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Church as Holy Cave

Participating in Mystery in the world's dark and quiet places
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Gregory Wolfe, editor of  the arts and faith quarterly Image Journal, has just published The Operation of Grace, a new collection of his essays on, well, art and faith. The first one is called “The Cave and the Cathedral,” and in it, Wolfe reflects on the 30,000-year-old Chauvet cave paintings discovered in France, and what they tell us about the nature of humanity. Excerpts:

The heart of our humanness is not merely the capacity for adaptation but the ability to perceive and make meaning, to experience the world as an altar upon which the divine enters flesh. From the proverbial dawn of time we have felt the need to withdraw from the bright glare of sunlight and enter into a dark space where we can re-imagine the world, drawing it on cave walls and embedding it in stained glass, where it can be contemplated by torchlight and candlelight. To truly encounter what is to be found in Chauvet, even vicariously through film and photographs, is to suddenly realize that words like art and religion are clumsy, ham-fisted abstractions that violate something whole and ultimately inviolable. It also tends to make the word primitive, with all the connotations that have grown up around it over the centuries, seem almost laughable, if not obscene.

… What’s at stake here is nothing less than the nature of consciousness itself. Owen Barfield, one of the most incisive thinkers on this subject, once said: “Before the scientific revolution the world was more like a garment men wore about them than a stage on which they moved.”

I smiled at that line, because that is the world of Dante’s Commedia, and that is the world of Vodolazkin’s Laurus — and that is the world of Orthodox Christianity. Barfield, Wolfe goes on to say, called the primal, unselfconscious unity early humans experienced with nature “original participation.” More:

In his book Saving the Appearances Barfield notes that Greek philosophy and the religion of Israel profoundly changed the dimensions of participation. Both of these cultures pulled back from mythic consciousness, one through reason and the other through monotheism. For example, while the golden calf could be said to represent original participation, the Israelites felt they had to reject it. But this only changed the shape of participation: for them the discovery that God is not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire meant that he must be perceived as the mystery behind all of creation—that the mystery in some sense was more truly like each one of them, singular and personal.

Barfield holds that this new phase, far from eliminating participation, made it more inward. The synthesis of Greek reason and Hebrew monotheism in the Christian era (both stressing the need for human participation in a divine order through prayer and contemplation) continued through the Middle Ages. But with the scientific revolution, man separated himself from nature and embraced an abstract way of thinking. The modern West, Barfield says, exchanged meaning for literalism, turning the things of this world from signs into idols. Creation became a series of objects which operated like a machine. He illustrates this by imagining a clever child who is put inside an automobile. If he plays around with the instruments long enough he will be able to drive the car, but he will have only “dashboard-knowledge,” not true knowledge of the car.

This could be taken as nothing more than a narrative of decline, but Barfield believes that even as modern, self-conscious individuals we can still experience what he calls “final participation.” Ironically, this is where those clumsy abstractions “art” and “religion” return, because for Barfield final participation comes through the creation of metaphor.

Read the whole thing. Better yet, buy the essay collection from which this one comes. 

I read that essay last night after completing the thoroughly depressing task of watching the GOP presidential debate, which was horrible. I know, I know, it’s easy to dismiss these events as horrible, but trust me, this one was. There has to be a better way to choose a president. Two hours of barked talking points and promiscuous stupidity. I thought last night about how, when I was in high school and early on in college in the 1980s, I had so much enthusiasm for politics, and wanted to get into the game doing political communications. Having seen last night’s display, I found it hard to imagine young people as I was back then, watching that debate spectacle and concluding that national politics is a meaningful and exciting vocation that they can’t wait to take up.

Were things just as moronic and dispiriting back then, only I didn’t see it? Or have things gotten objectively worse?

Reading the “Cave and the Cathedral” essay, from The Operation of Grace, righted and restored me. It reminded me of the things that matter, and the questions that count. Who are we? Where are we going? Where have we been? What is beyond us? Can we know it? Is it a person, and if so, does that person love us? What does He want from us?

Glimpsed from the imaginative perspective of the Chauvet caves, the event onstage in Vegas last night was the barest flicker, like a fragment of tissue paper glowing brightly for a half-second before rising as ash up the chimney. There was a time in my life — the early 1990s — when I lived on Capitol Hill, and worked as a Washington journalist. It was something I had been dreaming about doing for years. Walking by the Capitol building and the Supreme Court most every day, I felt immense gratitude for the opportunity to live at what I considered to be the center of the world.

There I sat in my East Capitol Street apartment, six blocks from the Capitol, watching the first Clinton inauguration on TV (I was a TV critic then, and was working), and seeing the now former President George H.W. Bush leave the building, get into a Marine chopper, lift off and head into his future. As I saw the televised images of the helicopter rising, I leapt off the futon couch, ran to the window, and turned the adjacent TV a bit to the left so I could see the screen while sitting in the window frame. I opened the window and poked my head out into the bracing January chill, and saw that chopper lift itself over the trees. I toggled anxiously between the real image and its televised version, and felt a rush of exultation that there I was, participating in this historical event, because I was blessed to live in Washington.

It was a very Walker Percy moment. Had I been on the street below watching the Bush chopper, I wouldn’t have felt that excitement. Nor would I have felt it had I only seen the event on live television. It took the Percian concept of the “certification” of reality by its broadcast on live national television to turn the moment into a kind of sacrament for me.

The recollection of that episode, and that time in my life, makes me laugh, not because I look down on the work that I did then, and that people in Washington continue to do. I laugh at the enthusiasm of my younger self, and the sense of reverence and meaning I had for my life in Washington. I realize now that it really wasn’t politics that interested me, but media, and the way media packaged the business of politics and made it seem far grander and more glorious than it really was. I suppose you could say of me in those days that Washington was more like a garment I wore around myself than a stage on which I was a bit player. Living in Washington and working in the Washington media made me feel certified too. Television had raised me to think that Washington was the most important place in the world, and now, I participated in it.

Of course disenchantment came, as it was bound to. You can’t be starry-eyed forever, about anything. In Washington, even if you learn to love it there, you love it like you love a game, not like you love a church. Mystery dries up. It’s just sausage-making.

Hey, you’ve got to have sausage! Sausage-making is important. Then again, all of life eventually strikes us as sausage-making. W.H. Auden has a very fine poem about the disenchantment of the world with the passage of time, “As I Walked Out One Evening.”  We come to see the ordered beauty of the world as a façade for chaos and ugliness, its truth a cover for lies. This can be true of the man disenchanted with institutional politics, disenchanted with institutional religion, disenchanted with the academy, and so forth.

But here, says Auden, is how you recover:

‘O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.’

You must face your own poverty, and recognize that you are not all that is. There is a mystery far greater than yourself, and you can participate in it, if you will consent. Turn from the mirror — that is, from egoism — and look out the window at the broken old world, and submit to the mystery. You shall love it in spite of its brokenness, because you too participate in its brokenness. All the corruption in the world does not extinguish the mystery. And that mystery is love. That is how we know the mystery, and participate in it.

I finished the Greg Wolfe essay and returned to my re-reading of Laurus, which on this second reading, seems even more mysterious and fable-like. The words themselves can seem like an incantation, purifying the inner vision, and re-sacralizing the world. I can’t explain it, but it happens to me. It happened to me with the Commedia. God used art and religion to bring me to the place of which Auden wrote, staring without illusion into the mirror, and then turning to the window. The Mystery called to me through art, and through faith, and somehow, this time, I responded. And it made all the difference.

In his interview with me for TAC, Vodolazkin, who is a believing Orthodox Christian, spoke about why he wrote Laurus: “In the Nineties, reality in Russia, and in Russian literature, was filled with a blackness that exhausted me. A few years ago, it occurred to me to write about something good.”

Laurus is the story of an orphaned boy in medieval Russia who grows up to be a healer, and eventually a holy man. He is broken early in his life by a trauma that haunts him for the rest of his days, but he emerges from that brokenness to become a vessel of love and healing for the world. He loves his crooked neighbor, with his crooked heart, and does so in an extraordinary way. Vodolazkin has done one of the most difficult things for a writer to accomplish: to make goodness real, and convincing. Reading Wolfe, then a couple of chapters of Laurus, made the unpleasant two hours I had spent watching the Republican candidates fade away.

As I drifted off to sleep, I thought about the cave I enter every week to commune

Our bishop in liturgy
Our bishop in liturgy

with the Mystery: St. John’s, my little Orthodox parish church in Starhill.  It is at its best on Saturday night vespers in the late fall and winter, when it seems most cave-like. You enter a room lit only by candles, and you bow before icons of the holy. The priest, wearing priestly vestments, chants praises to the All-Holy. He censes the room with the fragrance of the sacred. The next morning, you will enter the cave a second time, and after long prayers, the ancient words of the liturgy, composed 1,500 years ago, invite the All-Holy to descend onto the altar, to transform the wine and bread into Himself. The God who cannot be contained, the Source of all that Was, Is, and Ever Shall Be, gives Himself to us through the art of the liturgy, and in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

Nobody sees us. Few people are present. We are poor. Cars pass up and down Highway 61, their drivers indifferent to the mystery manifesting itself behind the row of trees and bushes veiling the temple.

That church, that cave, is the center of the world.

I am grateful to the teaching of Greg Wolfe and to the art of Evgeny Vodolazkin for reminding me of that last night.