“As far as I can tell, this will be my last Notebook from Hawaii this year. I am ready to leave later today and return to the mainland. It has been a wonderful time of renewal and restoration for me. One of the aspects of my life here and at Christ in the Desert is to live in incredible beauty.
I remember almost 35 years ago when a Trappist abbot commented to me that it is nearly impossible to lead a deep spiritual life in an ugly place. Monasteries that are founded in ugly places have to change them into beautiful places or they have to relocate. Part of our spiritual life has to include some awareness of our surroundings and an awareness of how those surroundings affect us. This is another aspect of living the incarnation.
Painter Lucien Freud, grandson of Sigmund, died last week. I haven’t been familiar with his work — though when I saw his portrait of Queen Elizabeth I remembered seeing it before. My friend artist Brett Busang wrote an insightful tribute to Freud over at Painting is Dead and So Can I. Below is an excerpt:
Over the next fifty years, [Lucien Freud] amassed a body of work like no other – aoeuvre that fed on his reclusive energy, which addressed the conundrums and comforts of solitude. Some might say he accumulated a freak’s gallery of people and personalities. And, to an extent, they’re right. His people are often scary-looking. Who sits in a chair like that? Somebody Freud summoned to his studio and said: “Don’t move!” Unlike Diane Arbus, who wanted to photograph freaks, Freud took a pop eye or withered flesh and distilled their humanity. He wasn’t afraid of what he might discover inside of a person as he or she sat and waited. Or drifted off to sleep. Or daydreamed audibly.
He managed to get at the soul’s captivity inside of a body that has grown out of proportion and become a smothering presence. He presumed to suggest that people need each other in spite of how difficult relationships can be. He looked deeply within, but was also able to create a dazzling color-scape that was not gratuitously postmodern. The bumps, bruises, and sores of the flesh have, in Freud, a formal counterpart. He pushes the paint into wavy channels that dive into the hollows and perch defiantly on the raised areas, which has a tactile presence even in reproduction.
Freud’s female nudes are glorious, fleshy. This is what incarnation looks like. Below is a poem by John Updike titled “Lucien Freud.” It pushes the way Freud viewed the body — gross and mysterious.
by John Updike
Yes, the body is a hideous thing,
the feet and genitals especially,
the human face not far behind. Blue veins
make snakes on the backs of hands, and mar
the marbled glassy massiveness of thighs.
Such clotted weight’s worth seeing after centuries
(Pygmalion to Canova) of the nude
as spirit’s outer form, a white flame: Psyche.
How wonderfully St. Gaudens’ slim Diana
stands balanced on one foot, in air, moon-cool,
forever! But no, flesh drags us down,
its mottled earth the painter’s avid ground,
earth innocently ugly, sound asleep,
poor nakedness, sunk angel, sack of phlegm.
I’m happy to say that my book Who Killed Donte Manning? The Story of an American Neighborhood is finally back from the printer! For those of you who know the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., I think you’ll enjoy reading about our neighborhood’s history–not to mention Washington, D.C., during the Bush era.
For those who are interested in urban ministry, urban mission, and the Judeo-Christian understanding of cities from the Bible’s Abraham and Sarah to the contemporary era, you’ll definitely find something of interest in Who Killed Donte Manning?
Here’s a snippet from the book’s foreword:
Rose Marie Berger has written a biblical essay on the neighborhood where she lives. I know the neighborhood well, because I live there too. Her provocative discourse is a theological reflection on “place,” which is a long-standing tradition in the Christian faith—a faith that is all about incarnation, the Word becoming flesh in place and time.
The particular “place” where this story begins is in Northwest Washington, D.C., on 13th Street between Euclid and Fairmont, on the sidewalk in front of the notorious Warner Apartments where a third grade boy named Donte Manning was caught in a crossfire of bullets and killed.
In 1993, the new First Lady had come to Washington. Hillary Rodham Clinton had invited a small group of people to her office at the White House to talk about the growing tragedy of youth violence in our cities, a situation of great concern to her. It was the first time I met Hillary Clinton. The meeting had an assortment of civil rights and religious leaders, urban and community activists, and heads of national organizations that cared about children at risk. I was impressed with Clinton’s understanding of the issues, her thoughtfulness and probing questions, and her clear desire to do something that would begin to address the problem.
When the meeting was finished, I came home to my house on 13th Street NW in Columbia Heights … to lots of yellow tape. Of course, I knew what yellow tape meant: Another crime had been committed here and the scene had been cordoned off by police. I learned that during the very hour we were meeting at the White House to discuss the problems of youth homicide, a young kid had been killed across the street from my house—on the sidewalk in front of the Warner Apartments.
I recall wondering at the time how many of the other participants in that meeting came home to yellow tape. It’s not that you know all the answers more easily just because you live there. It’s just that place yields perspective.
It is that biblical insight Rose illustrates in the story Who Killed Donte Manning?, a story that begins with yet another youth homicide on the 2600 block of 13th Street NW in Washington, D.C. Her biblical reflections on her place, and mine, stretch from Genesis to Revelation, and from Washington, D.C., to the coca fields of Colombia in South America. They describe what happens at the center of “empire” and the consequences at empire’s margins, which, in our city and neighborhood, is a journey of only about 2 miles.–Jim Wallis, Foreword, Who Killed Donte Manning? by Rose Marie Berger