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.

Why is it so hard to help people die?

“If the goal of medicine is to prevent death, then the entire enterprise is a complete and utter failure.”  Dr. Robert Taylor of the Ohio State Medical Center was speaking to us at the Newman Center on a Thursday in early December.  We had gathered to examine the question of why it’s so hard to help people die in America.  Dr. Taylor has spent his career examining the ethics and spirituality of palliative care, and has concluded that the goal of medicine isn’t to prevent death, but to relieve suffering.  He and his colleagues are re-thinking the ethical paradigm for providing medical care to the elderly in an aging world, and he graciously shared their discoveries with us.

People who are seeking a good death help their families prepare for their absence.  One of the frequent questions that patients ask Dr. Taylor is, “how much time do I have?”  In some cases, they are really asking him to try to extend their time on earth.  But in most cases they’re thinking through all of the things they’ll need to do to arrive at a good death.  One of the most important aspects of a good death is called “completion.”  It means a chance to thank those who have been important in our lives, to forgive those who have hurt us, to express love, and to ask for absolution.  People who are seeking a complete end to their lives are willing, in general, to cede medical decisions to their loved ones, because they care more about their loved ones’ well-being than their own autonomy.  Seeking completion is a way of helping those loved ones prepare for the dying person’s absence.

Ceding one’s autonomy can be very counter-cultural, especially among white middle-class people.  Dr. Taylor pointed out that being dependent on others is often the worst thing that white middle-class people can imagine.  Which made me realize that even a healthy person in mid-life, such as myself, can begin preparing for a good death by surrendering my self-reliance daily.  As I listened to Dr. Taylor, and thought about my own eventual death, I realized that I want it to be fearless.  I don’t want to cling to life because I think that I can somehow control it.  I also don’t want to fear death because of a sense that too many things have been left undone.  A good death, it seems to me, is a reflection of a good life.

Hospice is a unique cultural institution, one of the only American institutions that explicitly bless death in a culture that is youth-obsessed and death adverse.  Our faith-communities can sometimes do this, but with less consistency and intentionality.  What if we were to adopt the questions of hospice and ask them of our members?  Dr. Taylor gave us four questions to ask.  What is most important to you?  What gives your life meaning?  What is your greatest fear?  What is your greatest support?  These questions can be asked of anyone, at any time.  They are questions that help us understand our lives as we live them.  And because of that, they are questions that can help us understand, and accept, our deaths.

How Can Our Faith Communities Grow in Creativity and Imagination?

To sit with Roger Klein is to sit with a man of eloquence, of erudition, and to sit with a very good teacher, a teacher who, when he asks you a question, does so because he expects to learn something from you.  We sat with him at the Newman Center last Thursday as he led us in an exploration of creativity and imagination, bringing us into conversation with philosophers and poets and novelists.  We considered how the imagination puts us in contact with our Creator, and helps us shape meaning, sometimes prophetic meaning, from our daily lives.

William Carlos Williams wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day from lack of what is found there.”  Part of what is found there, Roger told us, is a deep attention to relationships.  We considered the great power of interpersonal relationships as disclosed in Emily Dickinson’s poetry, and the immense tragedy of political relationships, which we examined through an excerpt from Avi Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.  The excerpt told of how Shmarya Gutman, when watching the exodus of Palestinians from Lydda, understood that these Arab refugees were re-enacting the Babylonian Exile.  Shavit writes: “As the military governor watches the faces of the people marching into exile, he wonders if there is a Jeremiah among them to lament their calamity and disgrace.  Suddenly he feels an urge to join the marching people and to be their Jeremiah.  For one long moment, he who is their Nebuchadnezzar wishes to be their Jeremiah.”   This particularly struck me, the way in which we can see our own story in other people’s lives, and feel the deep empathy that this reading allows, even as we struggle against them.

I often despair over the fact that religious stories are disappearing from our culture’s consciousness – that people sometimes use religious narratives and images without knowing that they are religious, or understanding the deeper meanings that they convey.  Rabbi Klein’s talk helped me to set this despair aside.  Maybe it’s not so important that other people understand our stories.  Maybe it’s important for us to use our stories to understand, and empathize with, other people. Will using our creativity in this way help us to act with more compassion towards those who are different from us?  Will it help us to let go of the pride and fear that divides us?  I left the lunch without having an answer, but feeling some of the hope expressed in the question.

How Can Our Faith Communities Become the Center of Our Neighborhoods Again?

As Darren Meyer spoke to the Ministerium of Ideas, I could feel a growing sense of excitement and bewilderment fill the room.  In a clear, logical way, using many slides and statistics, Darren was telling us a story about our neighborhoods and nation that we hadn’t heard before.  As he talked, I found myself grasping at each node of thought, each specific statistic, and wishing that I had hours to sit and consider it.  The last decade has seen a reversal of the driving boom that started at the end of World War II – people are driving less and for shorter distances than they used to.  In the next thirty years, racial and ethnic minorities will account for almost all population growth in Ohio.  In the last decade, there has been an overall move back into cities, which are now often safer and and have better public services than the suburbs that people once fled to.  And I kept thinking about how many of our faith communities are commuter communities, serving parishioners who drive far distances to attend, and how many of our faith communities aren’t integrated and make little effort at integration, and how we’ve been closing urban churches in the very neighborhoods that are becoming revitalized.

Darren talked about how public services in Ohio are funded through income tax, which means that cities need business offices and factories to pay for trash pick-up and park maintenance, and will offer property tax incentives to corporations that move into them.  But public schools aren’t funded through income tax, but property tax.  In 1991, owners of residential properties paid 48% of the costs of schools.  By 2011, they were paying 70%.  In neighborhoods where there are high property values, the schools can do quite well.  But in poorer neighborhoods, the schools will always be worse off.  While he talked, I thought about the people who live in our neighborhoods and sit in our pews, bearing all of these fears about their children’s education, and how seldom we talk about property taxes and school levies in our faith communities.  As Darren pointed out, safety, education, and economic opportunity are basic needs in our neighborhoods.  Shouldn’t our concern for social justice center around these needs?

So how can we help city governments and school boards create and sustain great neighborhoods?  Architects like Darren start by identifying enduring bright spots – historic buildings and institutions, geographical features like rivers and lakes, and city parks and village greens.  Faith communities are often historically rooted in a neighborhood, but, too frequently, they’ve closed themselves off from that neighborhood and limited their ability to stand as enduring bright spots.  How could we change this, I wondered?  Darren told us about other institutions – libraries, museums, hospitals – that have changed their images and their community impact, beginning with a process of genuine engagement with the community.  Public-private partnerships are important.  For Darren, who was the lead architect on Columbus’s Scioto Mile project, there is something deeply exciting about bringing civic groups, corporations, and non-profit institutions together for opportunities to dream about what a neighborhood should be like, and what needs its public spaces, its parks and squares, can serve.  But the truly exciting moment comes when the park is built, and people who didn’t help plan it start showing up and using it in unexpected ways.  For him, this is the sign that it’s a successful public space.

All week, I’ve been wondering if our faith communities can follow the example of public libraries, which Darren identified as a key third place within these revitalized neighborhoods.  The rise of the internet meant that libraries had to change their focus, since they were no longer the primary portal to information in our communities.  They expanded their service to their neighborhoods and develops programs that brought the community in.  What would it be like if a church or a synagogue created a calendar of programs for neighborhood kids, with no other motive than being of service.  Our buildings are tragically underused.  After Darren finished his talk, the members of the Ministerium began to think and dream about how to change this.  Could we remove the pews from our sanctuaries, and invite people in to do yoga, like they have at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco?  Could we host after school programs, plays, recitals, parties, movies?  Could we spend time with neighborhood partners, figuring out what they need, and then lend our resources to meeting those needs?  Can we, in short, become enduring bright spots in the revitalization of whole neighborhoods?


How Can We Find New Ways to Collaborate

Twelve years ago, Pete Anderson went on sabbatical from his position as a Professor of Material Science and Engineering at OSU.  Although he and his family were living out of state, he found himself returning to Ohio through the course of the year to check on programs and experiments that he was in charge of.  To save costs on lodging, he bought a sofa sleeper which he put in his office on campus.  It was living in these cramped quarters, a few paces from the desk that he worked at, that sent him out onto the campus on a Sunday morning and brought him to Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church.

As he’s grown older, Pete says that he’s come to value collaboration more and more, especially as he’s gained some sense of the limitations of his own creativity and ingenuity.  A few years ago, he became involved in a project to grow engineered skin.  He was at a cross-disciplinary campus meeting, where he met a burn specialist attached to OSU’s medical center.  When he spoke before the Ministerium of Ideas last week, he told us that the key to such collaborations is finding a person with a great passion.  The burn specialist he met had spent several years treating people with severe burns, and knows how pernicious infection is for treating this kind of injury.  Pete agreed to her vision of speeding up the process of creating skin (in vats, from the patient’s own cells), and they enlisted two others to help in the effort.

For Pete, this is the central insight into strong collaborations.  Someone with vision and passion needs to be the catalyst.  Others need to align themselves with that vision and bring their own skills and talents to bear.  Like all the questions we examine in the Ministerium, this insight presents us with an opportunity to act.  Who in our neighborhoods and faith communities have the most passionate visions, and how can we help people articulate those visions, and support them?

How Can Our Faith Communities Support Prophetic Voices?

We stood in the Columbus Museum of Art, all of us a little damp from the downpour outside, and listed to Melissa Wolfe, Curator of American Art.  We had come to the museum to view the Modern Dialect exhibit, which features paintings from the 1920s through the 1940s, paintings that offer a stirring critique of American society in that time period.  We wanted to explore the question of how our faith communities can support prophetic voices, and standing in the gallery we found ourselves in the midst of such prophesy, and a little awed by it.

Melissa told us about how artists in the 18th and 19th centuries used busts of eminent people and scenes from great moments to coax viewers towards emulation.  If we want, for instance, to be as brave as Washington crossing the Delaware, we might gaze on a painting of that subject to train our souls in bravery.  But after the Jacksonian revolution in American thought, we became less interested in the consideration of great people and moments, and more interested in scenes from everyday life.  We were saying, in essence, that American greatness lies in the ordinary lives or ordinary people.

In the 1920s this became complicated, since the lives of ordinary people were being disregarded by the very rich.  So paintings that showed people at a fair or a barn dance had a political subtext – they defiantly celebrated people who were otherwise being ignored.  As she walked us through the exhibit, Melissa led us from this low-key type of prophetic voice to more clearly stated and strident prophecies.guy_waterfront  As she pointed out, prophecy is almost always the voice of the disenfranchised and disinherited, a voice from the margins of society to critique the whole.  We spent some time looking at James Guy’s “On the Waterfront,” which borrowed from European surrealism to exaggerate figures and landscape, but for a social rather than psychological purpose.

We talked, during the tour and afterwards, about how prophecy roots itself in history, and becomes louder and more understandable when we understand the contexts into which it is spoken.  We looked at Clarence Carter’s “Down the River,” which was painted in Portsmouth, Ohio in 1937, after the Ohio river flooded.  More than three hundred and seventy-five people died in the flood, many from exposure in the January cold because they were made homeless by the disaster.  Carter painted a scene of two women, looking over the flood wall in Portsmouth before the flood.  Melissa pointed out that these women act as prophetic seers.  Plainly dressed, they symbolize the people whom the flood will effect, and seem to be looking where we can’t look, onto the flood plain that will soon be under water.

After the tour we ate lunch together and talked about this painting, and the others we had seen.  Maybe, someone suggested, our faith communities can best support prophetic voices by cultivating seers, people who can see over the horizon to the coming disasters.  Maybe they can teach us all how to bear witness to those disasters, particularly the silent, unobserved disasters of poverty and hopelessness.  In order to do this, someone suggested, we need to cultivate an understanding of beauty and truth that doesn’t rely on pleasure.  If we’re to prophetically present ugly, sometimes aggressive truths to our faith communities, we have to foster communities that can hear those truths without being offended by the fact that they’re not pleasurable.  Finally, prophecy calls us to action, and the best support a prophetic voice can receive is a willingness to share in the work of righting the wrongs that such a voice brings to our attention.