How Can We Cultivate a Culture of Reverence?

“Im not interested in longing to live in a world in which I already live.”  Brad Modlin was reading from Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, a book about the color blue.  The Ministerium of Ideas was meeting to examine the question of how we can cultivate a culture of reverence, and Brad was sharing an omnium-gatherum of readings that he’s collected during his studies as a poet and a teacher of literature.  He divided these readings into five sections, and talked to us about Reverence through Rituals, the Reverence of Dropping Silent, Reverence as/by Staring, Reverence as Pause, and Reverence as Real Presence.  Most of the readings were drawn from contemporary poetry, and for many of us this was part of the excitement – to discover the gathered wisdom of a world of artists who are living now and experiencing the same fractured world that we experience.

To talk about ritual, Brad read Marie Howe’s poem, “What the Living Do.”  She wrote it for her dead brother, and Brad’s point was that the reverence of ritual shows up in everyday life, in the wonder at just being alive, even when grocery store bags break and the sink gets clogged up.  The poem conveys the idea that cultivating reverence is not about looking for exceptional moments, but discovering the beauty of the ordinary.

And that beauty can be wonderfully discovered when we fall silent.  Brad showed us a video of Neil Hilborn performing his spoken word piece, “OCD.”  Hilborn suffers from the eponymous condition, and the piece is a spillage of words, starting at a heightened level of intensity and becoming more intense.  But it’s true power comes at the end, when Hilborn falls silent.  All the clutter and confusion of his mind and words is allowed, for a moment, to lapse into quiet, and I couldn’t help thinking of the clutter and confusion of my own life, and those moments of allowed silence that create a sense of reverence.

Brad showed us a video of Marina Abramovic’s amazing performance art piece, “The Artist is Present.”  Abramovic performed the piece at MOMA, and it consisted of nothing more than her sitting, in a red dress, at a table.  When audience members sat down opposite her, she made eye contact with them for as long as they wanted.  Some people would sit for only a few seconds.  Others for long periods of time.  Some would weep.  The piece emphasized the power of the human gaze, but also the paucity of looking in our lives.  And this was Brad’s point, that reverence can be cultivated simply by gifting each other, and the world around us, with our attention.

So what stops us?  Perhaps its the fact that we fall too easily under the sway of what Brad called kronos, an understanding of time as sequential and demanding.  Kronos is the root of the word “chronology,” and holds within it the idea that time is fleeting, and that we must use it to accomplish all that we can before we die.  Brad contrasted this to kairos, which he described as God’s time, time that is eternal and secure, and that we don’t need to feel anxious about.  To engage in the rituals of ordinary life, to fall silent, to look and truly see, we need to let go of chronic anxiety and cultivate kairos.

And we need to understand that the world is full of what Brad (and countless Catholic theologians) called “real presence.”  To illustrate this, he showed us Michael Craig-Martin’s piece, “An Oak Tree.”  The piece consisted of nothing more than a water glass on a shelf, and a dialog between Craig-Martin and an unknown interlocutor, in which Craig-Martin makes the case for the water being an oak tree, in the same way that bread is seen to be the real presence within the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.  “An Oak Tree” is an examination of belief.  We need this belief to give meaning to the mechanics of ritual, but, Craig-Martin asserts, it is also only through belief that we can give meaning to art, and life.  Experiencing reverence in the ordinary, in ordinary silences and ordinary seeing, seems to require the mediation of belief.  We believe that we will see something that contains more meaning than the ordinary should allow.

Which brings us back to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, and her assertion that all the things we long for are already present here, if we could simply look and see them.  They’re present within the color blue, which is Nelson’s great obsession.  They’re also present within moments of realized justice, and in classes that we take about Ohio trees, and when we sit beside people who are dying, and when we witness the power of a sunset.  There is a great and constant transubstantiation going on, brought about by our silences, our looking, and our reverence.

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