Friday, November 16, 2012

How is the dying body given in love? Dying as sign

Melciorre Caffa, St. Rose of Lima dying

From the book:
How is the dying body given in love? Many of the themes of the Theology of the Body we have worked with are relevant here: attending to the present moment, disponibilit√©, self-abjection, hospitality, love and tenderness are all part of seeing rightly the given sign of dying, of receiving our true identity from God.  This section will employ a “spiritual seeing,” or better yet, a contemplative attitude throughout.  Perhaps more than any other time in a person’s life, the spiritual aspect is visible (or perhaps we attend death so much more closely we are able to perceive the spiritual).  The “ecstatic” reality of dying, of giving one’s life to God in love, is abundantly witnessed when we know how to perceive God’s presence.

It is important to note that a reading of the spiritual sign of dying—a Theology of the Body ars moriendi if you will--is not prescriptive.  Although I do think there are patterns and common themes within the dying process, every spiritual director knows that the Holy Spirit leads the person in a manner most befitting that person’s particular relationship with God.  If you are dying, you need not be troubled by a mocking scrupulosity that some “stage” has happened or not happened.[1]   For one accompanying the dying, it may be impossible to “plan out” where the person is at: attention to the Holy Spirit in your conversation (or quiet sitting together) is key.  But as Iain Matthew says on John of the Cross: “He gives us the schemas, not to help us predict, but to encourage us to surrender”[2], as evidence that God is indeed working, there are signs to read in the dying process, and the process itself is not meaningless.  The ars moriendi witnesses the movement of healing in God through dying, and while there are moves to encourage and provide space for, we always must remember that healing cannot be plotted.  Healing is its own mystery, coming from the heart of God.  And it always feels, in some real sense, like a surprise, an explosion of grace into time.  It is sensed as the mercy that it is.

[1] This is one of the prominent criticisms of K»ēbler-Ross’s stages, that people may be expected to follow a standardized emotional schema and rushed to move through that, contrary to God’s desire for that person. Any person helping anyone to die should remember that at some level, the person dying knows more about dying than you do.  Guenther, Still Listening, citation pg.
[2] Matthew, 88.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

What does it mean to be human? Look to Christ--not the prevailing "cult of normalcy"

Antonio Ciseri, Ecce Homo
Reynolds offers pointed analysis on the touted benevolence of tolerance and assimilation, which can “[grant] differences a share of the public space only so long as they do not disrupt or cause inconveniences to a dominant group’s way of life.”[1]  That doesn’t mean all tolerance is bad.  But it does mean that when tolerance becomes the prime ethical law, there is an inevitable consequence: toleration is granted by those in power, that is, those who set the identity of the group.  Reynolds doesn’t hold back: “Normalcy operates as a cultural system of social control.  On one account, it is simply a way of ordering and bringing meaning to the everyday world shared by a group.  It is unavoidable and itself good.  There is, however, an insidious undertow that accompanies it, working to draw all into a certain caste or type….To state it plainly, the 'normal’ is relative to a group’s values and aspirations, and conversely so, what is attributed ‘abnormal’ (disease, disability, etc.).”[2]

The cult of normalcy is a real challenge, because we human beings are by nature social beings: we want to belong.  The Theology of the Body audiences are structured on the very idea that “it is not good for man to be alone.”  As such, we are created with a powerful desire to belong to another.  When children are separated from consistent caregivers at a young age, when their belonging is thwarted, the evidence is overwhelming: they do not learn to attach, and they do not thrive.  Basically, they die a slow death less because of lack of food or shelter, and more because they do not belong—the cult of normalcy has made no room for them.  They grow in an environment is not trustworthy, and they respond by withering and dying.[3]  In a (sometimes) less dramatic example, we see the incredible formative influence of peer pressure--and not just in junior high school.  We see the giddy rush to identify ourselves through social networking’s circles, friends, and followers.[4]  We must belong, and crave to find our identity through a social group.

Hauerwas: “Christian humanism is determined by the Father’s sending of the Son to be one of us. So humanism must always begin with Jesus’ humanity. When that isn’t the case…compassion becomes a way to say certain people would be better off dead.”
There is a way to avoid the social temptation to define reality through normative groupings and the extension of tolerance, a way given to us in Scripture and revelation: we can look to how God defines what it means to be human through the revealed humanity of Jesus Christ.  And if one thinks that to speak of impairment and disability makes no sense given the life of Christ, one needs to look more closely at both his ministry and the reality of the incarnation and crucifixion--allowing those realities to inform how we learn to see the present.[5]  It is only then that we can release the impulse to belong from the bondage of the cult of normalcy, and place it where it was meant to be. 

[1] Ibid.
[2] Ibid., 48.
[3] There is a persistent urban legend about a mid-20th century Russian experiment that involved institutionalized infants being raised without any human touch or interaction, and half of the group dying as a result.  The 1998 Human Rights Watch report “Abandoned to the State: Cruelty and Neglect in Russian Orphanages” indicates the fabled “experiment” is uncomfortably close to the ongoing truth for special needs children in institutions: children (and later adults, should they live that long), left in cribs all 24 hours of the day, only fed and changed.  However, the story of the experiment likely came from Harry Harlow’s experiments in social isolation of rhesus monkeys, in which isolation left the young monkeys severely disturbed.  The 1960s studies, which would be considered unethical science today, are used to help understand the experience and behavior of children who have been abused or have suffered neglect.  Harlow HF, Dodsworth RO, Harlow MK. "Total social isolation in monkeys," Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1965.
[4] Google plus, facebook, and Twitter.
[5] To quote Hauerwas: “Christian humanism is determined by the Father’s sending of the Son to be one of us.  So humanism must always begin with Jesus’ humanity.  When that isn’t the case…compassion becomes a way to say certain people would be better off dead.” Hauerwas and Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World: the prophetic witness of weakness, 53.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

How does art help us perceive reality in the light of God?

From the book:
If you look at the Knippers’ Isaiah in the Temple (see right, cropped version), you see the nudity of body and the nudity of spirit expressed through the body.  Isaiah, encountering the spiritual world breaking through within the Temple, is unclothed, arms thrown in a position of charged energy and vulnerability, open to this inbreaking reality.  He is allowing himself to be impaled by a visibly invisible spirit’s coal of fire, pressed to his lips to purify him to speak God’s word.  Meanwhile, incense smoke—a symbol of prayer rising to God as well as sign of God’s presence among us[1]--floats gently in the foreground.  Knippers presents a wholly fleshy Isaiah, body expressing a posture of prayer and amazement before God.  The cubist-inspired ribbons of color and light are his language for the transformative spiritual realm “beyond the veil,” where our eyes (in this case literally) cannot rest and see the Divine: we sees fragments, pieces of a whole, and cannot quite put it together.[2]

John Paul II on Michelangelo and Edward Knippers note two things: that what we see is important, and the posture we take to what we see is critical.  The human artist can see, and help others see, reality in the light of God: as Knippers says:  “I have maintained over the years that art is not merely self-expression but an exploration of a reality greater than the Self. I have also maintained that the artist should be concerned about the most profound parts of that reality, not just play in the shallows.”[3]  John Paul is, if anything, more direct: “Artists are constantly in search of the hidden meaning of things, and their torment is to succeed in expressing the world of the ineffable. How then can we fail to see what a great source of inspiration is offered by that kind of homeland of the soul that is religion?”[4]  Artists, through sign and symbol, are able to help us interpret the deeper reality imbued in what we see.


Perception is the first move of participation in reality.  To that end, I want to address a very different form of perception by which we encounter the Holy Spirit: Ignatian prayer....

[p.s. great essays on Knippers' art and theology at Theology Forum, populated by Protestant friends in faith: ]

[1] For example, smoke as reaching to God, see Psalm 141: 2 “Let my prayer be incense before you”; smoke as presence: the smoke enveloping Mount Tabor signaling the presence of God in Exodus 19:18.
[2] A more philosophical take on this phenomenon—art that trends toward Cubism, an attempt to catch reality the moment it is seen, fractured and without form--see Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s seminal essay “Cezanne’s Doubt” in Sense and Non-Sense, trans. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964).
[3] Edward Knippers, “On Art and Incarnation: on art and ‘not playing in the shallows’,” Theology Forum (blog), Nov. 7, 2008, .