I went to a reception this week. I wanted to honor a talented art student at the completion of her Senior Project, but much of my admiration ended up splashing heavenward. I guess that’s the sort of thing that ought to happen when we’re presented with something that’s well done. But it remains a rarity for me…. at least in its more spontaneous manifestations.
My friend’s a sculptor, and the culmination of the past four years of study had been placed lovingly in a friend’s yard. I won’t pretend to understand the techniques involved in creating this sort of work, but I want to have a go at describing what I felt when I first saw it….and maybe, a little bit of why.
An artist, I’m not (though I do have my moments with pork fat and flour), but I’m willing to speak as a human being, and one who believes our God not only dreamed up all of this stuff, but out of love for it, crept down into the clay of his creation and- like the child who takes the inevitable plunge after being warned away from the waters edge- emerged smiling, covered head to foot in the glorious mud. I’m not qualified to admire the specifics involved in the creation of this thing. But being a thing myself, perhaps the sculpture and I understand each other.
My youngest daughter went with me. She’s nine. On the drive over we talked about the significance of what our friend had done. I explained that just as our ancient story describes the creator’s fingers squeezing, gouging and smoothing form out of the ruddy earth, this young artist has echoed her own improvisation on what it means to be made in the image of God. It’s a tune thick with meaning and importance.
I was glad to have my daughter along. The thing, which had been balanced out of necessity atop a wooden palate, would be a chance to show my daughter all of these things. Truth is at its best when you can touch it. That’s what our faith teaches.
She held my hand and we walked around the fountain. A naked woman lay on top of a smooth slab of stone. Water flowed quietly around her, before trickling over the altar like lip of rock. Perhaps the similarities were unintentional, but I couldn’t help but think of biblical stories involving sacrifice, offerings and praise.
In looking at what the artist accomplished, I understood what each of us is called to do. We are to take the stuff of this world- things like wheat and juice- and transform it into the bread and wine of Eucharist. Surely, creation channels the glory of God, but we’re privileged to polish it into a blinding brilliance.
I knew my daughter was catching the enchantment of this as she rubbed her hand along the bronze contours of the reclining figure. I could see it- not in some supposed glow “down deep in her heart,” but in the concentration on her young face, and in the smile she gave me when she looked up.
The figure was beautiful, and she was solid, and it was her very physicality that gave her value. This was the lesson that my daughter’s age allowed the two of us to talk about. She was being inoculated against the vapid Gnosticism so prevalent among American Evangelicals.
There were other lessons, too- tacit one’s that she’s only beginning to understand in part, though unable to express. Participating in that evening made her wiser- but she’s probably not aware of it. After all, it didn’t seem like a lesson; it felt like a gathering of friends. It didn’t appear to be a thesis; it looked like a beautiful lady.
While the year’s first lightening bugs flashed softly between the people who were mingling outside, smiling faces caught up on each others lives; loving hands served carefully prepared food; children laughed, respectable grown-ups talked of church… and in the middle of it all sat the occasion- the naked form of a woman.
Naked bodies are certainly commonplace in our world. There is nothing new in that for my daughter to learn, but this exhibition was as counter-cultural as can be imagined. Part of this came from the gathering itself. Godly and mature men and women acted like godly and mature men and women. There was no prudish contempt; there were no embarrassed giggles or defensive inattention. Instead, there was nakedness… and respect, and concern and admiration.
I was so glad my daughter experienced this.
The bodies of men and women are intensely important. This is a simple fact in every imaginable part of our lives, but it is especially and awkwardly so in that part of our existence that nudity immediately brings to mind. We all know this to be true; one day my daughter will feel it for herself. Though often situated among the “base” elements we share with the animals, it seems to be the case that the constant awareness of attractive people is one of the things that separates humanity from the other creatures. It was God’s idea. It is what it is, and we should add our “Amen” to his.
The world understands the body’s power but names it incorrectly. They claim that it is what it isn’t. Their story is prevalent and attractive. In the vacuum created by the church’s silence, it appears artificially compelling. The people of God have a story, too. It differs from that of other peoples, not in its passion, but in the fact that it happens to be true. My daughter began to hear some of its plot lines standing around men and women who know the glory of being human precisely because they follow Christ- not despite of it.
So I wish to say thank you to the people who were there. St. Irenaeus said that the glory of God is man fully alive. They made that more believable for my daughter.
The other half of the clear antitheses of the evening came from the sculpture itself, and the fingers that formed her. John Paul the Great has pointed out that the problem with contemporary images of the human form is not that too much is shown; rather the problem is that not enough is seen. Bodies that were meant to reveal the person are served up without reference to an individual life. Breasts and bottoms we see; people we do not.
But this particular form belonged to a person. The artist made that clear with a story- solidly told. The curve of the sculpture’s body is awkward- though not unnatural. It’s a familiar one. She appears “in-between.” The position would be less than comfortable, if held for very long; in fact she’s seems to be caught in a moment of gentle, or perhaps weak, reaction, but what is she reacting to? We’re not told.
My limited imagination suggested two possibilities. The water that coats her resting place might speak to either one. A line of force seems to act on the young woman. It enters her body diagonally, moving through her right thigh and out of her left shoulder, or that’s how I envisioned it. The two poles dictate the narrative. One pushes; the other pulls.
If the source of her reaction is that closest to her feet, then she seems to be struggling against that which has beaten her downward. Her gaze looks for escape or help, her nakedness might be that of tragedy, and the moisture around her could be speaking of judgment. It is the water of Romans chapter six, Noah’s cosmic erasure, or Katrina’s fury. Do we see her the moment before she collapses, or are we watching as she begins to rise?
But perhaps that’s not it at all. Maybe, the unseen character approaches from the direction of her gaze. This is something altogether different. She is sitting upright and turns towards someone’s approach without covering up. Why? There’s no lurid sense of seduction- no Bourbon Street brashness. We’re seeing trust, risk and the magnificent gift of herself. It softly whispers of wedding nights and blessings. The water she bathes in prepares her for her bridegroom; it’s the baptism of Act’s chapter two; it’s refreshment, and delight and life.
Either way, the artist has made clear what every naked man or woman knows. To be uncovered is to be vulnerable. To be exposed is to be a risk. Like our Lord’s nudity before the mocking eyes of his tormentors, nakedness makes palatable the horror of people taking that which should only be received as a gift.
But it also proclaims the wonder of giving ourselves totally into the hands of another. There can be no true love with out risk.
Nudity does this powerful and universal psychological work because the body reveals that which is invisible. This lies at the heart of a faith that glories in the truth that the Word became flesh.
The human body, in all of its engendered specificity, tells the story of a God who eternally exists by giving himself away- Begetting, Begotten and Proceeding… world without end. In the shalom of an unspoiled creation, that echoes most brilliantly in the image of a joyful marriage bed. In Adam’s fallen reality, it takes the route of Maundy Thursday and Calvary.
The full disclosure of the wonder of the way of man with a maiden is still years away for my daughter. There is still much for her to understand about her Lord and the bride for whom he died. But there will be very little that wasn’t clearly spoken in the glazed clay and trickling water, that summer evening in St. Elmo.
She understood, but not fully… and she wasn’t aware that there was more to know. It was a tale, purely told.
It was my daughter’s story, and mine as well.