Monday, December 14, 2009

"The Sacred in life and art"

My friend Karen H. and I have never met. Not face to face. We began to correspond on email after we shared points of view on a discussion board of the Image magazine, possibly the leading U.S. faith and art periodical based in Seattle. This was a couple of years ago, and the friendship has endured the vagaries of cyber correspondence. K. doesn't say much about herself, but I glean from her comments and suggested readings that her interests are wide and varied - literature, photography, architecture, aboriginal peoples. She writes and I have seen two of her essays. She has strong political views (I read between her lines) of the conservative kind. I doubt Obama got her vote. She is also a strong Christian woman, with clear views of faith and the place of the Christian in the secular world. She worships with the American Orthodox churches.
I've grown to appreciate this kind-of-invisible, long distance friendship with someone of like mind. While I like to think my politics is slightly left of centre, more on the moderate side, I suspect I'd have to concede to her well-thought out, reasoned (not without passion) conservative opinions. I think she is someone who is courteous and respectful of other views, but will not hesitate to speak her mind forthrightly.
Since I've known her, she has sent me a number of books, most to do with classic Christian theology and literature. She knows my writing and related interests.
Anyway, I mention all this to say that Karen recently sent me "The Sacred in life and art" by Philip Sherrard (Golgonooza Press, 1990.) I had mentioned to her that I had been reading (slowly) Thomas Merton's meditations, The New Man. She was able to find and send me Merton's 1947 essay "Poetry and the contemplative life." This book by Sherrard perfectly complements Merton.
The Sherrard has been a revelation and comes to me at exactly the right time. The right time, as I spend some retreat searching my own faith and art, forms and content, the place of the Christian artist in church and world, the declining, profane world we all inhabit now - and make applications to my own life, faith, experience and work in my island home, Saint Lucia, Eastern Caribbean.
I haven't read a whole heap yet. One takes such a work slowly, chewing the intellectual cud. I suspect (and I may well have read this somewhere) that we respond enthusiastically to works of art and literature because they mirror, they echo, our own perspectives and convictions. So you can imagine how marked already every one of the 18 pages I've already read, are.
So, with thanks to Karen H, who is somewhere in Missouri, I'm sharing some of Sherrard's thoughts on the sacred and art:

"Yet by virtue of the fact that man is created in the image of God, he is also a creator, a maker, an artist. Indeed, this is his distinguishing role, that which is capable of making him holy. 'I will sing to my God so long as I live,' says the Psalmist; and it is this celebration of God, of His perfections and His beauty that constitutes our chief glory.....But if as maker the artist actually makes his artwork, and if that work does possess a more-than-aesthetic quality - does possess a sacred quality - then is not the artist something more than a priest and does he not himself make something that is sacred? Does he not himself make things beautiful, divinize nature, and in the end is he not himself a power that sheds a divine and transforming illumination?.....
Then, to add to the confusion, there is a great similarity between the aesthetic experience and the religious experience. Both can involve an attitude of contemplation, both may involve prayer and supplication. At its highest point, art aspires to a vision of the plenitude of being, to a vision of the world as it should be in its perfection. The true artist - I am speaking here only of the artist who does aspire to make his art a transforming power, to make the language of his art the signs of Paradise - will  not see anything ugly in creation. Nor, bringing his light into the darkness, will he simply try to reproduce or copy what he sees. Rather he will try to see in all things their hidden beauty and to create in his art sensible forms which are receptacles of this ideal content.....Is not the art that achieves this a sacred art? Is not the artist who produces it at least a hierophant, a shower-forth of the sacred, if not in fact a maker of the sacred? Is not aesthetic practice, at this level, equivalent to religious practice?" (pgs 15,16).

(c) John Robert Lee, photograph "School yard" (for Karen H.)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

from T.S. Eliot - East Coker (excerpts Section V)

"So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years-
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres -
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate - but there is no competition -
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again : and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.

(c) excerpted from T.S. Eliot. East Coker (Section V)

(c) Photograph: John Robert Lee - "my vernacular city"

Eliot of Four Quartets; Walcott of Midsummer, The Bounty, The Prodigal; Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey - such masters and their later works are now my inspiration and my aspiration for my own poems of faith. Thank you.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

canticle xxii : resurrection of the katts

The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8:19, 21 : "For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God....because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God."

After the promised irruption of heaven into earth
and subsequent looting of the enemy's barrows,
imagine - the astounded hurtling of hawk, the disconcerted wonder of hen,
pup's amazement, astonished mule, kitten dumbfounded,
pipirit shocked! -
                                  And then, the heirs of God, cerement free,
parading the blue air. So great leviathan, cattle, creeping thing, each to its kind,
rise without burden, with the lords of the air,
to come to their City, and their names calling out, from the
Lamb's opening Book. 

(c) John Robert Lee from Canticles (2007)
(c) John Robert Lee - Photograph After the rain.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Canticle xv

Let us praise His Name with an opening lakonmet,
and in the graceful procession of weedova;
let laughing, madras-crowned girls rejoice before Him in the scottish
and flirtatious moolala, its violon hinting of heartache.
And while we forget time turning in quick-heeled polkas,
pause during the tentative norwegian -
for when the couples end the gwan won,
you alone must dance for Him your koutoumba.

(c) John Robert Lee from CANTICLES (2007)
(c) John Robert Lee - photograph, La Wenn Magrit.
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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Morne Gimie, Saint Lucia.


In the blue-dyed surfing of air
an inverted rainbowl
perches its prismatic lips
across the gracious, steadfast earth,

and in Veronica's garden
a cavorting butterfly prevaricates
among the vanes
of pigeon-peas' yellow blossoms,

and across town,
you yearn after those sexy dancers
barrelling through space,
arching, escalating over breath.

Contemplating Morne Gimie's triple mornes,
I envision Him
taken from our clouding sight,
upon the elevating air.

(c) John Robert Lee - from "elemental" in "elemental: new and selected poems" Peepal Tree, 2008.
(c) John Robert Lee - photograph, Morne Gimie, Wednesday October 21st.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Canticle liii

 "Because every fruit is a gift rising from the Eternal Seed
interred beyond the catacombs of exfoliating nebula,
encrypted in the woolen cerements folded like the ancient parchment of a deed
in the Hand of God, we sing this sedulous
faith. Handling such mysteries, probing parable and metaphor,
we arrived at this plain board (after the incredulous
hour) to find that urns of maize and grape had manifest
their witness into bread and wine. And fish."

(c) John Robert Lee from Canticles (2007)
(c) John Robert Lee, Photograph: Fish cakes.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Thomas Merton on the meaning of our existence

In the blurb to Thomas Merton's meditations The New Man (1961) the writer says that Merton "shows the conflict between man's exterior and interior identity, and points the way the soul must travel to find its spiritual reality in the transcendent yet constantly present Self of God". A Commonweal quote says that the writer "has acquired a profound understanding of the peculiarly contemporary questions which demand an authentic Christian answer." In the first chapter of these meditations, titled "The war within us", Merton writes on the meaning of existence. "Man, then, can only fully be said to be alive when he becomes plainly conscious of the real meaning of his own find life we must die to life as we know it. To find meaning we must die to meaning as we know it....To find the full meaning of our existence we must find not the meaning that we expect but the meaning that is revealed to us by God. The meaning that comes to us out of the transcendent darkness of His mystery and our own. We do not know God and we do not know ourselves. How then can we imagine that it is possible for us to chart our own course toward the discovery of the meaning of our life? ...Meaning is then not something we discover in ourselves, or in our lives. The meanings we are capable of discovering are never sufficient. The true meaning has to be revealed. It has to be "given." And the fact that it is given is, indeed, the greater part of its significance: for life itself is, in the end, only significant in so far as it is given.
As long as we experience life and existence as suns that have to rise every morning, we are in agony. We must learn that life is a light that rises when God summons it out of darkness. For this there are no fixed times."

(c) Photograph "Untitled" by John Robert Lee

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Seamus Heaney on poetry readings

In Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney by Dennis O'Driscoll (Faber 2008), 1995 Nobel Laureate Heaney says the following about poetry readings: "In a good poetry reading - good for you, the poet, that is - you retrieve some of the quickening that you got when you first wrote the thing. The surprise and gratitude are with you again for a moment - the old sense of having been supplied with the words you needed to summon. You have an obligation as a poet not to betray the reality of that. You have been mysteriously recompensed by the words and you owe some fidelity to the mystery....So nowadays, every time I stand up I have been to the inside of what I hope to turn out, and feel both prepared and protected. Perhaps it's meditation by another name, but at this stage it's become a necessity. It means that each reading attains a sense of its own occasion. You may be speaking the same poems, but they are part of something intended, they aren't just inclusions in some accidental or incoherent bundle of things. It means you can give out and keep to yourself at the same time."  pgs 203, 204.

(c) Photograph Red Top by John Robert Lee.

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Monday, October 5, 2009

Pomegranates and G. K. Chesterton

"It is the simple truth that man does differ from the brutes in kind and not in degree; and the proof of it is here; that it sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey and that it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man. Something of division and disproportion has appeared: and it is unique. Art is the signature of man....All we can say of this notion of reproducing things in shadow or representative shape is that it exists nowhere in nature except in man; and that we cannot even talk about it without treating man as something separate from excellent test case of this isolation and mystery is the matter of the impulse of art. This creature was truly different from all other creatures; because he was a creator as well as a is the measure of all things; man is the image of God." - G.K. Chesterton in "The Everlasting Man" (1925). [Ignatius Press, 1993, pg 34, 35]

(c) John Robert Lee Photograph - "Pomegranates"
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Still life

I'm as ancient as I walk.

I have walked
in my time.

even things set themselves.

we have to go out
and welcome the enemy.

In faded print,
all are equal.

The death mask is forming.

(c) John Robert Lee - excerpt from "Dread" in 'elemental: new and selected poems' (Peepal Tree, 2008)

(c) Photo by John Robert Lee
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Gregory Wolfe, the editor of IMAGE: A Journal of the Arts and Religion, writes in his excellent collection of IMAGE editorials - Intruding upon the timeless: meditations on Art, Faith and Mystery (Square Halo Books, 2003) - of "a hunger, on the part of both secularist and believer, for a deeper understanding of mystery, that borderland where reason fails and only faith and imagination can go." The IMAGE journal that he created sought to explore the "intersection between faith and imagination." He states that for him, "the first principle had to be aesthetic excellence: what we published had to be good art, able to stand alongside the best that was being produced...IMAGE had to be present on the public square, and not in some sort of self-imposed religious ghetto. For it is precisely in the imaginative space created by works of art that a diverse, multicultural society can explore religious matters without the divisiveness of polemics and propositions." He sees the collected editorials as meditations which attempt "to probe the ways that art and faith, poetry and prayer, can nourish and sustain one another." In a "fragmented and contentious world, art that engages faith can body forth an incarnational balance between the letter and the spirit, make ancient truths new, and allow the time-bound to briefly and tentatively intrude upon the timeless."
Greg Wolfe's meditations have been an inspiration to me as I probe my own experience of art, faith and mystery. I shall share more of his book from time to time.

(c) Photo: "Dock" by John Robert Lee
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Friday, September 25, 2009

from my Canticles (2007), poems and photos.

Canticle lix

You must now enter the silence alone and listen. Wait.
Wait for the translation of the first line. Write.
Write with your fingers searching the pigments on the palate
for the essential shading of the right
image. The medium frames the sacred intercession.

To give face, posture, and voice to the holy is no trite
matter. And where humility unveils some gracious incarnation,
offer first this blessed sacrament to the King of saints. 

from Canticles (2007)
(c) John Robert Lee
(c) Turquoise, photo by John Robert Lee

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Image: Art, Faith, Mystery

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

more work in progress

At Mount Pleasant, St. Lucia

On the radio, classical music from horizon-clear Martinique.

Mid-December, mid-afternoon, light breezes under the over-spreading mango,
across envined palmiste, through the abandoned garden, and you imagine the shadows
lacquered, set. The antique
stone staircase reduced to one forlorn curve and a few broken flagstones
leans against the shade. In the frame, between grasses, is that an egret?
Pastoral pauses at Mount Pleasant, above Castries, in sight of Morne du Don villas,
high palms edging
the drift of hill across its barricade

of blue bent space.
Obama, certain strained friendships, the graduation of apprentices,
afternoon softening to pastel, numinous,
over Choc's procession of bright stones - what urgent
apocalypse hesitates to interrupt the coralita flirting among golden crotons?

On the radio, creole music of Malavoi from Martinique.

(c) John Robert Lee

(c) photographs by John Robert Lee


Monday, September 21, 2009

from Thomas Merton

from Thomas Merton's The New Man, 1961.
"The mark of true life in man is therefore not turbulence but control, not effervescence but lucidity and direction, not passion but the sobriety that sublimates all passion and elevates it to the clear inebriation of mysticism. The control we mean here is not arbitrary and tyrannical control by an interior principle which can be called, variously, a "super-ego" or a pharisaical conscience: it is the harmonious coordination of man's powers in striving for the realization of his deepest spiritual potentialities. It is not so much a control of one part of man by another, but the peaceful integration of all man's powers into one perfect actuality which is his true self, that is to say his spiritual self."   pg12.

 Wordsworth spoke of "emotion recollected in tranquillity", Eliot of "the still point." And Frost wrote of the "momentary stay against confusion."

(c) photograph by John Robert Lee. In Canticles (2007).

work in progress

-Hebrews 2:14

Out of the creeping undergrowth of manuscripts
words line themselves with the body of the page
immaculately. Leaving decorated margins
of our modest codex, we ache to glimpse the enraptured
end of the art of faith. In the font's innocent concavities
we imagine bold faces of eager messengers.
At the edge of improbable translation, we are assuaged
by incredible epiphanies cradling

in paperback covers.
                                  Herod's night raiders read
Bethlehem right. The local chapter of Moloch
plots the setting of the star. Mythology
parses into facts: angels, shepherds, feeding trough -
where, in this part of the prologue,
the Death Eater's mother paraphrases His gurgles to the kneeling kings.

(c) John Robert Lee  from work in progress.
(c) Photograph by John Robert Lee.

Friday, September 11, 2009

September 7th 2001

Signing on

On this 9/11, eight years on, I'm signing on for the Blog experience. We'll see how it goes. I want to think through issues of faith and art, with special interest in the Caribbean historical context. I am a Christian writer - meaning that my writing (poetry and prose) is influenced by my orthodox, Protestant Christian faith. My accompanying interests in media and education will no doubt impinge on the thinking through.
Question: Where are the Caribbean Christian artists, epecially writers - in a region that has been predominantly influenced by Christianity? How is their faith reflected in their work? The Christian literary tradition is a great one. One can find in the international sphere a few serious journals that follow the meeting of faith and art. I think of IMAGE from Seattle, Washington. In the contemporary Caribbean, increasingly secular (though still very religious) where are the Christian artists? I'm talking about serious artists and writers - concerned about craft and shaping, for whom their faith in Christ is also crucial. Where is the dialogue? Where is the interchange? I think of pioneers like AJ Seymour (Guyana) and John Figueroa (Jca), Literary icons of the Caribbean and men of deep faith. There must be more. I'd like to identify them. And my contemporaries. Final note: I've known of the late Thomas Merton, the writer and Trappist Monk. Have had his famous Seven storied Mountain, but not read it. recently found his The New Man (1961) and am entranced. They are his Pascal-like meditations. Years ago Lorna Goddison had encouraged that I read him. Well, I'm on now. So where are our own genre of religious meditations? That is a whole area, faith writings, waiting to be discovered and explored by Caribbean writers.
Finally, finally, while I speak so much of Caribbean, I read and think through widely.
On this 9/11, 09, may the Lord Jesus bless the venture. Come Holy Spirit, Father. "Rest our hopes fully on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ."