November 17, 2014 / Praxis
Sunday We are on the boat, our family, barreling north into a sea of granite …
April 13, 2015
Stooped behind a smooth pedestal bearing a great stone censer outside the Art Institute of Chicago, I finish my phone conversation shielded from the city’s famous wind. A former classmate and I have been arranging to meet during this writing conference. As excited as I am to be in a new place, to meet new people, to see old friends, and to sell my book of poems to the literary establishment, I can’t shake the sense of my own oddity, as somehow in their world but not of it. Maybe because I see myself as a neophyte, as too young. Or maybe because I write about personal matters of faith in a religion many have grown to distrust or avoid.
This morning I drift across the street, away from the teeming conference center and toward this labyrinth of art, a sanctuary from my own insecurity. My classmate expects to meet for lunch in two hours, so I pass from the portico into the honeycomb of adyta. I’m immediately dazzled by icons that I have only known from encyclopedias, that I am hardly prepared to encounter—the enormity of Georges Seurat, the enigmatic Grant Wood, Georgia O’Keefe and her sensuous brush.
The first time I stop to meditate on what I see is in Gallery 289, far opposite the museum entrance, after cruising through the ancient exhibitions. I fall mesmerized by the glowing quadrilateral on the wall before me, like a fire smoldering down to two dimensions. Of course the piece bears no title. There has never been true language for what this Latvian immigrant painted in 1954, only the remote memory of feelings evoked by orange geometry on amber, together cast across an amaranth landscape. Mark Rothko, known for his innovation and remembered for his restraint, created work that intersects expressionism’s violence with abstraction’s opacity. As I gaze into its center, reminiscent of muggy Idaho evenings in summer, the blaze of sunset slanting through rigid, modern stained glass, I’m suddenly back in our Pentecostal sanctuary.
Dad became a full-time minister when our previous pastor moved his family to Latvia as missionaries, and those missionary brats made sure I understood their importance. Almighty Creator of Heaven and Earth had spoken to their father—had God ever spoken so freely with my dad?—and they would go to this cold, foreign, and godless place to bring the Light of his Word. Should I be listening for what God might tell me? Latvia—there it was on the wall map we kept in the foyer to remember the missionaries our congregation supported. Latvia—the little post-Soviet republic on the edge of the Baltic Sea. They departed for crusades along God’s front lines, and I listened earnestly for that still small voice.
For denominations like ours, there are certain expectations for the son of an ordained minister. I knew before the age of six that I must attend our father’s church and then one day marry a nice Christian woman. Together, I knew, this future bride and I would raise our own family; she and I would provide our children with Pentecostal sensibilities, extol the Holy Bible, and lead fervent prayer vigils. In this milieu, we were always seeking, always searching after a God who revealed himself only unto the most deserving righteous ones. We had to be active and working, and so on Sundays I sat between the overhead projector on one side and tall stained glass on the other.
Absorbed by Rothko’s piece hanging inches before me like a flatland wildfire, it is as though I am staring back through those stained-glass windows and seeing nothing. But maybe the sun is just on the horizon now. It casts thick light through the chromatic squares. The entire wall of the sanctuary glows as tradition willfully binds itself within right angles and solitary hues. I turn and place a transparency over the projector with lyrics to one of our church’s choruses. A gnawing embarrassment sinks through my ribs. In the corner of the sheet twists a small, blue scribble, thrown far to the right of the writing on the wall, an azure ghost amid white space. Some time prior I had experimented to see if ballpoint pen could mark the clear plastic. It can, and it doesn’t rub off. When my dad asked about the mark, I lied. I told him it was like that when I pulled it from the file, but there will be forever the memory of my inquisitive mind shining upon the wall of that sanctuary.
High school art history was where I first encountered Mark Rothko’s work. In fact, Mrs. B—’s class taught me much of what I see today at the Art Institute. If not for Mrs. B—’s adoration of the intrepid Sister Wendy Beckett, I would have received an art education more predisposed to the fig leaf than the voluptuous beauty of Pablo Picasso’s Nude Under a Pine Tree or the marbled, masculine perfection of Cristoforo Stati’s Samson and the Lion, which I circle now like I did Herculean statues in another room.
The sinewy male body glimmers in bright gallery light: these virile, sexually tense idols for their respective cultures. While Hercules had trysts with both sexes to little consequence, Samson’s sexuality ultimately brought about his downfall: whatever God’s obsession was with his hair, telling his mistress got him shorn and turned over to enemy armies. But Hercules bore his share of jinxes, too, like the madness sent from Mount Olympus that drove him to kill his children, a crime which then demanded twelve famous labors as penance. The strongmen’s shared tragedy might well be this: for all their superhuman strengths, they were still slave to the whims of gods.
Alongside the Bible I had read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. The stories titillated my adolescence with the mischief of the gods. In comparison to my own flawless, Christian God, whom it was forbidden to doubt or question, these were fallible deities, corrupt and ungainly, yet still objects of worship. They boasted temples, garnered cults, named priests and priestesses. Oracles spoke for them; I always wanted to impart the words of a god to mortals.
You could call the church where I grew up charismatic. Speaking in tongues, commonplace. In my Sunday school classroom, Mrs. R— stood at the head of the folding table, talking about the Holy Spirit as a draft rose along the concrete floor. Behind Mrs. R—’s weedy frame, posters depicted Jesus and his disciples and all their miracles. Sticker charts monitored our attendance and our memorization of Scripture, verses like “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8 NKJV), verses that defined the irrefutable consequences of God’s work: see it, know it, spread the good news. “The Holy Spirit is the Comforter Jesus left us with after he ascended into heaven,” Mrs. R— explained. “He gives us the tools we need to love others and spread the gospel.” Of the Holy Spirit’s many spiritual gifts—healing, knowledge, prophecy—the one above all others was speaking in tongues.
I shivered in my seat. Mrs. R— spoke in tongues regularly, a shrill prayer language, her spirit sobbing each arcane syllable. It scared me when she cried out, but it also excited me. To be so moved by the Spirit of God that a tongue could only flap in an unfamiliar language! Ever since I was small I was fascinated by the supernatural, the paranormal, ghosts of all kinds. Even today I prefer the term Holy Ghost—however outmoded—to Holy Spirit.
“Speaking in tongues is something you have to ask for,” Mrs. R— continued. “You need to actively seek the Spirit and pray always, with open mouths and ready tongues.”
When I said my prayers that night in bed, I tried what Mrs. R— told us. I shut my eyes and folded my hands. I held my mouth agape and rested my tongue limply on my lip. I pictured a flame above my head like the apostles of the early church. My mind raced with words meant only for God. Words asking for a gift only he could give. And nothing happened.
I had been ordained as an example to my peers when my father became a pastor, but what would everyone think when they discovered I was unable to speak in tongues? I worried something deep and dark was wrong with me. Heavy in my little heart lay the suspicion that I was behind the curve, that something was blocking the passion of the Holy Ghost, that by standing still I was losing ground to desires of the flesh, secret attractions I had never asked for.
I now find myself in Gallery 211, where a few guests sit, as if ready to genuflect, on wide benches in the cavernous room’s center. Placards denote each piece’s pilgrimage into this hallowed space. Tourists gawp and whisper as they take in the art. Four pieces in the north corner depict the crucifixion, that ghastly act of divine whim that Christians have worshipped for millennia. Overshadowing the other three is The Crucifixion by Francisco de Zurbarán. The painting depicts the moment of Christ’s death. The rabbi from Nazareth, naked but for the jaundiced loincloth, hangs suspended within the black cowl of finality. The Gospel of Matthew reports his agony as “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” John notes Jesus saying, “It is finished.” And Luke adds that he said, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Here in Chicago, Christ enters the mortal void with arms spread in an excruciating attempt to pay for the sins of humanity and to appease the Father’s demands. His nubile figure, stretched on an unforgiving contraption, reveals taut muscles, supple colors. Were his circumstance not so grotesque, he would be a welcome exemplar of the male form. Like illustrations of Adam, naked and unashamed, those of Christ on the cross frequently sparked my interest as a child in ways I worried were inappropriate and interfering with the manifold gifts of the Spirit. The Caravaggian touches de Zurbarán employs—stark black background, dramatic lighting—draw his subject forth the way a medium might in a séance invite a holy ghost to commune with those gathered.
By the time I entered college, Scripture haunted me. I think Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son did it first. Here is a fable suggesting a father might relent to his youngest and divide his estate prior to dying. The young one, we’re told, squanders the fortune on strong drink, loose women, lavish clothing, games of chance, crack cocaine, and upstate housing in a seller’s market. Meanwhile, the elder son remains at home, faithfully working for his father. Then, when the president finally addresses the drastic economic recession, the young son is turning tricks in the Village and remembers even his father’s lowest servants ate and slept well without transactional penetration. (I’m paraphrasing.) The son then returns to his father, who runs out to meet him, throws the finest robes and goldest ring on him, and cooks the fattest cow to celebrate.
And yet there is another son, one seemingly forgotten in the hubbub, who faithfully stood by his father in rich times and in lean. He is upset that the brother who forsook them has received such a lavish welcome when never once did their father offer, from his now painfully apparent stores of kindness and adoration, even a small goat for the older son to celebrate with friends. When confronted, the father, seemingly unaware that a son may desire anything of his father beyond bare necessities, replies, You never asked. (Again, I’m paraphrasing.) In college, when my faith had been distilled into prayers beseeching the Father for a new sexuality, this was the son with whom I identified. Unlike the prodigal, I had been faithful all my life and received no return, not even a small reprieve from temptation.
Then I rediscovered the part of Job where he cries out to God in agony, asking for solace, asking for restoration, asking for anything, even the respite of death after his home, his family, his estate have all been destroyed. His own My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? hurled into God’s twisting cyclone. The Almighty responds with righteous sarcasm, saying, essentially, How dare you. Suddenly the Scriptures—once familiar—were foreign and I was a xenophobe. I wanted to cry out and ask why—why, God? Why torture? Why drive John to insanity? Why lead Elijah into the wilderness? Why offer a harlot’s wayward heart? Why give only to take away?
I wanted to ask, but I didn’t. Job asked; God wouldn’t hear it.
Agony twists the face of Penitent Saint Peter as he clutches his breast—mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Much like his master in de Zubarán’s painting, Peter is enveloped in a shroud of Caravaggian pathos. His earthy burlap shroud bears the weight of guilt for denying his dying friend thrice. His eternal repentance was captured in this painting in the early 1630s by Jusepe de Ribera, himself a deceptive man. Around that time, de Ribera was a powerful force in the Cabal of Naples, securing numerous arts commissions for his cohorts.
Illicit dealings are not foreign to Christendom. Often the church acts as a mobster to protect its assets. When the Spanish masters crafted these pieces, the artistic practice of fig leafing sex was in its heyday, not to mention the Inquisition, stifling such scientific discoveries as heliocentrism, and the marginalization of women—a trespass for which the penitent saint himself may bear foremost guilt. Some theorists posit a bitter rivalry between Simon Peter and Mary the Magdalene, and in a world just recently coming to terms with its own sexism, it’s not too great a stretch to infer ways Peter might slant biblical drafts to paint his men most favorably, in the same way his portraitist maneuvered the seventeenth-century arts commissions in Naples. This is the man Jesus explicitly enrolled as the foundation for his church, a man whose duplicity may expose significant biased gaps between God as he is and God as he is portrayed—even in Scripture—by those who claim him. All this in mind, I find Penitent Saint Peter a maudlin performance: mere disingenuousness at best, cunning manipulation at worst.
And opposite it, John the Baptist, the voice crying in the wilderness, points aimlessly in Christ’s direction. Although the artist is unknown, the piece also came out of Seville’s art scene. A lamb accompanies Christ’s cousin under a tree, just grazing and mugging for the camera, symbol for the coming Lamb of God, a blood offering for humanity’s sins. The Baptist appears placid, blind to the brutality on the wall mere inches away. Unaware of what lies ahead for his wooly, ungulate friend, he appears barely conscious at all. I wouldn’t expect his countenance to approach Peter’s stricken gaze, but Christ!—show a little more feeling. But no, just one lazy arm, a spaced out expression, high as a kite, an ambivalence surely the result of solitary years dieting on honey and insects. Perhaps the strain has been too much. Or perhaps he’s just grown tired of waiting.
For years I sought the indwelling of the Holy Ghost, an indwelling that I thought would be made evident in the speaking of tongues. For years I forsook my sexual nature in hopes of celibate ecstasy. After a time, the seeking transformed into something more passive, something like waiting.
After twelve years of pastoring, my dad opted to seek new ventures in social service, and he resigned in a tearful sermon one bright November morning just before I turned seventeen. Beside me, my mom sniffed, her eyes red and puffy. My father reached the end of his sermon and closed in prayer. His eyes glistened. His voice stuck in his throat, and for a moment he was completely silent. The more I learn about poetry and art, the more I pay attention to these kinds of negative spaces, to spaces that are unoccupied. Negative space hinges on perspective: a picture of a vase might just as well be two profiles kissing in its inverse. It requires trust—some might call it faith—for as much meaning to reside in absence as in presence.
While I relished the newfound space to explore my relationship with God outside the boundaries and expectations imposed on me for so long as a pastor’s son in the denomination I was now distancing myself from, I could never fully shake the sense that a strict protocol must be kept when serving the Most High. I worked for a college outreach program after I finished my bachelor’s degree. We were young, liberal minds searching out mysteries that eluded Simone Weil and Moses Maimonides, one evening a week. When the lights went out, music started and I waited behind the pews, making myself available for one-on-one prayer. I prayed earnestly with those students, yet I worried my words weren’t worth much, not having connected them to miracles or to whispers in unknown tongues. For as long as I’d been a Christian, I should have been more confident, but I spent so much time worrying about being good enough to experience God—by abstinence, by mortification, by throwing myself into church work—instead of simply doing what he says: love him, love others, love yourself.
John Keats, poet and atheist, suggested once the idea of “Negative capability . . . capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Poet and Christian Kathleen Norris invokes Keats in her book The Cloister Walk when she expounds on faith as tension not prescription. I had only ever known a Christianity of vast predestination and firm requirements; that no answer could itself be an answer was a revelation. During my hectic year as an intern, the program’s persistent nudging to figure out the course of my life preoccupied even the few moments I found to catch my breath. Should I pursue a career in social justice? Should I become a pastor? Questions abounded about salvation and purpose, vision and call, the role of love in what I recognized increasingly as a mean religion. Over an institutional tenure begun as a toddler, I had watched helplessly as my ministers and mentors were fired, as congregation members were excommunicated after elders’ hushed politicking, as boys like me were shuffled away in shame. Now, the most entrenched in its mechanisms I had ever been, I found myself complicit in a system I no longer recognized. If God is love, the world I fled then was godless.
Any remaining hope in religious reassurances drowned in a deluge of tears and sweat the following May. I returned to Idaho from my new apartment in Seattle to console my parents. Telling them I’m gay meant long bouts of weeping for all of us. Moments of anger overshadowed compassion. We said all there was to say, reached irritably after fact and reason, and still came up short. Geology had shifted, and we were on opposite tectonics, Scripture at the seismic epicenter, where Law states sin, where God offers grace, and where there is silence.
To my parents it was so clear I was giving up on God, on redemption, and on righteousness. But instead, I was seized by all three. By a perception inverse to theirs, I toppled from its pedestal the graven image of heterosexuality, a heathen rite long suggested as my only way to get closer to God. The second commandment: thou shall not make for yourself any idol. I hadn’t left church to elope with my sexuality. No, I had discovered cracks in a religious facade, which I could finally inhabit with my full self. With the sanctity of the straight unseated, I experienced God through new dimensions my eye could not yet see but my heart began fathoming.
Still, the thing I remember most is my mother telling me through a fog of thick weeping that Sunday morning, Mother’s Day, “I don’t know how to pick up the pieces from this.”
Nothing is as blurry as the pieces in Gallery 243. It’s past time for me to leave and meet my classmate for lunch, but I stand transfixed. In the Impressionism wing, I discover the original canvas of a painting that has captivated me since my time as an undergrad. Claude Monet’s Waterloo Bridge wades before me, nearly shrouded by a heavy fog of overlapping blue brushstrokes. You wouldn’t be able to distinguish the bridge if not for the bright yellow arcs traipsing its middle—light bursts below the bridge as though the sun hovered somewhere along the horizon. You can only see a bridge by where the light is blocked.
Claude Monet was into his sixties when he painted Waterloo Bridge. He had cataract surgery several years later. I’m halfway through my twenties, and my eyes are already shot. I remove my spectacles and gaze at Waterloo Bridge, hoping to see what the artist might have seen. What once were visible brushstrokes now blend into hazy cohesion. I think of the Apostle Paul, who wrote to ancient Corinthians about faith as a darkened window. Monet, preeminent Impressionist that he was, might agree, stressing the importance of the eye’s experiences—as they are.
I resume my glasses and check the time again. It’s late.
I leave to meet my former classmate. Resembling an atheist and his negative capability, I find more substance in agnostic uncertainties than in claims of palpable solution. Where light is blocked, where unruly smears obfuscate bridges we must cross and the fissures between an opaque God and his believers, I save room for surprises. As I step from the fundamentalism that reared me, I substitute strict answers with what my eyes teach me to see: things in part and things as they are. Sanctuary surrounds me when I discover artifacts left by those who have sought spiritual clarity and instead found piecemeal negative space.
Unwinding my way through the museum’s labyrinth, I step into a brisk spring afternoon. With a cursory glance at the map on my phone, I skip down the front steps to Michigan Avenue, turn, and walk purposefully toward the restaurant. Looking back, it’s easy to clutch my breast, anxious over troubling circumstances I know and see, but perhaps I waste too much verve on what leaps in positive space. Faith is the evidence of things not seen. Faith admits we see mere fragments. We move and live and love despite everything we can’t perceive because quotidian tasks remain to be performed without assurances. In the end I hope we are all surprised. For that, I give God what I can: I give faith the benefit of the doubt.
1. Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York, NY: Riverhead, 1996), 53.
David K. Wheeler
David K. Wheeler’s debut poetry collection, Contingency Plans, was published by T.S. Poetry Press, and he has written for the Morning News, the Gay & Lesbian Review, TOSKA, Glitterwolf, Blue Fifth Review, Codex Journal, and others. Wheeler is an associate editor at Shelf Awareness in Seattle, Washington.