The Visitation

El Greco The Visitation

Last week while I was on vacation I did something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I visited Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Georgetown. Owned by Harvard University, the museum has a small but significant collection of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art, reflecting the eclectic interests of its founders Robert and Mildred Bliss. I know almost nothing about Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art, so I thought I wouldn’t recognize anything in the collection. But as I passed the Italian Renaissance-style music room on my way to the Philip Johnson Pavilion where the Pre-Columbian exhibit is housed, a smallish painting caught my eye. Even before I recognized the subject matter, I knew the artist: El Greco (1541-1614). Upon closer inspection I saw that it was a painting of the Bible story known as The Visitation (Luke 1:39-45). Mary, having just been told by an angel that she would miraculously conceive the Son of God, visits her older cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant with a miracle baby, John the Baptist, conceived beyond the mother’s childbearing years.

The expressionistic style of the painting makes it look remarkably modern, as if from the twentieth century, even though it was painted sometime between 1610 and 1614. One commentator praised the work for embodying “all the mysticism and eerie brilliance typical of the best phase of [El Greco’s] style.” In it, two nondescript figures, robed in identical silver-blue hooded garments, embrace in a corniced doorway with a white, fluted casing. There are no halos, no religious symbols. The scene is strikingly ordinary, considering the miracle it depicts.

When Mary greets her cousin, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb “leaped for joy” and she was filled with the Holy Spirit. That experience prompted her to utter one of the most famous lines of the Bible: “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus,” part of the Hail Mary prayer Catholics around the world pray every day. Still, as important as the story is, it hasn’t done a lot for me in the past. I guess it’s difficult for me, a modern American male, to relate to pre-modern Eastern women both of whom are carrying miracle babies in their respective wombs. Besides the fantastic-sounding conception stories, I don’t understand why Elizabeth saw the baby moving in her womb as a miraculous sign. Don’t all babies do that? Was being filled with the Holy Spirit what enabled Elizabeth to see the ordinary event of a fetal motion as a divine sign?

I’m not sure why it’s difficult for me to see God’s hand in the ordinary. Perhaps it’s because I’m not looking for it, or at least not looking carefully enough. Both my religious training and my personality have made me hesitant to acknowledge the fact that God speaks to us outside of Scripture. Too many people get caught up in Charismatic kookiness or plain old superstition, so (I reason) it’s much safer to stick with the Bible. Yet even in Scripture God speaks to his people in a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s miraculous like Moses at the burning bush. At other times the means of divine communication is surprisingly ordinary like an unborn baby moving. Jesus himself drew his greatest lessons from everyday life: a farmer sowing seed, a shepherd tending a flock, a fisherman catching fish, a woman searching for a lost coin.

I am trying to learn how to find God in ordinary things, even a trip to a museum.

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The Problem of Evil

People free a man from the rubble of a destroyed building after an earthquake hit Nepal, in Kathmandu, Nepal, 25 April 2015.  EPA/NARENDRA SHRESTHA

People free a man from the rubble of a destroyed building after an earthquake hit Nepal, in Kathmandu, Nepal, 25 April 2015. EPA/NARENDRA SHRESTHA

On April 25 a major earthquake struck the mountainous country of Nepal. The death toll stands at 3,300 confirmed dead and is expected to rise. Thousands were injured. Thousands more are homeless. How could a good God allow such suffering?

It’s a serious question and one of the biggest objections to belief in God. It’s called the Problem of Evil and it’s as old as the Book of Job: Why do bad things happen to good people? Or to put it another way: If God is good, why does he allow evil to exist?  There are no easy answers, but a few truths can help us understand.

First, evil is not a thing that God created. God made the sun, moon, stars. He even created worms and        mosquitoes. But he never made anything called “evil.” Evil is simply the absence of good. Evil is a wrong choice or the result of a wrong choice. It’s not something God made.

Second, free will allows for the possibility of evil. God could have created a world without free will. However, in his goodness God decided to allow spiritual beings (angels and humans) the ability to choose. When we choose to do wrong, it’s evil. God could stop us from choosing evil, but then we wouldn’t have free will and that would be even worse. Even natural evils like floods and earthquakes are ultimately the result of moral evils. God created the world and pronounced it good. Adam and Eve chose to sin (moral evil) for which God punished man with physical evil (suffering and death). All of creation was also affected by the fall of our first parents. The world was no longer a safe place.

Third, God provided a solution to the Problem of Evil in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. God loved us so much that he sent his Son to die for us in order to defeat the power of evil. His ultimate plan of salvation is not only to save people who turn to him in faith but also to restore all of creation and reconcile it “through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20). God’s answer to undeserved suffering is the cross of Christ, the most undeserved suffering.

Many people have rejected faith in God because of the reality of suffering. But what are they left with? They still have their pain and sense of injustice. But they have no comfort, no faith, and no hope that wrongs will eventually be made right. Without belief in God, the world is simply a bad place and there’s no way to make sense of out it. In fact, without belief in God concepts like “good” and “evil” make no sense. How is unbelief better than believing in a God who allows evil to exist but promises to bring good out of evil for those who love him (Rom. 8:28)? How is unbelief better than believing in a God who becomes man and joins us in our suffering in order to save us? It isn’t.

It may be difficult at times to believe in God when we are confronted by evil and suffering, but it’s better than the alternative.

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Love Is Patient

Christ of Ixmiquilpan

Christ of Ixmiquilpan (Mexico, ca. 1770) by José de Páez

Love is patient. That’s the first descriptive of love in the great love chapter of the Bible: 1 Corinthians 13. Love is patient not only when waiting for something good but when enduring something bad. Life on earth is short and full of hardships: “A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble, comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last” (Job 14:1). Suffering can make us better or bitter. It depends on how we respond to it. Those who endure suffering patiently, loving God and obeying him despite their pain, gain great rewards. A wise man once said, “When someone performs miracles, they are in God’s debt, but if they have to suffer, God places himself in their debt.”

Seeking pleasure and avoiding pain is the most natural approach to life. Yet people who have not suffered are intolerable. The kindest and gentlest people have had their rough edges rubbed off by suffering. We will find peace by treating things that are pleasant as bitter and things that are bitter as pleasant. When bitter things are accepted as a gift from God they become sweet. To accept suffering willingly is not only a means to spiritual growth, it’s a prerequisite to becoming a disciple of Jesus. He said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). When anyone comes forward at church wanting to become a Christian, we ask them to say a prayer. Jesus bids them suffer and die. We need to ask, How much of ourselves do we want Jesus to save? If we only want our lips to be saved, we can give him our words. If we want all of us to be saved, we must give him our whole lives. God will save whatever we give him. If we give him our suffering, he will redeem that too. God is in the business of bringing light out of darkness, good out of evil, life out of death.

Think about Jesus on the cross. He suffered horribly, not only from the wounds in his head, hands, feet, and side, but his soul was tormented as well. What kept him on the cross? It wasn’t the nails. No iron in the world is strong enough. Ten thousand angels stood ready to rescue Jesus at his Father’s command (Matt. 26:53). No, it wasn’t the nails that kept Jesus on the cross. It was love. Love is patient. Jesus patiently endured the humility, pain, and despair of the cross because he loves us.

God is not aloof from human suffering. In the person of Jesus, God entered into our frail human condition and suffered with us and for us. That is love. Love suffers willingly, even joyfully. When we patiently endure suffering, the love of God is made perfect in us.

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St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)

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Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Saint Teresa in Ecstasy (1647-1652)

St Teresa of Avila was born in Spain on this day, March 28, five hundred years ago. She was a Catholic reformer, Carmelite nun, author, and one of the greatest mystics who ever lived. Because she is a poster child for Counter-Reformation spirituality, most Protestants have either never heard of her or see her as a symbol of all that was wrong with the Roman Church.

Teresa was two years old when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, the symbolic beginning of Protestantism. Luther was himself a former monk, who came to reject monasticism, celibacy, and mysticism. Teresa embraced all three and took them to new heights. She was even the co-founder of a strict new religious order called the Discalced Carmelites. One story illustrates both her humility and distance from Protestant spirituality:

Once a young woman of high reputation for virtue asked to be admitted to a convent in Teresa’s charge, and added, as if to emphasize her intellect, “I shall bring my Bible with me.” “What,” exclaimed Teresa, “your Bible? Do not come to us. We are only poor women who know nothing but how to spin and do as we are told.”

Teresa is perhaps most remembered for her mysticism. She was a visionary and her spiritual raptures even caused her to levitate on occasion. Here’s how she described one of her most famous visions:

It pleased the Lord that I should sometimes see the following vision. I would see beside me, on my left hand, an angel in bodily form. . . . In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire.  With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails.  When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with a great love for God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, or will one’s soul be content with anything less. . . .

But when this pain of which I am now speaking begins, the Lord seems to transport my soul and to send it into an ecstasy, so that it cannot possibly suffer or have any pain because it immediately begins to experience fruition. May He be blessed forever, Who bestows so many favors on one who so ill requites such great benefits.

Not everything in Teresa’s life was ecstatic bliss. She suffered much both physically and spiritually. She was often opposed by church authorities and nuns who resisted her reforms. Because of her great love for our Lord, she was called simply “Teresa of Jesus.” Happy birthday, St. Teresa!

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Imperfect

imperfect flower

It’s easier to see other people’s faults than our own. That’s why Jesus told us to take the beam out of our own eye before we try to remove the speck from our brother’s. The tendency to cast a more judgmental eye on others isn’t all bad, however. It can provide fodder for healthy self-criticism when we recognize our own shortcomings in someone else. I first learned this lesson when I was turning 12. My cousin Keith was staying with us for the summer after his father, my uncle, died. Keith and I are both perfectionists, though I didn’t understand the extent or dangers of my own perfectionism at the time.

I remember my mother had us do an art project to help pass the time between more typical summer activities. It was decoupage – gluing a picture on a wooden block and then varnishing it. In the process Keith got a tiny tear in his picture. My mother assured him it was okay. No one would notice. The project would turn out fine despite the flaw. My cousin, however, was so troubled by the small imperfection that he tore up the picture. Seeing his reaction struck a chord in me. He did what I would have wanted to do had I made the same mistake. If I can’t succeed, I don’t want to continue.

Yesterday I made a careless mistake that may cost me hundreds of dollars. It sent my emotions into a tailspin and my whole day went down from there. I wish I could laugh off my mistakes. I can’t. Sometimes they weigh me down like an anchor. While I was wallowing in my self-pity, I got anxious updates throughout the day about a church member who underwent liver transplant surgery. While she was fighting for her life, I was worried about my personal failures and hurt feelings. My worries seem petty compared to her situation. Anxiety is like gas; it fills whatever vacuum you put it in. It’s my own perfectionism that causes much of my anxiety.

Perfectionism is a form of cowardice based on insecurity. It’s rooted in a fear of failure and perfectionists like me will do anything to avoid that red-faced feeling of shame that inevitably comes with it. Perfectionism makes people risk averse and hyper-vigilant.  When perfectionists are in a game and sense they can’t win, they quit. When they’re in a relationship that’s not working, they bail. Afterward they resolve never to try again. To quote one of my favorite Simon and Garfunkel songs: “If I never loved, I never would have cried.”

I’m not as much of a perfectionist as I used to be. I still feel like giving up when things don’t seem to be moving toward measurable success. But that’s okay. Nobody’s perfect. Not even me.

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Finding Beauty

the-ascension-1801

Benjamin West (1738-1820), The Ascension (1801), oil on canvas, Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, Tenn.

On Friday I returned from a ten-day trip to Millington, Tennessee where I was doing special work for the US Navy. Last Saturday I ventured out in a cold rain and drove to nearby Memphis to visit the Dixon Gallery of Art. I passed through some pretty slummy areas of the city to get there. My first impression of the Home of the Blues was mostly negative until I arrived at the Dixon. This small but impressive museum was founded by the English-born cotton magnate and fine arts patron Hugo Dixon, who made a large fortune in the cotton business.

French impressionist paintings by Monet, Degas, Renoir, and Bonnard form the core of the permanent collection. There are also two Marc Chagall paintings on display and even an abstract expressionist painting by Sir Howard Hodgkin (b. 1932) who literally colored outside of the lines, painting over the frame. But the work that has stuck with me the most since my visit is a stunning painting of the Ascension of Christ by the artist Benjamin West (above).

Conspicuously absent from the museum collection is any depiction of the laborers upon whose backs Mr. Dixon’s fortune was built. No sharecroppers. No African-Americans. No Americans of any kind for that matter. Dixon ascended to glory on the backs of the poor who have no representation in his art collection. We all compartmentalize our lives and I don’t want to be too harsh on a great philanthropist. For all I know, he may have given millions to help the poor. But a museum brochure mentions only Dixon’s generosity to the fine arts and higher education.

The day after my visit to the Dixon Gallery, I traveled to the Mississippi Delta where cotton is still king, and rural poverty, which was invisible in the art museum, is all too apparent. I went to the tiny town of Shaw (pop. 1,952) where our daughter Natalie took a mission trip during her spring break last year. Shaw’s infrastructure and buildings are literally crumbling. Along the main street stores have collapsed behind their fronts and several empty buildings have fallen prey to arsonists. This once thriving town is now in a state of decay. Most businesses left after whites moved out in the 1970s and 80s. Now there isn’t even a supermarket. The only place to buy food is at the local gas station. Many people are unemployed. Drug and alcohol abuse is rampant. It’s not a pretty picture.

However, even in the depressing surroundings of Shaw I found beauty. There’s beauty in the people who continue to scratch a living from hard circumstances. There’s beauty in the three nuns who run a tutoring center for under-performing children. As I reflect back on my trip, I can’t help thinking about Benjamin West’s image of Christ ascending. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). Even though parts of it look like hell, maybe Shaw is closer to heaven than it appears.

Shaw MS storefronts

Shaw, Mississippi

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Latin America in Black and White

Algaze CottonCandy

Martio Algaze, Cotton Candy, San Angel, Mexico, 1981.

I wish I could fly to Miami, not just for the warm sun or cool nightlife but to view an art exhibit: a retrospective of the work of Cuban-American photographer Mario Algaze. The artist deserves a greater reputation than he currently enjoys. He’s done for Latin America what Ansel Adams did for the American West: he’s brought it to life with still photography. Algaze’s black-and-white photographs focus on street scenes with everyday people and capture the essence of cultures still foreign to most Americans. His images are free of the social and political commentary one might expect from an exile that fled Communist Cuba. This fact makes his art particularly appropriate to consider in light of President Obama’s recent announcement that the US Government will restore diplomatic relations with the island nation.

One of Algaze’s best known photographs shows a solitary figure shouldering a giant column of individually wrapped balls of cotton candy, reminding me of an ant carrying a piece of corn on the cob. The face and upper body of the person are hidden from view, but a close inspection reveals a thick-waist and flowing skirt sticking out from under the oversized burden. The shadows suggest the woman is walking in the midday sun. There are no other people in view. No man-made objects lying around. A few feet in front of her a scrawny tree grows out of the pavement. The cotton candy seems out of place in the sparse landscape. Is there a fair nearby? How far must the woman walk to sell her sugary snacks? The image is as delightful and sticky as the confection.

A Respect for Light: The Photography of Mario Algaze is on display at HistoryMiami, 101 W. Flagler Street, until January 18, 2015.

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