Professor Robin Kirkpatrick

January 19th    

Second Sunday in Epiphany

Today is the second Sunday in Epiphany.  This is the season associated with the Magi, with the bearing of gifts, with light suddenly – and gratuitously – kindled in the depths of darkness, with illumination coming from above and freely given. So it makes excellent sense that the Chaplain should have chosen ‘Art and Eternity’ as theme for the term’s preaching. It is also appropriate that the Chapel today should have the opportunity to see Sue Henderson’s beautiful meditations on the theme of verticality. We look upward seeking light, and find this evening that our eyes are directed up – and down – the surfaces of the Chapel-stone by these strong, subtle and involving textures. And the choir is singing Rameau, whose great concern, I’m told, was with harmonic verticalities. There are psalms, too, that sanction the raising of our gaze;

 I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
    where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
    the Maker of heaven and earth.

All of this elevation is, surely, natural. And King David’s verses may well be taken as the archetype of that great football anthem which asserts that ‘You’ll never walk alone’, provided that, walking through a storm, you ‘keep your head held high’.

For all that, I’m not sure that we shall do full justice to Art or indeed to epiphany or even to eternity if we think in terms only of illumination, inspiration or else of some  rocket-like ascent transcending all our present complexities and perplexities. One of Sue Henderson’s works – not on show here tonight – has the splendid title Falling out of the Abyss   where the paradox of falling to salvation prepares one for important complications. And actually when you next begin to sing ‘You’ll never walk alone’ – no doubt welling up as you do so – you might remember that this show-stopper comes from the musical Carousel, which is set against the swings and roundabouts of a fair ground – and takes as its hero a gambler who, having committed suicide, spends most of the evening wandering up and down from heaven to earth.

So downs as well as ups will be my theme tonight, along with roundabouts and, above, all spirals.  Some justification for this emphasis is offered by the etymology of the word vertical.  This – or so I am told by the theologian who organised this evening’s exhibition – associates verticality with the Latin vertere – ‘to turn’ -  in particular [and in Sanskrit?]  the turning of a human head, the human vertex. Thus we should be ready to discover here, alongside plumb-line geometry, con-vers -ation and even con-vers -ions, the turning of person to person and the turning of persons to truth. This has a particular appeal to someone such as myself who is concerned with verse – since poetic verses are also ‘turnings’ But it also has a bearing on the way we understand both Epiphany and Eternity.

As to Epiphany, one recalls from St Matthew that the Magi, having delivered their gifts, ‘re-turn’ to their homes by a different route. And well they might.  After all, on first arriving, these three wise men had done something pretty stupid. By alerting the power-crazed Herod to the birth of a rival king they had helped to trigger the massacre of the innocents and the flight of the Holy Family, as refugees, into Egypt. One implication is that, until they had seen Christ, the magi, no less than all of us, were caught up, even if unintentionally, in a spiral of destruction. Another implication must be that, in celebrating the epiphanic light, we cannot even now ignore the swirl of surrounding darkness. Despotism, blood lust, innocent refugees – and Syria, the CAR and South Sudan?  We may, as the tonight’s Psalm 40 declares, sing a new song but this is sung in acute awareness of the slimy, vertiginous pit from which we have been drawn – and into which we may quite easily fall back..

As for Eternity, if we suppose that this indicates merely a straight-line destination on, say, some for once-accurate sat-nav, the word can all too easily become a narcotic substitute for reality. We need, I suspect – at least theologically – to abandon ideas of eternal comfort and to speak more fully of Creation. The reality is that we, as creatures, did not create ourselves. The truly epiphanic offering is that we have, somehow, received our lives as a gift and may in faith, expect that, when that token is, at death, redeemed, we should participate ever more fully in the infinite complexities of creation. That thought is as terrifying as it is exhilarating. And metaphors relating to spirals may better capture this – spiralling out of control –  than vertical simplifications. After all, DNA is a double helix. And that, so  I’m told, is Life. Moreover, the word spiral is directly related to breath –  respiration in English; spiro – ‘I breathe’ in Italian.

Now, some of these considerations have already been reflected in the readings appointed for this evening’s service, especially [on the handout] in the wonderful lines from the prophet Isaiah;.

     Before I was born the Lord called me;
  from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.
He made my mouth like a sharpened sword,
    in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me into a polished arrow
    and concealed me in his quiver.
 

These same lines also anticipate much that I shall be saying about the poet Dante, and may serve to illuminate the relationship between art and eternity, or between our human words and the Creative Word of God.  Prophecy and poetry are not, after all, entirely distinct. So the words that God has put in the mouth of Isaiah have, indeed, the straightness of an arrow aerodynamically launched at its target; and they glisten like a well-honed sword. Yet their dangerous brilliance is held in, and enhanced by, the dark cones – or spirals – in which they are contained, the womb of the mother and the quiver of God their Maker. These two cones - or spirals – are the two original sources of life. And arrows fly most surely when rotating through the intervening air. .

            So what about Dante?   If, by some remote chance, you haven’t read him recently, then you’ll know, at least,  that he goes down through Hell, labours up through Purgatory, then zooms ever upwards towards God in Heaven. [There is, by the way, a Radiohead version of this itinerary, as well as a rotten Dan Brown novel.]  But are these vertical locomotions quite enough to explain the relationship between Dante’s art and eternal truth? Not really. So let’s home in on the detail of Paradiso  21.

            In the canto illustrated on the handout – Paradiso Canto 21 – Dante is two thirds of the way on his journey towards the ultimate vision.  This journey is represented as an ascent from one planetary heaven to the next, Dante being guided ever upward by his girl-friend, Beatrice. [I won’t explain why, for fear of annoying any big-bang theorist who happens to be present here this evening.]  And at times Dante does quite explicitly compare his rocket-like ascent to the flight of an arrow. He now arrives at the planet Saturn, where the souls he meets are the souls of the contemplatives and ascetics – monks and hermits – who in their earthly lives have focused their minds entirely on God. Here, too, he sees a golden ladder leading still higher to the hidden summit of Divine reality – and the allusion here is plainly to Jacob’s Ladder, as featured in the Book of Genesis.:

I saw, as gold in which a ray shines through,

a ladder stretching upwards – and so far

my eye-lights could not follow where it led.

I also saw, descending rung by rung,

so many brilliancies that every flare

the sky displays I thought was flowing down.

Compare; jackdaws, by instinct, as the day

first breaks, will flock and stir their wings, as one,

to bring some warmth once more to icy plumes.

Then some will make away and not return,

while others do  go back from where they’d come,

And some will stay and wheel round that same spot.

In just that way these sparks appeared to me,

combining in their scintillating showers

as each one struck upon a certain step.

This, then, is the scene that Botticelli illustrates – in his great sequence of 100 drawings, which follows the Commedia through from start to finish.  And one thing that this drawing gets spectacularly right is the coil of Beatrice’s gesture – maternal yet energetic, her robes spiralling around the upward reach of her dancer’s arm. And all of that takes us back to this evening’s theme. Yet other things are not so Dantean. Above all, Botticelli’s art is possibly a bit too pretty – too predictably concerned with angelic choirs – to do justice to the concentration and actual violence of Dante’s poetry, or even for that matter of the Genesis reading.

            For one thing, in Dante’s own picture,  there are jackdaws – and I’d really like to say more than I’ve time for about jackdaws, chilly and chattering. More importantly, there are, in Dante’s account, no smilingly beatific faces.  In Saturn, for once, even Beatrice doesn’t smile. And the soul that Dante proceeds to speak to – the severe St Peter Damian – is gathered up into a single pyrotechnic light, spinning, spiralling, vigorously around its central hub. In fact, in the next quote this spiralling manifestation of inward of energy is spoken of as a grindstone or millstone. This  – apologies, Botticelli – is  hardly pretty at all. But it does identify and define the rigorous centred con-centration that Dante would have seen displayed, ideally, in the ascetic life. Equally, it suggests that the point of ascetic concentration is to grind out the very essences of existence. A mill-stone spins so as to separate the grain or fruit from unwholesome chaff.  Metaphorically this may also be true of spiritual contemplation. And, by the way, in Genesis, Jacob’s ladder does not descend so as to helicopter him to heaven but rather to bring the announcement that his tribe will spread out to possess the promised land and be fruitful.

           But then Dante’s canto offers a further aid to nutritious concentration. Apart from Dante’s nervy conversation with the rather edgy Peter Damian, absolute silence prevails throughout this episode. Elsewhere in Paradise there is always in the background, as one might expect, the rather soothing muzak of the heavenly spheres. But not on this occasion.

Imagine.  The Robinson choir is famously mellifluous; and you’ve come this evening, quite reasonably,  to hear them sing. But for once they don’t. They just sit there, not even smiling. Wouldn’t this, though, itself be a kind of art – an event, a performance, a John Cage chorale? And wouldn’t that silence spiral into a concentrated attention on another world or, better say,  this world seen anew. The silence might well seem like an eternity. What the hell’s going on? But slowly your eyes might circle around, noticing here the Warden’s raised eyebrow and there the Chaplain’s sharp-eyed re-assurance. You’d hear the rustle of a hanging fabric, the swoosh of real traffic on the road outside. So the initial shock might generate – ‘might’ I say – its own contemplative concentration and even some new understanding of what life is all about. 

Well, it’s something like that which now occurs in Dante’s meeting with Peter Damian. Dante has a question to ask. But significantly he doesn’t receive a very informative answer.  There are, it seems, things that even souls in Heaven can never know. And that in itself tells one something about eternity.  Which is that it won’t, after all, be a kind of celestial Wikipedia. .God as creator is infinite and infinitely exceeds the gigabyte allowance of any creature, be it human, saintly, angelic or even that of Wise Man bearing gifts.  Well, thank heaven for that. For if Heaven is not, after all, to be an ever-lasting pub-quiz-plus-iPhone, then  it is, as Dante’s lines now reveal,  a carousel of inter-communicating energies – the epiphany of creation. .  The next verses on the handout are among the most dense – and tense – that Dante ever wrote:

Nor had I reached the last of all these words

when that light took its centre as a hub,

spinning around itself as grind stones do.

The love within it then replied to me,

‘Divine light drives its point upon me here.

And penetrating that in which I’m wombed,

its virtue, joined with my own powers of sight,

lifts me so high above myself I see

on high that essence where that light is milked. [Paradiso 21:

Divine light – as though it were an arrow -  penetrates the light in which the saint, like every creature, is properly enclosed – or ‘en-wombed’ as Dante’s metaphor has it. And, as light is joined to light in something like an intersecting helix , the eye of the creature is born anew and feeds on the milk – the essential food – of God’s own creative act.

            In the poetry of these lines, there is much that resembles the language of the prophet Isaiah – penetrating verticals but also the circling darkness in which life, both human and divine, is always generated. Nor, in the perspective of Christianity, should it be all that surprising that the metaphors Dante here employs are so markedly physical and even carnal. Christianity is concerned, after all, not with some transcendent demiurge but precisely with an incarnate God, working to sustain and advance all creation.  

So, comforting as eternity might be, we all – the artist included – need to come down to earth.   And this is what Dante now does in a twist – or turn – that denies us all complacency.  In the next lines on the handout  Peter Damian is seen to focus his attention on the corruptions of the contemporary world, as seen particularly in the gross pollution of the monastic cloister.  In life, Peter Damian was a notoriously bad-tempered saint, constantly attacking the greed, pomp and fashion-sense of his fellow cardinals.  Dante, a notoriously bad-tempered poet, here attributes to Peter a characteristically scathing diatribe;

Our modern pastors, though, have put on weight.

They need some propping up on either side,

someone to hoist their backsides up, or lead.

The robes they dress in cloak their steeds as well,

so two beasts go within a single skin.

What patience, God, to bear a sight like that!

A fat horse is mounted by a fatter priest whose robe is so opulent that it covers both of them like a single skin in which two beasts, human and equine, are seen to wriggle out their grotesque co- existence. There is something horribly cartoon-like about this picture – as if it had been conceived by, say, Gerald Scarfe.  But the meaning is precise. The relation here of horse to rider is an exact parody of that inter-communicative relationship of spiral lights that exists between Damian himself and God. And so far from being, productively, a grindstone, the flabby monastic horseman offers only a parody of that clearly delineated existence that all creatures were made to enjoy. As Dante will go on to say, the cowls and tunics of luxurious monks have now become mere sacks of rotting flour.

            And with this the silence of Heaven is at last torn asunder by a thunderous  cry of indignation  from all of the other contemplative saintss;

I saw, as this was said, more little flames,

ascending and revolving, step by step,

more beautiful at every turn they  took.

They came and circled round this soul, then stopped,

and gave a cry so piercing in its sound

that nothing here on earth could equal it.

And, thunderstruck, I did not understand.  [Paradiso 21:

 The swirling chorus here is beautiful but also piercing. The choir may well like to try it. But this is where I draw my own, merely wordy, conclusion about art and eternity –  and spirals, too.  In many respects, the impulse and impact of Dante’s art in this canto -  his angry art –   is more like that of El Greco than of Botticelli.   Here the whirlwind of Christ’s energy, as God’s creative word, is needed to cleanse the verticals of the temple from the corruption that has turned the place into a pit.  So we should allow, I think, that art, like prophecy, can very often be angry in its focus.

But that is not quite where I want to leave it.  For there is another turning here – a turning of conversion, even of conversation.  El Greco in fact painted the Expulsion-episode as many as five or six times. It is as though he returned to the scene time and again in penitential concentration on the actions of God and human delinquency.  And there is a turning also recorded in the conversation between Peter Damian and Dante.  At this point – next on the handout –  Dante is roundly ticked off by Peter for asking silly, abstract questions that only God can answer,  and so now he  restrains himself – con-centrates himself –  to ask only the simplest of questions;

Minds that shine here, on earth give off mere smoke.

So just consider whether those down there

could do what, raised to Heaven, no mind can do.’

His words so cut and limited my thoughts

that I gave up the question, holding back,

to ask him, very humbly, who he was.

            Now simple as this is, it touches an absolutely fundamental feature of Dante’s writing .His poetry may indeed soar upward and glisten epiphanically in the light. But just as frequently his vision dives downwards to grasp the smallest and finest detail of the created universe. This, actually, is where jackdaws would have come into it. These are not offered, in Dante’s poetry, merely as symbols of some saintly reality, they matter in themselves, in the ornithological patterns of their flight, in the textures and temperatures of their feathers, now icy now, warmed by exercise. They participate in creation. And better be a jackdaw than a sack of mouldering flour.  But best of all be someone you can name and talk to, even be the bristling Peter Damian. Throughout the Commedia Dante names names and risks often dangerous, if always vigorous, encounters with historical persons.  And that is perhaps where poetry and creation meet. Yes: it may well be that in Paradise our words will be transformed into magnificent song. And maybe the textures that surround us this evening will catch the light and the furls of wind in Heaven all the more brilliantly. But in either case we shall want, here and now, to go on talking, meeting, engaging, turning each to each and refining all things to as sharp a point as we can.  And that is what art, in all its forms, unendingly, creatively, invites one, here and now, to do. So just turn around.

Second Sunday after Epiphany:  Art and Eternity [?]  January 19th 2014

Psalm 121:  A song of ascents.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
    where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
    the Maker of heaven and earth.

Psalm 40[a]

I waited patiently for the Lord;
    he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
    out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
    and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
    a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord
    and put their trust in him.

Isaiah 49: 1-2

Before I was born the Lord called me;
    from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.

He made my mouth like a sharpened sword,
    in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me into a polished arrow
    and concealed me in his quiver.
 

Dante Paradiso 21  28-42

I saw, as gold in which a ray shines through,

a ladder stretching upwards – and so far

my eye-lights could not follow where it led.

I also saw, descending rung by rung,

so many brilliancies that every flare

the sky displays I thought was flowing down.

Compare; jackdaws, by instinct, as the day

first breaks, will flock and stir their wings, as one,

to bring some warmth once more to icy plumes.

Then some will make away and not return,

while others do  go back from where they’d come,

And some will stay and wheel round that same spot.

In just that way these sparks appeared to me,

combining in their scintillating showers

as each one struck upon a certain step.

Sandro Botticelli from his complete illustrations of the Commedia

Paradiso 21: 79-87

Nor had I reached the last of all these words

when that light took its centre as a hub,

spinning around itself as grind stones do.

The love within it then replied to me,

‘Divine light drives its point upon me here.

And penetrating that in which I’m wombed,

its virtue, joined with my own powers of sight,

lifts me so high above myself I see

on high that essence where that light is milked. 

Paradiso 21: 130-142

Our modern pastors, though, have put on weight.

They need some propping up on either side,

someone to hoist their backsides up, or lead.

The robes they dress in cloak their steeds as well,

so two beasts go within a single skin.

What patience, God, to bear a sight like that!

I saw, as this was said, more little flames,

ascending and revolving, step by step,

more beautiful at every turn they  took.

They came and circled round this soul, then stopped,

and gave a cry so piercing in its sound

that nothing here on earth could equal it.

And, thunderstruck, I did not understand.  

El Greco The Expulsion from the Temple [National Gallery]

Paradiso 21 100-105

‘Minds that shine here, on earth give off mere smoke.

So just consider whether those down there

could do what, raised to Heaven, no mind can do.’

His words so cut and limited my thoughts

that I gave up the question, holding back,

to ask him, very humbly, who he was.

APPENDIX

[Had there been time, a comparison – and contrast – might have been drawn between Dante’s jackdaws and the famously epiphanic falcon of the following poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins]

The Windhover
To Christ Our Lord

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
      dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
      Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
      As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
      Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing. 

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
      Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier! 

      No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
      Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.