Thursday, June 30, 2011

Sacred Heart
I know that there is a Sacred Heart parish in the Vailsburg section of Newark, New Jersey.  It was once a large parish, with a cathedral sized church.  The area fell on hard times and the church was closed a few years ago.  In its day, not that many years ago, it was a thriving parish of mostly blue-collar families.  The Vailsburg section was home to a lot of fireman and policeman.  After the Newark riots in the 1960’s, the area changed drastically and the church struggled for years until it was closed.
There was also an Academy of the Sacred Heart and I think it is in New Orleans.  The last I heard, the school is still open and thriving.  There are also religious orders named after the Sacred Heart.  Most of them are not doing well, from what I have read.  Vocations are dwindling to the point that the orders may soon be phased out.  There may be Sacred Heart universities and hospitals, as well as places for the homeless and even some orphanages.  But I would guess that their numbers are diminishing as well, in this age in which we live.  For it is an age that has little need to shelter its institutions and life-choices under a sacred name, like the Sacred Heart.  Times change and needs change, and so it is with the ways of being human and living in a time and place.  But I wonder if the ways of God need diminish when we seemingly outgrow our need for the use and alleged strength of his name, his heart.
I do not think so.  God is alive and well amidst the ongoing changes of time, place and custom.
I have just started reading a book by Mary Relindes Ellis called “The Turtle Warrior.”  (Penguin Books, 2004). I am just getting into it, not much beyond the opening pages of the book.  It is about a little boy named Billy and his early youth, growing up on a farm in Wisconsin. Ellis is a warm and powerful writer.  As I follow her writing on young Billy, her words bring back memories of my growing up, of so many ordinary events that took place on hot summer days a long time ago.  They are like memories that were sleeping and that have awakened through her writing.  Memories of playing in the streets with my friends, of being called home by my mom for dinner.  She writes of scenes that are so similar to what I knew – warm afternoons sitting at my wooden desk in school, looking out the window wishing that the arrival of summer would come, and come fast.  I closed the book, trying to remember more, and felt warm by what I could remember.  Ms. Ellis’s words were working their magic, like slowly developing photographs. 
I do not think I ever thought of the Sacred Heart back then.  Yet it was there, I know.  Not in the big Newark church, or school, or hospital or religious name.  It was all throughout my life, wherever there was a hunger for love, for the promise of summer, for all that made life rich and mysterious for me as a kid.  The heart of Jesus beat through everything, pumping grace and life into every wondrous moment of life.  Of course, I never thought about it.  I just lived it, ran to it when it called, and sat in it when the time came.  Our cathedral was called the Sacred Heart, too.  Named after a mystery that was best know outside its doors, on the streets and in homes, by as many names as there are loves and desires.  All coming from and hoping for the Sacred Heart, without even having to know the name or keep the name.  God cannot lose his heart.  He gives it away, over and over again, naming it as he will, using every language ever spoken. 

Friday, June 24, 2011

Just Kids

I recently read Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids  (Ecco Press, 2010, New York).  It is a wonderful book in which she writes of the love she shared with the legendary photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.  They were young and barely getting by in Greeenwich Village.  They moved in together, shortly after they met, and the relationship would have a lasting effect on their lives.  Even though they would eventually go their separate ways, a deep love and respect endured through all the changes that life was to bring.  Mapplethorpe would go on to become a world famous photographer and would mingle with the heady in-crowd of the art and fashion world of New York.  Patti Smith would follow her muse into the realms of rock music, poetry, art and photography.  “Just Kids” won the National Book Award last year.  It is a delightful read, the story of a young woman’s deep and strong first love.  Mapplethorpe would die at a young age, at the height of his fame.  Patti kept in touch with him and promised him she would write the book of their time together and the gift that he was to her.  Her prose is heightened by a memory warmed by love, the love she innocently found and kept for many years.  It was a love that stayed with her long after she and Mapplethorpe parted ways.  It was as if the best of their relationship survived and even grew through the separation caused by miles and even other loves. 
She kept a diary from her years with Mapplethorpe, and was able to build a narrative based on the small and seemingly unimportant things of day to day life – cutting Mapplethorpe’s hair, what she bought at the store, what was in the paper on any given day. Who she met, where they went. 
Reading her words, I was struck as to how Patti Smith took risks.  She left home at a young age and headed straight for New York City.  She loved the French poet Arthur Rimbaud and his words inspired her to roam into the different and enticing realms of dreams and spirits and excitement.  She writes beautifully, with a healthy sense of life’s highs and lows and her need to savor them all and live, write, sing and photograph from them.
I was in college, and then in the seminary, when Patti Smith was seeking out her path in life, a path that led her to New York and then to the Chelsea Hotel and her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe.  In many ways, some might look upon her whole adventure as highly unorthodox and far, far off the tried and true paths laid down for us by religious institutions and cultural mores.  I certainly followed the lights I was given and ended up studying theology and being ordained a priest.  But with those lights, I have come to see other lights, on different but no less wondrous roads.  I have come to believe that they are on the road of every life, given us that we might see what is of value along the way.  Patti Smith has taken trinkets she has found all along her road and made of them bracelets, songs, poems, pictures, and a beautiful book.  She has written a richly beautiful book in which these living trinkets are rediscovered by her and shared.  She writes with a respect for life and a love of its mysteries.  I think many of us have struggled and somehow suffered to find the same wondrous things in life.  I was once just a kid, too.  There are days when that time seems so long ago. But Patti Smith’s book makes me wonder if we really never lose what we thought was given us only once, in our teens – the capacity to wonder, to take risks, to love in crazy and breathtaking ways.  Love is the always open door to life.  And we never need pass it by for good.   It opens again and again, and all we have to do is enter.  Just like kids always do. 

Saturday, June 11, 2011

On the Gift of the Spirit

I have a small collection of books that can be summed up under the title “Street Photography.”  They are books of photographs, mostly black and white.  Helen Stummer, Helen Leavitt, Milton Rogovin, Vivian Maier, Robert Frank, Robert Doisneau.  Most of the pictures are of ordinary scenes taken on city streets.  Places like Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York.  Tiny slices of life taken from the billions of scenes that make up life every day. 
I have my favorites.
A little girl proudly carrying two bottles of milk down a city sidewalk.  The bottles are nearly half her size.
Two kids in their first communion clothes, a boy and a girl, dressed in a white suit and white dress, standing in front of the tenement where they live.
A black man, dancing in front of a juke box in a bar in Buffalo, New York, swaying just right to whatever was playing on the jukebox.
A little boy in a tattered coat and pants, crying and wiping tears from his eyes as his friends stand at a distance, laughing at him.
Two little black kids, two boys, on sitting on a curb.  One is crying. The other has his arms around him, trying to comfort him.
A group of kids, staring at a dead cat on a city street.
Two old people, a man and a woman, sitting on folding chairs in front of their apartment, watching the world on their street go by. 
Pentecost moves one to wonder about God, about the gift of the Spirit, about the gifts that came with wind, with fire and the shape of tongues, when for a miraculous moment, men and women understood with clarity what was being said in the babble of many languages.  A gift, it was, of seeing clearly and deeply into life, into the human heart.
And so it moves one to try and frame this fire with words, to contemporize it, to say yes, we still can say we live from the spirit, for we are church and we believe.
All my pictures are silent.  But there were voices when the photographer framed the picture and pressed the shutter release.  There were voices, and the sounds of cars and busses and trolleys.  There were birds, and the sound of the wind as it moved through the trees.  There were tears, cries and laughter.  All silent now.  At least in the photographs.  But the sound is not necessary to see the beauty, the aching beauty in each of them.  How much of the world’s sounds is made of words?  Very little, I would guess.  Meaning comes through to us in more than language.  It is all around us, all the time.  In a hug, a dance, a face full of tears, a little girl proudly carrying two bottles of milk.
Photos always say more than words can say.
And I think Pentecost does, too.  It is a gift of the Spirit, who opens our eyes to what we cannot say with words, cannot see with our eyes, cannot know with our minds, but can surely take in with our hearts.  We experience something, someone, wondrous and we cry because we cannot have it all or even say it all.  It is a gift larger than our hearts, but of our hearts.  A gift, more than we can say.  A photo, taken at just the right moment, can be like stealing fire, allowing us to see what we always seem to miss, right in our midst.   A world aflame, and someone saw it, and took a picture.  

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Photography as Prayer

Photography as Prayer

What is that phrase?  “To sing is to pray twice.”  Or something close to it.  There are other sayings, to.  I have heard a few monks say, by way of encouragement to some out-of-tune monks that singing well is giving praise to God.  Which, I gather, means that singing is praying.  I would venture to add something more.  That any beautiful, heart felt, heart rending piece of music is a delight to the ears of both God and the human.  Beautiful music comes from God and is returned to him with all that we can put into it.  A gift with no ribbons save those of the beautifully crafted hi’s and low’s of notes. 
We recently had a photography retreat here and the name of the retreat was “Faith, Image and Photography.”  During the retreat, a phrase came to me and kept returning to me – photography as prayer.  Just like music, or words, or any form that expresses something deep in us and finds its way out on canvas or marble – photography is prayer.  I watched the people on the retreat as they sighed and gasped when a photo of great beauty appeared on the screen.  I looked at them as they turned pages of the photo books we made available on retreat.  They lingered over the pages, smiling as they looked at pictures of children; looking sad as they saw the pictures of poor miners and their families; looking wondrously at photographs of simple, every day things – taken at a moment when they revealed something glorious and near divine, precisely because that is where these actually live – in the sublimity of the mundane.
We showed several DVD’s of several  photographers – James Nachtway and Milton Rogovin.  And two friends of the monastery, John Spink and Matthew Jeffres, shared their photographs of nature, people – people big and small, rich and poor – but all looking beautiful, looking just like they came from God.  Which of course they did.
I am sure that there are very few photographers who, when they frame that special shot in their view finder and stay as still as possible when they press the shutter button, feel as if they are communicating with God.  Trying to make beauty with the means that we have takes discipline, an eye for beauty, and the willingness to learn from others.  That to me is religious activity.  And that is what we try to give each other on the retreat.
I believe that God is all over and all through this earth.  There is no getting away from God, despite all the ant-God rhetoric of the atheists.  I respect their right to move God and God language out of the picture.  But that is not so easy, especially if they have a camera and look to take some of life’s beauty in a photograph.  I am sure God dies not mind.  In fact, he may appreciate a photo of great depth and majesty coming from “the other side.”  He is there, too, hidden as it were, behind the camera, clicking away, sharing something good with those who want to take a look.
If you have trouble praying this day, take a picture of someone or something that you love.  Or write a poem, or paint a picture.  Make some pasta. Play the light fantastic.  Do the Fandango. Have a good one. God moves the heart in many ways, all coming from and going back to him.