Imaginative Contemplation – Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 14, 2018

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 14, 2018, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are 1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20); Psalm 139:1-5,12-17; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; and St. John 1:43-51. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Introductory Comment:

Before I offer my homily this morning, I want to say something about a verse I have chosen not to address. Nathanael asks, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Many of my clergy colleagues this week have made note of the question the president has been quoted as asking about Haiti and other countries, and they have chosen to focus their sermons this morning on issues of immigration. I have not; I had already chosen my focus verse for today and decided not to make any change. Nonetheless, I want join my colleagues in pointing out that in the First Century, the hometown of our Lord and Savior was regarded in much the same way that Mr. Trump is said to have considered the countries of the Caribbean, of Latin America, and of Africa. Can anything good come from such places? I encourage you in your prayerful meditations on the Gospel, regardless of how you may feel about the president, about his immigration policies, or his alleged remarks, to remember Nathanael’s question and the answer that has echoed through the centuries.

Now, let us turn our attention to other verses in today’s readings: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

An ancient historian wrote in the First Book of Samuel, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”1 The Word of God incarnate said, in the Gospel according to John, “You will see greater things than these. Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”2

There could not be greater contrast between these verses from our Old Testament lesson and our Gospel text this morning. One bemoans the absence of religious vision; the second promises an abundance of spiritual insight.

A researcher in the field of psychological anthropology named Tanya Luhrmann a few years ago published a book entitled When God Talks Back.3 In it, she opined that a “sophisticated expertise” is required to hear God’s voice and to experience religious perception. One way to do this is to cultivate what she calls “mental absorption” by visualizing the events of the Bible and imagining God’s physical presence.

This is really nothing new. Many have found that fasting, prayer, and meditation foster and enhance mystical experience. St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, encouraged the practice of imaginative contemplation, which is described by one Jesuit writer in this way:

Let the events of Jesus’ life be present to you right now. Visualize the event as if you were making a movie. Pay attention to the details: sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and feelings of the event. Lose yourself in the story; don’t worry if your imagination is running too wild. At some point, place yourself in the scene.4

Related to imaginative contemplation is the development of a rich metaphoric vocabulary. “When people say that Divinity is ineffable or inexpressible, part of the problem to which they refer is that Divine vision and revelation experiences [are inaccessible to others]. One person cannot actually feel another person’s physical sensations.” Therefore, metaphors, which are “cognitive structures, not just ways of talking,” are “a primary component of language about religious experience.” Overly literal linguistic models are impoverished and incapable of truly expressing religious perception.5

In my personal prayer life, I have found that spending time with a work of art helps me to develop my metaphoric vocabulary, my ability to imaginatively contemplate scripture, and my appreciation of the spiritual insights I might gain from the world around me, from nature, from people, from my neighbors, even from those who might be my enemies. I am particularly drawn to the work of abstract artists and of the surrealists. I was surprised but also pleased when I did an internet search for an image for the cover of this week’s worship bulletin using the terms “religious vision” that a work by one of my favorites, the early 20th Century artist Wassily Kandinsky, popped. So I used it: his 1936 piece entitled Dominant Curve.

A successful Russian lawyer and economist offered a professorship at the University of Dorpat in Estonia, Kandinsky chose instead to give up that profession to paint. He moved from Moscow to Munich at the age of 30 to study art and lived there from 1896 until the outbreak of World War I when he returned to Russia. After war, unsympathetic to the official theories on art of the new Communist government, he returned to Germany where he became part of the Bauhaus school until the rise of Nazism forced him to leave. I suspect that at least a partial explanation of Kandinsky’s inability to tolerate either the Communist or the Nazi aesthetics can be found in his devout Russian Orthodox faith. Inspired by the nonrepresentational nature of icons used in Orthodox prayer, Kandinsky “believed that art was preparation for an ‘Epoch of Great Spirituality’, and that the figurative, naturalistic traditions of imagery were impediments to that epochal achievement.” Kandinsky’s abstractionism was a “struggle to envisage the invisible.”6

In contrast, what both the Communists and Nazis had in common was an overly literal model of the world, a narrow vision which could not accommodate metaphor and imagination. In Russia, the Communist Party Congress of 1934 laid down four guidelines for art: (1) it must be relevant to the workers and understandable to them; (2) it must depict scenes of everyday life; (3) it must be realistic, in the representational sense, and (4) it must be supportive of the aims of the State and the Party. This style of art became known as “socialist realism.” Similarly, Adolf Hitler decreed in Nazi Germany that “works of art which cannot be understood in themselves . . . will never again find their way to the German people.” Anything other than realistic paintings of the sort Hitler himself had produced as an artist was condemned as “degenerate.”7

In July 1937, four years after it came to power, the Nazi party put on two art exhibitions in Munich.

The Great German Art Exhibition was designed to show works that Hitler approved of – depicting statuesque blonde nudes along with idealised soldiers and landscapes.

The second exhibition, just down the road, showed the other side of German art – modern, abstract, non-representational – or as the Nazis saw it, “degenerate”.

The Degenerate Art Exhibition included works by some of the great international names – Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka and Wassily Kandinsky – along with famous German artists of the time such Max Beckmann, Emil Nolde and Georg Grosz.

The exhibition handbook explained that the aim of the show was to “reveal the philosophical, political, racial and moral goals and intentions behind this movement, and the driving forces of corruption which follow them”.8

Marxist Russia’s insistence socialist realism and the Nazis’ insistence on statuesque blondes and idealized landscapes are akin to the narrow-minded, black-and-white political and social thinking with which we are plagued in our own time. They are the visual equivalents of the literal linguistic models which cannot express mystical vision and insight. As one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century said,

The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the power of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness.9

So let’s use our “dull faculties” for a moment and take a close look at the painting on our bulletin cover, Kandinsky’s Dominant Curve. Let’s see if we can’t do some imaginative contemplation and develop some sophisticated expertise and increase our metaphoric vocabulary. I’m going to be quiet for a few moments and invite you to study the painting and see what you might see there.

[A few moments of silence]

Here are some of the things I see in Dominant Curve which spark my imagination:

  • In the upper right corner are three black and white bull’s eyes, targets such as an archer might use. I am reminded that the New Testament word for “sin” is hamartia, a word taken from archery meaning “to miss the mark.”
  • To the upper left is a green rectangle containing something that looks like a harp. It calls to mind the fact that David, God’s chosen king, the ancester of our Lord, was a harpist, and reminds me of the place of music in religious expression.
  • In the lower right quadrant is what seems to be a stairway leading to nothing obvious, but which may symbolise reaching out to and striving for a higher spiritual plane.
  • Just to the right of center is a curved form filled with biomorphic images. Could this be a river teeming with life? Could it be the Jordan, the mystical source of religious life and rebirth, the place of Christ’s baptism?
  • Those hash marks in the lower center of the painting . . . are they just hash marks or might they be the three crosses of Calvary? And above them, is that white shape the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove?
  • And those – what are they? figures? – above the dove shape . . . are those celebrants in a religious procession? Are they dancers? Are they musicians?
  • Behind them, the circles? Are they just circles or might they be the Host of Holy Communion, the Bread of salvation, or perhaps the sun and “the planets in their courses?
  • And behind all the geometric forms, the sharp lines, and the hard edges, behind it all the soft and nebulous clouds of Heaven . . . .

In just a few minutes of imaginative contemplation there is so much to see in one abstract painting, a “vigorous painting that nonetheless has an astonishingly light touch. * * * Kandinsky considered this harmonious canvas to be one of his most important works . . . .”10

Kandinsky once said,

Technically, every work of art comes into being in the same way as the cosmos – by means of catastrophes, which ultimately create out of the cacophony of the various instruments that symphony we call the music of the spheres. The creation of the work of art is the creation of the world.11

If we can enhance our metaphoric vocabulary, if we can improve our ability to imaginatively contemplate, if we can increase our “sophisticated expertise” in “mental absorption, then we can find religious insight not only in an abstract work of art, but in the whole of the cosmos, in all of the created world. Jesus’ promise of an abundance of vision will be realized in every encounter with nature, with other people, with our neighbors from near and far, with people from Ohio or Cuba or El Savador or Haiti or the nations of Africa or even Norway, even with those who might be our enemies. In such encounters we would find that “such knowledge is [not] too wonderful for [us]; [that] it is [not] so high that [we] cannot attain to it,”12 that “[we] will see greater things than these * * * [we] will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”13

Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] 1 Samuel 3:1b (NRSV) (Return to text)

[2] John 1:50-51 (NRSV) (Return to text)

[3] Luhrmann, Tanya M., When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (Vintage Books, New York:2012) (Return to text)

[4] O’Brien, Kevin, The Ignatian Adventure: Experiencing the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in Daily Life (Loyola Press, Chicago:2011), excerpted online (Return to text)

[5] Sweetser, Eve, & Mary Therese DesCamp, Motivating Biblical Metaphors for God, in Howe, Bonnie, & Joel B. Green, eds., Cognitive Linguistic Explorations in Biblical Studies (Walter de Gruyter, Berlin:2014), pages 11-12 (Return to text)

[6] Spivey, Nigel, How Art Made the World: A Journey to the Origins of Human Creativity (Basic Books, New York:2005), page 120 (Return to text)

[7] Burns, Lucy, Degenerate Art: Why Hitler Hated Modernism, BBC Magazine, November 2013, online (Return to text)

[8] Ibid (Return to text)

[9] Albert Einstein (1879-1955), quoted in Frank, Philipp, Einstein: His Life and Times (Da Capo Press, Boston:1947) (Return to text)

[10] Horsley, Carter B., Kandinsky, an exhibition review in The City Review, online (Return to text)

[11] Quoted in Art Icons, online (Return to text)

[12] Psalm 139:5 (BCP Version) (Return to text)

[13] John 1:50-51 (NRSV) (Return to text)

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

This entry was posted in Anglican, Bible, Christianity, Church, Episcopal, Eucharist, First Corinthians, First Samuel, John, Lectionary, Liturgy, Ministry, Ordinary Time, Prayer, Psalms, Religion, Scripture, Sermons, Spirituality, Theology, Worship. Bookmark the permalink.

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