The Joshua Tree

I find at a Barnes and Noble on Fifth Avenue a book with the title “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know” and I am right away drawn to this title. It has a subtitle “The fascinating stories behind great works of art, literature, music, and film.” So who wouldn’t want to see what’s there? There are images on the cover: Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” (which happens to be 7 blocks north of this Barnes and Noble, at the Museum of Modern Art), a cathedral, a photograph of Mahalia Jackson, an image of the Tanner painting of the Annunciation, and there in the far left corner, the album cover of “The Joshua Tree” by U2.

Later in the week I find a used copy of that U2 album and I play it on my CD player. It was a huge hit for the band in 1987, when I was much younger than I am now…:), and I remember seeing the band play the Orpheum Theater in Boston in 1983, getting tickets for a group of friends and me for $12 each, being in the balcony on that night, and the sound of a band that was on the rise.

And knowing, also, that there was something spiritual about them, that their soaring sound carried a kind of longing or yearning or searching, and that their song lyrics referred to the band members’ own Christian spirituality. And on “The Joshua Tree” – a song called “Mothers of the Disappeared” which is about the mothers of those who were “disappeared” during the war in El Salvador in the 1980s; a song called “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” with the lyric “I believe in the kingdom come/and all the colors, bleed into one, bleed into one…” It’s that lyric, with that song title, that stays with me: the title of the song is about searching and looking and longing and hoping, and in what? Some kind of kingdom to come, in which all the colors (of what? Humanity, right?) bleed into one – and it’s an achingly beautiful song that expresses hope that, amid everything going on every day in the world, there is a kingdom to come that God will usher in, and we are all still hoping and searching for it.

And so the “75 Masterpieces” book has me looking for more, and what’s there? Bob Dylan, Flannery O’Connor, Emily Dickinson, Rembrandt, Graham Greene, Willa Cather…and more. The world in all its beauty speaks to us.

Cezanne Drawing

An exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and on this day, as the crowds begin to come back in the city, it’s more crowded than I’ve seen it in a long while. This one I’m drawn to, it’s called Cezanne Drawing, and for whatever reason Paul Cezanne has become an artist I want to learn more about – he was a kind of bridge figure between Impressionism and what was to become Cubism and abstraction.

I am in no way a trained art scholar but there is something about Cezanne, the way he could look at a landscape, or a human figure, or a table with apples and pears, and draw these things in a way that makes them look vital and infused with their own kind of internal energy.

And so I enter the crowded gallery, read the signs and descriptions that help orient the viewer, and begin to just look – and maybe that’s the key, it’s all about looking, not for “meaning” or any kind of big picture thing, but only to look and see what’s there.

From the introduction: “Cezanne believed that drawing each afternoon prepared him ‘to see well the following day.’ To consider Cezanne drawing is to recognize his tireless efforts to look, and look again.”

There is a holy kind of beauty in all this: seeing, looking (and looking again!). You could say that the gospels are all about seeing and looking, and seeing and looking all over again, all in the light of God’s kingdom. Artists help us with that. I am grateful to be able to walk the 22 blocks north to MoMA to be reminded of this.

My Octopus Teacher

I hear somewhere about a new documentary about an octopus, and a diver who develops a kind of attachment to the octopus, and one day I have a chance to see this documentary, which is called “My Octopus Teacher.” Interesting, just the title, right? That this diver would be open to being taught something by an octopus – I’m in.

The documentary is set somewhere near Australia, and it’s about a diver who decides to commit to diving every day to “visit” an octopus. The undersea world is fascinating, filled with all kinds of sea creatures swimming and hiding behind things, small fish and bigger sharks, all kinds of life. Octopus, we learn, are extremely intelligent, and we see this throughout the documentary. An octopus can hide from a predator by collecting shells and hiding within all the shells, and this is the way the diver first encounters the octopus.

What is moving in this documentary is the way the diver and the octopus begin to develop a kind of trust between each other. The diver commits to diving every day, and over time the octopus begins to emerge from its hiding place, as if to seek to know somehow this strange diver who appears, and who does not appear to be a threat. Over time, the octopus begins to reach out one of its tentacles, like a gesture of greeting, or of trust, and it’s both strange and beautiful to see this begin to happen, this creature of the deep and this human diver, developing a kind of trust between each other.

The diver, over time, begins to see the octopus as his teacher, as helping him to understand what it means to encounter “the other.” And what, really, could be more “other” than an octopus? We see, throughout this documentary, how this daily encounter with an octopus begins to open him up to the interrelatedness of all things (very Franciscan, I might say!). It’s moving to see this, and it opens our eyes to a natural world that is far more connected, and far more sentient, than perhaps we have imagined. Most definitely worth a look…

Smoothies on the way

A walk up Fifth Avenue with my brother one day, and it’s a lot of blocks from where I live on 31st St. up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 82nd St. But it’s an interesting walk: block after block of all kinds of busyness, people tuned into their earbuds or talking on their phones, shopkeepers sweeping the sidewalk, someone begging for a dollar or a scrap of food while holding up a cardboard sign, the ongoing game of pedestrian vs. automobile at every intersection, the guessing just how many cars will drive through the just-turned red light before the pedestrians once again claim their spot in the intersection.

It’s a long walk, a sensory-overload walk, and when Fifth Avenue arrives at Central Park, a calmer walk. No intersections to cross, the park with its green on the left, distinguished older buildings on the right, and now, just up ahead, among the many food carts, one that sells smoothies. Healthy, right? We stop and look. There are more than 30 combinations you can choose from: strawberry, banana, lime, pineapple, ginger, honey, apple – in all sorts of mixtures.

It’s that time of the morning when I am not overly hungry but a smoothie, a healthy smoothie, with fruit and other healthy sounding things, sounds like the thing for the moment, and so my brother and I each get one, as the man in the food truck starts the blender whirring, and we each have a cool and presumably healthy drink as we continue our walk up Fifth Ave.

The sun is out, there is the sound of kids playing in the park nearby, we walk by a building somewhere in the 60s with the words “Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself” inscribed on its facade, we draw close to the Met where my brother, visiting from Rhode Island for the day and in the midst of a divorce, has wanted to see paintings by Thomas Cole of the wilds of New York and New England, these expansive images of open space and light. We stop a moment outside the museum as I retrieve my membership card, good for me and one guest, finish our smoothies which have been cool and refreshing, and go in. On days like this, this city is beautiful.

The Canticle of St. Francis

In these days of virtual everything, even as we emerge from the pandemic maybe more quickly than anyone expected, I try a virtual session for the parish on Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Creatures.” This canticle of Francis was composed by him in the year 1225, about a year before his death, and it’s a kind of summation of what he has seen and experienced in his life and now reflects back upon.

Francis, nearly blind, composes his canticle from the Church of San Damiano down the hill from the main town of Assisi, and it’s a hymn/song of praise to the created world: Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Sister Water, and onward as Francis draws from within himself his experience of simply seeing the wonder and beauty of God’s good creation. And it’s a reconciliation of sorts: his alternating use of brother and sister, of things forceful (wind) and receptive (calm water) almost mirrors his own inner reconciliation of competing forces within himself. He wanted to be a knight, a warrior, he wanted to be recognized by that kind of glory, and yet his experience of openness to God’s voice within (the mysterious inner voice he heard: “Francis, who is it better to serve, the master or the servant?” Francis’s response: “The Master”, and he is drawn more deeply into following the voice of Christ which speaks to him from the cross).

And so what of this Canticle today, nearly 800 years after its composition? Is it just a nice song/poem from the Middle Ages that sings the praises of God’s created world? Well, yes, on one level. But on another level it speaks to us of this man at the end of his life who has, through openness to grace, come to an inner sense of peace, and who by that is able to reflect that peace to the world and culture around him.

Francis of Assisi is sometimes reduced to being the “saint of the birdbath” out in the backyard. But there is more: there is deep experience in this saint of the presence of God working within his life, and we look to him as one who was open to receive that grace, and one who thus became an instrument of that grace in the world.

One morning in June..

Observations early on a Friday morning from behind a plastic folding table as I help hand out sandwiches to a long line of street people which stretches down the block….

There’s a near-developing fight between two guys who are in the line and then out of the line, going back and forth with each other from a little distance, out in the street, back on the sidewalk, in between cars. Is it real, are they posturing, will it lead to anything? Who knows how or why it started: usually one says something to another and that sets it all off, and usually it all just fizzles out.

The security guard is on it: he moves with the two of them, always staying between them, telling each of them to calm down and walk away. He’s good – he’s a big guy with a presence about him, and he also knows how to defuse things. The Bread Line, which is set up to run as a system with everyone in their place, each volunteer placing one thing in the bag, is now distracted by this street theater, by the rising voices, by the threats which pierce the early-morning 31st St. air. Everyone seems to watch, volunteers plus those in line, almost like the way traffic slows down to see the wreck on the side of the road.

Soon the two guys take their case further down the street, away from the line, and we hear an occasional raised voice and then we don’t, and then they seem to be gone. Later, after we’re packing things up, I say thank you to the security guard for his calm and professional work.

Meanwhile, that same morning, from across the street, a woman with her arms stretched toward us as she seems to be – maybe? – placing a hex on us. It looks that way as her voice takes on a repetitive pitch and she holds out her arms, and in this neighborhood, at this hour, who knows? And then she’s gone. The volunteer next to me at the table, who’s been around here longer than I have, says to me, I’ve seen it before, don’t be surprised. He places a cake in the next bag, and I place a sandwich, and it all goes on.

Toward the end of the line, all of us wondering if it’s a full moon or what today, a man appears in the line pushing a cart, and in the cart are more than a dozen pink roses. He hands one to a woman who is waiting in line, who thanks him for it. They both get their bags and continue on their way. Just another morning on the line…

A visit to the post office

One of the things I love to do here is to walk to the post office on 8th Avenue, which takes up two whole city blocks, from 31st St. to 33rd St. It was built I think in 1911. I walk out the door here at St. Francis, turn right, walk toward 7th Avenue which always seems to be the crossroads of everything with food carts, taxis, the crowds emerging from Penn Station, a big bright billboard by Madison Square Garden advertising what has to be the first indoor concert in a long time, Foo Fighters coming on June 20th. Another sign for the Eagles Hotel California tour arriving in August. Another one for Billie Eilish for next February. Life reemerging.

I continue to walk on 31st, crowds of people with headphones, more taxis, street people sprawled on the sidewalk with paper bags, talking to themselves, slumped against the wall, staring at nothing. I walk along, some addressed envelopes and postcards in hand, a closed Irish pub across the street, another entrance to Penn Station to my right, more people emerging, more people entering, a cross-section of everything, more food trucks ahead, Halal and kabobs and bottled water, and 8th Avenue with all its traffic going north.

The post office is now in view across the street and it is massive, like some ancient monument that is built to last for centuries. On the inside, in its lower levels, it has been transformed into what is now known as Moynihan Hall, and there is a sign outside that shows this, with an art-deco-ish “To Trains” sign over the entrance. It’s the new station for Amtrak, and I haven’t taken the train since I’ve been here, but it’s a major improvement over the Penn Station site which was cramped and crowded.

But it’s the post office I’ve come for, letters in hand, and I’ve always loved this simple idea of writing something on a card, sealing it, affixing a stamp (the Wild and Scenic Rivers forever stamp, of which I have another sheet left), and the act of ascending the regal steps of this post office, going through the rotating doors, walking over to the “Deposit Mail Here” slot, and dropping the cards in, knowing at that point that it’s out of my hands, that I’ve written my words, sealed the envelope, stamped it, and now other people will take what I’ve written and bring it to the address on the envelope.

I drop them in, I imagine they will arrive in 3-4 days, that it’s not instant like an email, but that a letter or card is tangible, an actual physical thing that can be held, opened, kept, re-read. Maybe it’s that I want more room for the actual in a more and more virtual world. And there’s a satisfying sense of waiting: it won’t arrive tomorrow or the next day, but it will arrive, in a mailbox, its journey from this big city on the east coast to a place in the South, or maybe up north, or to rural western New York State.

I drop them in, look after them for a moment, and then retrace my steps back here to St. Francis, the sun beginning to set in the west toward the Hudson, the letters with their words and images on their way, and for whatever reason, there is something deeply satisfying about all of it.

A day in the city with my brother

My brother took the train down from Rhode Island yesterday, and after we had a couple of slices of pizza at a corner restaurant on 33rd and 5th, we walked around the neighborhood for a while, and on those streets I never get tired of gazing up at the Empire State Building which looms over everything, an icon of 20th century art-deco design. We decided to meet up again at 4:30: he wanted to walk down to the site of the 9/11 Memorial.

It’s a long walk all the way down there, and we walked west on 31st St. toward Hudson Yards, then up the steps to the High Line, along that till it ended near the Whitney Museum, and then over to the Hudson River. We walked south along the river, with a cool breeze coming off the water on a very warm day. Sailboats out, some kayaks on the water; bicycles, strollers, walkers, all out on this sunny NYC day.

We walk and walk and walk and are soon near the Freedom Tower, and nearby the deeply moving memorial to 9/11. Twenty years this September. We look up, imagine the skies on that day. The footprints of the Twin Towers are there, now with the names of those who died on that day, and an endless flow of water in the empty space. The name of one of our friars – Mychal Judge – is inscribed on the South Tower memorial. It is after 6:00pm and so the memorial is closed, but we remain and look for a time.

We continue on our way, over to Wall Street to see the bull, and then turning back north, and we stop in Greenwich Village at a sushi restaurant for a glass of Japanese beer, sushi, and tempura. Not many in the restaurant, and the server comes by to refill our glasses of water and ask if we want another beer. Then back outside, early evening shadows and sunlight on the facades of buildings, and a walk up Sixth Avenue back to midtown. One of the great things about being back in the northeast: closer to home, closer to family, able to walk the city on a June day and spend the day with my brother.

Walking the High Line

There is an old elevated rail line that runs along the west side of Manhattan, built long ago and abandoned also long ago, which in the last ten years or so has been rehabilitated into what is now known as the High Line. It is no longer used as a rail line; it has been repurposed and reimagined as an elevated park.

There are a number of entrances, and the closest one to here is on 30th St. near 10th Avenue, and so sometimes I walk that way, walk up the steps, and begin to walk south along this old rail line. There’s a view. You can look down on the streets below. You can see old brick buildings which are now residences and shops.

And as you walk, you can see the old rail tracks – worn down, left as they were, a palpable witness to another time in the life of this city. There are sections with flower beds, with plants; there are seating areas so you can rest a while. There are a couple of food trucks selling sandwiches and gelato and coffee.

All the while, you feel sort of above it all, in a good way, walking along above the city traffic, with sometimes a view of the Hudson to the west, the sun sparkling on the waters, a distant sailboat against the New Jersey shore on the other side. The High Line ends right about where the Whitney Museum stands, and you can walk back down the steps, re-emerge into the life of the city at street-level, see what’s on view at the Whitney, and maybe walk back north along the Hudson. Cities like New York need this: a way of balancing a past and inviting a new way to be part of it. All there to be found!

Final Account

To the movies yesterday, to see “Final Account” which is a documentary about men and women of the Hitler Youth, now in their elder years, remembering what it was like to be in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, and the whole question of what did they know. What did they know? Some say they knew: smoke rising from camps, the disappearance of Jews. Some say they didn’t know. Most said there was a sense that you simply had to follow along, or else be shunned or worse.

It raises questions: what does one do in times like that? What does it mean to follow along, and what does it mean to take a stand? And, what does it mean to be human: signs that denigrate Jews, “Jews forbidden here,” “Do not buy from Jews,”, haunting stories of the Kristallnacht, the burning of a Jewish synagogue and Jewish homes as people simply watch, and strangely accept, what is happening.

What does it mean to be human? And not only in Nazi Germany, but in other times and other places, how easy is it to just say, that’s the way things are? How easy to go along with racial or ethnic superiority? In my “Give Us This Day” book which has all the daily readings for the month of May, a reflection on Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, who is described as a “conscientious objector and martyr” and who, during the war years in Germany, refused to take a military oath toward his country. For that, he was arrested, and eventually beheaded.

Such courage, such conviction, and that word “martyr” which means “witness”, and in this case, a witness toward a whole other way of being and way of life which refuses allegiance to whatever powers may be, and stands, often alone, for a witness to the gospel.

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