During our quick trip to New York this week, we spent the better part of one afternoon in the Metropolitan Museum of Art losing all sense of direction and finding bits of wonder, love, and praise in many of the paintings, photographs, and sculptures that inhabit the place. Eventually, we wandered in amongst the Impressionists. I’m by no means an art critic, nor an aficionado, yet I know what moves me. Standing in front of a Van Gogh, Degas, or Monet is to stand in a thin place.
Yesterday, as we rode the bus from Grand Central to JFK, I pulled out my Harpers Magazine to stretch my mind a little and found an article by John Berger called “The Enveloping Air: Light and Moment in Monet.” Berger is one of the most compelling artists, writers, and thinkers of our time, which means he is also doing theology whether or not he intends to do so. As our big bus bounded through the traffic in Queens, I was reading about the current Monet exhibit in Paris and what Berger saw as he reexamined canvases he had seen again and again for many years, not unlike the way in which we will reexamine the scene that unfolds before us once more as Christmas approaches. To say the images of inhospitable innkeepers, curious shepherds, heavenly hosts, and a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger are familiar is to master the art of understatement. We aren’t looking at anything new, except that we are looking anew, which makes all the difference.
Or so it struck me as I read Berger on the bus. As is my pattern, from time to time, I offer a lengthy quote; bear with me.
Monet once revealed that he wanted to paint not things in themselves but the air that touched things – the enveloping air. The enveloping air offers continuity and infinite extension. If Monet can paint the air, he can follow it like following a thought. Except that the air operates wordlessly and, when painted, is visibly present only in colors, touches, layers, palimpsests, shades, caresses, scratches. As he approaches the air, it takes him along with his original subject, elsewhere. The flow is no longer temporal but substantial and extensive.
The air takes him and the original subject where then? To other things it has enveloped or will envelop but for which we have no fixed name . . . . Monet often referred to an instantaneity he was trying to seize. The air, because it is part of an indivisible substance that is infinitely extensive, transforms this instantaneity into an eternity . . . .
In rethinking Monet I want to suggest that visitors to the exhibition see the canvases there not as records of the local and ephemeral but as vistas onto what is universal and eternal. The elsewhere, which is their obsession, is extensive rather than temporal, metaphoric rather than nostalgic.
Yes, I know it’s a lot to take in. But mentally meander with me for a bit, won’t you?
The first house Ginger and bought was in Charlestown, Massachusetts and it was built in the 1840s. We renovated most of the house, and did much of the work ourselves – particularly the demolition part. As I pulled the plaster and lathe that was as old as the house off the walls, I found little trinkets that had been trapped inside for almost one hundred and fifty years and I thought about the air that had been sealed in by the builders who first brought the house into being. As I tore away the walls, I unleashed their breath and their stories that had been a part of the house down all the days. There were moments when it felt as though they were moving in the room with me, not as ghosts but companions. As I sealed our breath back into the walls, we became a part of the lineage Monet described: “the enveloping air offers continuity and infinite extension.”
The very atmosphere that surrounds us is what connects us, from the first breath of God that brought the universe into being to the first breath of the baby before Mary wrapped him and placed him in the manger to all the reenactments and retellings that will happen in our homes and houses of worship in the next couple of days. In the colors and shades and scratches and palimpsests of our own pageants and carols, we touch eternity for an instant, or with an instant – a moment when we are born anew, again together with Christ. The flow, as Berger says, becomes no longer temporal, but “substantial and extensive.”
My blogging friend, Bill Kinnon, wrote with wonderful indignation about some who see the need to bump up the cool in Christmas to reach those who only get to church once or twice a year. One church he mentioned spent eight thousand dollars on 3D glasses to wow the audience into wonder. All the tech tricks in the world won’t come close to how the shepherds felt when the angels came upon that midnight clear because the heavenly hosts were not about spectacle as much as story. They were painting the air the shepherds were breathing, connecting them to Bethlehem, to the Magi, and to all the Christmases to come, all the way down to us, gathering to sing carols in the middle of wars and recessions and loves and losses. We cannot afford for the story to become the stuff of nostalgia or manipulation. From the moment God breathed the universe into existence, the enveloping air has held us and connected us unflinchingly. To borrow Ginger’s gentle imperative to us each Sunday before worship, “Breathe in the breath of God and breathe out the love of God.”
Monet’s images have ended up on everything from t-shirts to coffee mugs, mouse pads to place mats, all of which miss the point just as everything from plastic nativities to 3D glasses don’t see the light in the moment at the Manger.
Berger closed his article with this thought:
One of Monet’s favorite flowers was the iris. No other flower demands so forcefully to be painted. This has something to do with the way they open their petals, already perfectly printed. Irises are like prophecies, simultaneously astounding and calm. Maybe that’s why he loved them.
“How silently, how silently,” wrote Philips Brooks, “the wondrous gift is given.” The night is far spent; the day is at hand – and not just any day. We are not waiting to be told a story to make us feel warm and fuzzy, or to be fascinated by some new-fangled telling. We are waiting for the dawn to break, for the Child to be born again in our time and our culture, for the shards of light to pierce our hearts in this moment, for the air that we breathe to connect us with all the enveloping air and the love from which we can never be torn away.