10/21 – Making Sense of Things

I’ve been reading headlines and social media the last couple days. I don’t claim to be well informed about all the big topics, but between the big topics and the small topics, I find it very difficult to comprehend what people are thinking, or more to the point, why they are thinking it. I concluded this morning that I understand quantum physics better than what is going on in the world these days. No need to go into details, but nothing seems to make sense.

I also have been reading daily devotional emails from Fr. Richard Rohr, a popular contemplative Christian writer. The contemplative Christian tradition is also challenging to understand at times, especially for the Western thinker. We have been raised to think in categories, to separate things into “this” or “that,” and then to define our terms of “thisness” and “thatness.” We organize things and classify things and make decisions about whether a thing goes here or there. And that’s key, the word “or.” It’s a binary decision, “either/or.” But the contemplatives and mystics write about “and,” and about wholeness, and connection, and transcending “either/or” to find “both/and.” They seek after and often experience unity with God that radically changes their perception of everything around them, so that they seek and experience unity with them, too. They are not afraid to say that God lives in light and in darkness, and that we do, too. They are not afraid of brokenness, because they understand that God fills that space. They don’t have a compulsion to make everything right, because they know that God is in the midst of every situation. Things, situations, relationships, humans all become both earthy and heavenly, both broken and sacred, both sinful and redeemed, both material and spiritual, both mundane and holy.

A third stream in my consciousness comes from a book I read on my Grand Tour called Stars Beneath Us: Seeking God in the Evolving Cosmos by Paul Wallace, a physics professor who is also an ordained pastor. He writes about his own spiritual journey that started with a deep Christian faith that fell apart in the face of experience and science because it didn’t match reality as he perceived it. He went through years of agnosticism and not quite atheism, and then back to faith through the same reality and science that had challenge the faith of his youth. But when he came back to faith it was quite a different shape than that of his traditional upbringing. Any way, in the book, he points to Job as a model – the book, not just the man. Job lived a righteous and prosperous life, but God allowed Satan to test Job by destroying just about everything he had or was. Job writhed in his suffering trying to make sense of it and demanded an audience with God to get justice, or at least understanding. In the end, God shows up but never answers Job’s questions about the meaning of it all. God just leads Job on a journey, showing him all the corners of the cosmos where Job had never been, never considered, and never dared to go. And in all those place, God was there, and God delighted in what was there. God even loves the Leviathan, the mythical chaos monster of the deep! In the end, Job is satisfied, not because of logical answers, but because he realized that God is God, and “it’s not all about you.” Wallace offers, among other things, that we need to go on such a journey, too.

So as I am trying to make sense of this world, where people do absurd things for money, power, fame, rebellion, or spite, I turn to the cosmos. I think about the wonders of the universe, the really beautiful and really weird things going on in spacetime. I think about how we have come to know so much and still know so little. I have long had hopes that we would become a spacefaring species, colonizing worlds and systems and galaxies. Now I have less hope that we will achieve it and more doubts about whether we should inflict ourselves on the cosmos. I wish that more people would have a sense of the cosmos, like what Job got to see and what I think I have seen. Whether or not we ever get to Mars, God is there, delighting in its ice and dust. We may never know if there is life in the subsurface oceans of half a dozen worlds in our solar system, but in each of those oceans, God is there, rejoicing in the richness of the environment. Even if most people never know about what happens when two neutron stars collide, God is there, using dead stars to create worlds’ worth of gold, silver, platinum, and all manner of heavy elements, just to have them blown into space. We can’t see the primordial chaos right after the Big Bang from which all that we can see and experience was brought to birth, but God is there, maybe dancing and singing our universe into existence.

We are living in chaotic times, but God lives in chaos and brings forth new kinds of order. We live in a day when human affection seems to have run cold, but God promises to turn hearts of stone into hearts of flesh once more. We struggle with one another about what is just, what is fair, what is right, what is kind, but God sends the sun and the rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous, and God will hold those with means and status and privilege to account for how they treat the poor, the outcast, and the bereft.

Humility before the cosmos and humility before the Creator and humility before our fellow creatures are common threads I find in my (admittedly scant) study of both science and contemplative theology. Faithfulness is another; faithfulness to the pursuit of knowledge for the betterment of our species in science, and faithfulness to experiencing and expressing the absolute love of God for all creatures among the mystics. So I think these will be my guideposts for navigating these days. I will try to be humble, to learn, to be faithful, to love. I will try to work for change.

 

Pictures from My Siena Retreat

I have so much to write about, and I’m so far behind! I hope you took opportunity to look at the pictures at the links I posted last time. I hope you enjoyed doing that, because I’m sending you another set the same way.  But not at the same place.

I got a new phone for the Grand Tour. A smart phone. My first smart phone. Yes, I know, but my old flippy was just fine and no one ever tried to hack it, I’m pretty sure. Any way, the new phone is also my new camera, of course. And in a major breach of Douthett etiquette, it’s not an iPhone but an Android-running Samsung thing. It cost about a third of what an iPhone would have been, so I got it. Fine, I’m cheap. I can live with that. But I digress. Any way, since it’s an Android, it syncs with Google Photos, so that’s where my pics are going at this point.

After a stupidly long train trip from Harpers Ferry to Chicago (6.5 hours late arriving) and another hour train from Chicago to Sturtevant, WI, I arrived at the >Siena Retreat Center< on Sunday, August 5. Siena is a ministry of the Dominican Sisters of Racine, and it’s a really lovely facility. There is still a convent there with a fairly small group of sisters who are faithfully living out their vows and their mission of praise, blessing, and preaching. I chose Siena fairly early in my planning process for the Grand Tour, as it is only an hour from Yerkes Observatory, and it looked like a beautiful site right on Lake Michigan with some interesting retreat offerings. These observations turned out to be accurate. It’s a beautiful place, a lovely setting, and I chose an interesting and challenging retreat.

The retreat I signed up for was about the only one I could fit into any plan for the Grand Tour that was open to men and Protestants. It also intrigued me. “Painting and Praying with Icons: Our Lady of the Sign” is what I selected. I remember when I was in seminary and we studied the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Church in 1050 AD, which in no small part focused on the proper use or lack thereof of icons. It was the culmination of what I remember being called the iconoclast controversy. I sided with the iconoclasts, the side that believed icons were a violation of the second commandment. As with many things, I have mellowed on this issue a good bit. Nevertheless, the idea of actually painting (or “writing” as it is said) an icon and praying with it was definitely going to be a stretch! Spoiler, I did paint/write my icon, but its future in my prayer regimen remains in question.

So I have a collection of pictures from the retreat that are primarily showing the progression, step by step of my icon writing. It is a fascinating process, but a bit grueling for beginners to fit in a week. I expected that it would almost a paint by numbers process, and that there would be vary little room for variation from the proscribed structure of the icon. At our level of competence any way, this turned out not to be the case. While all (there were 17 of us in the retreat) of our icons are essentially the same, they are also wildly diverse in their style and detail. This is due to different levels of skill and experience in part, as some of us had never really done any painting before and some were 30-year art teachers. But it also was a product of choice and preference, and maybe also theological emphasis. Any way, in the end, the icons were as unique as the people in the room. I think this was a delightful outcome for our group and is also generally acceptable at the casual iconography level. If we were doing icons for a church installation, I think the rules are more rigid.

Let me say just a word more about the group. I was predominantly women and predominantly Catholic, but there were a few Protestants and a few men. Well, about three of each out of 17. Still. Quite a few of the women were sisters, but only a couple were from Siena. One of the Protestant women was a pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Despite being in the minority in religious tradition, gender, and geography, I felt very much included in the group as a rule. Indeed, the group seemed to gel really well, being very supportive on one another and enjoying one another’s company. You know how in groups like this there is often that one person who is a thorn in the flesh? Well, unless it was me and I didn’t realize it, that thorn was not present.

Now, I did feel a bit like a stranger in a strange land in as much as many of the participants knew each other or knew the same people and places. Perhaps more than that were the distinct theological difference of belief and experience between Catholics and Presbyterians. The icon was of Mary and Jesus (more on that later), and my relationship with Mary is pretty academic. Meanwhile, for most of the Catholic folks, Mary is a present and active player in their daily life. For example, when we were finishing up, some of the women were complimenting my icon, and when I said I had never really painted before they were all the more impressed. One said, “She was really working through you, you can tell that!” I was caught completely off guard by this and had to spend quite a few moment figuring out who “she” was that was working. Of course it was Mary, but it never crossed my mind that Mary was as much author of my icon as its subject.

Okay, well, let’s get to the pictures. The link below will take you to an album full with some additional commentary on the process and the meaning of the icon itself, so I encourage you to go have a look. I say more about him in the album, but our instructor was Drazen Dupor from Croatia, and his website is >here<. Enjoyed getting to know him a bit.

Alright, alright. Enough talk. Let’s look at some >Platytera pictures<. There are a lot of near-duplicates, and some differences from one step to the next are pretty subtle, so you’ll have to pay attention. I’ll be glad to take your questions when you’re done.

And tomorrow, it’s on to the Yerkes Observatory, home of the largest refracting telescope in the world.