holidays, the region’s widely dispersed Polish Greek-Catholic flock comes to this sanctuary. During those times, the church cannot hold the crowd, and so the liturgy moves outdoors. The facade prominently features two archangels flanking a Mandylion. The Mandylion is something like the Orthodox iconic version of the Shroud of Turin. This image, faithfully reproduced by iconographers, shows the imprint of Christ’s face. It is not Veronica’s veil, but a cloth used by Christ to wipe his face during the passion, which was passed along to a servant of King Abgar of Edessa, who was later healed of an incurable sickness thanks to it. It is usually acknowledged as the first and most authentic image, ikon, of Christ. Nowosielski has made many such icons, including one for the Franciscan Church of the Immaculate Conception in Krakow [see Plate 7]. The placing of this image so prominently on the exterior of the church in Biały Bór, facing the elements, invokes for me Nowosielski’s sacrificial logic of the collision of the world with the self-emptying God: “If the earth were not so saturated with evil, there would be no need for the coming of Christ. I am thinking of the kenotic descent of God into such an earth.” The end result of that descent, death, is not easy to swallow, but Christ’s life is normative as an example for anybody who wants to become a Christian. All of reality must be irradiated by the shadow of this suffering face if reality is to be taken up into the life of the Trinity.

Plate 7. Jerzy Nowosielski. Mandylion, 1978. Acrylic paint on board. Franciscan Church of the Immaculate Conception, Krakow, Poland.

Plate 7. Jerzy Nowosielski. Mandylion, 1978. Acrylic paint on board. Franciscan Church of the Immaculate
Conception, Krakow, Poland.

What I have written may seem like an odd art essay, with its swerving into theology, politics, and sex. But the imperative to soil the clean white gloves of high aesthetics is dictated by the oddity of Nowosielski’s art itself, which mishmashes these taboo subjects and opens them up to comparative inquiry. His painting forbids an aestheticized, abstracted “view from nowhere” and instead demands a Christian, personalist engagement with the rough edges of reality. Nowosielski has said that he sees himself as making icons for westerners, for Catholics and Protestants. The West, he says, “properly grasps the spiritual issue of the mystagogical role of art,” an attitude he believes will bear fruit.

Plate 8. Jerzy Nowosielski. Theotokos Oranta with Fathers of the Church, 1984. Greek-Catholic Church in Lourdes, France.

Plate 8. Jerzy Nowosielski. Theotokos Oranta with Fathers of the Church, 1984. Greek-Catholic Church in
Lourdes, France.

Several years ago I went to Lourdes with two of my best friends. We did it all: confession, masses, Stations of the Cross, shopping for the finest religious kitsch, and we got dipped in the chilling healing waters. After the bath I noticed a palpable change in myself: I got a sinus infection and spent about two weeks battling it. As we left, I remember seeing a beautiful church with golden cupolas from our moving train. It was Saint Mary’s Ukrainian Catholic Church. It immediately charmed me and I wondered what hid inside the dark walls. I had no idea what I missed until I looked at a book of Nowosielski’s works. He painted the whole interior of this little Greek-Catholic church in 1984. Right behind the altar is an immense depiction of the Theotokos in prayer with the Doctors of the Church below her [see Plate 8]. The whole composition is bathed in a deep blue background of a shade that has very little to do with the light-blue ceilings of medieval Catholic churches. Her face is a study in patience learned through suffering. Her eyes (and sinuses) are shadowed by a darkness that she seems to face without flinching, never flagging in the welcoming gesture of her praying arms: she is not afraid of being infected by our sins.

The Greek verb used to describe the making of icons, graphia, means both “to paint” and “to write,” and this is why the whole process is often called “icon writing.” This is how God communicates his image to people in painting. All of it finally brings us to the form of the biblical text, or any other text. Take a look at this page. How is it that the words I write here resound in your mind?

The whiteness of the page is not shouldering the message. It is not the white background, but the ray of darkness of the text which is doing all the work.

Likewise, Nowosielski’s art teaches us to get acquainted with the night of our blood, guts, shit, piss, semen, saliva, minds, gender, environment, cities, diseases, art, and politics, and not fear them, but live them out rightly as the coming of God’s darkness as it incarnates itself within the whole of our mind, body, and soul—especially when they are wracked by suffering. As we contemplate an image like the 1978 Mandylion, its apophatic darkness shows us that our concepts cannot capture the great price and music of the hypostatic union: a God who was fully human, a man who was fully God. In the muddy darkness of daily experience, Nowosielski’s paintings are a visual answer to the question asked by Job: “Where is God my Maker, who gives songs in the night?”

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Update: I recently noticed that Amazon has one copy of the best catalog of Nowosielski’s work. It’s reasonably priced so snap it up here before someone else does.

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Famous Atheists Who Weren’t Atheists 2: The Christianity of Camus

like atheism

like atheism

Albert Camus was nearly as unfaithful as Jean-Paul Sartre . . . to atheism.

This should not be especially surprising to any semi-conscious reader of his novels.  Despite his good existentialist intentions Camus could never really get beyond good and evil.  Most of his literary works collapse under the weight of trying to cover up their origins in, and direct debts to, classical Christian doctrines, especially Original Sin.

It’s as if he keeps trying to roll a rock to seal off the tomb, only to find it rolled away every darn morning.  Just look at the plots of The Fall, The Plague, and The First Man and tell me God shouldn’t sue for copyright infringement upon the biblical narrative.

The connections go even deeper as a recent memoir reveals.  The book is entitled Albert Camus & the Minister.  It is written by the (Methodist) minister, Howard Mumma.  Mumma hailed from Ohio and met Camus, was actually hounded by him, during a stint as guest minister at the American Church in Paris.

The two talked about Christianity constantly and it got to the point where Camus asked to be re-baptized, only to be turned down. Today’s Methodist ministers are nothing like the hardcore Methodist ministers of yesteryear!

Camus was still actively courting the Christian faith when he was cut down in a car accident.  We don’t know how things would have turned out if Camus had lived, however, as this book recounts, he thought he was heading for a reversion.  Actually, he was already there.

I don't believe in an interventionalist God.

I don’t believe in an interventionalist God (see video below).

Sunday Spoiler: The Liturgy Is *Not* Sacred

cavanaugh migrations

This book is huge.

If you’re looking for a book which is a huge difference-maker in how you view Christianity, then you should look no further than Cavanaugh’s Migrations of the Holy.  The point he makes here opens up several lines of thinking:

“Today the most significant misunderstanding of the Christian liturgy is that it is sacred. Let me clarify. The problem is that ‘sacred’ has been opposed to ‘secular,’ and the two are presumed to describe two separate—but occasionally related—orbits. The problem is not simply that this separation leaves the church’s liturgy begging for relevance to the ‘real world.’ The problem is rather that the supposedly ‘secular’ world invents its own liturgies, with pretensions every bit as ‘sacred’ as those of the Christian liturgy, and these liturgies can come to rival the church’s liturgy for our bodies and our minds. In this brief essay I want to explore in particular some of the liturgies of the American nation-state. I will suggest first that such liturgies are not properly called ‘secular,’ and second, that the Christian liturgy is not properly cordoned off into the realm of the ‘sacred.'”

These comments come from the chapter “Liturgies of Church and State,” which happens to be available as a standalone ,pdf read right here.

This expanded notion of liturgy might be useful for literary criticism, probably also political science, or at least for the reading of Czeslaw Milosz in my case.  Charles Taylor is onto the same insight in A Secular Age with his notion of cross-pressuring:

“Our age is very far from settling into a comfortable unbelief. The secular age is schizophrenic, or better, deeply cross-pressured.”

Liturgy: It's not what it looks like.

Liturgy: It’s not what it looks like.

The cross-pressuring by both the liturgy of the church and the liturgy of the state (and modernity as scientism) is especially strong in the Milosz poem below.  What’s remarkable about it is how the two liturgies are presented as overlapping, even coinciding.  The secularizing withdrawal of judgment and punishment turns into a hellish Divine punishment in itself.

Oeconomia Divina

I did not expect to live in such an unusual moment.
When the God of thunders and of rocky heights,
The Lord of hosts, Kyrios Sabaoth,
Would humble people to the quick,
Allowing them to act whatever way they wished,
Leaving to them conclusions, saying nothing.
It was a spectacle that was indeed unlike
The agelong cycle of royal tragedies.
Roads on concrete pillars, cities of glass and cast iron,
Airfields larger than tribal dominions
Suddenly ran short of their essence and disintegrated
Not in a dream but really, for, subtracted from themselves,
They could only hold on as do things which should not last.
Out of trees, field stones, even lemons on the table,
Materiality escaped and their spectrum
Proved to be a void, a haze on a film.
Dispossessed of its objects, space was swarming.
Everywhere was nowhere and nowhere, everywhere.
Letters in books turned silver-pale, wobbled, and faded
The hand was not able to trace the palm sign, the river sign, or the sign of ibis.
A hullabaloo of many tongues proclaimed the mortality of the language.
A complaint was forbidden as it complained to itself.
People, afflicted with an incomprehensible distress,
Were throwing off their clothes on the piazzas so that nakedness might call
For judgment.
But in vain they were longing after horror, pity, and anger.
Neither work nor leisure
Was justified,
Nor the face, nor the hair nor the loins
Nor any existence.

The line “Letters in books turned silver-pale, wobbled and faded” cannot but remind me of this tragically magical scene from Fellini’s Roma:

More literature on Cosmos the in Lost can be found here, here, herehere, and in plenty of other places.