Sacred Seeing: The Baptism of the Lord

A few years ago, the Community of Jesus published a little book, Sacred Seeing: Praying with the Frescoes in the Church of the Transfiguration. As we approached the New Year, it seemed like a good opportunity to share this simple guide to praying with the art here in the church, especially for those of you who aren’t able to come and see it for yourselves. Over the next several weeks, we will be sharing the meditations from the book. We hope that it helps to enrich your prayer life as 2017 begins!

The Baptism of the Lord

The Baptism of Jesus

Spend a few moments looking at the fresco image
What are you first impressions of this fresco panel?
What do you notice about this fresco that sets it apart form all the others?

Read the Scripture: Matthew 3:13-17
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me? But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Some thoughts and questions to ponder
Jesus is flanked by John the Baptist and by a rock. What is their role as they are pictured this way? Perhaps the spandrels below give us some insight — Joshua 24:25-27 and Ezekiel 47:1,9

BaptSpandrel1BaptSpandrel2

 

 

 

 

 

A single staff stands leaning, perhaps against a rock. Whose is it, Jesus’ or John’s? In either case, what is its purpose; why is it there?

What does John’s kneeling posture tell us? What does Jesus’ standing posture tell us?

The artist has presented Jesus wearing a simple white robe. Why?

Why, at this event, did the Holy Spirit appear in the form of a dove? (e.g. it could have been fire, as on the day of Pentecost).

Why do you suppose there is so much sky in this fresco? It almost looks like Jesus is standing on a mountain top rather than in a river valley.

What does this image say to you about your own baptism?

Prayer
Lord, I don’t think enough about heaven,
about the ultimate end of my life…and its eternal purpose.
But here, looking up at you as John did,
I believe again that you are doing something unimaginable with me.
Before I leave this place,
I will sign myself once again with the waters of the font.
— a reminder of my own baptism
— a reminder that you have sealed me within your own heart, and stamped my heart with heaven’s address
— a reminder that, whether or not I can hear it right now, your (and my) Father’s voice has declared of me, “This is my beloved child;”
— a reminder that all the coarse fabric of my life will someday fall away, and I will exchange these garments of sorrow for robes of joy.
Until then, I will believe that you are doing something unimaginable with me.

Lord, in every way you have gone before me.
My steps were your steps, not so very long ago.
You descended to the Jordan valley,
and now your staff leads me there, too.
The descent is rough, sometimes slippery, and often lonely.
But the valley is where the river runs,
and the promise of new beginnings.
So, because you went there first, Lord, I will follow.
I will step into the healing stream,
bow my head under its rushing waters,
and look to see how you will come to me, again.

A Word from the Tradition
There is a mystery here. The pillar of fire went first through the Red Sea so that the children of Israel might follow without fear; it went first through the waters to open a way for those who were following. That event, then, was a symbol of baptism, as Paul tells us. Moreover, it is the same Christ who was at work then and now. Then he went through the sea, ahead of the Israelites, in the form of a pillar of fire; now he goes through the baptismal waters, ahead of the Christian people, in the pillar of his own body.
— Maximus of Turin, Sermons on the Epiphany (D.C. 466)

Image: ©2003 The Baptism of the Lord by Silvestro Pistolesi at the Church of the Transfiguration

Sacred Seeing

A few years ago, the Community of Jesus published a little book, Sacred Seeing: Praying with the Frescoes in the Church of the Transfiguration. As we approach the New Year, it seemed like a good opportunity to share this simple guide to praying with the art here in the church, especially for those of you who aren’t able to come and see it for yourselves. Over the next twelve weeks, we will be sharing the meditations from the book. We hope that it helps to enrich your prayer life as 2017 begins!

Introduction

Fresco of Jacob's Ladder by Silvestro Pistolesi in the Church of the Transfiguration at the Community of Jesus“Jacob came to a certain place, and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!… Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:10-17)

An ancient practice of prayer recommended by St. Benedict in his Rule, and still widely used today, is called lectio divina—sacred reading. The method requires enough silence, both inward and outward, and enough time spent mulling over and meditating upon a passage of the Bible, that the text eventually becomes a stepping stone to prayer and contemplation. This kind of reading is done not so much for content and knowledge as for insight and interpretation, for it is meant to lead the reader through the words to the God of whom they speak. There, in the presence of God, prayer becomes the only appropriate language.

Something similar can happen with art, and so it is that this little book may be considered a prayer guide for “sacred seeing.” Like Jacob’s dream, art can point us beyond itself, through its visible shapes and colors, to God who is both invisible and present. Like sacred words, sacred art can be a ladder to prayer.

The clerestory walls of the Church of the Transfiguration contain twelve fresco images that depict major events in the life of Christ:

Epiphany Entry into Jerusalem
Baptism Last Supper
Wedding at Cana Crucifixion
Calming the Sea Resurrection
Feeding the Multitude Ascension
Healing the Man Born Blind Pentecost

The following pages are offered as one way to spend enough time with these images—to “converse” with them long enough—so that they can lead us to prayer. And “enough time” is probably the most important tool here (along with a Bible, a pen, and piece of paper). The goal is not to get through all twelve images; it is to pray with them. In fact, it may be necessary to return again and again to the same image until it has “said enough” to you.

The shape of each meditation is as follows:
1. First, sit quietly and look at the fresco. The opening questions look only for your initial thoughts and impressions. Breathe. Take the time.

2. Then, slowly read the scripture passage that the image portrays. Don’t be afraid to stop at any word or phrase that calls for your attention, or particularly connects you with the fresco itself. (These readings are taken from the Revised Standard Version, the primary translation that was used to guide the word of all the artists in the Church of the Transfiguration.)

3. Consider some of the thoughts and questions (mostly questions) that are listed. Remember, these are only meant to guide the “conversation” that you are having. In every case, the goal is to listen for what the Holy Spirit may be saying to you through the fresco image.

4. Begin to turn your own questions and answers into prayer. What prayer is the fresco creating in your heart? What is it inspiring you to say to Jesus? A prayer or two is included here, but you may wish to write your own.

5. Finally, a word is offered “from the tradition”—something from an earlier pray-er who contemplated and wrote of the event you are looking at. Something to take with you as you leave.

Reflecting on his own experience with icons, Henri Nouwen once said that it was important for him to look at art with his “heart’s eye.” From that perspective, certain images kept him connected with his experience of love and he found that they helped him to pray when he had no words of his own. Learning to “see” in this way can take a long time. While its primary purpose is to house a community at worship, the Church of the Transfiguration, even from the earliest stages of its design, was envisioned also as a “teaching church,” a space that would proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ even when standing empty and silent. Among the many things that the church teaches us, perhaps it can also teach us to pray.

The Creation Doors

I have the pleasure of writing about the exciting and wonderfully executed art program on the main doors of the Church of the Transfiguration. The doors were designed in a different art style from the interior program. This is a deliberate choice, pointing toward the Fall of humankind from Grace and underscoring the iconographic program within the church as God’s saving answer.

On the doors are the parents of the human race, our parents Adam and Eve. They are pictured enjoying the great loveliness of God’s garden, peaceful in it’s order. Eve holds a simple rose and is breathing in its beauty and aroma. All of this peace is contained in a simple frame. They are both partially covered with vegetation from the garden. The artist designed them in such a manner that when the doors are opened (into the church), Adam is looking up at God; and Eve, our mother, is looking down lovingly at us as we enter.

But we know that all is not well in this garden paradise. Our parents are about to reject God’s fatherhood. They choose to become their own gods, to know good and evil, to make their own decisions; the loss of all peace and fellowship with God is the result. Chaos now reigns. We see the prophetic coming of chaos in the wild dune grass at the bottom of the doors and the beginning of disorder in the vegetation covering Adam and Eve. This choice cast us all on the mercy, love and saving grace of God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We must enter through the doors now, driven by our need to learn to love again.

Creation Doors Romolo Del Deo ©2000

Creation Doors at the Church of the Transfiguration

@Robert Benson Photography

Close up of Eve from the Creation Doors

Lumen Christi: Easter Encounters with Art

As Christians, the pursuit of beauty in all of its forms is ever before us. While the world’s definition of beauty – a wrinkle-free, almost inhuman imitation of so-called “perfection” – almost always leads to self-abasement and discouragement, true beauty as we seek it only leads to a further knowledge of God’s love for us, to a clearer and brighter reflection of who He is, and to a deeper desire to become co-creators of beauty with him in all the quotidian elements of our lives.

Gabriele Wilpers, an internationally celebrated painter and sculptor from Essen, Germany, knows all about this calling toward beauty, and all of the risks and rewards that accompany that vocation. After training as a photographer, between 1973 and 1978 Gabriele Wilpers studied free painting at the Folkwang Hochschule in Essen, Germany. Since then she has lived and worked in Essen as a freelance visual artist. In recent years she has taken first prize in competitions for art in the public domain, and she has designed entire church interiors for several parishes in the archidocese of Freiburg im Breisgau. Wilpers uses a variety of artistic methods in her artwork – painting, installation objects, film, and architectural glass – to reflect and describe the human existence. Her interventions in an existing space, which can be both sacred and profane in nature, question the context in which modern man lives today.

Back in July of 2005, Ms. Wilpers was invited by the Munster Chapter of the Catholic Women’s Organization to contribute to the 1200th anniversary of the diocese of Munster. The discovery of a medieval thimble, excavated from the ruins of the Uberwasser Convent, inspired Ms. Wilpers to create an installation for the nearby Uberwasser Gothic church. Entitled “As Numerous as the Stars in the Sky” Ms. Wilpers’ installation was comprised of thousands of thimbles gathered from the women of the diocese, and became a sort of memorial to the myriad, nameless women of Munster through the ages, who faithfully lived out their vocations. Upon entering the church, the viewer’s gaze was immediately drawn upward to a sparkling, starry canopy made up of these now almost meaningless, outdated objects, each suspended from different colored threads, and given new meaning by Ms. Wilpers for this occasion. As one journalist put it, “Each individual thimble—the protector of sensitive fingertips—hence becomes a symbol of that which women have experienced and achieved. They become centuries-old witnesses to female stories and histories, trigger many associations in connection with women’s lives and, taken out of their original context, artfully perform their story-telling role. The sparkling firmament speaks of the hard work of women, of suffering and poverty, but also of joy, and inside the church represents a symbolic space for the histories of uncounted women in the diocese.”[1]

Ms. Wilpers’ installation in the Munster Church was only temporary, but her art has found many other permanent homes, one of which is the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. Gabriele Wilpers designed the glass sculpture on the West Wall of the Church of the Transfiguration, connecting the oculus window and lintel (over the main doors) in a seamless design portraying Christ’s Transfiguration. In Wilpers‘ studio at Essen and at the Derix Glasstudios in Taunusstein, Germany, she and glass fabricators collaborated on the modern abstract sculpture. The sculpture features sixty-four individually cast glass panels covered with gold-leaf paint, which was partially removed with an acid wash.The varying intensity of the gold and the pattern of ridges and valleys evoke elements of the reflected light from sunsets over the Cape Cod sand flats and combine to gather, reflect, and refract light, becoming a glistening and shimmering wall of Transfiguration splendor.

This week, artists, art-lovers and all seekers of beauty have an opportunity to encounter and hear from Gabriele Wilpers first-hand here at the Community of Jesus. Lumen Christi: Easter Encounters with Art will be held April 5th through 9th. Ms. Wilpers is joined by Monsignor Timothy Verdon, a renowned Art Historian and prolific author, for this five-day series of illuminating lectures on Easter themes of light, resurrection and rebirth in sacred art. All are invited to come and be inspired by these beautifully illustrated lectures on art and architecture, from the baroque to the contemporary, hosted by the Mount Tabor Ecumenical Centre for Art and Spirituality. In a time when so many Christian women and artists suffer from isolation, lack of support and understanding, and a market-driven secular environment, Lumen Christi: Easter Encounters with Art offers an alternate experience of contemplation and creativity, focusing on the artists‘ vital contribution to the faith conversation. For more information visit www.mounttabor.it or call 508-240-7090.

04 Muenster 2005

02 Thimbles 200505 Muenster 2005All photos courtesy of Herbert Wilpers

[1] Frank Joachim Schmitz, Berichte, Das Munster,

GlassWallMarch 2005

In the river of grace

By Faithful Finch

I love it when things fall into place when I’ve been trying to figure something out. That happened for me today.
I haven’t been able to get the central work of Frammenti, our present art exhibit, out of my mind. It was like it was trying to tell me something, and I wasn’t hearing it. I knew that the cross was a traditional form that was associated with baptistries, and that there were bands of gold and red to suggest steps descending and ascending.
When I would go into church, I would look at our baptismal font and think about the steps going in and out of the baptismal water and associate it with the cross.
Last night, I went back and read the Frammenti book that explains the pieces in the exhibit. It says, “the baptismal experience itself evokes both a descent into the tomb and the triumph of resurrection,” and “that the resurrection is a daily movement as the confession of sin and the desire for renewal are met by the mercy of God.”

I think I forget to climb back up the steps and come out of the tomb sometimes. Above the cross are fragments that hold such beauty and joy; beauty and joy that I forget are part of the process.
I had no idea that Sunday was the “Feast of the Baptism of our Lord” until I got to church. It felt like a real celebration — a celebration that if we will stay in that “river of grace”, He will bring us home.

A cross, part of the Frammenti exhibit by artists Susan Kanaga and Filippo Rossi

A cross, part of the Frammenti exhibit by artists Susan Kanaga and Filippo Rossi

Fiat Voluntas Tuas

By Faithful Finch

In February, I visited the Donatello exhibit at MOBIA in NYC. Monsignor Timothy Verdon spoke about each sculpture in depth. In addition to the Donatello sculptures, there was Giovanni d’Ambrogio’s “Gabriel of the Annunciation” and the “Virgin Mary of the Annunciation.” I found “Virgin Mary” especially provoking, as Mary appeared to be a young man.

Monsignor Verdon explained that d’Ambrogio had sculpted her this way to communicate that God so loves and respects each and every person, whether man or woman, that if we will say, “yes” as Mary did, He will send His Son to live inside of us. How simple but profound!

Gabriel and Virgin Mary

What is Art?

By Sr. Spero

Those of us who have passed through several decades seem to have one unanswered question that circles through the years.  Mine is “what is art”?  I tried to answer the question in school with a confusing course on Aesthetics.  That didn’t work, and now, many years later, I’m no closer to the answer.  I have learned a couple of things though—that what I like and don’t like has little to do with art; that what moves me, or makes me cry, is not a test of art.  That what disgusts me is just as likely to be called great art.  And that art takes all forms—the visual arts, music, poetry, dance, theater, as well as the culinary arts, the art of smells–incense or perfume, and many more, such as flower arranging, architecture, and so on.  As a monastic at The Community of Jesus, I am surrounded by many forms of art; most recently, the art of making yogurt!

Tolstoy said “a writer [artist] is dear and necessary for us only in the measure of which he reveals to us the inner workings of his very soul.”  I am pondering this as a definition of art.  Is that quality, so hard to pin down, recognizable in great art, simply a revelation of the “workings of the [artist’s] soul,” wrought through creative struggles with paint, sound, words, movement, even food?

I welcome your comments, thoughts and opinions.  

My next big question is “is all art subjective?”  or is there an objective measure – to which we can all say, “yes, that is great art.”  

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853 - 1890 ), Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853 – 1890 ), Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. Public Domain.

A Few Kind Words

By Sr. Nun Other

If God said, “You may choose one gift of the Spirit and become that gift,” which would you choose—love, joy, peace, long suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, or self-control?  Me? I’d choose kindness because our world surely needs it.

Kindness is hard to define and difficult to achieve. It’s situational, not one dimensional, and best occurs when there’s an absence of agenda on the part of the giver. Genuine kindness is closely knit to truth; it unselfishly expands the capacity to love.

I end with this wonderful verse: “Do not let kindness and truth leave you; Bind them around your neck, Write them on the tablet of your heart.”  Proverbs 3:3

From the floor of the Church of the Transfiguration, the acorn is native to the Holy Land and a traditional symbol of kindness

From the floor of the Church of the Transfiguration, the acorn is native to the Holy Land and a traditional symbol of kindness

An Ecounter With Joy

By Sr. Nun Other

If I were to write a musical, I would juxtapose two hymns that are beautifully simple, and simply beautiful. Our Communion hymn for last week was the 18th. century Shaker hymn, Simple Gifts.  I stood near the altar during the singing of it, surrounded by delightful mosaic tile flowers, insects, butterflies, mammals, and sea creatures. They swirled and flourished beneath my feet with enviable freedom and energy, content to be as God created them. Mind and imagination took over, and I added my own (non auditory!) touch as we sang: ‘Tis the gift to be simple,’tis the gift to be free…all things bright and beautiful…’tis the gift to come down where we ought to be…all creatures great and small…in the place just right….all things wise and wonderful…in the valley of love and delight… the Lord God made us all!  Creation interrupts our busy, sometimes chaotic lives, to teach simplicity of heart, humbleness of spirit, and unfailing trust in God.

The Community of Jesus

 

Transfiguration

By Renaissance Girl

Yesterday was the feast day of the Transfiguration, the name day of our church. Our Sunday Eucharist was enlivened with movement and brass fanfare and ribbons streaming from the west wall depicting the Transfiguration story. But what’s on my mind is transfiguration in its broader sense — most likely prompted by the combination of yesterday’s service, and the impending opening night of “Julius Caesar” this Friday by Elements Theatre Company. It’s a big word for a concept that is both basic and immensely mysterious — change.

A word most of us both long for and avoid. I easily focus on the little changes of my daily life — an updated rehearsal time, a cancelled event, a new living situation — and I overlook the fact that life itself is one big change, and one we can’t measure by time or distance. Like St. Paul says in the scriptures, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”  Degree by degree, moment by moment, becoming who we are meant to be.

What eludes me sometimes is the fact that God can use anything to bring about this change. It’s not about me trying to become different — it’s an action God does in me when I say “yes.” Which is where “Julius Caesar” comes in. Isn’t part of what draws us to theater — or any art — is the potential for change? To see something a little differently, experience life in someone else’s shoes. I wonder if theater/art is one of the few places we humans are actually open to having our minds or opinions changed — maybe we even long for it. The “Julius Caesar” I read in high school, held at arms length, is quite different from the “Julius Caesar” I am living now. And sometimes just the willingness to engage (to consider that what seems like an old story from history, actually has something to teach us now) is all it takes to start the change.

I have a quote on my desk that I love and says it far better — it was said by Monsignor Timothy Verdon, Director of the Office of Sacred Art and Church Cultural Heritage in Florence, Italy. He says the role of an artist requires him or her to give to others and therefore inspires us to look to him/her as a giver of spiritual life and “by doing that, we acknowledge art’s potential to nourish our craving for richer, deeper, more meaningful life, and we are already changed.”

The Community of Jesus