Awakening To The Presence

This trailer for an event next month exemplifies the Word Show seminar mentioned in this blog post. Read more and see other “Art Conversation Events” HERE.

I am always glad to find in another artist a similar experience in the life of creating. Researching last month’s post I began to get better acquainted with poet W.H. Auden who was courageous in his willingness to grow and change.

When Auden was a rising star in England, he saw that he was headed toward the temptation of resting in his popularity and turning out only works which would ingratiate himself to his followers. So, he looked for a place to live and work where he was not so well known and moved to America. This could have been professional suicide, but it forced him to be more his true self than his admirers would have tolerated. Likewise, he devoured books and associated with thinkers who challenged his assumptions. Similar to T.S. Eliot, this led him to face the Christian faith and the response that it called from him, again at the risk of rejection by the intelligentsia.

“The Time Being”

When I read Auden’s notes on the process of composing his long work “The Time Being” I found I was reading about my own experience of making art of sacred scripture. His intention was to create an oratorio around the Advent and Nativity of Christ. He saw it not as irrelevant religious dogma from the past, but as living and as present as when it happened. He discovered that he had already been in relationship to this story, and it was waiting for him to choose his response.

He had read theologian Paul Tillich’s The Interpretation of History and agreed with the concept of the “kairos moment” which is time not as an endless line of duration, but as a gift to which all must respond. So, his telling of the story was that of seeing the timeless phenomenon through modern eyes and responding as authentically as he could.

He tried to honor the spiritual meaning of the story outside the confines of measured time by telling it in contemporary language and form. If he had attempted to render an “historically accurate” telling with all elements in first century detail, he would have given us a mere archeological curiosity. On the other hand, if he had thoroughly imposed his imagination and made it his own story, it would have become a fairy tale, a passing entertainment irrelevant to the story awaiting our response.

Like My Childhood

What Auden was doing in “The Time Being” is the kind of work I have been doing since childhood when I was aware that I lived in The Presence and that when I repeated scripture, I was giving voice now to what was present when the writer put it to parchment, and which had been present whenever countless others throughout the generations had spoken it in their cultures. The spiritual life has been constant even as the languages and cultural vehicles have been varied.

The masters of the Renaissance were engaging The Presence in their culture by painting biblical scenes in the clothes and furnishings of their day, as were the rock operas “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Godspell”.

Problems always occur when we shift from loving The Presence to loving and exalting our cultures. We can avoid this by reminding ourselves that we are members of The Presence and so essentially timeless and connected to all cultures. I find that I need this reminder daily (and even several times some days) to throw off the delusion that I am separate and alone unto myself.

When I am distracted by the rush of the culture with all its troubles I need to remember where I come from, where I am rooted. This does not isolate me into a privileged zone, but connects me with everyone, for all of us are members of that mystical “body” Present. Believe me, awakening to The Presence is the way forward into the meaning of our existence, bringing peace and confidence to be who we are made to be.

Word Show Event

The art of retelling a sacred story is a call to relate to the larger community of past and future from our place in the present. I teach a seminar called “Word Show” in which I help participants engage with various kinds of stories but usually with biblical ones. We review techniques of stage and screen script analysis and character development in order to come closer to the timelessness of the people moving in the story at hand. In this activity it becomes increasingly difficult to disassociate oneself from ancient people who went through the experiences of the old story, and we find that we are participating with them in the response to the Spirit who causes our on-going story.