little gidding


1:30 in the afternoon, the first of December, the feast day (in the Anglican calendar at any rate) of Nicholas Ferrar, founder of the religious community Little Gidding, inspirer of Eliot,  friend of the sweet George Herbert, poet and priest, A grey day, fog over Ballard early this morning as I stood on the hill outside our house and offered up prayers.  Trees swaddled in mist. 

End of the quarter – many of you will remember such days in December, when you were still in school, at college in particular, the smell of the air, the anticipation of the holidays, the cold, the lights, this rare time of year when we can feel ourselves all together on the verge of a threshold and praying, however unconsciously, that it may not be simply the turning of another year.

It is more  we seek – the more  of sea and sky and mountain, the more  of the stars, of poetry.

I’m sitting at Macrina on Queen Anne nursing a cappuccino and reading T.J. Gorringe’s Earthly Visions:  Theology and the Challenges of Art (Yale UP 2011), caught initially by his discussion of Botticellli’s secular paintings (The Birth of Venus, Primavera) as examples of ‘radiant humanism’ – Karl Barth’s terms for the Christian scriptures, and caught by his (Gorringe’s)  defense of beauty in the context of the cross. ( Is there in fact beauty in the cross?  If so, of what kind?  I think above all of Grenwald and the Isenheim Altar. . . .  a subject for later!).  He quotes Paul Tillich, one of the great protestant theologians of the 20th century, who “recalled the impact of seeing Botticelli’s Madonna and Child with Singing Angels  in Berlin, while on leave from the trenches in the First World War.  ‘In the painting,’ Tillich wrote, ‘ there was Beauty itself . . . . As I stood there, bathed in the beauty its painter had envisaged so long ago, something of the divine source of all things came through to me.  I turned away shaken.’”

Around me residents of Queen Anne Hill – a well- to-do Seattle neighborhood – eat soup and bread.  Cars pass by on McGraw, mostly SUV’s, Subura Outbacks.  I think of Tillich in Berlin fresh from the front lines gazing at the Botticelli, seeing something so close to the nature of prayer that I suspect he was ready to get on his knees before the image.  He had been living inside the Cross, or some hellish parody of it, or probably both since the battlefield too is a place of extremes, a doorway if there ever was one, as my father learned in the front lines of the Battle of the Bulge – and so moving with one reality to another, the slaughter and waste that was the folly and tragedy of the War to the astonishment and grace of Botticelli’s Mary, her bent form, her curves which read as feminine and erotic and yet somehow pure,  “full of this wind-born movement which shivers through the outer world,” as one of his critics says, “and communicates itself to the dancing figures that look as if there were poised for flight” (Nesca Robb, quoted in Gorringe p. 44) –

Imagining the earth borne Tillich fresh from the blood and mud standing before this wind-blown incarnation of the grace of God, shivering through the outer world —  and I look up and hardly recognize the world around me.  Botticelli – even the name conjures a world where wind, spirit, blows through and invites us to bow before it, no matter how bloody it may be.  Paul Tillich!  Who I read so many years ago in and out of grad school, to whom I offer thanks and praise, along with Botticelli and the good man Nicholas Ferrar.