This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.
So today begins a three month sabbatical for me and for the people of Kingston Parish Episcopal Church Mathews, Virginia. Soon I will be flying away to France for about a month in Provence to explore the ways I relate with people in a new place with a different language, to explore the ways two great painters, Paul Cezanne and Vincent Van Gogh related to people in their lives and in their paintings.
Right now, the work of sabbatical is letting go. I am letting go of the people I love at Kingston. I am letting go of my responsibilities and in many ways my identity as an Episcopal priest. I will get to put those back on again in December, but for now I am trying to make sense of what it means to let go of so much. I will not be preaching, teaching, offering sacraments, visiting the sick, caring for the downtrodden (at least not the way I do at and with the church).
I am aware of just how many wonderful relationships I have with people here. I work hard, but what I get in return is so much more than I could do myself. For now, I am trying to understand what it means to let go of so much for a time. I trust that somehow I will come out of this stronger and better. And I expect that the people of Kingston Parish will also find their way to being stronger and better as well.
Sabbatical is rooted in the word Sabbath — the one is seven days in which to not do so much, but to find relationship and deeper self by being. In the weeks and months ahead, I will be exploring what that means both in these notes and in my everyday life.
I am not a particularly anxious person, but I have found myself more anxious than I can remember being perhaps ever as I have stepped into this time of letting go. There is something happening in my letting go that is shaking me greatly. I don’t doubt that is a good thing. But I can tell you, it hasn’t been an easy thing! Perhaps most good things are not easy things.
Onward into Sabbatical I go with prayers for me and for all those I love. May this time change us — for the better!
So being here where I grew up in Los Angeles (well, the
little suburb of Tujunga, actually), I have been struck by two things:
(so far) has spanned quite some time, and I have experienced a great deal! I have made friends in many places and times
in my almost 63 years! I have lived many
places, known many loves, sought to be true to life in many different ways –
and made my share of mistakes along the way, been hurt and lost, fulfilled and
underwhelmed, blessed and broken.
Life moves fast, and there’s not much of a way
to make a good U-turn because the road back there is never the same again. Peter cannot build tents to make the
Transfiguration keep on going so they don’t have to head to the Crucifixion. Time is ever-moving and eventually, for each
of us, single moments end and we die.
Even Resurrection is no U-turn into life again, but a whole new
beginning beyond our imagining.
And this is everyday in our lives. It sounds so heady and “theological” or mystical, but it is what our moments of being alive are all about. We are gifted with so much life. And that abundant life is also past in an instant. I guess I’m just talking about “the unbearable lightness of being.”
We have no control of how the time runs past and over us. We do have control over making each moment a time when we are alive in the best way we know how. I just spent fifteen minutes laying in the back yard looking up at the clouds as the sun set on this November evening. It might have looked like I was being childish or just silly, but it was exactly what I needed to do with those moments of my life. I rested. My back, which has been hurting, rested and stretched. And I watched the glorious colors of the clouds as the sun moved further west out beyond the vision of all of us who are having our moments in Los Angeles right now. I will do for others yet this evening. The moments given me today have included friends and sons, nature, a long walk, and, well, grocery shopping. I have been able to glance up at the glorious mountains surrounding me. I have passed pleasantries with folks in the line at the grocery store. I have cooked meals for my son and his friend. I have slept and cleaned and wondered what this last week or so of Sabbatical is meant to be. I will see three more friends in the next few days. Life is full. Life is good. Life is challenging and sometimes uncertain. I am both excited and terrified about stepping back into the job of Rector at Kingston. I can’t wait to see my beloved there. And already I see hints of the tower of things to do awaiting my return. I am not making a U-turn back into work the way I used to work. Somehow the road has changed, and I have changed, and the ministry at Kingston has changed and we shall all be going down some new paths and doing things in new ways. And the days will blur past quickly and with their own richness and mostly I just need to be awake to them and give myself to them.
There is always so much more to see and do and be in life. So much more than any of us can handle. The abundance is a reminder that we are not “in charge.” As we look forward to Thanksgiving, I give thanks for all the amazing and all the difficult experiences of my last almost 63 years and I look forward to the next chapter which will have new grace and power, love and challenge, hurt and joy. It is nearly unbearable. But it is the gift that God gives each of us for the time being.
So the last few days here in LA have had high wind warnings as the Santa Ana Winds threatened and dangerous fires were more possible. Sometimes, like in Shakespeare, the weather portends what is going on in people’s lives …. Last Sunday I was relishing my rootedness to this place and especially the nature in and around this large city of my birth and youth. Then three out of four of my boys arrived, I navigated the huge and crazy airport again and again, we fought traffic, we did two or four things each day, we had a blast, I was exhausted, and I felt, well, windblown and almost off course even as I felt my roots and the deep love my sons and I share.
I was able to show my sons where I grew up, where my roots are, tell a few stories. But we didn’t remain in the roots. We reached out into the realities of today and even the future. And I was stretched in two directions: stretched back into my past which floods in as I travel around the city in wild and wonderful ways and stretched forward into the future and into the present realities of fatherhood with my sons and the experiences of a huge city in California in 2019. It was all good – well, except maybe the traffic some days – but it was overwhelming, and two days after two of my boys have gone back home, I am finally starting to feel like I can write this down.
Yesterday, I went to St. Luke’s of the Mountains Episcopal Church for Sunday Eucharist. It’s a beautiful little stone church about 5 minutes away. There are two congregations there: an Anglo one and a Latino one. Yesterday, they had a shared service that was bilingual. They are a warm congregation, very small but growing. Like much of the Episcopal Church, they have owned progressive Christianity after very painful battles between very conservative and progressive bands in the church. They have a priest and deacon who were both amazing folks and the congregation in general seemed like a band of amazing folks. Worshipping with them was a very powerful experience for me. And it called me into thinking about how much we live in the comfortable present at Kingston Parish back in Mathews, Virginia. Our congregation is even warmer and friendlier, I think. (I could be a bit prejudiced.) Our worship is rich and our ministries are strong. Yet, I don’t think we have much of a view for what is to come in the future and how God might be calling us forward. It is a windy place out there; things are changing fast and furious. It’s hard to guess how climate change will affect Mathews, but it is in a vulnerable place on the Bay. Mathews is shrinking, loosing younger folks, but also loosing older folks. Who is moving in and why? Maybe eighty percent of our congregation is over 60 with a large majority of that being over 70 years old. This crew does amazing things, but many of us aren’t likely to be around in 25 years. Who will God be dealing with here then? How do we continue to care for the present and also move into the future for God? Where is God calling us to grow?
I can see the end of sabbatical now. Two weeks from yesterday, I will be celebrating the beginning of Advent with my church family in Mathews and our reunion for God’s ministry ahead. The roots of this place and the roots of sabbath for three months are deep and strong. But where am I called to grow out and reach my branches with the people of Kingston Parish when I return (and in my personal life as well)? It is all quite exciting … and unclear and overwhelming. I have found much solace and rest and joy in my quiet times, my travels, and my time with family and friends. But now I am feeling the Santa Ana winds pick up and there are dangers with fire but also clear air and grand joy to be found somewhere out there in the days, months, and years ahead. I am sure it will take more than two more Sunday blogs to explore and make sense of this. It will take lots of prayer and working with, listening to, and exploring with the people of God at Kingston. But there is something brewing out there above the roots and into the heavens. And I am so grateful I have these sabbatical roots and all the beloved friends and family as we look to the life ahead in God’s whirlwind.
Have you ever met your earlier self out on a walk? Coming back to Southern California has had a
bit of that in it for me in these first few days.
My first morning here, I walked from the house where I am staying down the road a few blocks to the house where I spent the years between 6 years old and 20 years old or so. The family is not there, but the house is – and the, now as I see it, tiny front yard. There is a dime-store cactus my Mom had planted in the backyard which Dad cut down when he wanted to sell the house because he didn’t think it looked good there; I think it’s grown back up from the roots. The two little palms outside my bedroom window now tower over the neighborhood as Washingtonia palms famously do all over L.A. And there, between “our” driveway and the neighbor’s, is a list scratched out in concrete of the 8 children between the two families as we were in 1969 when I, for instance, was 12.
The next day, I went to Descanso Gardens, a lovely little garden only about 15 minutes from home nestled in the hills where my family and friends had often gone. As a matter of fact, I think I can see all eight of those children on the concrete list wandering over a stone bridge in Descanso Gardens. The Japanese garden tea house has, alas, been converted to storage. The rose garden has expanded exponentially. The grand walls of tall camellias I recall running through have been thinned for better health and perhaps by some disease or other plague. And in the little house at the top of the hill, there is a display case of historic memorabilia that includes a pamphlet from the evening fountain and light show that I went to about two years before the children’s names were put in concrete between the driveways.
But perhaps the most deeply grounding experience of all was to return to nature here. I went to hike the hillsides of the San Gabriel mountains where I did much of my growing up – among the rattlesnakes, horned lizards, yuccas, manzanita, and live oak. The rocky dirt in the path was familiar. The plants in their wonderful dry profusion were family and friends. The sage smell, the sun-on-the-rocks-sensation, the dry dust in my nostrils – all awakened my memories in such a way that I was dizzy with remembering. The cool welcoming shade beneath the live oak trees drew me in and caressed me – just as it had done 50 years ago.
Some things had changed, of course. The path I was on was marked and part of a nature park now. In my youth, the paths were made by walking and by horses and sometimes motorbikes. There were signs at the foot of the trail saying you could not smoke or do anything that even vaguely looked like fire. One of my favorite old paths – which wound its way through something like Roman ruins, I always imagined, even if they were only stone ruins from a retreat center a generation ahead of me — was no longer there. The ruins had been replaced by a housing development on the hillside. The old firebreaks – bulldozed dirt paths up ridges that once were put there to protect folks from the fires – are overgrown now. The firebreaks never worked very well anyway; once you get a good fire going in the chaparral it creates its own wind and weather and easily jumps such obstacles. And besides, however horrendous the fires that take out homes are, the reality is that fire and the nature of the chaparral are intimately connected. Somehow, there must be fire for life here. The Native Americans who lived in these parts would even start controlled burns in order to bring life to the forest. We must find the way with that again.
So, as I say, some things had changed. Not least of all, me. I used to run up and down these mountains. Now I walk with a little more deliberation and watch a little more carefully for rattlesnakes. I have been ungrounded from this nature for at least 40 years. Of course there were other natures I have been able to root myself into, but this gravely earth is somehow home to my roots. I have grown in all sorts of directions and places, but this place is somehow my home in a very special way. It’s not so easy to define really: this identity of mine that has moved on from this place yet finds itself affirmed powerfully in this place. I am a person who has changed, grown, gotten older, yet still breathes the sage and feels energetic and young, ready to grow more, and settled exactly where I need to be.
Through the years I have had more than a few fires on my hillsides. Broken relationships, death of loved ones
(friends and family), misguided attempts at this or that, hurt, divorce,
betrayal, superficiality. Some of the
fires have been more controlled burns and some have found their own strength
and weather and run over firebreaks to burn down things I thought I needed, I wanted,
I was. And we human beings are really
much like the chaparral. We need some fire
to be alive. Wholeness is always just
out of reach, just beyond that next fiery cross.
Yet the rootedness is still always there. There is a depth to my being that surprises me when I breath the sage, feel the cool shade, or explore the narrow path around one more bend. There is something of me that, by the Grace of God, has and will endure the fires and find greater life.
I knew I had returned here so close to the home of my childhood because there was rootedness here I needed to reconnect with, a history that I have let pass too often unnoticed in my busy daily life. I had hardly imagined the sheer joy of being simply in the nature of my youth. There are memories here that I need to dig into and let nourish me. There are truths in the nature of this place that I must digest again in order to be full. There is more growth to come from this place for me. I have more mountains to climb. And the mountains I climbed when I was twelve help me to know which way I am headed.
I am very glad I am here. Mount Lukens is whispering some truths to me I can’t yet quite hear or comprehend. Some of these whispers are things I heard long ago as a child. And some are new angelic messages to me only I can wrestle into truth now. For the next couple weeks, look for me on the sunny, dry hillsides of the San Gabriel Mountains and beneath the gentle shade of the live oaks … waiting on what I might have known as a child but have forgotten and on new visions from God.
Cezanne’s boyhood friend and novelist, Emile Zola, once said
that it would be easier to get the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral to dance the
quadrille than to get Paul to change his mind.
Cezanne was not known for his tolerance and tact. There is a strange way that his personality
cut to the heart of things quickly so that social niceties were never left in
place and the truth of the matter was laid bare. This made his presence at social events
troubling most of the time. His art is
somewhat similar, of course. Few people
love Cezanne’s paintings the way they love Van Gogh or Monet. You can put a starry night and waterlilies on
your T-shirt and wander with abandon. You can put a Cezanne painting on a T-shirt
too, but you had best be ready for some strange looks at the grocery store and
maybe the need to do some explaining.
Cezanne, in our day, is “important.”
People are sure to quote Picasso who said “he is the father of us all.” He is important, but not necessarily well-liked
except a strange few of us.
All of this to say: Paul Cezanne has a strange relationship
with the world. I wonder how he
experienced the communion of the saints when he received the Holy Eucharist at Aix’s
cathedral. What did it mean to him to be
part of the body of humanity? Certainly,
his life of painting was not just for himself.
He worked hard to communicate with his paintings. Yet he also found the growing “business” of
art reprehensible. When the art dealer Vollard
showed about 150 of Cezanne’s paintings in Paris after years and years of
Cezanne painting without any attention at all, Cezanne chose to be alone in Aix
painting some more. He did not engage the
public. And that has sometimes been taken
to mean that he was misanthropic, completely isolated and lonely, or some other
version of a troubled artist who did not know how to be with other human
beings. The more I know of Paul Cezanne,
the more I believe he knew full well how to be with other human beings. His social wit and vision was sharp even as
his eyesight began to give way to his diabetes.
Many have interpreted his ways as isolating. But his emotional capacity with others could be
Recently I watched a lovely French movie from 2016 called “Cezanne
et Moi.” I think the subtle and wonderful
ways the relationship between Zola (moi) and Cezanne is portrayed in this film is
excellent. It was not a particularly well
received film in France or abroad which is fitting; Cezanne has never quite
been “well-received” either. The portrayal
is very nuanced and the historical placement of the events makes some things
hard to understand unless you have been reading everything written about Paul Cezanne
and sitting in front of his paintings the way I have perhaps. Still, it might be worth your time to look at
the film. It’s on Netflix right
now. There is much of the film to speak
to what a holy friendship means and how much work and understanding it can take
to have one. (There is a Facebook meme
that has various forms and says in various ways that good old friends can
always pick up where they left off. This
is true some of the time, but I think a really good friendship, like a marriage,
most often requires attention, work, forgiveness and understanding. It doesn’t survive packed away in a box to be
pulled out once in a while when it’s convenient.) The film portrays a Cezanne who is moody and
emotional yet also wise and loving; his relationship with Zola is both
demanding of his friend and also self-giving. Zola is portrayed as much more of a regular
sort of gregarious and “good” guy. The
beginning of their relationship speaks clearly to who they are as friends: Cezanne jumps into a playground fight to save
Zola from a bully, giving fully of himself for what is right and Zola is very
grateful, offering in tit-for-tat sort of fashion a basket of apples. The film is careful to show, I think, that the
“good” of Zola fits society’s norms but is not always very deep or true while
Cezanne struggles at the edges of society precisely because he is trying to be a
person of emotion and integrity.
(As an aside, one of the issues of the day in France swirled
around “The Dreyfus Affair” where a man (Captain Alfred Dreyfus) was accused
and punished for treason unjustly and simply because he was Jewish. Unlike, Renoir and Degas who were both anti-Semitic,
Cezanne and Zola were both very much for justice and therefore Dreyfus. Cezanne once made a point of saying that he
was a pupil of his painting friend and colleague Camille Pissarro (a Jew) as a way
of undercutting French anti-Semitism.
Cezanne never received much notice for his views. Zola, more active in Paris and more a clear
example of the social norm, did receive notice and flack. It is believed nowadays by most perhaps that
he died of carbon monoxide inhalation not by accident as was suggested at the
time, but at the hands of one or more people who stopped up his chimney very
much on purpose because of his views about the Dreyfus Affair. When you represent the norm and then break
from it, you are more noticed!)
All of this not just to speak of Cezanne and his relationship
with the world, but to get to me and my relationship with the world and the
church and especially Kingston Parish. Bernard
of Clairvaux had a wonderful line which, if I recall correctly, he had placed
over the entrance to his cell in the monastery:
“Love to be unknown.” Bernard means by this that our love of God
should be so true that we become like a drop of water added to a barrel of wine
which becomes part of the wine. In an
age when being important and famous, a celebrity, seems to mean that each of us
has to be important somewhere and somehow, how do I allow myself to be less
important and more a part of God’s love?
In my work as a priest in a parish, a dean of a diocesan region, even as
a father, I want to succeed! Sometimes
it is important for me to stand up and stand out as a leader, yet I need not be
a celebrity. The way I really want to
succeed is by loving so deeply and truly with such utter integrity to who I am
and who God is that I become like that drop in the barrel.
There is a strange and elusive balance between stepping into life to be fully present and in the process empty yourself of all except God. The only way for me to be fully Gary — as priest, pastor, father, human being – is to be like Jesus. Jesus got it right, of course. But finding that way is the rub, the challenge of prayer and life.
Cezanne would never play the game of celebrity. And he was troubled by Manet and Zola who seemed to get tangled in that game. It is often said that he never found success. But then, maybe true success is never finishing, never settling for being famous or beloved, but going out again to the mountain – to the presence of God – and being true. It is interesting that the film I mentioned is called “Cezanne et Moi” as if it were told from Zola’s point of view – which it is not. Yet there is a clear sense that somehow Cezanne is not society’s norm, but he is the real thing, the integrity of humanity, the humble man seeking to be all he is supposed to be. He is the one we all want to be like – full of integrity. There is no doubt in my mind that in truth neither Cezanne nor Zola quite got it all right – just like the rest of us. But for me at least, that edge of society where the norm is Jesus – true humanity dropped into divinity like a drop of water in a barrel of wine – is the place where I find life.
Prayer means turning to reality, taking our part, however
humble, tentative and half-understood, in the continual conversation, the
communion, of our spirits with the Eternal Spirit …. Prayer is the correspondence
of the human spirit with the sum of all perfection, the Fountain of Life.
– Evelyn Underhill
Prayer means turning to reality. So often I suspect we imagine prayer to be a
sort of conversation with an imaginary friend offering some wishful
thinking. But the more we pray, the more
we begin to find that prayer is grounding us in reality – not just what we see,
but what is real and deeply true.
Part of my prayer this season of the sabbatical in Florida
has been to whine that I don’t know what I’m doing. I have felt adrift, motivated to do something
– run from one activity to another, offer volunteer help here or there, and on
and on. I have resisted most of it. I am sure that I am called right now to be a
bit adrift. I have felt that my
motivations have been unclear and perhaps wrong. I want to do something good so that I know I
I have complained to some of my close friends that I feel so
selfish in this time. A wise friend
responded that it is very hard for the ego to let go and just be. In other words, she wisely said as much as: “It
is selfish that you have to do something and be someone. Stop it!”
Human motivations are always so mixed and figuring out just when I am
being narcissistic and when I am being true to me and God and the reality of
the prayer between us, is – well – challenging.
I went to the Dali Museum the other day. Salvador Dali reminded me that there is far more to see than what you can easily see! He was fascinated by the reality that reality is made up molecules and atoms that we cannot easily see. One of the many works at the Dali Museum that struck me was a huge wall-sized painting with a huge name: Galacidalacidesoxyribonucleicacid. Dali sees many things in one thing or puts many things together into one image. This painting celebrates the discovery of the double helix of DNA. (Near it in the museum was another wall-sized painting celebrating the Second Vatican Council!) There is a beautiful and tragic image in this DNA painting replacing Michelangelo’s creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel with God reaching down to pull up into resurrection the twisted, dead body of Jesus which is only a ghostly presence in the painting. And there are these strange molecules in the lower right-hand side of the painting that turn out to be people with rifles prepared to shoot at each other’s heads. There is much more, but at the heart of the painting for me is this idea that the double helix that lifts us up into God is part of the code in our lives that also, alas, causes humans to do hateful and destructive things to one another and to the world and crucify Christ. Both hate and resurrection are in our DNA. And it is God who will save us in the midst of the tragedies of life.
(As an aside, Cezanne has been telling me to look beyond what I just see all along as well. I knew that, but hadn’t transferred that to my sabbatical quite clearly. His still lifes in particular often have multiple perspectives: a table that doesn’t quite seem flat, a bottle that we see from the side and from the top at the same time, an apple that seems to be leaping toward you, etc. And these are all ways he was trying to have us look more deeply, see more than we can see at one time, question our first sight, and explore.)
On a far less dramatic and grand scale, it is God who will make this sabbatical holy; not me. I can’t see the whole picture right now. I don’t always know what is happening with me at any one moment spiritually and in reality. So I am just trying to pray. I’m trying to get lost in the love of God that makes my ideas of right and wrong and what I “ought” to be doing inconsequential. Here in Sarasota downtown there is a four-story tall statue that recalls that famous photograph of a sailor meeting his girl in Time Square at the end of World War II. It’s a wild, wet, and wonderful kiss. The huge statue is called “Unconditional Surrender.” Let’s just say, if I have learned anything in these confusing days in the middle of my sabbatical, it is that I must look much deeper to find the way to let go and let God. My surrender has too many conditions. In my best moments, it’s like that amazing kiss that makes you feel more alive than you knew you could feel. In my worst moments, it feels like I have lost the war and I am sitting in a dark, smoke-filled room signing a treaty that gives up all of everything I thought was important. And most of the time I feel a little of both, I guess.
This morning in my especially designated prayer time all this brought me back to my favorite Psalm: 126.
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were
we like those who dream.
Our mouths were filled with laughter and our tongues
with shouts of joy.
The people of the nations said: The Lord has done great things for them.
The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad
Restore our fortunes, O Lord; bring drink to the dry
places in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.
Look at this mountain.
What grace, what unquenchable thirst for the sun, and what melancholy,
in the evening, when shadows fall …. She participates in every blueness breathing in
all the atmosphere around. – Paul Cezanne
speaking of Mont St. Victoire
Over a month ago now I drove from Aix-en-Provence to Arles,
thinking I would leave Cezanne for a day and visit with Van Gogh. It’s about an hour’s drive. You’re still in the balmy land of Provence
with figs and olives and rocky hillsides tumbling down toward the
Mediterranean. Near Arles, the cliffs
give way to the delta of the bouches-du-Rhone and the swamp and marsh of
the Camargue. I did not find much of Van
Gogh in Arles, however. There is a small
but rich museum that is a satellite of the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and a
hospital where he spent some time that is now museum and gift shops. There are a few signs where Van Gogh painted
things most of which are no longer there.
(His little house was blown away by a stray bomb in WWII.) Van Gogh, in a way, is much more popular than
Cezanne, so the tourism involved in celebrating his art seemed much more “in
your face.” What is most present in
Arles are the Roman remains which Van Gogh seems to have hardly noticed or
painted but which were fascinating to me, along with their wonderful Roman
museum. All this to say, that Van Gogh
was present in the gift shops, but his painting and soul were more elusive for
me. Of course, I was only there a day,
whereas I had nearly a month to wander with my friend Paul C. in Aix. I did not stroll the streets of Arles with
Van Gogh the way I felt so intimately connected with Cezanne – and that surely
says as much about me as about the places where these painters lived. Yet somehow the stamp of Van Gogh is there in
Arles just as the stamp of Cezanne is on Aix.
Places have character – what Paul C. might call temperament
– the moral fiber that makes a place alive and gives it vocation. And Arles is just a bit seedy and quaintly
run down as a delta town is bound to be.
It is smaller in feel as well as in reality than Aix. If you cut through the commercialism of
tourism which is Arles’ main raison d’etre today, Arles feels like a
place deeply and emotionally human. My
travel to Arles by rental car was my first real day driving in France, and I
found myself at one point lost in a little alley far from the tourist center in
a neighborhood that seemed populated by recent immigrants from North Africa or
the Middle East who all appeared to be free to stand in the street and talk
because they were out of work. My fear
became palpable as I discovered a dead end and no easy way to turn around. Yet the gentlemen standing about speaking
something other than French, jumped forward to help me out. No danger for me. Much care instead. Somehow that feels like Van Gogh – and much
more so than the starry night trinkets in the gift shop downtown. Van Gogh is a strange mix of an emotional
soul fearfully struggling with mental illness and a gentle and tender man
seeking to find a way to be true in a rough and tumble world. His
painting and life do not have the clarity of thought that is in Cezanne, but
there is an emotion in his painting that touches people deeply. I would love to spend more than a day in
Arles someday and maybe be able to catch up with Van Gogh.
Van Gogh’s painting of the
hospital garden before the tourists.
Aix, on the other hand, is a city both strangely
cosmopolitan — almost Parisian — and provincial, defined by the nature in and
around it. Van Gogh was a transplant to
Arles, spending a couple years there.
Cezanne was born and died in Aix.
He swam in the little stream south of Aix called L’Arc with Zola as a
boy, he studied law and art here. When
he finally had a major art show in Paris, Paul C. stayed home in Aix – and painted.
Cezanne was one of the greatest minds of his age, thoughtful
and cosmopolitan in his knowledge. And
he was probably happiest out in the natural beauty around Aix or back in the
simple comforts of his hometown with friends.
And he loved to play games with being provincial and a country
bumpkin. (The story is often told of his
meeting the great and sophisticated painter Manet and telling him he would not
shake his hand for he had not washed in a week.) He could dress to the nines for Mass in Saint
Sauveur in Aix and show up at an important affair in Paris in provincial
tatters. He had little patience with “society”
and much respect for the honest integrity of nature. He could walk miles through the hot and rocky
countryside to find the place on a hill where he could paint “sur le
motif.” And he could quote Virgil in
Latin in his letters without a flourish.
He loved Aix for all that it was even if Aix did not always love him and
doesn’t always love him still. For while
there are little plaques in places to show where Cezanne did this and that,
they do not seem to receive the tourist attention or the native attention quite
the way Van Gogh does in Arles. I have
mentioned before how seldom I saw anyone take notice of the larger than life
bronze statue of Cezanne with paints in his backpack ready to forge out into
nature to find his mountain that occupies a place of honor in Aix. The statue stands near the fountain in the
center of La Rotonde, a busy traffic circle in the heart of Aix. Yet, people seem more interested in catching
the bus or going to the grand glass Apple (Computer) Store nearby. (By the way, I can hear Paul C. make a quick
quip about the Apple Store and how that compares to the apples he was given as
a child by his friend Zola (for protecting the small lad from bullies), the
apples of his still-lifes, and the APPLE with which he was going to dazzle all Paris!) Le
Granet, the local art museum, would have none of Cezanne’s paintings while he
was alive. Today they have a small room
of second string works by the artist – some of which I love – but the museum
came late – and perhaps even still with only luke-warm affection – to the party
where Cezanne is honored. Cezanne’s last
studio on the hillside overlooking Aix and near one of the places he painted
his mountain again and again was saved from destruction and made a museum by
Americans, not locals. It is a tourist
mecca now complete with gift shop, but it is hardly like the bustle in Van
Gogh’s hospital garden; no more than 20 people can be allowed in the studio at
one time and at least the many times I was there in September (perhaps August
and July are different) there were never that many people waiting to get
in. I met a Korean couple driving about
stopped at a place called Maison de retraite de Paul Cezanne. They were thinking that must be his home, but
actually it’s a home for people suffering with dementia that has borrowed the
famous painter’s name – as has a local school, a housing development and
probably quite a few other things. The
hardest part of trying to help this Korean couple find the real studio was
trying to convince them that first of all the place has only a little sign that
was easy to miss, and you had to park your car nearly a kilometer away in a
city garage and walk up the hill to get there. I fear they never found the place. I myself wandered for two long walks worth
trying to find Cezanne’s family home called Jas de Bouffan. Tourist notices alternately said it was
closed for refurbishing and that the gardens would always be open for the
people. What I eventually discovered was
that the place was not only closed, but it was hard to imagine the gardens
(which were barely recognizable from what I could see through a chained-closed
gate) could have been open for the people in anyone’s recent memory. The good news here is that eventually the Jas
de Bouffan will be open for visits; I
shall have to return! (And now I know
where it is, too!)
Perhaps the place that speaks of Cezanne as much as any is
his mountain, of course. Mont St. Victoire
is never portrayed with pictorial certitude and realism by Cezanne, but it is
portrayed with the very temperament of the artist whose moral fiber is in the
brushstrokes and the colors, the shapes and the volumes. I went to Aix planning to climb to the top of
Mont St. Victoire. What I eventually
realized was that I needed to tramp all about near the mountain as Cezanne
had. As far as I can tell, Paul Cezanne
never felt the need to climb up to the top of the thing. To know the place and the person, I walked
miles through rocky hillsides with Paul.
But I needed to not play king of
the mountain; but to wander sur le motif.
So what does all this say about place and the importance of
a place? First, in some sense the very
term Paul Cezanne used for going out to paint in nature, sur le motif,
speaks of the importance of place.
Unlike the Impressionists who would paint en plein aire, at a
boating party or in a well-manicured garden, Paul went into nature be “on it,” to be one with it. People who were lucky enough to see him
paint, were amazed by how much time he spent looking and how little time he
spent painting. All of which meant that
some of his finished works took years to do.
Sainte Sauveur where Paul C. and
I and many other saints of God have worshipped and communed.
Which comes first: the actual mountain of Mont St. Victoire or the paintings and vision of Paul Cezanne? For many of us, myself included, I saw the mountain in paintings long before I got to wander its foothills. How is it that getting lost in Arles can bring one closer to Van Gogh? People are formed by the places where they live. And people form the places where they live. I sit here in Sarasota, Florida, today on a rainy Saturday as we experience the edge of a tropical storm. I have had a difficult time in some ways with this second portion of my sabbatical. There is much lovely nature and also some good art around here. But what gave me direction in Aix was being with Paul Cezanne. There was temperament with place. There is no personality here who is befriending me from across the years to carry me through. It is amazing the way a place can speak of a person or people in its being. The other day, I visited Emerson Nature Reserve nearby which has some Native American Mounds in it. There is little of the mounds left beyond a rise in the land. The people who made them disappeared centuries ago, perhaps even in that first visit of DeSoto in the 16th century. Yet the mounds had a holiness to them that I could taste, a silent voice of people from another day and time deeply singing the symphony that is life even still. Evelyn Underhill speaks beautifully of the Sacrament of the Moment, that each moment is sacred with the presence of the Divine. So too, each place is holy ground. I cannot explain why I felt especially close to Cezanne going to Mass where he went to Mass or standing before the mountain where he stood. All I can do is take off my shoes where the Divine has graced the earth with someone who even across the years I call friend.
I have been in Florida for nearly a week now. And the Kingston sabbatical is nearly half done. I have been thinking a lot about this sabbatical animal in recent days. In France, when I wasn’t enjoying just being in a lovely small French city with lots of good things to eat and see and do, I was focused on Cezanne, my relationship with the dead painter, his work, his relationships with others, himself and with God. And, if you have been following me on this journey, I spent lots of time looking at his relationship to his mountain – Mont St. Victoire. (As an aside, I had not realized that one of the greatest 20th Century painters, Pablo Picasso, spent his last years in a villa on the side of Cezanne’s mountain because it had been so central to Cezanne. Pablo is often quoted as saying: “Cezanne is the father of us all;” and Cezanne is often seen as a stepping stone toward cubism which isn’t exactly false, but who knows how Cezanne would feel about where cubism went!)
Well, there are no mountains here in Sarasota, Florida. There is a quaint road signage every time
there is a hill saying you should slow down because you can’t see over the
hill. There is also no lovely bakery
just a step or 10 outside my door. There
is a lovely little dive of a Peruvian restaurant I discovered yesterday a
couple blocks south of me that is likely to see me again. All of this wandering in my writing to say
that, well, I am feeling a bit out of gear, unclear, and vague about what I am
doing here. I have reconnected with the
nature I love here. I have gone for a
lovely swim off a white sand beach. I
have begun to read and write more. And I
continue to paint watercolor. My friend,
Cezanne, never seemed quite satisfied with much of anything in his life – and
perhaps I am just echoing that in my life right now. I arrived here grouchy and unhappy – which is
a rather unusual place for me to be. I
have broken through that quite a bit. I
am walking lots to get exercise. And I
am trying to come to terms with sabbatical as simply being instead of running
about Provence or finding one more thing to do in Sarasota.
When God took a sabbath day after six days of creative activity, he did not rest because he was tired and needed to rejuvenate. God doesn’t do tired, I figure. Sabbath, the theologians say again and again, is not just the escape day so you can deal with Monday and the rest of the work week; Sabbath is holy and full unto itself. There is surely a sense that, unlike God, I have needed this sabbatical to rest because I have been tired. And surely there is a hope and expectation that I will return at the beginning of the new liturgical year on December 1 at Kingston Parish rejuvenated and energized, excited and full of new vision for God’s ministry in my life and the lives of the people of God in and around Kingston. Yet also and more profoundly sabbatical is complete unto itself. I am not escaping the pressures of parish ministry so that I can jump back into them in a few months. I am not wasting time, I must remind that very active Protestant work ethic streak inside of me. I am doing what I am supposed to be doing which is not doing much.
The word שַׁבָּת (shabbat) is often translated as sabbath or as rest. It has the connotations of sitting still, ceasing, dwelling. And in modern Israeli Hebrew a very similar word can mean “to strike” – as in to stop work to get better pay and benefits, etc. I especially like the idea of shabbat as dwelling. In this time of sabbatical, I am called to dwell in God more truly, perhaps in a new way, to dwell and home-in on who God has made me to be more fully. One of the things that has been difficult for me in this time has to do with my prayer life and rootedness in God. My spiritual roots have grown strong, but almost exclusively in the direction of ways to do ministry with and for people in parish ministry. Without the daily work at church, I have felt not only disconnected from meaningful work and the people I love, but disconnected from God. I have attended church, prayed daily, studied and thought, but spiritually I have been a bit adrift. I realize, simply enough, that part of what sabbatical needs to be for me is to make sure I send out more roots in other directions besides parish ministry. This time is a blessing for me in that I am forced to find roots that had atrophied and give them life again. (I came to the priesthood with very deep personal roots in God, wondering if I could build the roots with others as much as I felt I needed to in order to be a parish priest; I recall well a mentor in seminary telling me that when he first met me he knew I was a deeply faithful person, but he wasn’t sure how I would ever lead a congregation. Blessedly, he didn’t share that with me until a time when I had helped his congregation through a very difficult transition, and he was letting me know he now saw how that personal faithfulness allowed me to do God’s ministry.) How odd it is now to find myself so well grounded in the work of ministry that my personal faith separate from parish ministry feels impoverished! And in this sabbatical, I am not only replenishing old ways of personal faithfulness, I am digging though some new soil, finding new ways to be alive in God by myself and in the world without being priest, rector, spiritual guide and whatever roles I have that have are temporarily sort of set aside. It’s all still a little vague – too vague for someone who wants to know he is doing something of value in black and white. But that is part of the whole soup I’m in. What I can make sense of in the soup for now is this:
am to spend more time during this Florida segment of sabbatical rediscovering
my faithfulness separate from the work and role of priesthood and discovering
new ways of being rooted in God as a person of faith. I am to do this because I am fully human and
in need of more roots than those growing in my work and role (where I feel I
have many deep and wonderful roots I want to honor).
am to honor these roots that are in me and in some way separate from meaningful
work and others so deeply that when I return to active parish ministry, they do
not atrophy again!
am to dwell in this time.
Do less. Be more. Ignore the voice within me that wants to make
this sabbatical worth something beyond itself.
And however much this list looks like a “to do” list, I must make it –
or more truly, let it be – my “to be” list.
The image that comes to mind is Mary in the
Annunciation. Certainly, Mary is one of
the most important people in the story of God’s saving Grace among people, for
she “allowed” God to be born from her.
“Let it be to me according to your word,” she tells the messenger of
God. And then she waits in expectation
and receptivity as her body begins to change in pregnancy. And surely her spirit also grew in some way
beyond her and yet within her; for how else could she become the mother of
How are the people of God at Kingston also to be in this
receptive mode in sabbatical? How are
you all finding your way as we come close to halfway through? What does it look like for you who are still
in the midst of your various kinds of work at home, in office, and at church,
to find a rootedness that is not just doing something but also being someone –
not just a role, a prayer, an act of ministry, but a willingness to stop and
dwell in God?
Let it be – to me and to you – according to God’s word.
And for me, for now, what that seems to mean is that I will
slog a little less through this soup and try to just float.
In the movie, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Roy (played by Richard Dreyfus) has a brief connection with aliens that makes him obsess on a mountain – the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. At dinner with his family, he takes an large helping of mashed potatoes and makes a model of the rocky mountain. And then he runs his family off by gathering all sorts of things – including plantings, bricks and dirt — from the yard to create a large model of the rocky tower in their house. This obsession with the mountain is all about taking that brief connection with the aliens and making a real and deep visit and relationship with the aliens. It is about making friends with someone who is most especially “other.”
I think about this as I look at Cezanne’s own obsession with
a mountain, Mont St. Victoire, outside his beloved town of Aix-en-Provence. The story goes that even though he grew up
there, he did not really notice the mountain until he was coming home on a
train from Paris. Looking at Mont St.
Victoire, he exclaimed that this was the model he was looking for in his
painting! But perhaps what Cezanne was
looking for in his obsession with the mountain (44 oil paintings and 43
watercolors) was not just a connection to the earth, but a relationship with himself,
with others, with life, with God. He is
not just wanting to paint a pretty picture, of course. He wants to show deeply what and how he sees
so that he can communicate more deeply what it means to be alive.
Paul Cezanne had some very important relationships in his life. One of the most important was probably his friendship
with the realist novelist, Emile Zola. Although
Zola was born in Paris and spent most of his working career in Paris, he spent
a major part of his youth growing up beside Paul Cezanne in Aix. They would go swimming together in the river,
speak about their own writing and the writing of others such as Hugo and
Baudelaire. Cezanne was a bit older and
mentored Zola through some of the early days.
And Zola encouraged Cezanne to paint and to come to Paris where, he
reasoned, one must be if one is going to be a great writer or painter. There are some wonderful letters collected
between the two men. Sadly, eventually
Zola wrote a book called L’Oeuvre, often in English, The Masterpiece,
which was about a young artist who was probably a composite of many artists and
people Zola knew, but most especially Manet and Cezanne. This artist fails to gain any notice in the
art world – not unlike Cezanne in most of his life. The artist is a friend of a successful
novelist who is so clearly Zola that there is no doubt. And in the end, the artist commits suicide as
a failure. There is a very poignant
scene – probably not true to fact, but surely true to meaning – in the recent
French movie called “Cezanne et Moi” which is about the relationship between
Zola and Cezanne. In the scene, Cezanne
reads a bit from the novel about their days swimming and talking important
things and thoughtful young men might.
Only Cezanne reads it and ends up in tears – betrayed that their private
and personal friendship should become a scene in a very public novel. In real life, Cezanne sent the copy of the
novel Zola had given him back to him and simply never spoke to him again. Feeling betrayed, Cezanne felt their friendship
was destroyed. The French, much more than
those of us brought up in the U.S., have a deep sense of propriety and privacy. And, in my experience, the propriety and
privacy in Provence is much, much more than that in Paris.
In Cezanne’s later years and obsession with the mountain, perhaps he is trying to regain the relationships he thought he would have with Zola, with Hortense (his wife), and with others. He regains a religious connection that was not particularly important to him in his young and middle adulthood. He goes to church at Saint Sauveur, the cathedral in Aix, often with his friend Bernard. Yet perhaps he meets his God also most clearly up on the hillside above the cathedral where he paints the changing colors and shades in the distant rocky face of St. Victoire. He is obsessed not only with a mountain, but with a desire for deeper relationship. And at the same time, he never quite finds fulfillment. There is always something more of the mountain to discover in hopes of being a real friend of God, of all the beloved people in his life, and of his own life itself. His last painting was done in the rugged hills near Mont St. Victoire as he sought to define the mountain and himself. A storm came through and Cezanne evidently kept right on painting. He was so absorbed, so possessed of his desire for the mountain and the way his painting was to bring all relationship into a deeper reality. He was found by some passing men where he fell in a heap trying to catch the relationship in the storm. He would die a few days later.
How important our relationships are! How easy it is to let go of them. How costly it can be to stand in the storms of life and keep seeking to connect with others!
As I write this, I am coming down the end of the first month of sabbatical and will be leaving France in a few days. I can’t say I am sure I have come to understand that sabbatical animal I wrote about a few weeks ago yet. I do know I am feeling more rested and renewed already. I feel like I have done so much more than I had expected to do here in France. And there are a few disappointments too. I am rested, but I am also unsettled; I figure this is good. I feel closer to Cezanne and the earth and culture here in Aix than I thought I could. I do not feel like I managed to connect much with the other person I was going to deal with: Van Gogh. And, on the side, I was going to learn so much French and be comforatable in a conversation — which hasn’t happened. The other day I ordered a pizza and a glass of rose wine at a little village outside of Aix (and away from the tourists). I got the pizza — although not the one I thought I ordered — and a strange, but probably deserved, look from my server. Instead of wine, I got a bottle of vinaigrette. Go figure. Travel has reminded me that I need to enjoy (and not be stressed about) wandering lost and getting vinaigrette.
As a way to focus on my topic of Cezanne and holy friendship, I brought along an old issue of a wonderful but now defunct magazine called “Weavings.” “Weavings: Woven together in love” was a lovely little spirituality publication in the nineties, oughts and on into the teens. The issue I brought along is called “faithful friends” (Vol. VII, No. 3, May/June 1992). The issue has beautiful stories of friendships with people and with God. An especially lovely article is by a man named Michael E. Williams called “The Midwives’ Story.”
What is a friend? How do you find one, get one, order one, make one? In some way, each of my friends defines the word friend in a different way for me by being my friend. And the only way I know to get a friend is to be a friend first. Williams contends that a good image of friend is the image of a person who helps us midwife who we are becoming in all the uncertainties and lack of control that exist in human life. He tells the story of Pharoah ordering the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill the young Hebrew boys when they are born. In the story (at the very beginning of the book of Exodus), the midwives say they cannot do what the Pharoah has asked. Babies come in spite of them. God is in charge, not the midwife (and not the Pharoah!). The Pharoah is seeking to take nature (childbirth) and put it in his worldview of power, a way of dominance and submission. But God doesn’t work that way. Nature doesn’t work that way. Life doesn’t work that way. The natural way, the way of the midwives, is to work with the creative process of childbirth, not to deny it – and never to control it.
When Jesus calls the disciples (and by inference the rest of us followers) to not be servants or slaves, but friends, he is repeating the way of the midwife in a world too hung up on trying to live like the Pharoah. Friendship is not about one dominating the other – even if it is to protect them or make them “better.” When Jesus empties himself in order to give himself up on the cross for redemption, he is repeating what he has done again and again: he lets go of any dominant role as God over us to be beside us as a friend. Jesus enters the world to midwife salvation for us, but not to control our salvation. Some days most of us wish Jesus would be a bit more magic and powerful and just fix the whole mess for us and for all, but that is not the way of friendship, the way of God’s salvation. Mary’s Magnificat — which she sings at a difficult moment in her life when all is unsure because she is having God’s baby out of wedlock — is a song of friendship. The poor are lifted up and the rich are laid low. Everyone is put into that lowly place where what we need is a friend. None of us has power except the God who chooses also to give up power to be with us, a friend who chooses to bring salvation not from above to us, but beside us and through us.
We cannot predict, control, and fix the world. And while God could, God chooses instead to be our friend. And in the muddle and uncertainty of crosses and storms and last suppers, we find our way together, midwifing the truth of all through the love of friendship. Somehow, in all this, friendship speaks not only to our powerlessness and the uncertainties of life, but to our love that exists in friendship in spite of these uncertainties (knowing, if we are honest, that every one we love will leave us or we will leave them by death if not before.) We live with the divine friend whose love for us brings the creative power of salvation.
So I am approaching the fourth Sunday of my and Kingston Parish’s 12 Sunday sabbatical! And I will be away in Krakow for the weekend, visiting my son Josh who lives in Ukraine. (We’re meeting in the middle, sort of.) I won’t be taking my computer to Krakow, so I’m writing early.
This week I want to write about Paul Cezanne and his love affair with nature. I got to spend a couple hours yesterday at the Bibemus Quarries where he spent much time sur le motif (“in the image,” or more literally “on the pattern”) to paint the blocks of stone, trees, and, of course, his beloved Mont St. Victoire. His small hut and studio on the hillside is actually in the hillside, part of the stone built up of stone. Cezanne did not speak as many of his contemporaries did of painting en plein aire which I suspect seemed a bit too detached from the subject for him. While he wants very much to paint nature not simply as it is but as he experiences it, his understanding seems to say: but we begin with the fact that I am part of this nature!
I am toying with the idea of hiking up to the top of the mountain where there is a cross called la Croix de Provence. If I go, it will be to explore the nature of the place, not to see the cross. It was put there early in Cezanne’s life, so it was present when he painted, but you will never see it in one of his 87 paintings of the mountain. (I have heard many different counts of how many paintings Cezanne did of his special mountain, but the best I think is that there known to be 44 oil paintings and 43 watercolors of his mountain; who knows how many others there may have been that he destroyed or were lost.) He did not appreciate that the mountain had been scarred by man’s addition. This is not to say he was against the cross at the top! If you go to Cezanne’s last studio, you are quickly reminded of the importance of his faith by the large crucifix that hangs over everything. But there is a place in nature for simply nature where humans do not belong and a place in nature where human beings belong. Below the mountain, the valley in the paintings is often dotted with worked fields, clay rooftops, and a train bridge that looks a bit like an aqueduct. All these are things really there; and in Cezanne’s vision, they belong there, nestled appropriately in the grandeur of nature and beneath the mountain.
Bibemus is a strange site for nature in some ways. It is a quarry, a place where humans have scraped and dug at the rocks to create an artificial valley. The stones have their geometric shapes most often not because of nature, but because of the quarry work. Yet still, the stones are nature’s stone. And the quarry had already been abandoned before Cezanne went there, so nature was reclaiming her place in the landscape that both offered human beings building material and was scarred in that offering. I used to look at these paintings and see only Cezanne playing boldly with the orange geometric shapes of stone sometimes softened, sometimes emboldened by the green life of the trees and plants. Now, I see also the hatching marks of the stone — which are no longer just painting technique, but the scars left by the quarry workers. I see the same hatchings in nature’s green return among the rocks as if the trees themselves also bore scars, the suffering that is life even in all it’s natural glory. The rocks and the vegetation are in a sort of conversation between human beings and the natural world. One of my favorite Bibemus paintings is simply called The Bibemus Quarries. (The painting resides in a private collection in Kansas City.) In this painting, the stones recline near the center but above them soars a single pine tree. The tree reaches up in much the same way the crucifix reaches up over all else in Cezanne’s studio. The life and work of human beings is within nature. It is false when it is above nature. And nature will always suffer and sustain all that is, much as that man and God hanging on the cross over the apples and skulls and ceramics of the studio suffers and sustains all that is.
The last studio with prominent crucifix. Somehow it is much more dominating in real life, standing as it does by itself really above all the things.