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Common Hymnal and Evangelization

I grew up on Gospel music. You could blame it on my older brother’s affinity for rhythm and blues and hip hop, but when I found Gospel music, it rescued my soul. Since I became Catholic, I haven’t found that same feeling in music until I stumbled upon Common Hymnal. Made up of an eclectic group of creatives, the melodies of the music, the incredible and gut-wrenching lyrics, and the piercing (sometimes haunting) vocals will envelop any listener. I asked the founder, Malcolm du Plessis, to define the musical style of the group and his response is more than fitting: “Worship with a social conscience.” And FYI—it’s not just Gospel melodies. Common Hymnal has something for every one. The groove of “I’ve Got the Joy” is catchy, and the vocal runs from Dee Wilson will have you stopping to play those few seconds again, thinking, “Whoa. Did he just…

Why Must We Pick Up Our Mats and Bring Them Home?

The Holy Spirit has a funny way of leading us where we need to go sometimes. This week, while searching through my Bible for one specific passage in the New Testament, I inadvertently found another that struck me so forcefully, it became my lectio divina for several days: When the scribes and Pharisees began to ask themselves, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who but God alone can forgive sins?” Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them in reply, “What are you thinking in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”— he said to the one who was paralyzed, “I say to you, rise, pick up your…

The Mystery of Mary, Mother of God

What lesson can be discerned in the revelation that the Blessed Virgin Mary is the Mother of God? Father Steve Grunow offers his homily as a means to discern how the Incarnation of God in Christ is treasured in the heart of the Church on not only New Year's Day, but every day of the year.

On Mercy in a Merciless Age

“We men and women are all in the same boat, upon a stormy sea. We owe to each other a terrible and tragic loyalty.” – G.K. Chesterton We live in a merciless age. Gone are the days of the uncalculating kind word, the politely doffed hat, and the deferential door-opening. No longer is it customary for the young to offer their bus seat to an elder, for the rushing commuter to allow someone to merge, or for the unconsciously offered “please” and timely penned thank-you note. When any of this does happen, it is the exception and not the rule. Flatly counter-cultural instead of cultural. Sadly, our conversation is even worse. People talk all the time and rarely listen. And when they do “listen,” they process nothing their interlocutor is offering. Instead, they simply stay silent while crafting their next rebuttal or riposte. It…

A Cathedral Not Made by Hands

 

Photographer David Paul Bayles focuses on landscapes where the needs of forests and human pursuits often collide, sometimes coexist, and on occasion find harmony. His connection with trees was forged in the mid-seventies when he worked for four years as a logger in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Last year, he was awarded an ongoing residency at the 16,000-acre H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest near Blue River, Oregon. These photographs of the forest are from his collection Old Growth Dialogue.

 

In Laudato si’, Pope Francis offers a vision of moral responsibility rooted in awareness of the world around us. He points to St. Francis, who “looked with love” on all creatures, as a model. He writes of an “attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present” to everyone and everything. And he also calls for an “intense dialogue” between religion and science, which has its own “gaze.” The H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon, one of the world’s most studied ecosystems, offers an especially rich opportunity for such dialogue. Here scientists have cultivated their own gaze of “serene attentiveness.” What can theology learn by looking with scientists at such a complex ecosystem?

Entering an old-growth forest can be overwhelming. The sheer, tangled abundance of life is shocking. If John Muir was right to describe these as “cathedrals,” they are messy and riotous ones. Massive trees, centuries old, rise from heaps of moss and ferns and disappear into the canopy above. Life overlaps everywhere, leaving no surface bare. Some trees are so covered with moss, lichen, or fungus that it’s difficult to see their bark or even needles. Curtains of damp moss hush sound. The scent of conifers and the earthy must of soil fill the air. Underfoot, the ground is soft and deep. There are so many layers, in every shade of green, that it is difficult to take it all in. There are hints at a timescale beyond human reckoning. Moss grows very slowly; yet here it covers just about everything. A tree bends toward an opening in the canopy that it filled centuries ago.

The H. J. Andrews was once dedicated to the study of logging and forestry management with the goal of increasing efficiency and productivity. Along the way (and not without conflict) the applied science of the logging industry gave way to the science of ecology. A few decades later, the forest also became a place of inquiry for writers, artists, and musicians.

Encountering this riot of life can be like walking into a loud party full of many conversations (and more than a few fights), or arriving in the middle of the harmonies and dissonance of a complex symphony. It is tempting to focus on just one thing, to simplify. I reach out to touch an ancient Douglas fir, instinctively choosing a bare patch of bark stripped of moss. But the tree is far more than a single being. It hosts hundreds of plants and animals and depends on countless ecological interactions. Thinking like an individual, I miss the relationships. Ecology, like community, requires a gaze attentive to connection.

These were once called “decadent forests.” It’s easy to see why. The stunning vertical rise of firs, cedars, and hemlocks is coupled with so much ­falling and decay. Each day looks like the aftermath of a storm. Strips of lichen, moss, branches, and entire trees litter the floor. All this is being rotted by fungi and chewed by bugs. Fungus sprouts from enormous standing dead snags, revealing the rot within and impending collapse. What at first sight seems tumbling terrain—a hummock of ferns or even a small terrace—on closer look is revealed to be stumps or fallen trees decaying beneath blankets of moss. Life and death coincide, overlap, and interpenetrate.

For much of the twentieth century, forest managers’ explicit goal was to clear-cut decadent forests, burn the underbrush, and herbicide the soil. They would then plant orderly monoculture plantations of Douglas fir where trees would grow straight, fast, and healthy, freed from competition with undergrowth and safe from the infections harbored by diseased trees and rotting logs. Yes, they wanted timber, but they also wanted order: a simple order they could understand and control.

Rot is itself life; there is more living tissue—bacteria, fungus, bugs—in a fallen tree than in a living one.

The Andrews is one of the places where scientists dared to gaze more attentively; and out of that emerged a revolution in understanding. Far from being “decadent,” these “old-growth” forests possess their own complex order as mature, biodiverse ecosystems. What appears as decay is essential to ecological flourishing.

That lichen cascading from the treetops—Lobaria oregana—turns out to be crucial. Nitrogen is a particular problem in a dense forest; the canopy closes after about a century, blocking the sun from nitrogen-fixing plants while trees are still young. Without this essential nutrient, they would fade long before reaching maturity. As the canopy closes, this lichen slowly establishes itself. Once established, it fills the gap, each year capturing tons of nitrogen per square mile that enters the soil as fallen strips decay on the forest floor.

Moss covering branches and trunks is often as old as the trees themselves. It plays an important role in capturing nutrients from the air and slowing the flow of rainfall down the tree so that nutrients remain near the trees’ roots. Rotting fungus, and bugs that consume dead trees, convert cellulose and lignin into soil nutrients that feed the astounding rise and near-millennial lifespan of these massive trees. Rot is itself life; there is more living tissue—bacteria, fungus, bugs—in a fallen tree than in a living one. Rising and falling, growth and rot, life and death are literally interconnected here.

None of this is obvious to a casual or even sincerely attentive observer. Much of it takes place outside the range of human sensation. Scientists struggle to broaden our scales of time and space in order to understand the hidden cycles of life. Learning the role of the lichen required chemical analysis and finding a way to work in the canopy, far above ground, to painstakingly measure the amount that grows on each branch. Knowledge of the cycle of log decay comes from an ongoing decomposition study that will follow the progress of fallen trees through the entire two hundred years it takes for a log to become soil. Gas emissions and fluid runoff are measured and analyzed. Bacteria, fungi, and bugs are microscopically cataloged, and their progress through tree tissue is carefully measured. This devotion and commitment from multiple generations of scientists certainly justifies considering the scientific a form of “serene attentiveness.”

This work attending to the fullness of creation has revealed astounding complexity. As we walk through the forest, we notice plants and animals around us, but often we literally miss the forest’s interconnections for the trees. The greatest part of its biodiversity lies below ground, where thousands upon thousands of species of worms, arthropods, and insects live, each hosting a different bacterial community in its gut. We used to think of soil as a test tube full of chemicals, but now know that it’s a complex biological network; we are only beginning to understand its thousands of parts. These are “trophic” networks: who eats what and whom. The complexity goes far beyond predator and prey. Everything from a fallen evergreen needle to a tree is consumed, and the droppings of the consumers are consumed by yet other species through cycles upon cycles.

Below ground lives another complex web that facilitates one of the most astounding sets of relationships in the forest: mycorrhizal fungi. Unlike saprophytic fungi which live on decaying matter, mycorrhizal fungi live in symbiosis with living plants. Scientists have known these soil fungi are important for more than a century. Only in the past few decades, however, have they found ways to study the complexity of these relationships in detail. Electron microscopes show that mycorrhizal fungi filaments surround and penetrate plants’ root hairs. On the most basic level, trees share sugars with the fungus; the fungus extends their root systems’ reach a thousand-fold into microscopic nooks and crannies. The underground portion of fungi is much larger than the mushrooms we see. DNA analysis reveals that they can extend for hundreds of yards or even miles, linking the root systems of many trees, including different species, into a network that shares nutrients, water, chemical alerts, and even electrical signals. Using carbon-14 isotopes, Susan Simard famously found evidence of Douglas firs sharing sugar with birches in the spring and fall, and receiving sugar back when they leafed out in the summer. Older trees not only nurse their young through these networks; they serve as anchor points of complex networks that link entire stands of trees. One study found as many as sixty-five separate fungus species forming root networks in Douglas fir forests.

This research is breathtaking. Far from a ruthless competition of individuals for water and ­nutrients, we find diverse communities supporting their members. Vast, complex, multi-species networks thrive by sharing resources and information. The vocabulary used is as consonant with Catholic social thought as the reality it describes. The technical term used for these multispecies networks is “cooperative guilds.” There is a common good in the forest.

The Andrews is an ancient forest wired for the future, dotted with highly sensitive instruments taking measurements every five minutes. Like the watershed, this data converges into a stream, flowing down the mountain to Oregon State University.

 

We learn three connected lessons in an old-growth forest: creation is profoundly interrelated; interrelatedness is not simply a truth about ecology that we observe, but a truth about ourselves in which we participate; and an ethos of attentiveness can bring the limits of our knowledge into our moral imagination.

The first lesson of the forest is scientific confirmation of the key theme of Laudato si’—“everything is interconnected.” These few remaining intact ecosystems serve as sacraments of the Holocene. In them, we can find a kind of anamnesis of the living complexity of the world in which we evolved, and develop an appreciation for the gift that birthed us. This is not to gloss over the hard truths of evolution by forcing ecology to narrate a secular Eden. Predation and parasitism are as prevalent as symbiosis and mutualism. The density of relationship is, however, unmistakable.

No individual plant or animal, and indeed no species, is an island. Ecological niches aren’t really patches of ground defended from competitors, but multidimensional relationships. Remove one part and the rest can falter. For thousands of years, humans have been cutting down the great temperate and tropical forests that once covered much of the earth, resulting not just in the loss of trees, but in the destruction of massive, complex ecosystems.

The effects of deforestation can take years, decades, and even centuries to appear. On ecological timescales, the agriculture we replace them with often proves frightfully short-lived. In so many places, deserts now spread where forests once flourished. The narrow scope of what we value has remade the world. That impoverishment unfolds today in what scientists are calling the sixth mass-extinction event—human activity is eliminating species on a scale that ranks with the previous catastrophic die-offs that punctuate the geological record. We will bequeath this impoverishment to our own children, and to the rest of the species forced to live on the planet we understood too little to share.

We don’t simply learn about the world around us, however, when we study these forests; we also learn the truth that we ourselves are part of a creation that reflects the relational character of the triune God. For this reason, Laudato si’ connects ecological attentiveness to a Trinitarian spirituality:

The divine Persons are subsistent relations, and the world, created according to the divine model, is a web of relationships. This leads us not only to marvel at the manifold connections existing among creatures, but also to discover a key to our own fulfilment.

The beauty of the forest bears the truth of ecological interconnection. This turns out to be a moral truth as well.

The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures. In this way, they make their own that trinitarian dynamism that God imprinted in them when they were created. Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity that flows from the mystery of the Trinity.

We are created amidst communion, for communion with God along with the rest of creation.

David Paul Bayles

Forests and the scientists who study them do more than confirm our religious beliefs about communion. They also challenge us to recognize the ways our individualism runs even deeper than we realize, untouched by our professions of faith. We really prefer to ignore the interconnection between decay and life and what this tells us about our connections with others. While we may thrill at the networked community facilitated by the hyphae of “good” mycorrhizal fungi, we shudder at the penetrating tendrils of the fungi of rot. Yet the towering bodies of giant trees are composed of the bodies of countless dead, decayed ancestral generations. As are we.

“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The Ash Wednesday admonition is a reference to Genesis in which God fashions Adam from “dust” or “clay.” We generally read this as an expression of our nothingness without God’s animating Spirit. Yet some Scripture scholars argue the Hebrew here can and should be rendered soil. Indeed, Adam’s very name is a play on the Hebrew word for soil. As the whole arc of the Eden story presumes, God creates and places us within a system of relationships. Our refusal harms them all: “Cursed is the soil because of you.” What if we prayed the more biblically accurate: “Remember you are soil, and to soil you shall return”? Our bodies are not our own, separate from relationships human and natural, but part of cycles that require we give back what we take, even our flesh. “Take…this is my body” resonates in places we seldom imagine. Our refusal is institutionalized in our modern death ritual of shutting “our” bodies off from the rest of creation in metal and concrete boxes, where indeed, rather than return to the soil, they decay to dust.

The final lesson is perhaps the most challenging. Here we learn how very difficult it is to be attentive. On a moral level, we must struggle with the objectifying gaze of what Francis calls the “technocratic paradigm,” that sees the rest of creation as a “mere object subjugated to arbitrary human domination.” The Synod of the Amazon’s proposed definition of “ecological sin” focuses precisely on ignoring and transgressing the “interdependence...and networks of solidarity among creatures.” From the very few remaining fragments of old-growth forests, one need not look far to find clear-cuts and monoculture tree plantations which manifest the devastation that such a sinful view of creation produces.

But our moral blindness arises from our finitude as much as our sin. Creation is an astoundingly complex web of relationships. Most of these are not easily perceived by the ordinary range of human perception. To play on but one of our limited senses, if the forest is a symphony, its harmonies and dissonances include notes far higher and lower than we can easily imagine, let alone hear: from the atomic vibrations of photosynthesis to bass notes sounding in the millennial rise and fall of trees. Scientists turn to chemistry, DNA analysis, and electron microscopes to study dimensions of the life of the forest far beyond the range of our natural perception. The difficulties of this scientific work alert us to just how much we miss.

The interplay of knowledge, imagination, and grace lets us encounter the astounding complexity of forests more fully. Out of this interplay comes moments when awareness flickers; each plant, rock, and decaying leaf reverberates in its manifold interconnections. Green deepens into the viriditas that Hildegard von Bingen named the Spirit’s work in creation and we catch a glimmer of the harmony that surrounds us. Full comprehension escapes us, as both complexity and grace are beyond our ken. But the more knowledge we have of particulars, the more our understanding of complexity grows; and with this, awareness of evermore dimensions that we do not comprehend.

We need to incorporate such awareness of our limited perception into our everyday moral imagination. We act powerfully in the world, seldom knowing the full consequences of our actions. We have been doing so for millennia. The disappearance of large animals from ecosystems has been the hallmark of human activity since the Pleistocene. Humans are the great disrupters: hunting animals too large for any animal predator and reworking entire landscapes with agriculture. Such ignorance is fundamental to the global market system, which works precisely by reducing the complexities of the ecological, social, and cultural costs of production to a price signal.

Our disruptions have now reached the planetary scale. Our future, and the future of the countless species along for the ride with us, depends upon our cultivating a sense of our ignorance and a corresponding hesitance to act in haste. Will we keep our eyes closed in indifference or open them to the astounding complexity of creation and learn anew how to respond in love?

David Paul Bayles
Issue: 

A Harmful Doctrine

Look, it’s 2020, so I’m just going to say it: the Catholic Church is wrong about gay people.

To put a finer point on it: it is my opinion that the magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church, as it applies to homosexuality and same-sex relationships, is mistaken and ought to be revised.

This has been my opinion for a long time, but I’ve been quiet about it, for a couple of reasons. First, who cares what I think? And second, why should I make trouble? The answer to the first question is probably still “nobody.” My position on this matter is not especially consequential. That’s why I can say it. As for the second, I still don’t have much of an appetite for trouble. But avoiding the subject for civility’s sake has begun to feel cowardly.

I don’t think the view that the church is wrong about gay people is a radical opinion. I think a lot of Catholics agree. Some are afraid to say so publicly, because it could make real trouble for them, especially if they are contractually obligated to uphold orthodoxy. What will it cost me, besides a little awkwardness? A few years ago, I was invited by a parish in my hometown to give a talk about Vatican II. I was then uninvited: the bishop told them to find someone else. When I asked for a reason, he expressed vague concern about providing a forum for criticism of the church. It’s funny, because I am seldom more positive about the Catholic Church than I am when speaking about Vatican II. But anyway, since I’m already blacklisted in Scranton, what have I got to lose?

So much for keeping quiet. Here are my reasons for speaking up. It has been my experience that same-sex relationships can be occasions of grace and manifestations of deep, self-sacrificing love, just like opposite-sex relationships can. I have seen how the church’s claims to the contrary can damage children who are developing a sense of their own identities and worth. I have known the wounded adults those children grow up to be, whose grudges against the church strike me as entirely just. And I have seen LGBTQ people so drawn to Christ’s presence in the church that they look past all the dismissals and insults to fight for their place at the Eucharistic table. Their faithfulness inspires and challenges me. Their witness convinces me the church is wrong to condemn them.

The church's condemnation of homosexuality isn't just an error.... It is an obstacle that stops Catholics from speaking clearly about urgent moral crises.

Meanwhile, I have looked to the church for guidance in a time of politics gone haywire. I have waited for the nation’s bishops to respond to the malice and hatred and rank dishonesty that characterize President Donald Trump and his supporters in a way that seems commensurate with the threat—not calmly worded statements of dismay over “rhetoric” and “polarization,” but direct denunciations of the ugliness that streams directly from the White House and the human misery it engenders. But when I read what the bishops as a body have to say about what is at stake, their formal guidance about what a Catholic citizen’s priorities should be, I see language about how Catholics are “called to defend marriage” that clangs like a broken bell. When the U.S. bishops talk about religious liberty, I wait for them to condemn Donald Trump’s constant attacks on Muslims, his enthusiastic support for war crimes committed against them, and his campaign pledge to block them as a whole from entering our country. The bishops conference, however, is focused on preserving the right of Catholic institutions to discriminate against LGBTQ people. Flagrant violations of human rights are somehow less urgent than the threat of same-sex couples marrying or raising children. A stubborn persistence in error that used to seem embarrassing but tolerable—Sigh, the church moves so slowly—now makes me feel like I’m losing my mind. Our government is turning away refugees, jailing migrants, cutting assistance to the poor, denying the threat of climate change, fueling violent white supremacy, and undermining the legitimacy of government itself. For a Catholic to support a party that carries out those policies is preposterous. For bishops to hold back on criticizing that party because of a perceived need to “defend marriage” is grotesque.

As I see it now, the church’s condemnation of homosexuality isn’t just an error that needs fixing. It is an obstacle that stops Catholics, leaders and laity alike, from speaking clearly about urgent moral crises and from being perceived as credible when we do.

There are plenty of Catholics who believe the church is right about homosexuality, and they aren’t afraid to say so. Which is good! Let’s all talk about it, instead of keeping quiet and hoping the subject won’t come up. It is reasonable to worry about what such a public debate would do to the church. But I’m much more afraid of what will become of a church that goes on denying the full humanity of LGBTQ people and spending so much of its energy preserving that denial.

Issue: 

C.S. Lewis: A Mere Catholic?

Speculation about whether C.S. Lewis would have, could have, or should have become Catholic is hardly new territory to explore. But as a relatively new Catholic and lifelong Lewis fan who spent two years in the same Oxford college where Lewis had lived decades earlier, I can’t help briefly treading this well-worn ground. I recently conducted a 24-hour Twitter poll asking “If C.S. Lewis had lived 5 more years, would he have become Catholic?” The result was close. Of a modest 300 responses, 55% said yes and 45% said no. One follower remarked, “5 years, no. 50 years, yes.” Others noted the obstacles often mentioned by Lewis’s biographers, including an incurable allergy to Catholicism contracted from his Belfast upbringing, as well as his devotion to his late wife, an Evangelical divorcée. In any case, at some point it is fruitless to wonder what someone would do; but with a figure…

Albion’s Light

With England at a critical juncture in terms of national identity, the time seems right for a retrospective of William Blake’s artwork. The seminal poet of the Romantic Age famously cautioned against the expansion of the British empire, the Enlightenment, and mass industrialization. But his paintings, prints, and drawings had almost as much to say, and now, as Brexit freshly looms, the Tate Britain is displaying more than three hundred such works in a show billed as the largest exhibit of his art in more than a generation.

William Blake runs at the Tate Britain through February 2, 2020, and it doesn’t disappoint. Indeed, it opens with Blake’s iconic Albion Rose, which depicts a pristine white figure posed after Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. He stands on a rock, arms outstretched, backlit by rays of gold, fiery red, and royal blue. “Albion” is the ancient mythological name for England, and Blake made the painting in 1795, just as the country was expanding its empire to include South Africa, allying with Russia and Austria against the French during their first revolutionary wars, and bread riots were erupting across the nation. The painting speaks to England’s political awakening and as such is an optimistic work, its radiant luminosity hinting at a time beyond the burgeoning crises of modernity and British imperialism.

William Blake, Albion Rose, c. 1793 (Courtesy of the Huntington Art Collections)

Blake was born in Soho, London, to a middle-class family; his father was a hosier. Though he stopped formal schooling at the age of ten, he was intellectually curious and read widely on subjects that interested him. His favorite poets included Edmund Spenser and John Milton, and he was strongly influenced by the Bible, though he was hostile to most organized religion. At fifteen, Blake began an apprenticeship to a local engraver, and seven years later enrolled at the Royal Academy. He was pessimistic about the Academy and the contemporary art world in general, though he felt a certain kinship with the medieval past. While oil painting and the pursuit of “general beauty” (often depicted through landscapes) were fashionable at the time, Blake despised these modes and felt that narrative particularity, especially through history painting, was far more effective. While younger artists like J.M.W. Turner and John Constable were acclaimed for airy, naturalized paintings of the environment meant to grapple with man’s smallness in a precarious, modernizing world, Blake tried to make sense of the present via medieval wisdom and mythology.

After Albion Rose, the show unfolds mainly chronologically. Prints, books, and paintings are on view through five rooms, each of which introduces viewers to a different aspect of Blake: his earliest artistic formations, his foray into printmaking, the role of patronage in his artistic production, his temperamentality and despair, and the productive period at the end of his life. Throughout, Blake’s political inclinations are apparent. Suspicious of empire, he was inspired by the American and French revolutions, viewing the former prophetically, as an aperture into revolutions to come. He devised a complex personal mythology through which Albion, a primeval man, falls and is divided into four embattled factions, or Zoas: instinct, reason, love, and the imagination. This conflict is expressed in several of his epic poems, which were often richly illustrated. Take a print of Milton: A Poem, in which Milton sets off on an “immortal journey” to rescue Albion by the power of the imagination. The language is vivid, alarmist, at times even bizarre, interwoven with narrative details from Blake’s own life. It’s illustrated with exaggerated, heroic renderings of the male form—often, Blake turned to archaic renderings of the classical male nude for contemporary social critique. Contorted forms in dark jewel tones are met with Blake’s evocative depictions of the material world, which he regarded with anxious reverence as “nature’s cruel holiness.”

Many dismissed Blake at the time, questioning his mental health. Indeed, Blake suffered an intense spiritual loneliness for much of his life, and this is palpably reflected in a number of works, including plates from the The Book of Urizen (Urizen represents reason and a cruel God). These haunting images feature a ghostly, haggard figure often crouched or writhing in anguish alongside luminous red spheres. In one, Urizen, in the blackness of night, pushes against the boundaries of the image while lugging a shining, blood-red orb. Scrawled beneath the image are two lines: “Fearless tho’ in pain / I travel on.”

William Blake, Europe, Plate i: Frontispiece, The Ancient of Days, 1827 (The Whitworth, The University of Manchester)

Yet as grim as this seems, Blake is emphasizing the ephemerality of suffering and the promise of a life to come. Though deeply engaged with pain, he was not consumed by it. There is even a sense of innocence detectable, most notably in a series of children’s books he created. An astonishing breadth of these works fills an entire room, where viewers are encouraged to proceed leisurely: you can lean on white blocks to closely examine the tender rhymes and their accompanying visuals, usually delicate prints of children in nature. Plates from Songs of Innocence and Experience—a work Blake was only able to sell fewer than thirty copies of during his lifetime— is one of the most endearing. It’s divided into two parts, the first taking up Biblical themes and events of Christ’s life, and the second, notions of freedom from the inevitable suffering of this world.

In 1809, at the age of fifty-one, Blake planned a show he hoped would be a grand retrospective of his career. “In this Exhibition,” he promised in a promotional flyer, “will be seen real Art, as it was left us by Raphael and Albert Durer, Michael Angelo, and Julio Romano; stripped from the Ignorances of Rubens and Rembrandt, Titian and Correggio.” The show was held on the second floor of a home above a hosiery shop operated by his brother, and this physical space is recreated in the Tate, with bannisters and wooden floors evoking Blake’s family home. But the retrospective was hardly the tour de force Blake anticipated. Few of his friends showed up, and the single review dismissed him as “an unfortunate lunatic.”

William Blake, Newton, c. 1805 (Tate)

Blake viewed the 1809 exhibition as a great betrayal by those around him, and it marked a turning point in his career. He exhibited for the last time in 1812 before withdrawing from public life for several years. But following a period of isolation and contemplation, Blake had a rebirth of sorts. His last decade was remarkably fruitful, marked by renewed friendships and creativity. And the final room features many of these works, including commissioned illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost. These works, with their ethereal, cool metallic shades, reveal the extent of his artistic evolution. They possess a quiet self-containment and a sense of peaceful resolve not evident in his restless earlier works. The Creation of Eve stands out: a powerful God draped in billowing garments ordains Eve from Adam’s gently sleeping body. Eve emerges with her arms folded in prayer, gazing towards Heaven under a moonlit sky.

Blake never lost hope in the power of the individual to make a difference in times of uncertainty.

Blake wished for his art to be displayed in large-scale form, and in honor of his 262nd birthday on November 28, 2019, the Tate projected Ancient of Days onto the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The show ends with this painting, which Blake considered his finest. The title is a name for God in the book of Daniel, and the work was inspired by a vision Blake had of a human being standing in heaven whom he calls Urizen. Urizen has a gray beard and is tautly muscled; he reaches into the universe from an enclave of warm yellow and red light, gripping  in his outstretched arm a golden compass, as if drawing or measuring the divine order of creation. This depiction of reason married to the supernatural might represent Blake’s reconciliation with the world’s mysterious ways, his finding of peace in its divine ordination.

Even so, the show’s curation takes care to underscore his work’s ongoing dialogue with contemporary politics. Blake wrote in connection to a particular watercolor of angels hovering over Christ’s body: “The times require that every one should speak out boldly; England expects that every man should do his duty, in Arts, as well as in Arms, or in the Senate.” A vibrant interior life, and peace with oneself, as Blake foresaw, is essential to making sense of a society rife with division and conquest. Blake never lost hope in the power of the individual to make a difference in times of uncertainty. In the words of St. Augustine of Hippo, “Bad times! Troublesome times! This men are saying. Let our lives be good; and the times are good. We make our times; such as we are, such are the times.”

The Warning of Herod and the Feast of the Holy Innocents

Shadows lurked beneath the light of the star of Bethlehem.

Days of Silent Stillness: Like Chesterton, You Are Allowed Two

Silent night . . . holy night . . . The Nativity of Christ is frequently presented to us as a silent thing, and even I’ve referred to it as such. In some long-ago piece I describe it being “as if God had put his hand over the wails and sobs of a suffering world and said, ‘Sshh, it will be alright . . .’” But of course, Christ’s coming was no silent affair. Between the bells of the shepherds and the angelic songs of the heralds, between the braying animals and the crackle of the veil being rent, all around, how could it be? The night was certainly holy . . . but it likely wasn’t silent. Silence, of which we sing so wistfully at Midnight Mass, is at an all-time premium at Christmas; it is so difficult to find a quiet night, let alone sit within one and…