Kneeling in Morning Frost
Reflections on Art and Prayer
"Fragments of Mid November" by June Xie
Reflections on Prayer by Jay McDaniel
Selected Photographs by June Xie
Kneeling in Morning Frost
Reflections on Prayer by Jay McDaniel
In Response to June Xie's Fragments of Mid November
Kneeling in morning frost, I've lost touch with my fingers. I say to you: Tell me about the rains you taste, if they are sweeter on colder days. In a flurrry of late Autumn eddies, in a snowglobe of chattering leaves, I feel as I lie on you my cooling veins, my numbing skin, my hardened bones fall on you. Crush you, bruise you. Warm you, warm you. I say to you: Tell me, as I shiver now. will the sun ever melt me the way it melts you. Then, with each exhale into space our breaths spiraling out disappear into the puff of wind. Disappearing into a puff of wind, whisps: How many winter storms will break you. How many limbs will you keep. And how will you heal. And how many children will you birth in the spring.
I wonder if you can pray to November. Or at least with November. Surely a season of the year -- November, for example -- can be an icon through which we experience the sacred. I am pretty sure June Xie can pray with November.
Of course it all depends on what we mean by prayer. In Fragments of Mid November, I see two kinds of prayer: contemplative prayer and addressive prayer.
Contemplative prayer occurs when we fall into a pure awareness of the sheer suchness of the world in its particularity. Cognitively, this kind of prayer is an awareness that each moment in time is unrepeatable and that this very earth is sacred ground. Emotionally, it is a lot like Buddhist mindfulness: relaxed and alert attention to what is happening in each present moment. June Xie's photography is especially good at helping us be attentive in this way. This attention is not unlike a practice of meditation in which you rest quietly in an attentive state of consciousness, and some people use the word "meditation" to name this kind of prayer.
But let me be more precise. The kind of prayer I am calling "contemplative" is one of two forms of contemplative prayer. At least this is how Kallistos Ware explains things in his book The Orthodox Way (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995). He talks about two two kinds of contemplative prayer in the Christian tradition: contemplation of God and contemplation of Nature.
Contemplation of God is akin to a state of awareness in which rest quietly, without words, in the quietness of divine presence within the inwardness of the heart. Imagine two people on a November night, sitting on a couch watching a fire in a fireplace. Imagine further that they have no need of saying anything to each other or seeking any kind of information, it is enough just to be together. There is nowhere else they would rather be. Now imagine that, in a moment of prayer, you have the feeling of being in the presence of an embrace -- an arc of love -- that loves you like that. This is a moment of what Ware calls the Contemplation of God. It is not thinking about God - there may be no thoughts at all. It is resting in a love that encircles all things, you included.
The other kind of contemplative prayer, which Ware calls the Contemplation of Nature, is felt rather deeply in June Xie's fragments of mid november. Here is how Ware describes it:
"The contemplation of nature commences when I open my eyes, literally and spiritually, and start to notice the world around myself, to notice the real world, God's world. The contemplative is one who, like Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3:5), takes off his shoes -- that is, strips himself of the deadness of familiarity and boredom, and who then recognizes that the place where he is standing is holy ground. To contemplate nature is then to become aware of the dimensions of sacred space and sacred time. This material object, this person to whom I am talking, this moment of time - each is holy, each in its own way is unrepeatable and of infinite value, each can serve as a window into eternity...I begin to see my place as a human within the natural order...We are to see each stone, each blade of grass, each leaf, each human face in all the distinctiveness and intensity of its specific being." (118-119)
Thus this kind of prayer -- the contemplation of nature -- is not addressing a spirit beyond the world; it is not longing for something higher or deeper. It is pure awareness of the world at is presents itself in the here-and-now, in a spirit of wonder.
It seems to me that June Xie's photography, featured below, illustrates the spirit of what Ware calls the contemplation of nature. She photographs the unique, the particular, the odd and the strange, without judgment. Her images invite curiosity but not condemnation. An awareness of what Buddhists call the tathata or suchness. Ware calls it a sacrament.
On the other hand, as I watch and listen to Fragments of Mid-November, I see and hear another kind of prayer: the kind that addresses a spirit beyond the world or at least beyond the privacy and sometimes self-enclosed. I will call it the prayer of address, because it does indeed address an other as You. It can also be called the Communicative prayer because it finds its center, not merely in the inwardness of the heart but in a You with whom the heart is in dialogue.
In the monotheistic traditions this You is named God. Sometimes God is imagined, in the words of the poet Gary Snyder, as a "male deity residing three miles off the planet." But in the act of addressing the You these images are not what is important. What is important is that contact is being made with something rich and deep and beyond human projection. And it's not just contact it is communication. There is a sense that something or perhaps even someone is listening. Somehow, somewhere, there is a You.
One of the beauties of June Xie's video is that this You is not given a personal name. She does not say God, and I doubt that she would use the word, I get the sense that she could say Earth or Soil or November. These are fine names. But she doesn't really name the addressee. She simply says You. Her You is very palpable. It quakes and breaks and gets bruised. I am reminded of an essay by Patricia Adams Farmer: The Quaking and Breaking of Everything.
Amid the address there is a seeking in June Xie's video, but what she is seeking is not mere information. She is not seeking facts from a textbook or information from the almanac. She is seeking comfort and guidance, intimacy and connection. There is a longing. I am reminded of the poetry of Rumi and John of the Cross, where the You at the heart of reality is felt as a lover and the longing for connection is felt as both sexual and emotional and spiritual -- all at the same time. The longing for intimacy with the You is energetic in a deeply holistic way.
The You within another Person
For many people in our world today, the longing for You is expressed in romantic love. We turn to another person, hoping to touch and be touched by a love that nourishes and completes. As this happens the other person becomes a window through whom the light of You shines. The person then becomes, for us, a holy icon. It seems to me that something like this is found in another video made by Jane Xie called Luminosity, made with Monika Zaleska.
Of course, if we cling to them too tightly, they cannot bear the burden of infinity. We turn our icon into an idol. But if we hold them and they hold us with a relaxed grasp, remembering that they are vessels of the light but not exhaustive of the light, they become sunlight which melts our hardened or isolated hearts and we become that for them, too. As is clear in Luminosity, the desire to be warm -- to hold you and be held by you -- is a moment, a fragment in time, in which eternity is touched.
In this sense romantic love -- the desire to be warm -- is a form of prayer, as rich in its longing for intimacy as in the intimacy itself. Luminosity asks again and again: Do you love me? The very asking is a form of address. A prayer.
The You of the Earth
But June Xie's video reminds us that the You whom we address can also be found in earth and soil and sun, the chattering leaves and hardened bones. And, of course, with other animals, who are you's, too.
After all, says Thomas Berry, the universe is a communion of subjects and not simply a collection of objects. Jane Xie seems to sense the subjectivity of the world deeply and richly even though, as we learn in her video Aquaphobia, she can also experience it as strange and different. There is a kind of holiness in difference and strangeness that is alive with subjectivity, too, albeit unfamiliar to the formulaic mind.
Process theology proposes that the energy within the depths of the earth and the splendor of the stars, and also within the snow flow of chattering leaves, is subjectivity or feeling. The two perspectives -- Process Theology and the Earth-sensitive spirituality of Thomas Berry -- are very similar: see The Milky Way.
So when I hear June Xie addressing something deep and rich in november, I hear something that is literally true. Her video expresses something we can all feel in different ways. We may or may not be able to pray to God, however we understand God, but we can indeed seek meaningful connections with whatever small portions of the earth are available to us, in whatever seasons are available. We can pray to November.
The connection we seek may or may not be supplicating. We may or many not seek guidance or direction for our lives. We may or may not hope for a healthier future for ourselves and others: How many winter storms will break you? How many limbs will you keep? And how will you heal? And how many children will you birth in the spring? But we do seek connection. Whitehead says that part of wanting to be with God is wanting to be with someone who understands us and somehow embraces us in an arc of love. The desire for God is a desire for intimacy. A desire to rest in the arc.
As we seek this intimacy it is important not to be greedy. It is important not to want to contain the whole of it or pretend that we have it nailed down and placed inside mental coffins, scientific or poetic, secular or religious. Whether through the earth in November or another person, whether through the chattering leaves or our own cooling veins, we experience life in fragments, in episodes. Always, says Whitehead, there are the occasions of experience, sometimes linked into narratives and sometimes not. Our lives are those occasions. Always there is the perpetual perishing. They unfold moment-by-moment. As we realize when we share in the eyes of June Xie, every moment is an occasion for prayer.