Now what?

David and I have been back in Madison for a couple of weeks now. It has been strange, to say the least, after five weeks away. We find we still tend to see Impressionist paintings in the landscapes and sky, and we still crave goat cheese often. But now that the unpacking, the laundry, the catching up on mail/email, and the formal collating of (over 300!) photographs is finished, what’s next?

It took almost two weeks for me to work up the courage to begin the next steps in my creative journey. After being exposed to intense beauty non-stop, I knew it was time to begin the process of creating something beautiful myself, but I was paralyzed by the idea, afraid to do anything for fear that it wouldn’t be good enough. It’s not that I worried about anyone else’s judgment; it’s that I am fully aware of my own limitations. I’m not skilled enough to outwardly express the loveliness I see. My inner critic needed to go lie down and take a nap before I could take the next step.

After I tucked her in, I worked up the courage last week to began taking classes twice a week from local art glass/mosaic artist Don Spencer. He specializes in creating painting-like mosaics. Rather than using uniform square blocks of tile to create a mosaic, Don forms images using small, irregular fragments of glass to resemble paint brush strokes. (You should check out his website: donspencerartglass.com). His style is a perfect match for an homage to Van Gogh.

My companion on this leg of my journey is Van Gogh’s “Starry Night Over the Rhone” (not, I hasten to say, the famous “Starry Night” painting you are thinking of, though certainly there are similarities). This one is less swirly, but is also a striking visual statement in blues and golden yellows.

Now that I’ve begun the process, it’s not really that scary. It helps that every day I have to focus on small things, rather than taking on the enormous masterpiece as a whole. Most of my first day was spent choosing various colors of yellow glass and cutting the pieces up into little tiny bits without wounding myself. I encourage all of you who are stymied in the creative process to do something equally tiny to get started. Nothing is as scary as the blank page. Find your equivalent of cutting glass into itty-bitty bits and see if it doesn’t make you braver!

When we were in Arles, David and I stood at the very spot on the bank of Rhone River where Vincent would have painted this scene in 1888. Because we were there mid-day, not at night, we didn’t see this exact view. Unfortunately, instead of little sail boats on the riverbank, a giant barge was parked right there, blocking most of our sightline, so we didn’t take a photo. Still, it was something to recall that by this point in his life, the townspeople of Arles were already worried about the unconventional artist in their midst who set up his canvases and worked outside in the dark.

Not too long after this painting was completed, the people of Arles signed a petition to have Van Gogh removed from their town permanently, and Vincent checked himself into a mental hospital in nearby San Remy. When I consider what obstacles Vincent faced in order to express himself artistically, I’m humbled. What am I risking by following my muse? Nothing like being ostracized from my community, that’s for sure. What do I have to lose except a bit of blood and some pride, here and there?  Is it worth some attempts and failures if my burning desire is to communicate non-verbally that “The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1:5)?

Yes, oh yes.

iCanvas 'Starry Night over the Rhone, 1888 ' by Vincent van Gogh Canvas Print

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Noisy Joy

Much to David’s dismay, there aren’t many rock and roll radio stations in Provence. We’ve found that, since neither of us is much into electronica, the soundtrack of our summer has mostly consisted of jazz and classical stations, which somehow match the soothing, sunny landscape. On the other hand, there is a music that fills the air everywhere, whether we are in the car, at the pool, in a cafe, or anywhere else. It is a natural and omnipresent orchestra. You see the performers’ likenesses on everything–pottery, tea towels, soap, and jewelry. In real life they are quite hideous (think giant fly, about the size of your thumb). Nonetheless, the sound of cicadas (here in Provence “cigales”) has come to be the song of the summer for me.

The sound is created by the contracting and releasing of their abdominal muscles, making certain membranes vibrate. The noise (made only by the males, in a desperate attempt to attract the females) is amplified by the abdomen, filling the air with a weird rasping, scraping, buzzing noise. I understand that the males are frantic to seduce the females into creating a family as quickly as possible. It is a pressing matter. Baby cigales may live underground for three to six years before emerging topside; once above ground, they live only two short weeks. 

(Thanks, Peter Mayle, for all your amusing, insightful writings about Provence, especially the informative bit about cigales in “Provence” A to Z” I’ve regurgitated here).

I’ve included a little YouTube video David made: turn up the volume to hear the concert! 

If we knew for sure we only had two weeks to live, what would we do? Would we try to find all the people to whom we owe apologies or explanations? Disclose a secret? Would we go on a trip around the world? Write a book? Learn ballroom dancing? Skydive? What? 

We could do worse, I’m sure, than sing love songs at the top of our lungs (or membranes or whatever).  The cigale goes out on a high note (literally), proclaiming with all that he is and all that he has, the wonder of being alive.

Let’s pretend, just for today, that all we have left of life is two weeks. And let’s sing our songs of love. 

Plan C, D, and E

One of the reasons my sabbatical team and I agreed on the title “Journey to a New Beginning” for this experience was because we could all describe times in our lives when the original plan didn’t work out, when what looked promising came crashing down around us and paths we trusted resulted in a dead end.  We unanimously agreed there is no more Christian theme than that of resurrection, the ultimate journey to a new beginning.


I’ve seen many echoes of this theme on my sojourn abroad so far, but none more striking than at the Rouen Cathedral (yes, the one Monet painted over and over, at all times of day, playing with light and color).

This cathedral was consecrated in 1063, though some kind of church was present here as early as the late 4th century. It was smashed by Vikings in the 9th century, burned to the ground in 1200, and damaged by a hurricane in 1683. It was struck by lightening in 1284, 1625, and 1642. The spire blew off in 1353; the choir section burned in 1727; the bell broke in 1786. In one section stained glass windows from the 1200s were partially destroyed, so new ones in a different style were layered above in the 1500s.
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Various parts of this cathedral were added, rebuilt, and re-shaped as technology, styles, needs, and the circumstances of the worshipping community changed. Over and over, it looked like the end for this house of worship, and over and over there was a rebirth, a recreation, a journey to a new beginning.

Most recently, the cathedral was damaged by the bombings of World War II. A series of photos depicting the damage and restoration is on display in the back of the sanctuary.

I found this exhibit incredibly moving, as it demonstrated again and again how broken pieces can be refitted to make a whole–not the same whole piece it was before, but something new and lovely, made from the wreckage of the past.

No one person journeys alone; it is always a collaborative effort. This is why I believe in “church”; it’s why I’m both spiritual and religious. Because we need each other when the rebuilding process is hard.


I offer these images as an opportunity for our reflection on how God keeps making a new beginning out of what seems like an ending. Feel like the church as we’ve known it is fading away? Hang on. Worried that your whole identity is in shambles, that your future cannot be anything like what you’d hoped and dreamed and planned? Have no fear. Those contractions you are feeling may be simply God the Creator preparing the birth canal for your next journey to a new beginning.

Dear God, renew the face of the earth, the face of our lives, the Rouen Cathedrals of the universe with your creativity and compassion. Amen.

God is in

Last Sunday I worshipped at the American Church in Paris. It’s been providing an ecumenical English-language community of faith here since 1814. I went, looking forward to someone else preaching for a change, but with few other expectations. 

To my infinite delight, the sermon by Associate Pastor Tim Vance was great: a meditation on dough, using Gen. 18:1-12 and Matt. 13:33 as his texts. What yeast does to dough is provide little pockets of air–little empty spaces. The inside of a good baguette, this smart preacher pointed out, is full of holes. His point was that God is not just in church, or in prayer, but everywhere, in everything! God is in the open air, in the twirling of his daughter, in the laughter of friends. God is in all of space, even when all we see is empty air. 

His point was reinforced by the special musical guests that day, an all-male a capella choir from the Philippines called Aleron. They sang a number of pieces during worship. My favorites–in addition to John Rutter’s heart-stopping version of “Prayer of St. Francis”–were by a composer whose name I didn’t recognize: Arvo Part. One was a version of the Nunc Dimittis and one was called “The Deer’s Cry” but had lyrics reminiscent of St. Patrick’s Breastplate: “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,” etc. Soaring voices, ascending and swirling in a stone building with vaulted ceiling…the kingdom of heaven came near. God was surely present in those sounds, though invisibly so.

Who knew I’d come all the way to Paris to be so moved by a choir from the land of my birth? Perhaps it was well-described by the final verse of a hymn we sang in honor of Father’s Day.

(To the tune of “The Church’s One Foundation”)

“You hold your children’s future when all will be made new.

Your House has many dwellings so we may live with you.

Just like a loving father, you answer when we pray.

In thanks may we your children now follow you each day.”

Qu’elle surprise!

Yesterday we visited the Rodin Museum, a lovely mansion and garden filled with the sculptures of this brilliant creator. Though I cannot deny his ability to render the human form in clay, bronze, marble, and other materials, I didn’t really enjoy the experience. Maybe it was because it was hot and my feet hurt. Maybe it was because this amazing artist was also a misogynistic pig in his personal life. The art was beautiful, but I was largely unmoved. It happens sometimes: a person, place, or experience just doesn’t impact us as powerfully as we expect.

The good news, however, is that the reverse also happens. Perhaps one of the great joys of traveling (and of life in general, for that matter) is when a person, place, or experience of which we have low expectations profoundly moves us.

I’ve been “surprised by joy” (as C.S. Lewis put it) a number of times in the past two days. Saturday David and I visited the Cluny Museum.  Its specialty is the Middle Ages. It was on our list of places to see, but it wasn’t a “holy grail” stop for me, like the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam or the Musee D’Orsay here in Paris. Nonetheless, when I was surrounded on all sides by the six giant wool and silk woven panels known as The Lady and the Unicorn Tapesetries I was so overwhelmed with beauty I literally had to sit down. 

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The weaver of these tapestries is unknown, and many of the symbols are obscure as well. It’s clear that five of the panels represent the senses. The sixth panel (introduction? conclusion? intimation of a sixth sense?) is called “A Mon Seul Desir” (“To My Sole Desire”).  All of the tapestries are enormous. What drew me in was the intricacies of the needlework–the shades that made folds in the Lady’s dresses, or depicted a pansy in almost life-like detail. Tiny rabbits and monkeys dot the backgrounds, with loving attention to their eyes and hair. The colors are somewhat faded (because these panels are, you know, 600 years old!), but still vibrant enough, displaying stunning harmonious design and attention to detail.

I don’t know exactly what it all meant, but I know I left feeling, for lack of a more accurate description, clobbered by beauty, by color, by imagination, by skill, by line and shape and ability to draw me in (pun intended). 

Emily Dickinson once said, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I had that sensation about these visual poems. And I never saw it coming.

Yesterday I attended worship at the American Church in Paris,  and today visited Sacre Couer in Montmartre. Both moved me to tears.  Those moments of being surprised by joy will be covered in my next post….

Rembrandt sets the tone

It rained nearly every morning we were in Amsterdam. That was not a big deal when most of our day’s plans involved museums. That was the case on Friday.

David and I and our friend Dan Witkowski (also in Amsterdam briefly on HIS sabbatical) set out to view the Rembrandts and Vermeers and other old masters at the gorgeous Rijks Museum. We started out first thing in the morning, as the rain poured down. After our usual routine of getting on and off the wrong tram, we got there about 10 am. We began in front of Rembrandt’s giant “Night Watch,” appreciating how the artist placed his wife and himself in the painting, and examining the almost perfectly repaired canvas where a deranged person slashed at it in he early 1970’s. Because we all move at different paces, we agreed to meet back at the cafe at noon.

My next stop was in front of another Rembrandt: “The Jewish Bride.” It was of this painting that Van Gogh once said, “I should be happy to give 10 years of my life if I could go on sitting here in front of this picture for two weeks, with only a crust of dry bread for food.” It’s not hard to see how this painting inspired Van Gogh. The yellow paint on the groom’s sleeve is such a thick impasto it’s practically 3D. Plus, it is a Dutch interpretation of the Biblical Isaac and Rebeka, where the identities of the models matter less  than the story they tell.

This made me think about who has inspired me on my journey, whose creativity has sparked my own. The first person who comes to mind is my mother. She has a great flair for color, style, and harmonious arrangements. When I was a child, she took painting classes, learned Philippine traditional dances and how to play the guitar, and sewed most of my clothes. Our homes were always decorated with care and beauty. She modeled an appreciation for art in all its forms. If I am Van Gogh, she is my Rembrandt.

Who has lit a fire in you?

Art Mural Questionnaire

Sabbatical QAWhile Pastor Sue is away on her summer sabbatical, the Trinity congregation will also be exploring the connections between art and faith in preparation for a community art project this fall.

Part of the sabbatical grant the congregation received includes funding for this art project, which will be a four-paneled mural on the exterior wall facing our parking lot. The title of this mural will be Journey to a New Beginning. But what does that look like? That’s what we have to explore!

We are working with Dane Arts Mural Arts (DAMA), to create the design for this mural, which will reflect who we are, who we believe God is, and what we want to express to and with this neighborhood about journeying to new beginnings.

If you haven’t already received a questionnaire, you can download it here (MS Word file). Please answer the questions as completely as you can (feel free to use extra sheets of paper if you need to!) to help DAMA understand who we are and what our congregation would like to see in our mural. Return your completed questionnaire to the church office no later than June 20.

We will also be seeking input from our neighborhood about what they imagine a journey to a new beginning looks like.

The Potato Eaters

Considered Van Gogh’s earliest masterpiece (he was just 27 years old!), “The Potato Eaters” emerged from his experiences as a missionary among the miners in the Borinage region of Belgium. Though he studied for the ministry, he was not approved to become a pastor in the Dutch Reform Church. Nonetheless, Van Gogh set out on his own to live among the mining families in this desolate place. It was here he began to draw (using coal from the mines, of course).

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Van Gogh moved several times when he was in this region, because he was increasingly ashamed of how well he was living when the people he was serving lived in such squalor. It is clear he recognized the deep humanity of his flock by the dignity with which he paints them.

The central figure to the right of the lamp is trying to share with the woman on the far right, who seems not to notice. She appears to be pouring tea for the person (child?) next to her. The woman on the left side of the lamp appears to be trying to catch the eye of the man to her left. All of them appear not to notice the others trying to connect with them. How often do we do this? None of the figures depicted in this painting are exactly what we would call “beautiful,” but their humanity is evident. That quality evokes sympathy in me, a desire to comfort them, and a wish that they would acknowledge and comfort each other.

The painting is not vividly colored, as most of Van Gogh’s later paintings are. It’s muted, which only highlights the gold of the potatoes. Fitting, I suppose, as  they would be an edible reward for a day’s labors. The meal and the lamp are central–drawing all the people together. In that way, this tableau resembles a Eucharist. Everyone comes to the table with their individual concerns and gathers for sustenance in the Light. How tragic that even there, we don’t always see one another’s beauty.

It is also sad to me to think that the artist is outside of this circle, looking on. I want to think that there is another chair, another cup of tea being poured, that he will be invited to join the group.

Around the time he was working on this painting, Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, “Try to understand the last word of what the the great artists, the serious masters, say in their masterpieces; there will be God in it. Someone has written or said it in a book, someone in a painting.”

Do you see God in this painting?

 

The Journey Begins

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”  

                                                                            ―  Thomas Merton, “No Man Is an Island”
A rainbow. A star. A dove. Tongues of fire. Though Christian churches sometimes  get tangled up in words, God is no stranger to communicating non-verbally. Made  in the image of God, all people are born to create. When we engage collectively  in making beauty, the membrane between our Creator and us becomes so thin  as to be permeable, and the divisions we imagine between ourselves and other  human beings become insignificant in the context of the literal “big picture.” 

That paragraph was the opening paragraph in my application for a grant from the Lilly Foundation for this sabbatical. I believe it with all my heart. It is what inspired the whole idea for this adventure we are beginning.

David and I leave on June 6 for Amsterdam, where we begin our path following in the  footsteps of Vincent Van Gogh, my favorite artist. People often ask me why I chose a man who struggled with mental illness, ultimately committing suicide, as the inspiration for exploring the intersections of art and faith. In addition to loving the colors and textures and deep symbolism of his work, I appreciate his yearning to understand and to be understood.

It’s no accident, I feel, that his art blossomed when he failed in his attempts to become a missionary. He was seeking a gracious God and a gracious community where he could feel he belonged and could contribute. I honor the ways he tried to beat back his demons again and again by creating beauty. I think that’s brave.

I understand him in many ways. I, too, have wrestled with depression, and I thank God we now have medication for such illnesses! I, too, have wondered if there was a gracious God or a gracious community where I would feel I belonged. Fortunately, I have found both in the Body of Christ. I would like to share that sense of belonging, of total acceptance of me “just as I am” with others–particularly with those who have felt alienated from church and Christianity.

Sometimes church-y words and images are obstacles for people who have had difficult encounters with religious communities or been taught that God is a cruel judge who will always find them wanting. With or without mental illness, there are people who feel excluded and alone. How can these modern-day Van Goghs find a place of refuge and welcome in our faith communities? How can they come to know the love of Jesus when they have not found churches to be havens of grace and hospitality?

For a person who spends so much of her time with words (and church-y words, at that), I am hoping that this sabbatical, which focuses on color and texture, on line and shape, rather than on language, will open my eyes and my heart and my mind to completely new ways of responding to those questions.

Let the journey begin!