“Walk in Beauty” by Mark W. Harris – September 28, 2008
“Walk in Beauty” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – September 28, 2008
Opening Words from Ellen Sturgis Hooper
I slept, and dreamed that life was Beauty;
I woke, and found that life was Duty.
Was thy dream then a shadowy lie?
Toil on, sad heart, courageously,
And thou shalt find thy dream to be
A noonday light and truth to thee.
Reading – from “Loving Frank” by Nancy Horan
Sermon – “Walk in Beauty” Mark W. Harris
My parents had little or no understanding of music or art, except to know what they liked. I don’t say that to be critical of them. No one ever taught them. It is just how it was. They didn’t know Bach from Beethoven from Brahms, and frankly neither do I. As a minister I have enjoyed learning something about music appreciation. My parents favored Lawrence Welk and Liberace, while I rocked on with the Beatles and Stones. The same was true of art appreciation in my house. My parents didn’t know Manet from Monet from Modigliani, and so our walls ended up being filled with what they liked, which was pictures of people, especially dead ancestors, but living ones, too. We had a few painted wooden eagles here and there to remind us that we lived in a Federal period house, but mostly what I remember is the portraits. There was this popular fad in the mid-twentieth century of taking photographs, and converting them to oil paintings, and so our living room was adorned with two large paintings of my parents. At some point my mother’s portrait which was reproduced from a photo taken sometime in her forties was replaced with another portrait based on a photo of her as a young nursing student when her hair was long, luxurious and black. Perhaps she wanted a representation of herself when she perceived that she was more beautiful. As I was growing up, other family matriarchs were added to the portrait gallery, and since I loved history and genealogy this was meaningful to me, too.
Last week when Andrea was waxing eloquently about England and their bizarre ways of drying clothes. I was reminded of what A. A. Gill, the author of The Angry Island, had said about art and England. He wrote that the English mistrust art because its meaning is not direct and clear. Art is emotional and can be voluptuous, and so the English prefer portraiture because all of it can be judged by one simple criteria – they want it to mean the same thing to everyone, like a chair, or steam engine or a picture of someone, which either looks like someone or doesn’t. So it is not really art, but instead requires only talents like craft and skill. It has been said the American artist John Singer Sargent had drawing skills like few people who have ever lived, but he lacked imagination, depth or meaning, and so his art consisted of well executed but empty portraits of rich people. So perhaps my parents, and many of us have inherited this English mistrust of art. We go for the simple and straight forward, and so many people marvel when they say the painting looks just like a photograph. The closest my parents got to art appreciation was when they discovered Andrew Wyeth. His stark portraits of people and houses was appealing to them because I think they saw as it as an extension of their love of portraiture and realism that would not fool them. They could understand its simplicity and direct imagery drawn from life experiences, and to them it was not emotional or abstract, even though Wyeth himself has used that latter word to describe his art.
The other portrait that filled our house was that classic picture of the Nordic looking Jesus with the long flowing, wavy hair outlining his serene, loving gaze. Our portrait was a desk model that had a little light that could shine on the image from above. As a boy, I suppose the idea was that this living room adornment would reinforce that Jesus loved me and all the children of the world, just as we sang in Sunday school, but I don’t think it was ever considered art like El Greco’s painting of “Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple” or Caravaggio’s “Supper at Emmaus,” or maybe it was. My own conversion to art appreciation occurred when I was assigned an elementary school project by the art teacher, who was this lanky, blond woman who would show up at my rural two room school house once or twice a week in this zippy little red MG. Her appearance for a variety of reasons was cause for celebration. While my skills at drawing was limited to stick figures, the opportunity to research, and assemble a booklet with photos of paintings I found in old magazines was exciting, as it combined many of the things I already loved, and in fact always have. I learned about artists and art history, but was also introduced to Vincent van Gogh.
Those paintings of his produced an emotional response in me, and this remains true today. When I look on the images I know I am moved. They shake my very soul. And so the corn fields seems to wave, and the sunflowers are bursting with life, but while the colors and thickness of paint are not the skillful reproduction of the perfect photographic image, there is something that sees through to the soul of the person like the poor, peasants in the Potato Eaters you can view here in Boston, or to the very heart of nature as in the famous Starry Night. This painting was the cause of our Harris family pilgrimage to New York a couple of years ago, as it had moved our youngest on sight, just as it had moved me so many years ago. There you see the dark night with the tree leaning skyward echoing the church steeple nearby, while all the stars vibrate in a night that is magically alive. To help children see and enjoy beauty in life and in art is to help them know what is holy.
As a young man van Gogh was a preacher whose calling did not work out so well, but he turned to painting pictures of those same peasants he ministered among. One of his biographers says, he described this as a kind of conversion experience: “Even in that deep misery I felt my energy revive, and I said to myself, in spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I had forsaken in my discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing. From that moment everything has seemed transformed for me.” So his art became his religious expression of faith in God and the simple piety of the poor hardworking folks. This was a God who he said “was not dead or stuffed, but alive, urging us to love, with irresistible force. . . . Our purpose is self-reform by means of a handicraft and of intercourse with Nature — our aim is walking with God.” Van Gogh tried to capture what he saw of the infinite in the subjects of everyday life. “I prefer painting people’s eyes to cathedrals,” he wrote, “for there is something in the eyes that is not in the cathedral, however solemn and imposing the latter may be — a human soul, be it that of a poor beggar or of a street walker, is more interesting to me.” When recounting the birth of a coal miner’s calf he described it as a sacred event, analogous to the birth of Christ, with the numinous quality of a beautiful painting. (1.) His Potato Eaters is a kind of communion of family dinner illuminated by the lamp of the table, which represents a “white light” that can shine in our lives. So for me as a young boy who had few skills at drawing or playing a musical instrument, there was still this inexpressible, sudden realization that I could feel this incredibly deep meaning that conveyed the beauty and wonder of life through works of art, and I would simply need to pursue something expressive that could transform me through observation, living, writing, decorating, gardening or cooking (which were my father’s creative outlets), or even adorning myself. There is the balanced discipline of learning a craft coupled with the flair of creativity. How could I express my creative spirit?
We Unitarian Universalists come out of a Protestant, and more specifically Congregational tradition, especially here in New England. That Puritan faith we evolve from was attempting to purify a church in England that had been Catholic up until the time when Henry VIII decided he wanted to get divorced, and create a new church with himself as the head. This week I was looking at a book called Stripping the Altars, which literally describes what the early Protestants in England hoped to do, but what the Puritans took even further. They were partly reacting against a church where no one could read, and so the Bible stories had been told in elaborate stain glass windows, and images of Jesus and other saints decorated the sanctuary in chapels and altars. The church had developed cults of saints, and venerated images and objects. The Puritans especially wanted to have a direct relationship with God, and so all of these images of the holy were rejected because the Bible told them that creating images of God was idolatrous. They did not pray to saints or expect that relics would provide special healing power, but rather wanted a direct experience of God, and thought they would feel that most powerfully by reading the word of God that they found in their Bibles. They rejected religious art because they didn’t need the holy represented for them, or to be told what it meant. They wanted to feel God directly in their lives through the impact of reading. So while it seems that Puritan meetinghouses are devoid of art because there are no statues, or stained glass, the emotional religious response is really two fold. You need to find God or the holy for yourself, and no priest is going to tell you what it is or what it looks like. You are the creative source of faith. And second, it needs to be directly experienced; it is not idealized in a cathedral or with stained glass, but in a simple dwelling that looks out on the world. This is what you have; each other or potato eaters in a humble home. The potter’s clay is yours to shape.
It could be that the English suspiciousness of art comes from this period when religious art was rejected. While it may simply seem like it is devoid of Jesus and Mary or any images because it is so stark or only word filled, there is also the possibility of a conversion like van Gogh had, so that the soul infuses all of life. The problem is that this kind of freedom is scary to many of us. We are afraid of the blinding light, and turn to alternatives to keep the spirit occupied. Perhaps the classic way of describing this is with the child who is given a pen or marker and told to draw. We have all seen the child who is uninhibited in use of color or line or expression, but we have probably also been the adult who wants to make sure that rules of reproducing exact, portrait like images are followed. How many of us say , “oh I can’t draw”, and therefore conclude that our ability to be artistic is thus non existent.
For many years a man named Tim Ashton was the UUA’s District Executive in this area. He knew me for a long time through work at the UUA, and then as minister in Milton, and finally here. Whenever Tim saw me after Andrea and I had started dating, he always made a comment on how sharp I was dressing, or how my clothes matched for the first time ever. He had known me as a drab, depressed and dumpy looking young minister, and now suddenly I was a fashionable, flashy and fit looking guy, well maybe not so flashy or fit, but at least I looked like I cared. The change occurred partly because I had a partner who knew what clothes went together, and made me aware that there were colors besides dark blue and green, but also because there was a change in me. I was in love. There was a change of heart. I had a direction and a devotion. I once preached a sermon here on Princess Diana, as a representation of beauty. By typical sexist standards, she was not a physical beauty, and yet her spirit, her vivaciousness, her obvious love of life made her beautiful, at least in the eye of this beholder.
One problem we all have is that the beauty that is our very being and the artistic expression of our soul’s beauty is not always easy to accomplish. In her novel, The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison reflects upon the young black girl who learns that the idea of physical beauty in our culture is that you must have blue eyes, or you must be white. Morrison writes about our cultural ideal of beauty as one of “the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. (It) originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion. In equating physical beauty with virtue, she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap.” If the other girl was cute, then she was not. She lacked the thing that would have made her cute. Sometimes that inability to see our own beauty leads us to grasp at the shallow reflections of beauty that are found in the consumer culture. There is a classic scene in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, where Daisy is with Gatsby and he begins to throw one shirt after another onto a bed – shirts of silk, and linen, in many colors and monogrammed in blue. Daisy bends her head into the shirts and begins to weep. “They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such- such beautiful shirts before.”
Some of us search for beauty in our appearance, and we try to alter our given beauty with an acquired beauty forged in the image of society and culture or we fear losing that natural or acquired beauty as we age, even as my mother symbolically did when she replaced one portrait with another. And some of us search for the artistic expression of that longing for beauty in our lives, and continually try to surrounded ourselves in the beauty of more and more acquisitions.
How do we draw that line between having the clothes that reflect the beauty we feel, and the clothes that may be beautiful but function as a shallow facade for an empty shell? The Puritans would have said the beauty of the old church was a facade of control and manipulation. It is obedience to false gods, and its art demands that you censor your feelings and passion in service to its authority. And while we may no longer be battling with the relics of the ancient church, we still have issues around manipulation. How can I live a beautiful life that breaks free of these manipulations to buy every day, or be a certain way?
I have been wanting this church to purchase matching chairs for a long time. I suppose we could go the old Yankee route and say use them up until they are all worn out, but in case you haven’t noticed, we have been losing about one purple chair a week to breakage. The old red chairs were useful for a long time, but they were purchased nearly 35 years ago. The purple ones are breaking and the folding ones are just plain old and ugly. I equate the way we look now with the way I use to look before I met Andrea. I was serviceable, but I look dumpy and unexciting. All matching chairs means not only that we match, but that we look sharp. We look welcoming. We look like we care. But beyond that it looks like we want to do something. We want to make a difference in the world. Our faith matters. If we are a church that just wants to exist to be serviceable and functioning, then we are a far way from striving for the creation of beauty in our ourselves and in our community. This is our sacred space. How is it going to reflect the beauty we want from life and religion? This is not Gatsby’s piles of facade, or altar pieces of coercion. This is the reflection that we are a vibrant people who are growing and building a strong congregation.
This past week Andrea and I received some church jokes via email . Among them was this: A Sunday School teacher began her lesson with a question, “Boys and Girls, what do we know about God? A hand shot up in the air. “He is an artist! said the kindergarten boy. Really? How do you know? the teacher asked. You know, Our father who does art in heaven . . .” After you snicker a little, I want you to reflect on doing art as an exercise in finding the holy in yourself. God does art in you. This past week after I finished teaching at Andover Newton, I picked up a little flyer about the chapel at school. On it was this poem from the second century church father Iraneus. I want you to not feel coerced by the language, but to listen: “It is not you who shape God; but God that shapes you. If then you are the work of God, await the hand of the artist who does all things in good time. Offer the Potter your heart, soft and pliable, and keep the form in which the Artist has fashioned you. Let your clay be moist, lest you become hard and lose the imprint of the Potter’s fingers.” What is given to you is good, and within that goodness, you must find the holy. I have never been much of a creative artist, but two summers ago at Ferry Beach, when I didn’t have to spend so much time teaching, Andrea and I worked with our boys and the art director to mold ocarinas, little flute like instruments. It was great fun, and they even made a noise when we finished. When our clay hardens, we may be working incessantly or doing our duty, and not take the time to mold something new that will make music in the world. We have lost touch with our emotional outlets. Sometimes I like to cook. Sometimes I like to write. But the beauty in us is that each of us can produce a lasting work of beauty – maybe it is your house or your garden, your apple pie or your ocarina. But we must be in touch with our hearts so that we can feel our passion.
It is not merely the skill of learning a craft, it the is freedom in your soul to discover a fresh way to look at something, a fresh way to create something, or even perhaps a fresh way to look. Frank Lloyd Wright was America’s greatest architect. Today in our reading you heard a fictionalized version of his relationship with Mamah Cheney. While they each may have lacked the commitment and dedication to stay with their original married partners, what they did do was remind us of the balance we need in our lives that when we become too rigid in living, the clay loses its moistness, and beauty and passion drift out of our lives. In the novel, Wright tells Mamah: “You’ve talked about your longing to find that thing – that gift – which makes your heart sing.” Most of us don’t have the luxury of living free in nature like Frank LLoyd Wright, but it does remind us to live with a passion for life. A fullness of living is what will help each of us feel and know what is holy. We do art with our lives. We seek beauty all around us – in the passions we express – in the beauty we exude, by the warmth of our love in the presence of each other. Life makes artists of us all, as we create new passion in our lives. Let us feel and express the beauty within urging us to live and love with irresistible force.
Closing Words – Navaho poem
In Beauty may you walk.
All day long may you walk.
Through the returning seasons may you walk.
On the trail marked with pollen may you walk.
With grasshoppers about your feet may you walk.
With dew about your feet may you walk.
With Beauty may you walk.
With Beauty before you, may you walk.
With Beauty behind you, may you walk.
With Beauty above you, may you walk.
With Beauty below you, may you walk.
With Beauty all around you, may you walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of Beauty,
lively, may you walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of Beauty,
living again, may you walk.
It is finished in Beauty.
It is finished in Beauty.
1. “From Preaching to Painting: Van Gogh’s Religious Zeal” by Kathleen Powers Erickson