05 February 2019

In Search of the Holy, Barcelona, February 2019

In Search of the Holy

Masada and Herod's Palace

It always happens when you’re unaware, and sometimes when you are actively seeking it – but it is not the same. In 1975 on the mesa known in the Holy Land as Masada I had just left the people I was traveling with. We were guests of the Israeli government and had grown tired of our official guide. So, in an effort to still get something of our visit to Masada, we read Yigael Yadin’s account of the dig at Masada in order to be familiar with the site. At the end of our self-guided tour, we split up, and I wandered off to the south of the butte, discovering huge underground cisterns, and other structures. One of them happened to be a ruined Byzantine church, and as I entered, I was struck with two things. The first was a desire to pray, with an awareness of all the men (most likely) who had prayed here before me. The second was an innate sense of the holy. It just came upon me and it altered my experience of the place. 

Buddha at the Philadelphia Art Museum

Later, in Philadelphia I had a similar experience at the Art Museum there. Wandering by myself amongst the galleries, I wandered into a dark room and discovered there this standing Buddha that overwhelmed me with a sense of holiness. There was a simplicity to it that is sometimes lost in my practice of Christianity both as a private person and as a priest. I said to myself, “Christmas should be like this – simple, focused.” 

Entrance to Sagrada Familia from the Passion Façade

While in Barcelona we planned to go visit Sagrada Familia. We had both been there in 2004, and Arthur even earlier. I had it in my mind as sort of a sacred pilgrimage (religious? Aesthetic?). The provisions that obtain before making the visit make the idea of pilgrimage almost impossible: the ticketing, the electronics, the security measures, the sheer numbers of peoples, the mysanthrope. It was not exactly like finding a Byzantine Church in the desert as I hoped it would be. In a way it all ended up being a little underwhelming. I wondered what the intentions of the thousands of people who were with us were. There were glimpses of the holy however, and of the pilgrimages of others. Some were obvious and intentional.

Eucharistic Reservation at the Basilica at Montserrat

There is, of course, the chapel devoted to Eucharistic Reservation and Adoration. The one pictured above is not at Sagrada Familia. No pictures are allowed there, and I could find none on the internet. The one above is from the Basilica at Montserrat and displays some of the same sensibilities. There is utter focus at Sagrada Familia. There is no extraneous sculpture or stained glass – just the plain, stainless steel face of the Tabernacle. Here and at Montserrat there is an intended holiness and it works. There is an indication of something else in the Tabernacle at Montserrat. Unfortunately, the face of Jesus in the “reredos” is obliterated by the light, but then there are the hands, and the feet – touch. The notion and holiness of touch would be something that would stand out in both places.

Columns at Sagrada Familia

Gaudi was influenced by the forest in which he grew up, and his temples and churches, and even his housing are crowded with the examples of forest and mountain – the presence of nature. The chapel/crypt at Colonia is an excellent example of this where the supporting pillars are either outcropping of stone, or figurative tree trunks.

The Chapel/Crypt at Colonia

At Sagrada Familia the touch of nature is exaggerated by another touch – the touch of human beings. The large columns of Sagrada Familia are “stained” at shoulder height by the oils of the human hands who have reached out to touch these gigantic artificial trees. They are, I think, an attempt by some to touch holiness of place, beauty, or awe. I saw it at Montserrat as well.

The Black Madonna

After I left the basilica and checked my pictures, I noticed that the photograph I had taken of the Black Madonna had been photo-bombed by the man in front of me. He had reached out, as is the tradition, to touch the orb of the Virgin, and to pray. It was a happy coincidence – that intrusion of touch and prayer. But there are other intrusions as well.

Side Doors at the Nativity Façade

On the Nativity Façade one notices the great doors which are covered with leaves from the Tree of Life that towers above it. Even on the sides, however, the forest (nature) intrudes with its own holiness and witness, as leaves leap from once side of the portal to the other. The sheer busyness of the stone work is but a quotation from the mountains that surround Barcelona.

Rock and Forest at Montserrat

This connection of nature and faith is so evident in Gaudi’s art, and it makes me want to see the holiness of the world in which I live as well. I need to make an effort to find it. I am always moved by the symbolic as well. Hovering high in the apse over the altar at Sagrada Familia is a series of gilded triangles.

The Apse at Sagrada Familia

Is this sign of the Trinity, said with a sense of simplicity and ineffability? I wonder. Or are they tongues of flame? For many, the sense of the presence and of their own need is said in light and fire. In wandering down from the Black Madonna, I found evidence of prayer, need, and answer. Here was holiness writ in fire.

The grotto at Montserrat

Or, maybe just light.

The Nave on the Gospel Side

05 August 2017

Bristol Cathedral, Eve of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, 5 August 2017

The ordinary...the extraordinary...a continuum

Once, several years ago, I was walking around the block in the Castro in San Francisco. It was a Palm Sunday Procession with crucifer, incense, torches, vestments - the whole thing. People followed as we moved through the neighborhood of houses, churches, stores, bars, and lots of people. As we moved, one of the members sidled up to me and as he kicked at a cigarette butt wondered what the spiritual value of such an endeavor was, given the ordinary surroundings. I asked him in return if he thought that the path of the original Palm Sunday Procession was rarefied or ordinary. We often view such events through the scrim of holiness and sanctity, forgetting that they were actually begotten in the ordinary.

The doorway above, at Tintern Abbey, led from the refectory to a closet - a very ordinary space, built for the quotidian duties of a community of human beings. Turn a corner and you go from the ordinariness of a pantry into truly extraordinary and holy space - space that uplifted the community of men that were seeking God in a pilgrimage that was monastic life.

What is clear is that we need both - the ordinary and the extraordinary. These two elements help us to live and find meaning in that living. In a way it is like a window (actually a series of windows) just outside the Chapter House at Bristol Cathedral. What was waste glass, ordinary trash, was taken by some artisan and made into a combination of wonder and usefulness. As Archbishop Anthony Bloom once wrote, "humility is the situation of the earth." The earth often takes what we waste and transforms it into life. What is humble and discarded can become the stuff of holiness and a discovery of the divine.

I once commented in a sermon at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, that the very day, the minutes and hours, time itself, is an icon of Christ. That is one of the gifts of accompanying the Saint Mark's Choir in their pilgrimage at Ely and Bristol Cathedrals. In the repetitive nature of the Office, Evensong layers on the extraordinary over the ordinariness of time. 

Just as ordinary trees and plants surround an extraordinary Gothic cathedral and their ordinariness is transformed into the beautiful - a continuum of granting meaning and purpose one to the other. A starry night, a cigarette butt, a found baptismal font - once a planter, a piece of bread, a cup of wine - extraordinary!

Baptismal Font at Deerhurst

The Reserved Sacrament at Tewkesbury Abbey

This evening was a revelation (again) to me. The man pictured below is Jonathan Dove, an English composer. The choir had sung his "Seek him that maketh the seven stars" at Ely Cathedral. At that hearing I was transfixed. When they sang it this evening at Bristol Cathedral I was transported into the realm of tears and joy.

Jonathan Dove
The text is quite simple, a quote from the Prophet Amos, not usually known for his joy, and from Psalm139. 

"Seek him that taketh the seven stars and Orion, and turners the shadow of death into morning" (Amos 5:8)

"Alleluia, yea, the darkness shineth as the day, the night is light about me. (Psalm 139)

If you would like to hear this extraordinary choral piece, press here. It is a recording of the piece by the Ely Cathedral choir.

The ordinariness of day and night become the splendor of knowing God's will and care for us, but it is a process, a progress, and a pilgrimage. "Seek him" requires the resolve to move and change. That was the gift that the choir gave to me this evening. It is the eve of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, and the like Peter, James, and John we might wish to continue in the glory. But the pilgrimage is almost at an end, and we are bidden to return to the ordinary, to the plain, to our lives. Yet, there is the chant to "seek him." And in seeking him amongst those around us to see the glory - the glory of the seven stars the work of him that made us.

A "starry night" in the Lady Chapel at Ely
Thank you St. Mark's Choir for the privilege of accompanying you on your extraordinary mission.

30 July 2017

Ely Cathedral, 30 July 2017

Treasures worth seeking.

It is our last morning at Ely Cathedral, and we will miss it terribly. The Dean, The Very Rev. Mark Bonney, and the Cathedral staff have been so hospitable to the choir and to me as well. We loved working with them, and they made so many possibilities available to us. At the 10:30 Mass, the Dean was the preacher, and chose an excellent segment of the Gospel for the day to riff on. It is Jesus' question to the disciples after a series of parables (The mustard seed, yeast, the hidden treasure, and the fine pearl.) Jesus asks them: "Have you understood all this?" The Dean then gently took us through a number of the Christian mysteries, and wondered if we had understood this. 

It was a good question and he treated it well. I had come into the cathedral earlier, partially to listen to the choir in rehearsal, but also to make one last pilgrimage amongst the cathedral's pillars and chapels. Some of my thought were guided by another quotation from that same Gospel, 

"Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

George Emblom and I experienced treasure as we stood with Canon Victoria Johnson at the high altar following Evensong. There in the cross were multiple treasures. From what looks like a variegated golden object, up close reveals details of angels with thuribles, stones, and images. Like faith, closer inspection might beget wonder as we look at the details that had escaped our initial engagement with them. So like the scribe, we were bringing out the treasures, old and new, to help us think and believe. Those thoughts lead to understanding and further discovery.

The choir enabled that inventory as it sang both old and new - a piece inspired by a starry sky, Anglican chant, songs of our Lady in multiple versions, and Simeon rejoicing in the fulfillment of what he had been seeking. 

Over the last couple of Sundays we explored Jesus' parables on seed and weed, sower and soil. But now we are clearly in the harvest - a harvest of treasures, both old and new - a harvest of understanding, if you will. As I walked the cathedral I saw many things, both old and new, that challenged me to think through my faith. The chantry with its complex ceiling that bid me to sit and meditate:

Places in the cathedral where one might see the intersection of the really old with the relative new:

A window depicting the Jesse Tree that made me realize that it's really all about time and process - and change too, I think.

Such a place aids us in our attempts to understand and integrate the Gospel into our lives. So thank you George Emblom for bringing that capacity to us, and to the choir for making it all glorious. Thank you for your many voices, young, old, those who augmented, and those who have sung faithfully for many years. You all bring out treasures, both old and new, and enable our efforts to understand and to believe.

And finally thank you to the Dean, The Canon Precentor, James Garrard, Canons Jessica Martin, and Victoria Johnson, and to all the vergers, sacrists, ushers, and others who helped us unload the treasures.

29 July 2017

Cambridge, 27 July 2017

The Chorus and Individual Voices

The image to the right shows two examples of death portraits from Roman Egypt at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. It depicts two individuals who had passed from this life, and depicts them at their prime - the best image possible of them for remembrance and for eternity. As I look at these individuals, I realize that to look to the past is not to look at an abstract or even an absent thing, but rather to look at ourselves as one with human beings in a different circumstance and context.

When you walk by the cathedral at Ely you notice a huge amount of destruction, and a humble add-on between the bays of the cathedral.  It is an important lesson about life. The influence and pain of damage may be dealt with, but its presence is always there. Here, I think, is a celebration in noting what had happened at the hand of Cromwell's troops and others - celebration and reflection on what had been in the past and still evident in the present. As they say these days, "It is what it is." And so it is allowed to stand and be evidence of our total story.

Before I left on this pilgrimage with the choir I had days and weeks of wondering and pondering whether or not this is what I needed to do as a pastor. Those questions pursued me well beyond my boarding the plane at SFO. Would my presence be only gratuitous or would it have substance? I hoped for the latter. The portrait above is of a Sicilian Peasant by John Singer Sargent. I found it quite moving, because it added to my thinking all of this through. He is handsome, yes, but what is behind those eyes. Is it sorrow or just a day of hard work? What were his joys and delights? Only conversation and interaction at the time might reveal what the real story is. 

Jacob Epstein - Third Portrait of Oriel Ross

That is the real beauty of art, of sculpture, painting, and song. It is the human element that is only discernible through listening, seeing, and perhaps touching. Jacob Epstein's sculpture, again at the Fitzwilliam Museum, draws us in to ponder what the mind of this woman was as she faced the artist, really as she faced the person who would allow her presence and remembrance beyond her time. 

In my time here I have been blessed with a continuum of story and remembrance from many members of the choir, and those accompanying them. As rector of Saint Mark's I attempt to know as much as I can from the various people who come there for liturgy, prayer, and succor. However it is in eating, walking, playing, and singing with the people of the choir that I have seen and heard a deeper and more compelling song. 

To my clergy colleagues, take advantage of your retreats, or accompany your people when they go off together to sing and discover. You will be uplifted by your experience of them in a new and different context.

Matisse - Woman Seated in an Armchair

Has there been relaxation? Yes, but more than that there has been refreshment in the exhilaration of getting to know people anew in a different context. It is a real gift from God. I am reminded as I continue my tour with the choir, and continue in my efforts to listen and regard - I am reminded of this prayer.

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

All of this gives me, and anyone, the ability to glimpse the glory of God reflected in our lives and appearing above and in the structure of our living.

Image of Christ the King, Peterborough Cathedral

25 July 2017

Peterborough Cathedral, Tuesday, 25 July 2017 - Saint James' Day

Iconoclasm in Two Cathedrals

Today we took a side trip to Peterborough to see its cathedral, and its expansive and unusual west side. There will be some comments about Oliver Cromwell, pictured above - but that will come later. A bus picked us up and we trekked north and west up to the city of Peterborough, passing through rich fields some rich with sugar beets, and others with some type of grain. Flat and fertile would describe the countryside. After the small town comforts of Ely, Peterborough seemed quite busy and bustling. The Cathedral looms at one end of the Market Square, presenting the city with an unusual façade.

An ancient abbatial church, Benedictine, it was made a diocesan cathedral following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. It represents, as do most cathedral churches, the layers of time, taste, and usage. The first vision is of the baptismal font, recovered from a garden in the close.

The eye is next drawn to the contemporary crucifix that hangs over the crossing.

What is not easily perceived in other cathedrals, but seemed to be accessible here were the evident layers of redecoration and renewal. It was most especially seen in the Presbytery and its rather nice mosaic floor and the Victorian baldachino and high altar, which stand in contrast to the Norman surroundings. The stalls in the quire are Victorian as well, and quite handsome.

These stand in contrast to the pulpit and lectern in the crossing where what appears to be a Georgian pulpit and lectern stand.

It is in the quire that the tour guide clues us into the history of the place, and the theme for today's reflection - the destruction wrought at the hands of Cromwell and his troops. We are asked to look at the fine eagle/lectern in the quire.

It is certainly beautiful, but not unusual. We see them everywhere in European and American churches. There is one aspect to this lectern that does make it unusual. 

Do you see anything missing? The story goes that the Cromwell troops thought that this lectern was gold, and sought to melt it down for the valuable metal. A monk clipped off a bit of the feather to prove to the soldiers that it was really brass, and thus the piece was saved. There was, however, major destruction. All of the medieval windows were destroyed. There is a small example of medieval glass in two windows behind the high altar. They were gleaned from the shards of the destroyed windows and present an interesting aspect (one seen in some German churches as well).

The most drastic example of this destruction can be seen in Ely Cathedral's Lady Chapel. It's perpendicular Gothic windows were totally denuded of their glass, presenting us today with a bright interior.

Monuments were stripped from walls, ridding them of supposed papistic superstition and idolatry. In the photo below, we see two types of destruction. There are the remains of a family memorial, and above it you can see the remains of the old Norman apse (note the zigzag line that delineates the lower wall) and the 16th Century "New Room" with its flamboyant Gothic ceiling.

So we see the destruction wrought from ideologues, and that from those who sought to improve the capacity of the place, replace removed sections with beauty.

A political aside:

It seems to me that we are witnessing a similar destruction of institutions, education, cultural arenas, and natural resources all for the sake of a retrograde ideology. I can't be too critical of Cromwell when I sit back and allow the destruction of these things in my own time. (Off the high horse).

It was a lovely day of seeing countryside and city, culture and humanity. Before we left there was lunch in the cathedral close under a lovely green tree. Yes, a fine day, finished later with Evensong on Saint James' Day, where I along with the choir participated in the Ely Cathedral's worship.