Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Italy xxi--Michelangelo's Piata

The story goes that Michelangelo used to come by St. Peter's Basilica at night, and just stand there before his sculpture, not because he was so proud of what he'd done but because he'd grown to love this Mary, mother of  Christ, he'd created. Some say the woman he'd crafted so wondrously from marble had become the mother he'd lost when he was a boy, just five years old. 

I don't know any of that to be true, nor does anyone else, but I know the sheer beauty of Michelangelo's Piata' creates stories. It was a commissioned by a rich man who wanted something beautiful to adorn his tomb and finished in two years. Today, 500 years later, the Piata' is as famous as anything you will stand in line to see in Rome. In St. Peter's, it stands where it has since the 18th century, but it's been in Rome since he finished it in 1499. 

Because there's so much else to gather your attention in St. Peter's, the Piata', oddly enough, is easy to miss when you walk in. But it's there to your right, bathed in a light so soft it composes a perfect picture. I'd like to tell you it took me an hour to set up this shot, but Michelangelo's masterpiece sits in a frame so beautiful and light so glorious you can't miss.

What everyone sees when they look closely is a woman far too young to have a thirty-year-old crucified son. She seems a child. That's no mistake. Like no one else, Michelangelo might say, she is the only mother of our Lord. 

Christ's limp body is muscled and veined to make clear he is not a boy. Yet, he somehow needs to be held. With her right hand, she holds his body, even though her fingers don't touch his cold flesh. Piata ("the pity") is a child mom holding her dead son. 

Long ago already observers speculated that if Michelangelo's Mary could step out of the marble, she'd be seven feet tall. But so much of her is beneath her flowing robes that you barely notice. Somehow, as this entire scene emerged from a block of marble, Michelangelo spoke what was there in his vision of mother and child.  

The other hand, her left is open in some gesture. To us? To God? In defiance maybe? Or maybe in acceptance? After all, look at the the serenity in her face. She had to have spent her lifetime somehow knowing. Her child was, after all, a savior.

Spend two weeks in Italy, tour a half-dozen basilicas, and you'll see a couple hundred Madonnas and child--flat, Byzantine Madonnas, fleshy classical Madonnas, big and bouncy baroques--all kinds of Madonnas with babes in tow. In a city where the Virgin will always be queen, there are hundreds, in all shapes and sizes.

By definition, Piata isn't another. And yet, I'd like to think, it is: the Virgin of Bethlehem, and her boy, a man struck dead for us, Madonna and child from marble. 

Mary's face reminds me of "Mary's Song," a Luci Shaw poem, graced with the kinds of paradoxes she loves: "His breath (so slight it seems/no breath at all) once ruffled the dark deeps/to sprout a world. . ."

"Mary's Song" is a poem of the Nativity, a poem for the season, this season. I hear "Mary's Song" because there's paradox in a mother's love so big it really couldn't be, and a beautiful boy, the Son of God Almighty, so seemingly finished. 

Here's the last thoughts of Shaw's poem:

Older than eternity now he
is new. Now native to earth as I am, nailed
to my poor planet, caught that I might be free,
blind in my womb to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth
for me to be new-born,

and then finally this line:

and for him to see me mended
I must see him torn. 

That's the vision I see in Mary's face here in the Piata, the pity.  

Monday, December 17, 2018

Tears at Christmas*

Image result for Christmas program kids

Yesterday, one of the burlapped-clothed, Galilean shepherds up in front of church, the tallest, stood up front, took the mike from the little girl shepherd in front of him, and said his lines with well-practiced precision. Had he been my grandson, I'd have beamed. For each of the seven acts of this year's Christmas play, his recitations were almost elegant, in fact.

Save one. Act Six went badly.

The little girl shepherd spoke her lines, and, following the script, handed him the mike. Just then, his memory left the building.  He looked around. The whole world was watching. He stood there with his memory belly-up, completely blank. No words.

Blessedly, hundreds of parents and grandparents never noticed because a choir of pre-K sweeties were stealing the show as they always do. Only the boy's parents and probably a few others witnessed the deep freeze. And, mercifully, the show went on. The pianist gave him a few seconds, then covered up the silence by barreling into the next carol. Hardly anyone noticed.

The thing is, he knew he muffed it, and he couldn't just laugh it off. Who knows?--maybe his being a conscientious lid landed him a major role in the first place. Because he is, he probably could not forgive his terrible embarrassment. Even though the rest of the church didn't miss a beat, this poor sweet kid heard only an indictment: YOU FORGOT YOUR LINE, DUMMY.

So a tear came. Another followed, and then another, and another.

Along came Act Seven. That same little girl shepherd handed him the mike, and this time, still sniffling, he nailed it.

No matter. The damage was done. He no more than got out the words and he was wiping his eyes with the back of his hands.

A hundred kids were up in front of the church, but once his waterworks started, he couldn't stop. Tears kept coming, and he kept wiping 'em away. Even when the show moved to its darling end, he was, well, disconsolate.

Once he opens his presents this Christmas, I'd like to think his oh-so-public horror will be gone, but that speechless moment and the tears it wrought will hang around his memory for years, I figure.

Poor kid couldn't forgive himself for messing up a pageant meant to honor baby Jesus, the Lord of forgiveness. Someday, that equation will make sense.

But it's the human story in yesterday's Christmas pageant I couldn't shake: this poor kid wants to get it right, but finds himself bereft of words as priest Zechariah, and it breaks him up--all that up on stage in front of the whole world.

Someday, a couple of decades from now, when his own little daughter plays a shepherd in the church Christmas program, he won't mention what happened, because he won't want to risk passing along horror along. He'll be just as silent as yesterday.

So that moment will stay there, but playfully, a cute little memory he'll never forget.

Sometimes--and this is the lesson of Christmas--forgiveness is as simple as that.

Then again, mostly it's not, and that's why we need to hear the old story of a very special barn and manger again and again and again, even when it's told by screaming three-year-olds and a gaggle of cross-gendered shepherds abiding in their fields, keeping watch over the flocks by night, Galilean shepherds who listen to the angels tell them--and us--for millionth time, "Fear not--we bring good tidings of great joy. " 

We can't hear that enough. Go on and wipe away those tears.
First published December 21, 2009.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Sunday Morning Meds--Soul Prosperity

“He is like a tree planted by streams of water, 
which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. 
Whatever he does prospers” Psalm 1:3 

Simple stuff, really. We’re hearing the voice of some ordinary shepherd here, reflecting on what he’s seen and heard out in the bush, right? The man (and woman) who lives right, who knows God’s grace, who is thankful daily, is like a tree planted by water, ever fruitful. On that person, no wilting, no folding—whatever he does prospers.

Now there’s a line that doesn’t need a dime’s worth of interpretation. You can take that to the bank: the righteous, the psalm suggests, will find their every last endeavor succeeding beyond their own wildest dreams.

“Whatever he does prospers” is an unrepentant-ly American line. If we obey God’s law and don’t hang around with low-lifes, Psalm 1 says, we’ll get all the goodies we’re dreaming of. Prosperity gospel.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Two hundred years ago, not far from where I live, the great American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the Corps of Discovery up the muddy Missouri, looking for an overland passage to the Pacific Ocean. Just last week I followed the snaking Missouri through a good deal of South Dakota. I love the Lewis and Clark yarn. I admire the pluck and sheer human will of the thirty adventurers who crossed land where no white guy had ever left a footprint before. I’m a real fan.

But picture this for a minute. Meriwether Lewis carried a branding iron with his own name in the design, used it to mark trees, to brand them. True. Can you imagine what the Yankton Sioux thought of this white guy laying a hot brand on the bark of some hovering cottonwood, then stepping back, the bark still sizzling, and saying the trees were the property of the Great White Father?

Or how about this? An equally significant objective of the mission was to wrest trade with the Indians away from the French, to consolidate the work of the tribes out west, and to secure peace in the newly acquired frontier west. But not long after they returned, Hidatsas went after the Shoshonis, the Arikaras and the Sioux raided the Mandans. There was no peace. Just a few decades later, disease wiped out thousands from those very tribes, disease carried by white people.

Did the Lewis and Clark Expedition “prosper”? Well, in a way; they got back and forth to the Pacific. But the successes they desired weren’t exactly what they achieved. They never did find that easy overland route.

“It is not outward prosperity which the Christian most desires and values,” writes the old sage Spurgeon; “it is soul prosperity he longs for.” Why limit it? I'm thinking the vast majority of living, breathing human beings all seek "soul prosperity."

Soul prosperity: a certain largesse of character, a loving spirit, an unflinching generousness, peace in heart and mind, a sense of comfort with God’s designs for our lives, and a smile for eternity.

"Whatever he or she does prospers."  It is that simple, I guess: the shepherd-poet isn’t talking about Vegas or Wall Street high drama.

Soul prosperity. That's what we’re all after, isn’t it?

Friday, December 14, 2018

Italy xxi--Madame Butterfly

What I knew about Madame Butterfly I could have written on the back of the ticket. Puccini?--a spicy Italian sandwich maybe. We were going to the opera, in Venice, because who would go to the Black Hills and not see Mt. Rushmore? You've got to see an opera. We're in Italy, where something operatic happens every day right on the street. You want taciturn? Visit Den Haag, Munich, or 10 Downing Street. Want full-blast, two-fisted emotion? Keep your eyes open almost anywhere on the boot. 

I don't have to tell you how much we paid for those tickets. The truth is, I've deliberately forgotten. "Should we go?" we asked ourselves. Well, good night, how often are you going to be in Venice, Italy? We bought in.

And went. 

And, my goodness, was it was magnificent.

Let's be candid. The theater is like nothing we'd ever been in. I took this with my phone.

I'm telling you, places like this actually exist. We were there. Grand opera. 

What did I know about Madame Butterfly? I knew it was opera, and I knew it was Japanese because I remembered a big scrape about a white opera star playing a Japanese woman, and how wrong it would certainly be if a white woman sang "Summertime," or anything from Porgy and Bess. Madame Butterfly is a Japanese story--that's what the purists argued. Made sense, too. The love-struck tragic heroine is a 15-year-old geisha. There's no geishas in Sioux City.

But then, Puccini isn't a sandwich. He's Italian, not Japanese. He first encountered the story in London, in a play created from a story written by an American whose sister read it in a French novel. You could argue the MB is global--and in theme and emotion it is.

Still, the poison conflict at its heart is Western colonialism. Because that's true, it should be a little touchy to determine how it should be performed, ethnically speaking. I wondered.

That's the jackass American sailor, center stage, holding the teenage sweetheart with wings on her shoulders. (You're looking at contraband photos--no cameras allowed.) The whole incredible drama--so overwhelmingly operatic--was set on a bare stage, its cast dressed in modest pastels. Nothing even faintly Japanese, except the play itself. Fascinating.

Yes, it was sung in Italian, and yes I would have understood nothing without there being a line of translated libretto crawling along above the stage, a line I didn't see until fifteen minutes into the story. But with that blessed sub-title, this ugly American loved every minute of grand opera.

Loved? Well, when Puccini opened the opera the audience howled and threw stuff because they hated it that  much. It took a few revisions to make it more presentable; but then there are characters worth hating in Butterfly, including that horny American sailor. When he returns to Nagasaki, there's a white woman on his arm, his real wife. At the turn of the century, when promiscuity was more despised, the audience even hated Madame herself, a girl who was turning Japanese tricks before the Americans sailed in.

Spoiler alert--Madame Butterfly doesn't end well. First, Madame gives up her identity for a man who, in all honesty, wanted nothing more than a all-nighter. She quits family and tribe and faith, becomes a Christian, in fact, only to be horrifically double-crossed by an American who wanted little more than a good time.

What Madame does in taking care of business finally, once her own little boy is gone to America with the man who stole her heart and soul, is culturally significant. In her world, she regains nobility by the finality of her act. It's a grotesque, yet noble end to a love-sick opera that works beautifully on an Italian stage, every last human emotion playing just plain huge. 

It wouldn't play quite the same in Iowa.  

We almost had to mortgage our future to pay for the tickets, but we did. 

But it was--how can I say it?--wonderful. It was grand opera. We loved it.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Italy xx--Basilica di Santa Marco (end)

Should I ever go to Italy again, I'd work harder at taking really fine pictures. This time I had the jitters. I wasn't a bit nervous; but, for the most part, when you take a first step into a place like the Basilica di Santa Marco, you lose your wits, you're not in your right mind because you simply can't believe what you're seeing. Right then, taking aim with a camera at anything distracts you from seeing, well, "everything," which, of course, you can't see, which doesn't mean you stop trying. Next time, I'd like to walk in soberly and not be blown away.

I'd like to be able to aim carefully, balance lines, watch light closely, and look for dramatic frames. I'd like to think about what I'm doing, about how to capture what's humanly possible of all the beauty and get it into the little black box bobbing around my neck. I'd like to think about pictures when my head isn't spinning.

There's no accounting for taste,, but almost right away I told myself that the snapshot above was going to be among the finest compositions of the dozens of pictures I took. I'd like to say what's here was planned, but it wasn't. It was snapped, on my phone (I hadn't brought the camera!). It's an image I liked because of the almost divine play of light. I don't remember anything about the specific chapel--it's to the right of the nave--but when I stood there and looked at what I'd shot, I loved it. It looked really good. 

The spires point your way up toward the dome, where light is breaking. That contrast won't let your eyes not look; it demands your attention. Let me speak plainly--I think this is a gorgeous picture: the aspiration of its lines deliver at least something of the grandeur of the whole place. Of the shots I took in Italian cathedrals, this one does most to convince the viewer the place is as overwhelmingly beautiful as you say it is. 

It took a lot of lifetime for me to come to believe that at the very core of spirituality of all kinds, including the spirituality of Christianity, which is my profession, is sheer awe. To paraphrase Calvin (which seems almost sacrilegious in St. Mark's), only when we see God in the world outside or beyond us do we begin to recognize how great he is and needy we are. I've taken hundreds of prairie landscapes, trying to capture just a bit, a taste, of early morning glory, a stunning fragment of what Calvin is talking about.

Oddly enough, here in the Basilica, I was a thousand miles from that kind of landscape, a world away from a mountain lake or a chorus of burnished October hardwoods. That I'm almost forever away from those things doesn't mean I'm not feeling something in me that's as delightful as it is familiar--sheer awe. In the Basilica di Santa Marco, Venice, Italy, I can't shoot pictures because what's there makes my head spin.

And then, right there, a fancy little gold sign adorns the gate. 

This is a tighter shot, more angle, more spires; but there's some Latin on that sign on the gate: "Venite Adoremus," it says. 

Somehow, for some reason, I found that shocking in its homely familiarity because I hear those very words play in a thousand renditions of a old Christmas carol I've sung just about every last Christmas of my life. I'm standing there bathed in the awe created by the most beautiful cathedral in Venice, Italy, and I don't really have a clue what those words means; what I do recognize is that I know those words, and I actually hear them in the record of my own life.

Venite Adoremus.

So much of what you witness in Italy's vast treasures--its paintings, its sculptures, its architecture--is so exalted that it renders you not only speechless but selfless. But then, selflessness is a good place to be, or so real spiritualists of every cloth maintain. 

Those two words adorning a gate to a side chapel of St. Mark's Basilica, now nameless in my memory, brought music to my ears and to my soul, familiar and beloved music that's a part of me and a part of who I have been for lo, these three score and ten. That golden emblem message brought me home, allowed me to share--and not just as a tourist--the beauty all around. 

"Venite Adoremus"--come, let us worship.

"O come, let us adore him."

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Italy xix--Basilica di San Marco (ii)

The Basilica di San Marco has three huge domes, not just one--impossible as that may seem. All of them are mosaics, if you can even begin to imagine that, all of them bent on creating a cosmic spiritual vision unlike any I'd ever seen. Forget all those icons for a moment, just try to imagine being in a vaulted expanse that seems nothing less than pure gold. I'd been in lots of monumental cathedrals in Europe and America, but there just seemed to be nothing comparable to this marvel, already a thousand years old. 

This dome--trust me, I read up on it--is St. Mark's Pentecost Cupola. Note the lines streaming from the very top, where a dove--the Holy Spirit--sits and sends out shoots of flame to the heads of the surrounding saints. Lest you believe that the events of Pentecost brought enlightenment only to the apostles, beneath them stand ordinary people, in pairs, from around the world. You and me, I'd say. Pentecost is, after all, for everyone.

I grew up in a new church. I remember the old one downtown, but the new one was home when I started to look around and see the world with my own eyes. Call me a sinner, but I remember counting knotholes in the knotty pine ceiling. When what was happening up front got stale or boring, I'd look up and count to see which stretches of blond pine were most busily peppered. 

If back then I'd gone to church in St. Mark's, Venice, I would never have heard a word of the sermon. But then, as far back as 900 A.D., congregants here didn't gather to listen to the preaching of the Word. Honestly, I don't remember seeing a pulpit in St. Mark's. I'm sure there was one, but I don't think I saw it because preaching wasn't all that important. You go to church, to mass, not to hear the Word preached but to taste God, to take his body and blood, take Him, into yourself, as he promised you would. 

So if the church was the place where you were God himself was distributed, all that fabulous excess is somehow understandable, a huge cave of gold, even to someone like me who was raised a Calvinist in a small town where a brand new church would be dang proud of its knotty pine ceilings. 

But it also helps me to understand why, at least for me, walking into the Basilica di San Marco was unlike stepping into anything else I'd ever been. If you want to understand how rich Venice was back then, how blessed the place was with wealth--lots of it pilfered--from around the world, visit the Basilica. Gaze at that ceiling, at the Pentecost Cupola, one of three, all of creating an aura of pure gold. This is the place of eucharist, of God-with-us. 

I didn't mean to have this janitor photo bomb the place, but just now, honestly, when I was looking over the pictures I took, I found her. It's not a great picture, but it's made memorable by her presence, down there, just a bit out of focus, on the bottom right. 

She's just what you need when you visit a place like St. Mark's. Down beneath the blessings documented in the Pentecost Cupola, she's a reminder of everything Psalm 90 so touchingly says. She sweeping up, dust to dust. 

I know why I took this picture. See the way the statuary above her and to her right is sun lit through the windows across the way? I couldn't help thinking that phenomenon was itself a miracle. Cathedrals are not brightly lit. But when they have windows, as St. Mark's does, the rotation of the earth creates a roving spotlight from the sun, a spotlight that, for a time at least, creeps almost eerily from one darkened corner to the next. "Have you seen this?" the light says. It's a gorgeous show. 

Photography is all about light--where it is and where it isn't. This shot is only tangentially about the basilica. It was really supposed to be about light.

And there she is, a veteran of the janitorial staff, reminding me--and now you--that all of the what's here above and around, all of this splendid art and artifice, isn't the whole story.

She comes by regularly, I'm sure, because there's dust, you know, and maybe even a little trash, refuse from the real world, the other one, the one where all of live.

In a place like the Basilica di San Marco, she's much more than janitor. She's something of a grim reaper. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Italy xviii--Basilica di San Marco, Venice (i)

Rick Steves claims that the architectural style of St. Mark's Basilica, in Venice, is "early ransack" because so much of what that immense cathedral features is taken from other places and even other times--including, by the way, the relic bones of Saint Mark himself, St. Mark, the disciple of Christ. They were something of a heist. 

If you simply look over this shot of the incredible facade, you'll see what Steves means. What's not showing here, but what you can't miss when you walk up is the domes, the onion domes, so reminiscent of a mosque. All told, it's wild. The place seems less of a church than a carnival. (Let me borrow a shot of the exterior.)

Just plain "wow!" The immense bronze horses prancing proudly over the central front door--there are four of them--are the basilica's pride and joy, I'm told.

And, no, they're not "native." They're imports, booty from Constantinople, stolen during the Fourth Crusade, when Venice, the city/state, was flexing its powerful military muscle.

At the top of the facade is a roofline of French Gothic pinnacles that stand proudly above pillars that belong to a whole different era and differing (Roman and Greek) cultures. Honestly, to call the place eclectic does justice to neither the word or the edifice. It's one immense collage of images and styles, including some jaw-dropping mosaics, like this one over the left front door. 

I wish I could tell you what you're looking at here, but I'm not sure myself, and--here as elsewhere all over Italy--the images simply don't quit. Taking time to study any one of them means missing a huge gathering of others, all of them just as interesting. I'm guessing the man on the cot or bier is Mark the apostle. Those gathered around him, non-haloed, are perhaps church men come to pay him homage (one of them carries a staff with a cross). The gallery on the right features a group from a different era or station, looking on. I'm sure there's more, but if you stand here any longer, you won't get inside at all.

When you do, there are no words.

I'd taken only my phone. I don't know that I'm a good enough photographer to take a picture like the one above anyway, but this one I'm borrowing does give you something of a sense of what's inside. The ceiling and much of the wall space is given to ancient golden mosaics that create light that seems, well, unearthly. All of the images tell a story. Every one. Here's the Ascension Dome, high atop the basilica. (You're looking straight up.)

Jesus is at the pinnacle, his hand raised in a gesture that seems, perhaps, more Orthodox than Roman Catholic (but then, this place has history, believe me). Some angels attend him on his slight throne, while around him, in a circle, stands Mary (in blue, traditionally), accompanied by angels on either side, and the apostles. Just beneath their ring are the windows, which, I'm told are meant to separate this world from the heavenly realms. By the way, don't expect to see this unless you bring a heavyweight lens and you can stand for a considerable length of time looking straight up in the air. 

Amid all that spectacle, you feel a bit like Saul on the road to Damascus, struck suddenly dumb, or Zechariah, the priest, who wouldn't believe his wife could get pregnant. There are no words.

Then, slowly, you breath, your eyes stop wandering, you relax a bit, people jostle you (there's always a crowd), and you get some kind of sea legs back beneath you. Having looked up upon a vision the next world, you slowly return to this.

Tomorrow, that story.