Saturday, July 7, 2018

Beauty Loves Balance & Breathes Light

All photos taken July 6-7, 2018
        Inspiration rises with such a morning as this. The heavy damp air, dripping with moisture, too humid to draw off perspiration, has been replaced with air almost light enough to walk upon, and the gentle breeze plays shadow games across the multicolored blooms. The camera angles for breath-taking proportions, enjoying different backgrounds, shutter speeds, and focal points. All these offer deepening into the divine.
     Balthasar explains how our attention to natural beauty provides foundation for “our supreme object: the form of divine revelation.”
“Here, again, a new and sharper vision is required, and there is little hope that we will receive and use such eyes unless we have to some extent learned to see essential forms with our old ones. The supernatural is not there in order to supply that part of our natural capacities we have failed to develop. Gratia perficit naturam, non supplet. The same Christian centuries which masterfully knew how to read the natural world’s language of forms were the very same ones which possessed eyes trained, first, to perceive the formal quality of revelation by the aid of grace and its illumination and, second (and only then!), to interpret revelation. In fact, God’s Incarnation perfects the whole ontology and aesthetics of created Being. The Incarnation uses created Being at a new depth as a language and a means of expression for the divine Being and essence.” Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Vol.1, Seeing the Form. Edinburgh, 1982, p. 29.
     My spirits lift when I sight through my camera lens the qualities of beauty, especially:
 the interplay of light and shadow,
the spectrum of color across a single bloom,

and the balance of line, curve, and color.
        John O’Donohue (The Invisible Embrace of Beauty) tells how all this leads also to our quality of relationship.
“At the heart of things is a secret law of balance and when our approach is respectful, sensitive and worthy, gifts of healing, challenge and creativity open to us. A gracious approach is the key that unlocks the treasure of encounter. The way we are present to each other is frequently superficial. We become more interested in ‘connection’ rather than communion…When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us. The rushed heart and the arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter the embrace. Beauty is mysterious, a slow presence who waits for the ready, expectant heart” (p. 24).
     As much as I’m loving cooler temperature, lowered humidity, sunlight, and mosquito-removing breeze, I’m also aware that the bounty we enjoy today depends on the balance with other day's sweat-soaked time. Light finds beauty in concert with the dark, and the balance of life resides in the knowledge and grace of God.
Sweat-soaked bounty

Saturday, June 30, 2018

On Un-Abandoned Beauty

Iris Storm. Photos taken Spring 2018.
     Perhaps, like me, you wake up certain moments enough to find yourself thirsting for more from your personal experience of religion. Sharpening the awareness that spiritual nurturance is missing and is needed usually depends on cutting off distractions: electronic devices, absorption in work, sports, politics, and any other substitute imposed by the ego/nafs. And if we don’t tend the soul, sometimes it shouts “Pay Attention!” through an “accident,” illness, or other life crises that offer a glimpse or a hard view of what really matters. Wouldn’t we rather remind ourselves in a gentle way?
     I’ve very thankful to have reached retirement as I feel it offers increased opportunity to read material that’s beginning to mark well-springs that attend to this longing. I want an authentic spiritual path that offers divine tasting, “joie de vivre,” most every day.  For example, a month ago, 
I quoted a passage that flowed with the water of life. John O’Donohue pointed to a source previously unknown to me: Hans Urs von Balthasar on “theological aesthetics.” Having located a reasonably-priced copy of Volume 1, “Seeing the Form,” in his series: “The Glory of the Lord,” I’ve loved reading about the essential reconnection of beauty with truth and goodness. Although Balthasar does not focus on the art forms I love (particularly horsemanship/dressage and photography), his articulation of biases against beauty increases my sense of the importance of engaging with the aesthetic and in appreciating the connection with the divine.
     Photography has long been an important link for me with beauty. 

It’s helped me to look more closely for a composition that has balance, 

sometimes taking me down on my knees

or whisper-close to a dew-wet inner bloom. 

Probably more than anything, I’ve increased appreciation for the quality of light.  

          And what other term is so frequently and so significantly used in trying to articulate the spiritual dimension? For example, Balthasar quotes Matthias Scheeben: “Theology is ‘the dawn of the light of contemplation’” (p. 107). Radiance and illumination signal the pathway to the divine, often more so than our fine analytical reasoning.

     In reading Balthasar, I’m able to affirm the spiritual value of spending time with photography, and I see how I’ve been disconnected from this appreciation. Balthasar explains in detail how religious groups recognized misuse of beauty (e.g., “the ‘exchange’ [Rom I.23,25] of God’s incorruptible splendour and glory for the blasphemous image of the idols,” p. 46). He points out the way religious authority overreacted by expelling all art from the church. 
     This  mistaken “cleansing” simply leaves the allure of beauty for the devil to use, with results all too obvious in today’s commercialization of skin-deep “beauty.” The fatal error involves failing to realize that Beauty at the divine level demands dedicated development in the same manner required by the higher reaches of Power and Knowledge. To our tragic loss, all of these names of God have been left much too abandoned in our education and religion.
     Incredible teaching is available. I can scarcely believe that I’m just finding Balthasar who guides us beyond the superficial misuse of beauty toward a divine understanding. For example, referencing Karl Barth, he points out that “God’s beauty embraces death as well as life, fear as well as joy, what we call ‘ugly’ as well as what we call ‘beautiful’” (p. 56). In our recent trip to the southwest, we saw something of this in the art of Georgia O’Keefe. 
     Balthasar’s teaching also includes terms familiar from phenomenology:
“The quality of ‘being-in-itself’ which belongs to the beautiful, the demand the beautiful itself makes to be allowed to be what it is, the demand, therefore, that we renounce our attempts to control and manipulate it, in order truly to be able to be happy by enjoying it: all of this is, in the natural realm, the foundation and foreshadowing of what in the realm of revelation and grace will be the attitude of faith” (p. 153).
     The urgency of reclaiming our divine gift of Beauty is shown in the continuation of the passage quoted by O’Donohue. Balthasar elaborates:
“We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she [Beauty] were the ornament of a bourgeois past—whether he admits it or not—can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love… The world, formerly penetrated by God’s light, now becomes but an appearance and a dream…But where the cloud disperses, naked matter remains as an indigestible symbol of fear and anguish. Since nothing else remains, and yet something must be embraced, twentieth-century man is urged to enter this impossible marriage with matter, a union which finally spoils all man’s taste for love. But man cannot bear to live with the object of his impotence, that which remains permanently unmastered. He must either deny it or conceal it in the silence of death.” (pp. 18-19).
     Instead of abandoning Beauty, I’m in favor of growing toward and surrendering into the embrace of divine Love that guides us in the way of a vision holding fast the union of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness (and Peace, Justice, Love, Power, Knowledge…).

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Beauty of Great Questions

Sunday here flows in subtle tones, like love on the edge off remembering.
“…troubled by the ultimate questions. No-one else’s answer can satisfy the hunger in your heart.” John O’Donohue concludes the meditations with the “beauty of the great questions”: 
[it’s] “how they dwell differently in each mind. How they root deeper than all the surface chatter and image, how they continually disturb. Your deep questions grow quickly restless in the artificial clay of received opinion or stagnant thought. . . The presence of the contemplative and the artist in a culture is ultimately an invitation to awaken and engage one’s neglected gifts, to enter more fully into the dream of the eternal that has brought us here to earth.” p. 247
         The passage referencing the Big Questions takes me back to the final years of teaching, especially in the I-Series program and the capstone course of my career, “Good Stories: Teaching Narratives for Peace and Justice.” If I had absorbed and articulated more of the understanding of Beauty that O’Donohue lays out, the title might have included “for Beauty” or perhaps “Stories on Beauty.” We did explore the frontiers of beauty as well as goodness and truth. The terrain of narrative offers spaces to mine into personal identity and the connection with the divine.
   When the youngest sister leaves home and enters the darkest center of the forest, she meets with the threshold question each of is invited to open, to circle around, to listen into: "Who are you?" And, of course, the companion questions: "Where do you come from and where are you going?" "What are you doing here?" Her answer allows us to reflect on our divine heritage: “I am the child of the ruler and I’m searching for my brothers as long as the sun may rise…”
          William Stafford asked it this way: “Who are you really, wanderer?” And the response as I remember it, allowing myself to reconstruct, as each of us might do, instead of looking up “the artificial clay”: “And the answer you have to give/ no matter how dark and lonely,/ I am the child of the king.”

Friday, June 15, 2018

"God is Beauty"

Looking north, Friday, June 15, ~5:30A
“God is Beauty” titles the final chapter of O’Donohue’s Beauty. It’s only one of the infinite ninety-nine names but perhaps among the most under-attended while most available. Sometimes the face of beauty just requires getting up at 5:30A and looking out the window. Other times the display depends on devotion to tending the gardens, both in the ground around us and in the inner reaches of the soul. Perhaps like all the names of God, beauty reveals the mystery as one travels deeper and deeper into the layers, by grace and by dedication. The gifts include interpenetration with other names of God and this opens vistas that have been veiled until their connection is realized.
“Thomas Aquinas and the medieval thinkers wisely recognized that beauty was at the heart of reality; it was where truth, unity, goodness and presence came together. Without beauty they would be separated and inclined towards destructive conflict with each other. Accompanied by beauty, truth gains graciousness and compassion. Beauty holds harmony at the heart of unity and prevents its collapse into the most haunted chaos. In the presence of beauty, goodness attracts desire and beauty makes presence luminous and evokes its mystery. There is a profound equality at the heart of beauty; a graciousness which recognizes and encourages the call of individuality but invites it to serve the dream and creative vision of community. Without beauty the Eros of growth and creativity would dry up. As Simone Weil says: “Desire contains something of the absolute and if it fails…the absolute is transferred to the obstacle.’” John O’Donohue, Beauty, pp. 222-3.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

"Mysterious Vengeance" of Beauty Denied

Strange it is that a person should be surprised that the celebration, the realm of his being, perhaps even the home of his soul, is devalued by his mind. As I read the opening pages of John O’Donohue’s Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, it’s as if a huge sigh envelopes me, one that echoes, “Yes,” as if in a revelation given. Perhaps that’s the “invisible embrace” affirming a truth that has been held prisoner in the subconscious by the darkness around, the one William Stafford named.
         For many years, perhaps forever, I’ve loved finding the beauties around me, often with camera in hand and frequently in lines of poets and mystics. But the tyranny of the mind has dictated that beauty deserves less than truth. Keats’ lines (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty’) while memorized long ago were subordinated to Descartes’ dictum: cogito ergo sumAs if knowing by logic trumps being by beauty.
         The equivalence of beauty with truth thus remained unproven; the value of beauty unconvincingly integrated into belief and action. Finally, perhaps more accessible now, having retired from the academy with its scientific-method mentality, my being feels vindicated in reading:
“Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.” [In Beauty, p. 4 where O’Donohue quotes Hans Urs von Balthasar from The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics: 1:Seeing the Form, Edinburgh, 1982.]
         I remember sitting with William Stafford who in his words, his actions, and his being urged us not to tolerate “many a small betrayal in the mind,” and not “to follow the wrong god home.” Know our truth and, for me at least, all this includes claiming the place of Beauty, an equal partner, alongside Truth and Goodness. 

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Unveiling Secrets

  You know, of course, the way it pays to look again; especially when a point of attraction draws our focus, we may glimpse a visitation only by opening softened eyes, gently checking the periphery or the depths for “the unveiling of secrets.” 
“The Unveiling of Secrets is one of the most powerful documents in the history of mysticism. Unlike most Sufi writings, it is written in the first person, as Ruzbihan records his visionary encounters with God, the angels, the prophets, and the Sufi saints.” [translated by Carl W. Ernst, p. x; Ruzbihan Baqli, d. 1209.]
           Ernst elaborates in his introduction on the nature of the unveiling of secrets: “What is unveiled? It is the inner conscience, the secret (sirr) within the heart that is close to God” (p. xii). One such unveiling comes in the experience of Beauty. John O’Donohue’s book by that title invites us to consider:
Somewhere in every heart there is a discerning voice. This voice distrusts the status quo. It sounds out the falsity in things and encourages dissent from the images things tend to assume. It underlines the secret crevices where the surface has become strained. It advises distance and opens up a new perspective through which the concealed meaning of a situation might emerge. The inner voice makes any complicity uneasy. Its intention is to keep the heart clean and clear. This voice is an inner whisper not obvious or known to others outside. It receives little attention and is not usually highlighted among a person's qualities. Yet so much depends on that small voice. The truth of its whisper marks the line between honor and egoism, kindness and chaos. In extreme situations, which have been emptied of all shelter and tenderness, that small voice whispers from somewhere beyond and encourages the heart to hold out for dignity, respect, beauty and love. [p. 75. Thanks to the John O’Donohue page in Facebook for posting this quotation, May 25, 2018]
     Like many of the gifts from the divine, this one often seems to depend on a person showing up, perhaps having made preparation and/or purification. A garden-variety example of this came today with the photo op shown above. It appeared on a second visit to the garden. While it might be chance or pure grace, it’s also possible that the visitation, the appearance of beauty, depended on such things as: a) a practice of walking in the gardens in the early morning, b) returning to tend the garden, c) taking the camera along, just in case, and d) learning the value of looking again, including the shift to “soft eyes.”
     In our first walk-through, we noted the new blooms, mostly still shadowed due to clouds and the still-rising sun. The grace of beauty was already evident.

We also noted a few weeds that were on the verge of dropping a multitude of seeds amid the flowers. This prompted a return visit after gloving up and equipping with the sharp-shooter shovel. Also noting that the morning light had shifted, the camera came along as well. Looking for a spotlight, this image was sighted.

          While still crouched, uncomfortably, I shifted perspective to see if anything else wanted to be seen. That place of inner apprehension said “ahh” when the simple iris (shown at top), passed over earlier as not so special, was now glistening in the light and the even more commonplace maple leaves added the touch, more than a frame, to remind us of the Beauty that resides all around us, ready to light up our lives at any instant.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

True Signs

        By March of 2018, I’d just about enjoyed enough of my first year of retirement doing nothing. Also we'd had about enough of winter. So we put together a plan, and on the 14th of that month we set out on the adventure to see our good friends who had moved away some three months earlier. In addition to spending time with them in Abiquiu, New Mexico, we’d arranged to see the Grand Canyon (where I took over 100 photos), Monument Valley (400+ photos!), and on the return trip planned to visit with family in Texas and South Carolina. As noted in the video,

we followed the advice of Robert Burns to change plans along the way: “The best laid schemes o' mice and men/ Gang aft agley” (from “To A Mouse”).
         Returning home, remembering the experiences, reviewing photos taken on the trip, and reading more about O’Keeffe, my reflections seemed to spiral around the Beloved, the soul, and b/Beauty. The capacity to enter the imaginal world happens as our soul takes form in the canyon beauties: the stone and earth formations, the trees and plants, as well as the creatures like the Evening Grosbeak that appeared in Bandelier National Monument Park. 
     Beauty in a dry, seemingly hostile environment, offers insight; perhaps more than thought, the experience and presence there feed more feeling for the fusion of jamal/jalal, the gentle inseparable from the hard, lovely interwoven with severe, both familiar and mystical, the One. It’s the rose, the lily, the cactus blooming that glows because it celebrates the union with the thorn, the skull, the dark mystery. Love draws the human into the divine. 
     Some changes we made to the planned itinerary can be attributed to the influence of an emerging fascination with the artist Georgia O’Keeffe. We found ourselves following the O’Keeffe track around Abiquiu, into Ghost Ranch, the White Place, Santa Fe, and Palo Duro Canyon. Back home, her art continued flowing from books such as: 
* Georgia O’Keeffe by Charles C. Eldredge  
“O’Keeffe’s work had, from her earliest days as a professional artist, elicited comments like ‘revelation.’ When Alfred Stieglitz first encountered her abstract drawings in 1916, he responded immediately to their power. As recalled by one witness to the moment, ‘They were a revelation to him.’ . . . William Fisher, for example, praised the ‘mystic and musical drawings,’ which he likened to religious ‘revelations’ in their ‘cosmic grandeur.’” (p. 13)
* Lovingly Georgia: The Complete Correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe & Anita Pollitzer edited by Clive Giboire. 
“Not only is [O’Keeffe’s painting] a piece of consummate craftsmanship, but it likewise possesses that mysterious force, that hold upon the hidden soul which distinguishes important communications from the casual reports of the eye.” (quoting Lewis Mumford, p. 295)
* Georgia O’Keeffe by Georgia O’Keeffe
“It is surprising to me to see how many people separate the objective from the abstract. Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or a tree. It is lines and colors put together so that they say something. For me that is the very basis of painting. The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint” (p. 88).
     I wonder how those of us who do not paint or dance or play music deal with clarifying “the intangible thing.” The feeling for that marks a true sign, doesn’t it? I believe it’s the guiding inspiration that draws each person to participate in his and her life as an artist.
     Perhaps for me it’s doing photography especially when further expressed in digital media to play out a theme. “True Signs” swirls together art, photography, music, and words to explore the way I reach for and into relationship with the divine.  In producing the digital media project, I found myself wondering if the purpose of an artist, at least for me in this moment, points toward revelation; an artist aims at developing consciousness that is increasingly sensitive to and responsive to signs of God. How might our knowing, our evolving consciousness, attune more poignantly into the inner and outer presence of the divine? 
     Tracking signs of God is scarcely a new thing. About a thousand years ago, Hamid al-Ghazali opens The Alchemy of Happiness: 
“Knowledge of self is the key to the knowledge of God, according to the saying: ‘He who knows himself knows God,’ and, as it is Written in the Koran [41:53], ‘We will show them Our signs in the world and in themselves, that the truth may be manifest to them’” (Trans. Claud Field, p. 17). 
The Study Quran links this passage with Q 51:20-21 “And upon the earth are signs for those possessing certainty, and within your souls…”
As happens often with the Qur’an, we hear echoes of other religious texts: 
* Psalm 19 on the handiwork of God: “day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge…”
* Isaiah 7:11, “Ask a sign for yourself from the LORD your God; make it deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”
* John 2:11, “This beginning of His signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.”
* Matthew 16:3, “And in the morning, 'There will be a storm today, for the sky is red and threatening.' Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but cannot discern the signs of the times?’”
The mystic Rabia expressed her relationship with the divine presence:
 “O Lord, I have never listened to the sound of animals, or the movement of trees, or the murmur of water, or the song of birds, or the sitting in the shadows, or the sound of the wind, or the echo of thunder, but I have seen them as a sign of Your Oneness showing me that there is nothing like You.”   The Knower of Allah,  Rabia al-Adawiyya
Contemporary historian of religion, Diana Butler Bass, elaborates the importance of persons today shifting consciousness in order to realize the presence of the divine. 
“Roiling around the planet is a shifting conception of God…unmediated and local, animating the natural world and human activity in profoundly intimate ways…the personal, mystical, immediate, and intimate is emerging as the dominant way of engaging the divine. What was once reserved for a few saints has now become the quest of millions around the planet—to be able to touch, feel, and know God for one’s self.” (Grounded, p. 9)
“Where is God? . . . The grounded God is a God in relationship with space and time as the love that connects and creates all things, known in and with the world. . . . God is not above or beyond, but integral to the whole of creation, entwined with the sacred ecology of the universe.” (Grounded, pp. 10, 25)
     In reading Grounded, in reflecting on O’Keeffe’s art, through meditating on sacred text, and while remembering the experiences of our journey, I’m wondering about the application of soil quality (ranging from fertile to depleted to rebuilt) in relation to the stuff a human has that is comparable to the soil, the earth. Is it helpful to consider our “ground” for consciousness in this sense? In addition to the purification process, there is also the rebuilding. Consciousness, like earth, has been decimated by erosion and poor management; but it’s reassuring to experience rebuilding it. Purified and rebuilt consciousness provides the ground for discerning the signs of God. Upon this fertile ground, God-consciousness can be built.

Blog entries referenced in the video include:
Divine Intoxication   (Jan 18, 2018)
The Cipher of a Mystery  (Sept 18, 2017)

The Infinite in One Step  (Feb 2, 2015)
The Sense You Were Born With  (July 7, 2012)