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London Calling

I’ll preface this post by saying that I’m fully aware that around this time of year, the internet, and more importantly, our lives, are saturated by the images and ideas associated with travel. Of course this is the case; it’s summer, and for a lot of us, time to get away and see new things. But even if the experiences we’re having are new to us, the experience of seeing someone else’s picture of Buckingham Palace isn’t new at all. It’s the opposite of new; and, dare I say, maybe even a little bit annoying. Unless it’s an immediate family member or a very close friend, someone else’s experiences abroad are about as interesting as hearing about a trip to the grocery store. A bit harsh? Maybe. But I say these things more out of awareness of my own position as someone who continues to ask for your attention regarding the things I’m experiencing in other parts of the world. In light of this dilemma—that someone else’s travel exploits becomes increasingly less intriguing with every episodic development—I’d like to reaffirm the notion, which I continue to learn anew with every passing day abroad, that travel isn’t interesting in itself; at least not for anyone but the person doing it. I keep writing and asking you to listen because life itself continues to befuddle me. That’s why any of this stuff is worth sharing.

All that being said, I’d like to share a bit about one strange day I recently had in London. After the conclusion of the semester in Orvieto, I hopped on a plane to London for 6 days of solo traveling. “Solo traveling” essentially means stepping out every morning at 9 AM and wandering around the city all day long, looking and listening and drinking coffee, with just a few set destinations to give myself a loose agenda. After I’d patronized most of London’s free museums in the first few days, I downgraded my sightseeing ambitions from casual to very casual. The only thing on my list for this particular day was a temporary exhibition of the infamous graffiti artist Bansky at Sotheby’s auction house in the Mayfair neigbhorhood. Upon arriving at the small gallery, I realized that I desperately had to pee. I asked the security guard if the gallery had a restroom, and he pointed me across the street to Sotheby’s official auction house gallery; the Bansky show occupied the smaller space for temporary exhibitions. Upon entering the main Sotheby’s gallery, I quickly became aware that I was vastly underdressed. I asked again for the restroom, and a refined looking security guard directed me down a series of ornate, carpet-clad stairs. The guard himself should have been a sign of what I was getting myself into with this brief detour; only in London’s swankiest auction house do the security guards look and sound like art critics. I descended the staircase and found myself in the main room of the gallery, which was full of what appeared to be buyers and curators, all of them in bespoke suits and sleek dresses. It was 10 A.M. They seemed to turn in unison and give me a collective once over, and for the first time in my short suburban life, I felt like a peasant at the ball. It’s not like I was in rags, though, just typical travel guy attire: jeans, a fleece sweatshirt, baseball cap, a backpack and a few days’ scruff.  I retreated to the bathroom and gave myself a non-verbal pep talk in what appeared to be a crystal mirror. This is a public gallery, I thought. I have every right to be here as they do, which was definitely true.

Perhaps I’m exaggerating the social dynamics of the situation, but the sophistication of the space and the people in it were right on point for what the gallery actually held. I stepped back into the small room and decided to have a look around, and I quickly realized that the people there had little interest in my intrusion; they were too consumed by the fact that of the 30 or so pieces in the room, one out of every four paintings in the gallery was a Picasso, the cheapest of which was estimated to sell for a staggering 600,000 pounds. Not to mention the handful of Paul Klee etchings, Renoir nudes, Max Ernst panels, Degas sketches, and an early Van Gogh. I was in the hall of unknown, modern masterpieces, and the people around me, as far as I could tell, were interested in hanging them above their mantels. For a few more minutes, I basked in the glow of all the concentrated brilliance, and in the sense of surprise at having discovered it because I had to pee. Then I walked back across the street to see what I’d come for in first place.

As I’m sure you know, Bansky rose to fame in the last 10 years for his anonymous, politically subversive street Graffiti. He creates stencils of figures, often authority figures or children, adds another element, like a balloon slipping from a little girl’s hand or a palm tree in the crack of a wall, and spray paints them on a carefully selected place in a city under the cover of night. They usually pop up in impoverished or conflict-ridden urban zones, or, conversely, in swanky commercial parts of cosmopolitan cities. The effect of Banksy’s work is mostly a result of its context, and of the apparent bandit-moves it must have taken to place there.

So, upon entering the small gallery, it quickly became obvious that seeing a print of bandana-masked man about to hurl a bouquet of flowers like a Molotov cocktail in a well-curated auction house was about as poignant as seeing it on a computer screen in a library. Meaning, an image like that doesn’t hold the same power when it’s so blatantly out of context. But that’s the natural trend of any art that originally grows out of conflict and subversiveness: once it’s recognized, commended, and eventually considered valuable, it becomes something else entirely. But in light of my recent bathroom/modern masterpiece detour, Banksy’s guerilla art was suddenly relevant in an entirely different context: as a literal foil (but also somehow a cog in the machine) to the absurdly lucrative commercial art scene. Passing onto this print seemed especially probing and hilarious, but still also a little strange, a little ironic:DSCF1885

Suddenly, Bansky’s painting was the shit that he couldn’t believe people were actually buying. It was like seeing English Noblemen of Nottingham pay Robin Hood so they could watch him steal from them. Either way, Bansky Hood was laughing all the way to the bank.

I bid a curt adieu to the classy security guard on my way out, and as I glanced back at the main Sotheby’s gallery, where the buyers and curators were filtering out of the place for lunch, I couldn’t help but smile a little; because even though I left there empty handed, I suddenly felt a bit like Robin Hood myself. I’d gotten much more than what I’d come for.

I left Sotheby’s and headed for the nearest Tube Station, still chuckling a little to myself, befuddled by the convoluted display of authentic beauty in the midst of extravagance, of anonymity becoming fame, and of a name becoming everything. In my five days in London, the Tube became a place of momentary solace for me, mostly because it allowed me to space out and enjoy the company of strangers while still progressing swiftly towards a new destination. The destination, in this case, doesn’t really matter. In fact, what happened next was so sharp and memorable, so haltingly beautiful, that I couldn’t tell you now where I was going afterwards. I think it must have been one of the many coffee shops that I checked out, but for the life of me, I couldn’t tell you which one it was.

The doors swiffed open at the Holborn Stop, where I had to transfer from the Picadilly line to the Central line. Transferring lines in a Tube station is often a journey in itself, because most of the multi-line stations are like massive underground villages, with multiple levels of tunnels, signs, escalators, and occasionally, performers. It can often take 5 to 10 minutes just to get to your other train. So, as I made my way up one these tunnels, hands in my pockets, strolling deliberately to feel a sense of distance from the hustling commuters, I heard a high-pitched, perfectly tuned whistle carrying down the corridor. It was piercing but pleasant, and it was so loud, I thought it had to be coming from the loud speaker or an amplifier. After just a few strong, warbling notes, I realized that it was one of my all-time favorite songs to whistle, none other than the southern classic Oh When the Saints Go Marching In. Now, to hear this song is nothing out of the ordinary. But what struck me, while I made my way up that tunnel amidst the chaos of a hundred other bodies lurching forward to a hundred different destinations, was that this single whistle had the power to silence everyone. It was full-bodied and rich, vibrating like an opera singer’s voice. I started to sing along under my breath as we approached the tunnel’s end—oh when the Saints gooo marchin’ in— which opened up into a wide room with two towering escalators, rising on the left, descending on the right. The whistle got louder with each step,  and when I crossed into the larger room, it boomed. Oh how I want—to be in that number. I looked to my right to find the whistler and his amp, but saw nothing. And then I stepped out of the flow of foot traffic, swiveled to my left, and there he stood.

He was a big guy, with a buzzed head and a white polo shirt tucked into blue dress pants. He had a long, thin stick in his right hand, which leaned against the ground in front of him. He rocked back and forth to the rhythm of his music, using the stick like a kind of extra-long conductor’s baton. The other hand was curled upwards at his side. I thought at first that he had his eyes closed, but with a closer look, I realized that they weren’t shut, but squinted—one open slightly wider than the other, both cloudy and glazed over. He seemed to be staring at something invisible on the ground. And at that moment, I knew. He wasn’t staring at anything at all; he was blind. He had no microphone and no amp, just his cane to keep time, his lips perpetually fixed in that relaxed O shape as he rocked slowly back and forth. I turned around to gauge the rest of the crowd’s reaction. People were still streaming onto the escalators, and one by one they turned around to see where the whistling was coming from. In just a few seconds, every head of every ascending body had turned to see the man. Most of them turned completely backwards on the escalator. The people on the descending steps to the right were looking at him the second they came into view: and in that moment, the two sets of moving steps looked like a kind of alternating chorus line; one line of bodies moving up, turned around to listen and to look, the other moving down at the same speed, equally transfixed on the whistling blind man. His breath filled the giant room.

He finished the first song with final flourish in a higher resister, then paused to catch his breath. I took this as my cue to move onto the escalator, because I realized that I was on the verge of committing a faux pas in Tube etiquette. Now I know I should have stayed. But still, I took my time, studying the man. And then he began again; this time it was Amazing Grace, and he delivered the melody with equal precision, but somehow, more emotion—just barely swaying now, the hand without the stick clenched and lifted higher. I stepped onto the escalator, but joined the rest of the crowd in turning completely around to watch him. Hundreds of strangers streaming past at a nauseating clip, all of them mesmerized by his music. Still, he couldn’t see our awe. I like to think that he could feel it, though; that he could feel in the silence of the place, in the way we held our breath so we could listen closer to his. He had turned a subway station into a sanctuary, though he might never know it.

Here’s what I should have done when I left that Tube station: I should have booked it back to Mayfair, barged into that Sotheby’s gallery in my sweat-drenched travel-guy getup, grabbed the first guy in a well-tailored blue suit that I could find by the collar, and said:

See this stuff? Forget it. Picasso and Banksy can wait. We’re going to the bottom level of the Holborn Stop. And then I’d wave my hand to the rest of the people milling around the auction house like, all of you are coming too! And then we’d run 3 or 4 miles back to that stop and I’d let them use my Oyster Card to get into the station, and we’d charge around the corner to the top of the escalators. But I’d stop them right there, I’d let them listen first. I’d let them hear the first few piercing notes of whatever song he’d moved onto, then I’d lead them slowly, one by one, down that moving Chorus line into the station, into that makeshift sanctuary. And I would watch it all from behind—their heads turning in unison towards the man in the white shirt at the bottom of the escalator, rocking gently back and forth to the sound of his own music. And I wouldn’t push the issue at the bottom of the steps, because I don’t think I’d have to. We’d gather round the man, and all those people from the gallery would dig into their pockets and find whatever Pounds and Pence they had to drop in that man’s hat. And then I’d  let him know, like I should have the first time, that he’s a bloody revolution.

Finding Francis

   “He [St. Francis] was a poet whose whole life was a poem. He was not so much a minstrel merely singing his own songs as a dramatist capable of acting the whole of his own play. The things he said were more imaginative than the things he wrote. The things he did we more imaginative than the things he said. His whole course through life was a series of scenes in which he had a sort of perpetual luck in bringing things to a beautiful crisis. To talk about the art of living has come to sound rather artificial than artistic. But St. Francis did in a definite sense make the very act of living an art, though it was an unpremeditated art.” —G.K. Chesterton from his book St. Francis of Assisi

This past week, I was standing in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, a massive, two-story cathedral erected within a century of the Saint’s death in 1226, on the edge of this little hillside town that overlooks the entire span of green Umbrian countryside, when a thunderstorm began to brew outside. I’d arrived with my group earlier in the day when the skies were clear, and we spent the morning lounging in the olive groves outside of city where he had roamed, but by the time we reached the Basilica, the sky was a menacing gray, and we gladly accepted the solace of the church. I knew upon coming to Assisi that I wanted to write something about Francis. Ever since I came here for the first time two years ago, I’ve been obsessed not only with this little man whose short life somehow transformed the city where he lived and the world as we know it to this very day, but with the question of why his life was so spectacular. I had some vague idea of writing about each of the places that we visited, and reflecting on what transpired there; the stone hermitage where he fasted and slept on dirt in the mountains above the city, the spot in the center of town where he stripped naked and renounced his worldly desires, the tiny chapel that he rebuilt with his bare hands, the trails in the pine-clad forest where he sang, prayed, preached to the birds. If Francis’s life was a drama, then these are the sets where he acted out his story. My first time in Assisi, each of these places was a sliver of insight into Francis’s joyful, brutal, beautiful life. But even though it was my second time in the city, I couldn’t deny the fact that I still felt like a tourist, and that all the different sites were just bullet points on my St. Francis itinerary.

Believe me, though; I was trying. As we strolled through the olive vineyards below the city, I willed myself to imagine what it might have been like to see through Francis’s eyes, to feel the same deep love for creation and its Creator that he must have felt every time he took a breath. It was an attempt at a kind of spiritual voyeurism; a willed shutting off of my own thoughts, feelings, and biases, with the hope that as I pretended to think like Francis, some lightning bolt of spiritual clarity would hit me on the head. Sure, there was a kind of inspiration that came with seeing all that Francis saw, which led me to want to learn more and more about his life. But in all honesty, that first trip to Assisi was more overwhelming than it was enlightening. It was overwhelming because I wanted so badly to understand how a regular man could live such a spectacular life, but the only conclusion that I could come to that was Francis was either totally crazy or totally lucky, as if all that happened during and as a result of his life was part of some divine fluke.

Even though I was still totally enthralled by him, I was beginning to think that his life didn’t have any relevance to me whatsoever. What’s personally inspiring about the legacy of a man who, by most accounts, seems nothing less than superhuman? Sure, Francis had his fair share of hardships, but once he traded in his swanky duds for a brown burlap tunic, everything seemed to fall right into place. The suffering that he faced, as far as I could tell, was mostly by choice. Giving away all his worldly possessions, sprinkling ashes on his food to dull and distort its taste, sleeping on stone, refusing to wear shoes, kissing lepers—all of this, although it’s beautiful and inspiring in a far off, what a guy sort of way, when you really stop and think about the type of conviction that those repeated acts must have taken, and consider the overwhelming spiritual vigor that must have surged through him at any given moment, it’s not only humbling, but also a little discouraging. Of course, Francis would be the first to admit that the passion that led him to such a courageous, wild-eyed, love-filled life had nothing to do with his own will power. He would be pointing up at God, dancing and singing, before the question even left your lips. But his reverence, joy, and pure conviction were on a level that a regular, non-saint, modern person couldn’t possibly understand, so why even bother? I was tempted to conclude that life was just simpler back then. To do what Francis did—to exchange all worldly aspirations and desires for a life of simplicity, gladness, and care for others—was possible only because of the culture that he lived in. A life of willed simplicity just wasn’t all that far from the normalcy back then; it wasn’t that much of a leap in a religious-minded, rural, pre-modern community to shake oneself from the grip of that moderately materialistic society and live for love. Life is just too convoluted and messy these days, I thought. Francis can be an example for how to love well, sure, but beyond that, I just wasn’t feeling the fire that I’d hope for. He was spectacular to a point where he didn’t even feel accessible, and the distance and difference of the culture that he’d rebelled against seemed too great to make any connections in my own life.

Despite my inability to make sense of Francis’s legacy, or his relevance to a modern believer like myself, I’d been reading G.K. Chesterton’s biography about the Saint prior to and during my most recent trip to Assisi, and he made some claims that were too bold for me to ignore. Such as: “What I mean is this; that if men find certain riddles and hard sayings in the story of Galilee, and if they find the answers to those riddles in the story of Assisi, it really does show that a secret has been handed down in one religious tradition and no other. It shows that the casket that was locked in Palestine can be unlocked in Umbria; for the Church is the keeper of the keys.” Amidst all that tricky British wit, what Chesterton is saying is that reflecting on the story of Francis has an even greater power than I’d imagined. He’s saying that it’s possible that the story of St. Francis of Assisi should not only be personally inspiring, but functional in some mysterious way, in that it can reveal things about the person of Jesus that we’d never imagined. He goes on: “St. Francis is the mirror of Christ rather as the moon is the mirror of the sun. The moon is much smaller than the sun, but it also much nearer to us; and being less vivid it is more visible.” Being less vivid, it is more visible. So if Francis is so visible, why was I having such a hard time understanding him? I was standing in the very fields where he would have walked, staring at the crucifix he would have prayed to, and all I could think about was how far away his radical faith felt. How a beautiful sunset occasionally leaves me cold. How fear of the future and regrets of the past often push away present joy. How hard it is for me to love my roommate, let alone kiss a leper.

So, there I was with all the context in the world; all the knowledge of his life in the background of my mind, and the image of the place he lived in the foreground before my eyes, and none of it would register. By the time we’d reached the Basilica in the late afternoon and the sky above the city began to fill with clouds, I’d resigned myself to the reality that I wasn’t going to get any grand, tangible conclusions about the Saint’s life. Assisi was a city like any other. That a great man once wandered through its streets and fields with nothing but the clothes on his back and a song of love to sing, doesn’t mean the people who come along after will hear the music. And as I gazed up at Giotto’s masterpiece “The Life of Saint Francis,” on the upper walls of the massive Basilica—a fresco cycle widely regarded as the catalyst for the Italian Renaissance—all I heard was thunder beginning to churn above the church. If I couldn’t feel the connection to Francis’s life that I’d always hoped for, at least I could look at some incredible art in a dry church away from the rain. The place was swarming with tourists, both because it’s the prime attraction in the city and because it’s the only space that’s big enough to protect a thousand people from a storm. A Franciscan Friar lead a group of elderly German tourists below the progression of paintings, while some rambunctious Italian teenagers chased each other around the apse in the front of the church. With the storm taking shape outside, the church was beginning to look like its own kind of stage, where tourists and locals and monks rubbed elbows as they hid from the rain and searched for some beauty to rest their eyes on. I took a seat in one of the pews so I could focus on my favorite painting in the Giotto cycle called Sermon to the Birds. It’s just like I remembered: simple, serene, mostly blue except for Francis, the birds, and a tree.

animals-francisandbirds-giotto

At that moment, just as I was getting lost in the simplicity of the painting, a double-crack of thunder burst from the clouds above us, though it was so loud it felt like it might have struck the roof. A somber-faced security guard was passing in front of me in that very instant, and when the crack after the initial rumble exploded above us, he literally jumped at the sound. He jerked his shoulders up and his head down as if the roof was falling. It must have startled everyone in the whole church, but I had my eyes fixed on him, and I’m fairly certain he had the most extreme reaction of anyone there. He regained his composure and looked around with obvious embarrassment to see if anyone had noticed. His eyes locked on mine. After a brief stare down, we smiled simultaneously. He shrugged as if to say, pretty scary thunder, right? and I shrug-nodded in affirmation. He put his security guard face back on and returned to looking un-phased.

That moment, which was initiated by a literal lightning bolt in the sky above Assisi, was the breaking point that I’d been waiting for. All the posturing and striving and contextual gymnastics that I’d been doing were suddenly irrelevant. Seeing that security guard quake like a little kid was all I needed to get into the mind of Francis. Because really, that’s all that Francis needed to inspire his love for the world and for all the creatures in it. Francis was after true human moments, moments of connection and vulnerability, where the presence of God in every person was apparent precisely because he was willing to see past a uniform and see a man. The only difference is that Francis didn’t need lightning bolts to help him truly see the person standing next to him. Or maybe he did and he just heard them more often. Lightning or not, Francis’s life looked like a grand drama and sounded like a poem, not because he was striving to be spectacular or the holiest man standing, but because he simply wanted to see people as they really were, to strip away the vanity of class and religion and fashion and come face to face with everything within the wide expanse of God’s creation—from the mountains to the caves, the wolves to the sparrows, the Popes to the lepers—and fall in love with it.

After that first bolt, I made my way to the entrance at the back of the Basilica. There was a small, covered vestibule by the door, so I squeezed into the tiny space with 10 other strangers. We watched in silence as the rain made the stones of the old city shimmer, listened as the thunder receded slowly into countryside. I had heard someone mention earlier that Francis, who gave away every penny he ever received, would’ve been appalled by a giant, expensive Basilica erected in his name. True as this may be, I couldn’t help but think that in that moment, Francis wouldn’t have given the question a moment’s thought. He would have been too busy watching the rain as it passed over Assisi, shoulder to shoulder with his new friends.

Sunday: Waving from the Shore

If Friday was the day where we couldn’t find enough words to speak of the tragedy, and Saturday was where we tried to understand how we are supposed to make a life that reflects the promise of Christ’s return despite his apparent absence, then this Easter Sunday is where there are simply too many words say, and not enough people in existence to say them. Writers often admit that it’s easier to speak about pain than joy, and I’m no exception to this problem. But as I sit here trying to put together a reflection that is worthy of the reality—that a dead man, a man who claimed to be a savior, was made alive again—I’m realizing that it’s hard to write about the joy of resurrection, not because the experiences of it are few and far between, but because they defy the limitations of these little black markings on a page. Our voices are all too capable of wailing, but praise is a much harder thing for us to manage. Even still, the limits of our voices are one thing among many that Christ’s rising makes beautiful, so why not do our best to use them, even when they fail?

Among those many fickle words, there’s one that I’ve intentionally reserved for this day in particular, and not because it wasn’t relevant. Just as resurrection is not a particularly easy concept for us to understand, forgiveness, though we also throw it around a lot, is nearly as difficult to grasp. We’re told it’s the point of this entire story, that all the suffering we saw on Friday, and sifted through on Saturday, was inflicted so that we could be forgiven in Christ’s resurrection. Maybe the reason I’m not a theologian is because I can’t quite trace that thread of logic without a story to help me understand. I can’t turn that into to joy until it’s made real in my small mind, or maybe in my life. We had to enter into pain in order to understand the suffering of Friday, so today, maybe the only way to we can reflect the glory of the resurrection is to enter into someone else’s joy.

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by Ben Anderson

Consider Peter. Peter, who was casting a net into the Sea of Galilee when Jesus first called his name. Peter, who gave his life to follow him, who briefly walked on water before sinking in his fear, who called him the Christ. Peter, who refused to let him wash his feet, who sliced a man’s ear clean off when they came for him. Peter, who said he’d never known him. Peter, who said he was never with him. Peter, who let them march him to his death. Peter, who watched him die, then headed out to Sea again.

I’m going fishing, he said. There isn’t a lot of explanation about how Peter might have felt in those days following Christ’s death, but as he pushed his boat back out to Sea, I doubt that he still considered himself a fisher of men, as Jesus had once called him. I picture Peter out there on the Sea of Tiberius, hauling in net after empty net in silence, cursing his own reflection as he leaned over the hull. How many times have I pushed my own boat out to sea, to somewhere where no one would find me, casting my net for nothing but more shame?

He must not have made it too far out, because he could still hear voices from the shore. No, cast it on the other side! He could barely hear his voice, let alone make out what the man looked like from that far away. So they shrugged and let their nets down on the other side, Peter grumbling under his breath all along. He held the net so loosely in his one hand that when he felt the ropes go taught, he nearly tossed himself into the water as he reached to secure it with his other hand. It must have struck him as odd in the slightest way, but I can understand why he might have been too consumed by his own pain to put it all together right away. As he pulled the load, hand over hand from the water, trying not to make comparisons lest he sink deeper into his shame, he heard John shout It is the Lord! He spun, squinted towards the man now waving from the shore, then dove head first into water, suddenly alive again.

When he made it back to shore,                                                                                                                               they broke bread like old times.                                                                                                                           Jesus asked him three times over,                                                                                                                            Peter, do you love me?

As usual, Peter didn’t hesitate.                                                                                                                                  But why would he have?                                                                                                                                                  He was looking into resurrection’s eyes.                                                                                                             Of course I do, he said,                                                                                                                                                   still soaked from head to toe                                                                                                                                    from his dive back into sea.

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Image by Ben Anderson

Saturday: The Gray Between Death and Life

I.

So where do we go with all this hurt? Yesterday we saw him hanging from those slabs of cedar, and we sung our own sad hymns as all the blood drained out. We try our best to understand how the darkness of his death somehow blots out the bleakness of our own lives, to believe the promises that he made. We know the promises well, and when we look at his words preceding the moment of his death, there’s no denying that he knew them, too. A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me, he said to them. What? They probably couldn’t see beyond their own grief, but from my distant perspective, it almost seems like he was taking it all in stride.

He seemed to lean into his own death, in the way that a seasoned coal miner might crack his knuckles, then take a few deep breaths before sinking into the black pit of the earth’s crust. Sure, in the garden, he was so terrified that he sweated like he was bleeding, and of course we know that he, too, cried out why? when the pain was too much to bare. But even if he asked why he had to die, he never questioned if he would rise again. That was always a sure-shot, as far as he could tell. But even though he never doubted, that doesn’t mean it would have been easy for them, or for us, to believe he’d come again. Although we may throw the word around quite a bit, resurrection is not an easy thing for people like us to grasp. Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that it is.

Life after death, life after death, he told them over and over. But then they took him down from the cross in their arms, like a priest might lift a nearly weightless young man from his hospital bed, humming along the way, and wrapped him in a linen tunic. And while it may not have been the bloody shock of death that yesterday was, he was still cold in their arms as they rolled away the stone. There was no life in him. If all we had to offer amidst yesterday’s brutality was a wordless melody and a simple why?, I can’t imagine that as they laid him in the tomb, they had anything to say except, what now?

 And isn’t this the question we find ourselves asking on so many of these gray mornings, on these days where we stand somewhere in between grief and joy? Theologically speaking, 2,000 years after that eternal weekend, there is no day when Christ is not with us. But as we reflect on the historical day in between Christ’s death and resurrection—and I know I can only speak for myself—it shouldn’t be hard to imagine a literal absence of his presence. It’s as predictable as the rain April. We know the same promises that the disciples did, and we, too, left everything to follow him. So in that respect we aren’t much different from them; we’ve all been suddenly forced to cobble together a life after he’s gone, and in that process, we make choices that reflect either the blatancy of his absence or the mystery of his presence. It’s the nature of our journey. Do I still keep living as if he’s coming back? Do I still act as if he’s with me, even though he’s stuck in that tomb? As usual, my mind wanders to other writers who confront the question of hope in the midst of uncertainty and tragedy. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road comes to mind. A father and son wander through a post-apocalyptic American landscape, clinging to life and each other, and are forced to reaffirm the purpose of their existence:

 You have to carry the fire, his father says.                                                                                                                I don’t know how to, the boy replies.                                                                                                                    Yes you do.                                                                                                                                                                                Is it real? The fire? the boy asks again.                                                                                                                      Yes it is.                                                                                                                                                                            Where is it? I don’t know where it is.                                                                                                                          Yes you do. It’s inside you. I can see it, says the father to the boy.

Perhaps I’m mixing metaphors. But it all speaks of the same question that plagues us on this day between death and life: Son of man, can these bones live?

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Image by Ben Anderson

II.

Consider this short clip from Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. Javier Bardem plays an aging Catholic priest in Oklahoma named Father Quintana. As loneliness and suffering seem to collapse around him, the voice of God grows fainter with every passing day. This six-minute clip is, to me, a vivid picture of the choices we have—to either affirm or deny— as we live  in the ambiguity of Christ’s apparent absence.

III.

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Image by Ben Anderson

Thanks for joining us again. Don’t forget to check us out tomorrow for the final installment of this short series of reflections on the events of Holy Week. Have a great day. 

 

Silent Pietá’s: A Reflection on this Supposedly Good Friday

Good morning, everyone. Earlier this week, my brother Ben reached out to me with an idea for a short collaborative project to reflect on the Passion Narrative, from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, and I’m pleased to share what we’ve cobbled together here on Binding North. We haven’t really worked together on anything creative since the Slam Dunk highlight videos/suburban action flicks we made circa 2005, which I’m now realizing is crazy. The basic format is this: I write a short reflection for each day (Fri, Sat, Sun) and Ben, who is a gifted visual artist, puts together a series of images in response to what I’ve written, and to his own response to the narrative in the Gospels. It’s nothing too elaborate, but we feel it was an enriching process, and it’s something we would like to share with everyone, with the hope of inspiring some deeper reflection. If it fits, we’ll also include some outside sources for you all to take a look at after, or while you’re reading. We’re taking it day by day, so what follows tomorrow could be very different from what you see today. Whatever we come up with, though, we hope you enjoy reading and looking.

Silent Pietá’s

I.            

It’s hard to speak when there are no words to say—just sighs, shudders, and shrugs, forlorn glances into the middle-distance, where there is space for your eyes to escape what they’ve just seen. I didn’t really see it, of course, but I’ve spent enough time pretending to understand what it all meant that day, this day they say, so many Fridays ago, to have at least a faint idea of what it looked like. Truth is, I don’t and probably never will. Try to tell a mother that one day she’ll understand why she had to bury her son, she’ll slap your mouth cold shut.

 No one can ever put words to a brutal, bloody tragedy, so why would this be any different? A four-year old kid knocked clear by a speeding drunk’s bumper, a young mother gunned down in the cross-fire of two gangs, an innocent man whipped, spat on, hung by his hands and feet on a couple slabs of wood. This is the reality and it speaks for itself. In the time leading up to, during, and immediately following these moments, it’s worthless to speak, because the tragedy itself is louder, clearer, more telling of the pain and seeming senselessness of our existence than any careful articulation could ever be. What happened on that day? Someone that we love—a son, teacher, and friend—died for no good reason. We can only call this day Good because we know what was to come.

 But what if we didn’t know? What if on that day, when Judas kissed him one last time and Peter said he’d never known him, when Pilate in all his Roman nonchalance lifted a lazy finger and sighed, “Crucify Him, then,” when Simon of Cyrene labored under the cross because Jesus could no longer lift it, and Mary saw them drive the nails into his hands, what if all they knew was that he would be dead by sundown? If there were some promise of his rising, it would have been impossible to imagine with him hanging there, his lungs stretched shut by the earth’s pull on his naked frame. That is all they saw and there was nothing they could say, except for a stricken few, who knew by how he seemed to still be in love with them and with the world he was slipping from, that he was who he’d claimed to be. But the rest of them had no words to come in place of tears. Maybe we can only begin to understand the meaning of his death if we hold it near the deaths in our own lives, the worst of which have the same sting of absurdity, evoke the same sense of disbelief that leaves us voiceless, except to utter, why?

 

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 Image by Ben Anderson

II.

 The late Irish poet Seamus Heaney has a poem about The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s and 80’s, a time when innocent men, women, and children were killed in the name of religion, flag and tribe. It’s called “Whatever You Say Say Nothing,” and the title alone seems a fitting admonition for this day. In the poem, he addresses the hollow words of journalists who attempt to make sense of the violence, to pick sides, or explain away the pain in exchange for a scoop. I would never direct such a scathing critique at anyone trying to put words to the meaning of Good Friday, but Heaney’s reverence for the dead and the suffering, which indeed includes himself, seems to me, quite noble. To step outside of the suffering in death, for both the victim and the viewer, is to put oneself at an arm’s length of its hideous strength. On this day, instead of attempting to grasp the moment’s cosmological and theological implications by stepping away from the story—with all its ugliness and suffering and brutality—I suggest we do our best to step closer and enter into that pain. And by what means? Well, whatever is necessary to shake us from whatever stupor or numbness that makes it ordinary. If there’s any good in death, it’s that its pain can steal us from our gray, fuzzy existence, and show us life in blood-red Technicolor, and maybe make us grateful for it.

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by Ben Anderson

III.

Consider another poem from a lesser-known, though similarly brilliant Catholic poet named Paul Mariani. It’s called “Pietá,” and it comes from his collection entitled Deaths and Transfigurations:

 Pietá

 New Year’s Eve, a party at my brother’s.                                                                                                          Hats, favors, the whole shebang, as we waited                                                                                                for one world to die into another.

 And still it took three martinis before                                                                                                                     she could bring herself to say it. How                                                                                                                     the body of her grown son lay alone there

 in the ward, just skin & bone, the nurses                                                                                                     masked & huddled in the doorway, afraid                                                                                                             to cross over into a world no one seemed

 to understand. This was a dozen years ago,                                                                                                           you have to understand, before the thing                                                                                                                   her boy had had become a household word.

 Consider Martha. Consider Lazarus four days gone.                                                                                             If only you’d been here, she says, if only                                                                                                            you’d been here. And no one now to comfort her,

 no one except this priest, she says, an old                                                                                                     friend who’d stood beside them through the dark                                                                                       night of it all, a bull-like man, skin black

 as the black he wore, the only one who seemed                                                                                           willing to walk across death’s threshold into                                                                                                            that room. And now, she says, when the death

 was over, to see him lift her son, light as a baby                                                                                              with the changes that death had wrought, and cradle him                                                                        like that, then sing him on his way, a cross

 between a lullaby & blues, mmm hmmm, while                                                                                             the nurses, still not understanding what they saw,                                                                                                stayed outside and watched them from the door.

 …

The scene, so far from the place they called Golgotha, 2,000 years removed, and yet somehow, so close. Call it allegory if you want, but call it elegy first. As bleak as it is, this poem about a young man slain by what (I’m assuming) would soon come to be known as the AIDS epidemic, is as close as we can come to putting words to the grief of those who’d known Jesus. The mother, twelve years after the death of her son, can barely bring herself to speak of the day. It’s dark, it’s awful, it is downright ugly. The poem itself is a retelling of a story told about the young man’s death, a frame within a frame. Listeners try to imagine the scene in the darkened hospital room, what those nurses standing by might have seen or felt. The passed along grief in the poem is the nature of this very day: listening, looking back, trying to piece together what it might have felt like to see it as they saw it from the ground, looking up at Jesus as he died. And as we peer through clouded windows and listen closely to skipping records, we’re certain only of that moment’s darkness.

 But before I get too carried away, before I stamp out any flicker of hope that might linger in the darkness of a day like this, notice again that final stanza. The music in that unnamed priest’s voice; maybe this is all we can do on this supposedly Good Friday. No grand conclusions, no victory laps or rousing convocations of that moment’s implications. Not yet. Just the gentle, wordless hum—a cross between a lullaby & blues, mmm hmmm—this might be good enough.

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by Ben Anderson

Thanks for joining us. If you’re interested in following along, stay tuned for something different tomorrow. Then, check in again on Easter Sunday for the final installment of this short series of reflections. Have a great day. 

A Rome of Nameless Things

“No, all ambition has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self—except for that terrible, blissful feeling at the heart of creation itself, when all thought of your name is obliterated and all you want is the poem, to be the means wherein something of reality, perhaps even something of eternity, realizes itself. That is noble ambition… So long as your ambition is to stamp your existence upon existence, your nature on nature, then your ambition is corrupt and you are pursuing a ghost.”

—From Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss.

 I was strolling through the Vatican Museum in Rome last weekend, casually surveying the artistic riches of centuries of Papal dominance, when the terrifying reality of true anonymity hit me harder than I was ready for. The thought had surely crossed my mind before—that at the end of my life, after all the toil and ambition and striving to live well, to create at least one beautiful thing that spoke of something greater than myself—that my name could be wiped from the long scroll of human life, that everything I’d ever said or done would soon become irrevocably detached from my own existence. Or that, somehow, however unlikely it may seem, something that I made, with words or with actions, could outlive my own meager legacy. My apologies for the slightly dramatic tone, but Rome has a way of encouraging one to speak in eternal turns of phrase. It just feels right.

More specifically, I was staring across a velvet rope at the twisting torso of the Laocoön, IMG_2025one of the most immaculate pieces of sculpture of all time, when it hit me that the man who had carved this terrifyingly beautiful thing from marble—over 1,500 years before Michelangelo carved his David—was literally unknown to the millions of people who laid eyes on it. Not the Roman officials who would have sauntered past it in the Ancient Forum, or the tourists, like me, who snap photos so they can hold on to its miniature image forever.  Considering the culture of the day, which tended to view visual artists as tradesman rather than creative masters, it’s likely that the man who carved this statue knew as he was carving it that no one would ever know he did. I have a hard enough time writing a haiku in my notebook without a place to display my signature.  This guy carved the Laocoön, probably without so much as a nameplate.

I leaned in as close to the body of marble as I could, trying to convince myself that this figure torqueing heroically from the grip of serpents, was, in fact, stone. To believe that it was once a formless mass of rock requires a suspension of reality. It’s that good. Why would anybody endure the infuriating labor that this thing must have required, if not to have at least some scrap of recognition for his efforts, even the softest pat on the back? Surely, no one was holding a spear to his head. Who knows—maybe they were—but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s still standing, still beautiful, still nameless.

I read the above passage from Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss (an incredible book, I might add) just a few days after returning from Rome, a city where so much of its beauty is anonymous, and his words could not have rung more truly.  As you stare at a painting on the ceiling of a Christian Catacomb, painted there in secret within one hundred years of Christ’s death, you have to ask yourself: what if the person who painted this flat out didn’t do it? What then? What if every sculptor, painter, and architect in this city stared at its blank spaces, and said, “This is too much work, too much risk, to go unknown”? Rome, or any beautiful thing for that matter, would not exist.  Rome intensifies the reality that Wiman urges us to see: that if the original spark that fueled the creation of those beautiful things—what he called “that terrible, blissful feeling at the heart of creation itself”—can persist admidst the endless barrage of the ego, the desire to be known, heard, recognized, proven worthy of attention, then that beauty grows beyond human proportions.

Certainly, the Laocoön is beautiful purely because it exists. My dentist could have made it yesterday and it would still be one the most incredible things I’ve ever laid eyes on. Granted, it would be a very different kind of incredible if my dentist made it. But doesn’t its pure, mysterious existence make it that much more incredible? Doesn’t it feel somehow bigger without a name?

I find this thought both terrifying and invigorating. The thought that if I were so lucky to make, or say, or do something that people will still see, or hear, or know of, even 50 years from now, that they might not ever know I did it— that’s scary. It cuts to the core. It makes me ask myself why  really I do what I do. But then when I really think about it, when I really get to the nitty-gritty of why I want to write at all, I know that somewhere deep in the mire of my own selfish ambitions to be known through my own words, “to stamp my existence upon existence,” there was once the faintest inkling of a pure desire to speak a truth of something bigger, better, more beautiful than I could ever imagine taking credit for. I desperately hope that I would remember that the impulse to make beauty is not my own. That if I ever I stumble upon the words to move somebody towards a more beautiful experience of this life or of God, that I would recall that first spark. That spark doesn’t care what kind of feeble recognition lies ahead. But what really scares me is how long it’s been since I’ve even considered that type of pure impulse. In all the chaos of post-graduate life, of searching for a “vocation”, I’ve bought into the bogus notion that in order to prove my own existence, I must be heard. And what a burden in this age of noise!

I realize the blatant contradiction here, considering you’re probably reading this because I lambasted your Facebook newsfeed. But do I really have I choice?

Of course I do. In this case, I’m choosing to acknowledge the fact that it is damn near impossible to make or do something with absolutely no ambition to be known. But the Laocoön, the city of Rome, and the million other beautiful things made by unnamed makers, exist to prove that the work we do will outlive our selfish ambitions. Our names are known in other, better ways. On second thought, maybe that’s not so terrifying. Maybe the threat of total anonymity in this life can remind us that there is some remnant of a flame, one that burns to shed light on better things than names.

Rain-Running and a Man Named Sam

I met Samuel on the Corso—Orvieto’s main road, which cuts through the heart of town—almost two years ago on the type of blustery, gray day that defines much of the late winter in this particular Italian region, called Umbria. As far as I can remember, Samuel and I were the only two people on the entire street: him under an awning, waiting for the sudden swell of sheet-rain to pass, and me, running in a soaked-through, bright blue raincoat and running shorts. I remember turning and glancing at him as I charged past, probably thinking that I looked quite heroic, and being struck by how clearly he stared back at me, nodding, almost like he knew something. All I knew of Samuel was that he was one of about five Nigerien men who came to Orvieto to sell socks to tourists on the weekends. The interactions I’d had with them were typically clipped and lacked any memorable sincerity.           

 Ciao! Would you like some socks? one of them would ask.        

  No, thanks, I’d say.

So, needless to say, the intensity of Samuel’s glare struck me. Americans are gawkers, I’ve come to realize, but Italians, both natives and emigrants alike, don’t stare. Nothing surprises them, apparently. Perhaps he was considering me as a worthy client for some dry socks, who knows. I returned to my apartment and cleaned up, dried off, and headed out again for a coffee, because there’s nothing like watching the rain from a dry spot with a hot drink, knowing that the rain’s already done its worst. But on my way to the Café, Samuel and I crossed paths. He stopped me, grabbed my arm, and emphatically said,            

   Were you the one running?

   Uh, yes. That was me, I said, a little caught off guard.

He held out his hand for me to shake and I reached for it. He didn’t let go as he continued, Beautiful day. Beautiful day to run. He stared directly into my eyes. His were wide and bright, almost glowing against the darkness of his skin, the bleakness of the day. He kept on shaking my hand.

     My name is Samuel, he said, pronouncing it like Sam-Well            

     Paul, I said. Pole, he repeated.

I don’t know much about Africa, but I do know that running is fairly common in many countries on the continent, both as a pastime and a form of transportation. Naturally, people raised in these cultures tend to be pretty damn good at running, and in some countries, running as sport can serve as a literal form of escape from poverty or conflict. But in most cases, running’s a lot like how we might view it: a temporary form of freedom. I also know that most Nigerians in Italy are, for a variety of reasons—including the country’s proximity to Africa’s Northern coast— refugees. Samuel, I figured, was forced to leave his home, however long ago it may have been.

We kept talking, and eventually he let go of my hand. He told me that he was fast when he was young. That he ran in the rain without his shoes. I believed every word, no longer wary that he was hustling me. There was earnestness in his voice; a simplicity in the way he spoke about the thing that we both loved. He told me that he lived in a small town some 60 Kilometers from Orvieto, and every morning he boarded the train to a different popular hill town with his duffel bag full of socks. I haven’t run in years, he said. We parted ways that afternoon, but every time he was back in town we seemed to bump into each other and would inevitably talk about running, about the steadily increasing temperatures, the never ending parade of spring-themed religious holidays in this country. I never asked about how many socks he’d sold, or if he was tired of selling to tourists who clearly didn’t want what he could offer them. Still, Samuel was always there.

Today, I ran out to the countryside for the first time since returning to Orvieto; out to an old abandoned house on the cusp of a lush swathe of vineyards. I stepped into the house, over grass growing through the floor. It was drizzling, and I peered through the broken windows at the green landscape stretching away from the house. Orvieto itself is alive and well; its medieval buildings still animated by families that have been here for countless generations, but old abandoned places like these mark the empty spaces surrounding the town. This year, I’m a Teacher’s Assistant for the drawing class that I’d previously taken as a student, and the town’s architecture is the primary subject. The students spread window-sized drawing pads on the cobblestones, peer up at the webs of arches and curving lines, and attempt to capture the city’s timeless likeness onto the page. Often, the city speaks for itself—it’s beautiful, and that’s all that matters. Nothing could go wrong here, with alleys and walls and windows like these, twisting through shafts of slanting yellow light. You could wander through the town, always looking up, and forget that humans actually exist.

But this time around, there’s a new theme that we’re hoping the students will begin to explore in their careful studies of the city’s physical space: The Figure. Whether it’s present in the frame, or somewhere outside of it, the presence of a living person is just as important as the buildings themselves. The people who walk along those streets and the weight they carry with them, and not just the pretty cobblestones. Not just the monstrous Cathedral in the center of town, but the monk who came to its steps on pilgrimage from some monastery 100 miles away, 500 years ago. There’s a temptation in these types of jaw-dropping medieval European cities to get swept up in all their aesthetic grandiosity, to marvel solely at the fact that they are old, very old, and yet still very beautiful. We forget that life happens here and cling to the idyllic image of the fruit stand, the bakery, the chapel, then hang it on the bathroom wall and imagine a simpler time, a place where life is better. But in that old abandoned house on the edge of town, there’s no mistaking the presence of The Figure, albeit an absent, forgotten one. I felt the family that may have lived there and had meals around a table every night, the children who might have played in the vineyard, and I thought about what might have forced them leave. You can’t stand inside, let alone draw a place like this without thinking about a person’s relationship to the space. There’s no such thing as an abandoned place without a person who left it there.

It started coming down again when I crossed back into town, so I took the Corso, straight through the city’s center. I was less convinced of my own heroics this time, though, partially because I’ve lost a bit of my edge over the last year and was probably flailing, but also because I was thinking about that abandoned house. The streets were nearly empty again, so I couldn’t help but imagine that I was running through a city that had been left behind. But as I ran past the Clock Tower in the center of town, and then a series of Cafés and bakeries, I turned to see Samuel there under an awning again, waiting for the rain to pass. He looked at me in the same way that he did on that afternoon two years ago, like he knew how it felt to run.

I saw Samuel on the street again later in the day, and shook his hand.

 How have you been? I asked him.              

 OK. Not bad, he said tentatively. He looked down, then back up at me, and corrected himself. Well, trying to be OK, he said, still holding onto my hand.

We chatted for a minute or two, then parted ways. One love, he said, patting his chest.

Even though I had to remind Samuel that we’d met before, that’s not what really matters. What matters is that when I sit down to write about this city, with all its inimitable physical beauty, its medieval Cathedrals and slanting light, that I would not forget about him. That I wouldn’t think just about the awning over the café, but about the people like Samuel who stand below them.  It pains me to say that I’ve walked away from dozens of towns like Orvieto, all across Europe, with a sense that I’d missed something. The truth is, I have. Chalk it up to newfound maturity, or a waning sense of romanticism, or whatever, but upon returning to Orvieto this time, the picturesque vistas that once blinded me from this city’s depth just aren’t enough anymore. Give me a figure in the frame, and then this city means something. Without it, any town might as well be abandoned.