Saturday, May 12, 2012


Fra Angelico, 1437

Last week’s highlight was a visit with a friend to a wonderful local museum in San Diego, the Timken Gallery. One of the things that struck me this time is how up to a certain point all the paintings are religious. It seems that back then whole life turned around religion. Not until the Renaissance did art take the first steps away from that exclusive emphasis, giving us secular works that include Mona Lisa and The Birth of Venus. The Renaissance humanized art. Even in religious paintings, suddenly there is realism rather than pious stiffness; there is a delight in human beauty and subtlety of facial expression. There is sensuality.

And then after a certain point there is no great religious art; the great painters paint landscapes, portraits, mythological scenes, domestic scenes, still lives. Suddenly those with greatest talent in the visual arts are simply not producing crucifixions and Last Judgments, much less Assumption of the Virgin (that’s in the body, let’s not forget). That’s left to mediocre painters.

Nicholas Poussin: Return from Egypt, 1627

Poussin’s painting has its virtues (ahem), but is still mediocre in that the religious element seems tacked on, and the chubby toddler reaching his arms toward the cross in a gimme-gimme way that anyone can recognize as human and charming, but forced into some crazy scenario. And the cherubs – cute, but ridiculous and cliché. John Guzlowski made a very good observation about the piety of early works versus the clutter of angels and symbols later on – religious clichés.


Interesting painting. What jumps out at me is the blue of Mary's robe, the crisp lines. That's what the artist seems devoted to.


Even a wonderful painting like the Sistine Madonna is mostly about composition, the wonderful half-circle of the Madonna’s veil. We are thrilled by the ideal beauty – as well as charmed by the two cherubs. This is a triumph of art as art, a triumph of aesthetics. The stiff piety of Byzantine icons, where beauty is sacrificed to religiosity, is quite a contrast.

In early Western painting, we see a similar stiffness and awkwardness, the ugly, gloomy faces and misshapen, distorted bodies. Then, as we journey from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance, something amazing happens: the bodies and faces become realistic, and the Madonna is now a beautiful young woman. Once this trend toward realism and humanization becomes dominant, art tends to become less religious. It is now increasingly about composition, perspective, the harmony of colors. The halos, once large and solid as dinner plates, become faint rings and then disappear completely. There is less and less room for the supernatural.

Raphael: Sistine Madonna 1513-1514

A parallel to this decline in religious art may be this: early on the church could attract brilliant minds like Augustine and Aquinas, but later the best and the brightest did not join the clergy (or if they did – I'm thinking of a couple of famous cardinals – they became famous for their shrewdness in managing the affairs of the state, not for their piety). Genius flowered in other fields. Milton is probably the last great poet who was still centered on religion and, like Dante, tried to integrate classical mythology into a Christian scheme. Blake, marvelously heretical, was a religious poet only to a degree, and anyway he was against organized religion (“Brothels are built with the bricks of religion”; “Milton was a true poet and of the devil’s party without knowing it”).

So secularization started way, way back – I think already in the High Middle Ages, with the cult of courtly love – and then proceeded by degrees. Athens began winning against Jerusalem. And that’s seen in the arts and literature more so than in the development of science, which didn’t affect the wider public until Darwin. Once we started seeing evolution not just in biology but in geology, cosmology, culture, sociology of religion, etc – pretty much in everything – it was a powerful alternative explanation, a different mind set.

It so happens that John recently sent me a poem that, at least in part, records the transition from religion-centered worldview to the modern mentality.


He makes them with wood,
oak salvaged from crosses
left by the saints who've returned
to their bones to wait for the last part.

He pulls the nails out,
lays the plaster figures to the side,
washes the dark blood from the boards
and erases the shadows of sorrow
and those of redemption too. 
The boards are ready at last. Saved.

He stares into the sky and knows
each plank in his hands
is an orphan and a sparrow,
a prayer in his hands to Jesus
or Buddha or his dead father,

dead angels with rucksacks full
of sand and laughter on a road
that is always disappearing like snow
on red bricks in the sun.

Tomorrow he'll sit amid
apple blossoms and thunder,
among school children, and give
to each the bird feeders he’s made.

~ John Guzlowski © 2012


The recycling of old crosses into birdfeeders is certainly one use that seems to return to the earth that which is the earth’s. I love the “dead angels with rucksacks full of sand and laughter.” The sand could be an allusion to Waiting for Godot (Lucky with his suitcases filled with sand). And note that Jesus and Buddha and the carpenter’s dead father are pretty much interchangeable – a very modern element. This carpenter is “spiritual” in a broad way. We see a global fusion here: Buddha and Jesus, and also a kind of spiritual egalitarianism: a human being, here the carpenter’s father, is also divine, and vice versa: Jesus, Buddha, and the dead father are all human. As for the dead angels, they might stand for dead soldiers.

Any artist already has a religion – his art, so the subject comes after that. We know there was also the question of patronage, of paying Michelangelo his very high fees. And yet I do wonder – when secular art emerged, was it that religion no longer had the previous pull, and once the painters knew Greek mythology, they could see a certain equivalence? Michelangelo based his God the Father on the classical representations of Zeus, but that somehow still worked. Maybe as the knowledge of classical mythology spread, the thought that slammed the door of religion shut for me – “It’s just another mythology” – maybe that thought occurred to the painters as well?

John reminded me that T.S. Eliot, certainly regarded as a great poet, could also be called a religious poet. Yes, we have this exception. And Rilke too often deals with what might be called religious themes, but in a way that would be offensive to the more conventional times (to the Middle Ages for sure). In the previous post, we already have the discussion of my favorite “heretical” poem in his Book of Hours, but let me quote again at least the wonderful opening and the last line.

What will you do, God, when I die?
I am your pitcher (what if I shatter?)
I am your drink (what if I spoil?)
I am your garment and your trade.
When I am gone, you lose your meaning.
. . .
What will you do, God? I feel  afraid.

(tr. Mark Burrows)

The poem is a masterpiece of role reversal: god is the needy one, without meaning unless sustained by the human mind. Here it’s the speaker who is taking care of god, rather than have a parental figure take care of him – the opposite of the accepted idea. Stephanie Dowrick, in her narrow but interesting book, In the Company of Rilke, cites one of Rilke’s biographers, H.F. Peters: “While the Bible says that man is lost until God’s love finds him, Rilke implies that God is lost until man’s love finds him.”

Far from being omnipotent, this god is painfully needy. In The Soul’s Code, James Hillman says, “The old Greeks said of their gods: they ask for little, just that they be not forgotten.”Far from being omnipotent, this god is painfully needy. This is radical, given that the central theme of most Judeo-Christian prayers is “Lord, have mercy.” The faithful are humble petitioners, begging for god’s pity. In this poem we feel pity for this rather pathetic god – a lost and lonely god whose very existence depends on having worshippers.  

This is not as new as it might seem. In classical mythology, the gods needed humans, because who else would praise them and offer sacrifices? The gods were adored in hymns and ceremonies, but what they especially loved was animal sacrifice; the smell of the smoke rising from the altars was described as pleasing to the divine nostrils. (Why, if the gods consumed only the immortality-conferring nectar and ambrosia? Animal sacrifice probably comes from an earlier layer of archaic religion. In ancient Israel, animal sacrifice continued and the altars flowed with blood until the Romans destroyed the temple in 70 A.D.)

Arch of Titus  

It’s not easy to pin down Rilke’s ever-evolving metaphysics. He had a Catholic upbringing, but later he often proclaimed his dislike of Catholicism and all conventional Christianity. He was deeply influenced by Lou Andreas-Salomé, who believed that all gods were created by men. Those man-made gods, however, did influence their own makers; even if we create our own beliefs, those beliefs, collective and individual, can have a strong impact. An older Rilke writes in a letter:

Let us agree that since his earliest beginnings man has shaped gods in whom here and there were contained only the dead and threatening and destructive and frightful, violence, anger, super-personal, tied up as it were into a tight knot of malice: the alien, if you like, but already to some extent implied in this alien, the admission that one was aware of it, endured it, yes, acknowledged it for the sake of a sure, secret relationship and connection . . . Could one not treat the history of God as a part, never before broached, of the human mind, a part always postponed, saved up, and at last let slip . . . (Dowrick, p. 76)

I was quite affected by this paragraph. It threw me back to my teens, when I tried to guess the real reason Catholics were forbidden to read the Old Testament. The official reason was that “the lay person might misunderstand” the ancient text (not even available in Polish when I was growing up). Later, when I did manage to read it, in English (that “key to the world”), I saw the archaic rage and violence and tribalism. It was a very different god-image than that projected by Christ, who preached “Love thy enemy.” The radical discontinuity pointed to “the history of God as part of the human mind,” in constant evolution.

At the same time, both Rilke and Lou were fascinated by religious questions. One of Rilke’s conclusions was that belief was beside the point; one needs to experience the divine. But even more important, in my view, is the distinction between Rilke’s prose and poetry. In prose we get the thinker, the intellectual; in poetry, we get Rilke’s more mystical and feeling self. Hence in the poems we encounter a god-image that may be regarded as external and closer to the conventional concepts. Still, it seems to me that Rilke saw god, even if it’s the god who exists only in the human mind, as immensely lonely. And Rilke had empathy for that loneliness.

And he obviously continued to have empathy for what might be called the poetics of religion. The poem below the image of the angel at Chartres (a replica of the one sculpted around 1528; the original is in the crypt oh irony) is another great favorite of mine:


In the storm that rages round the strong cathedral
like a denier thinking through and through,
your tender smile suddenly engages
our hearts and lifts them up to you:

O smiling angel, sympathetic stone,
your mouth distilled from a hundred mouths:
do you not mark how, from your always-full
sundial, our hours slide off one by one –

that so impartial sundial, upon which
the day’s whole sum is balanced equally
as though all our hours were rich and ripe?

What do you know, stone-born, of our plight?
And does your face become more blissful still
as you hold the sundial out into the night?

~ Rainer Maria Rilke, tr, J. B. Leishman
   (slightly modified by Oriana)



Interesting poem.  Reminds me of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, the film about the angels who have to sit around with their sundials so to speak, watching the crushed lives of all us, the sorrow they feel. But some of them would give up eternity just to feel that sorrow – or sometimes joy – because they feel nothing.  

Here's a clip


I saw Wings of Desire a long time ago, when it was first released in 1988. It’s an amazing movie, pitying the angels for not experiencing human joys and sorrows. What a startling change that is: pitying the angels! What an homage to humanity, without denying our sorrows.

In German the title of the movie is “The sky [heaven] over Berlin.” Hollywood translated the movie into “City of Angels” – a movie that had its comic moments (“Mr. and Mrs. Plate”), but lost of the poetry of the original.


I saw the Wings of Desire fairly recently, maybe last fall. I had seen the American version with Nicholas Cage (City of Angels) and thought it pretty much Hollywood hokum, but the Berlin version really got to me. Maybe it was the sense of Berlin’s history, the war, that shadowed the black and white images. The film seemed to have more gravity. 


The Berlin setting brings in history to the movie, and thus the dark side of human experience. This makes the protagonist-angel’s decision to become human all the more poignant. Wim Wenders was born in 1945, so the shadow of the war hung over his childhood. And the movie was made before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But my favorite image from Wings of Desire is the angels in the library. That is timeless and universal. And the modern viewer can identify with the protagonist-angel’s desire “to live not forever, but now.”

The inspiration for the movie was probably the passage in Genesis in which some angels, finding the “daughters of men” beautiful, procreate with them; the offspring are giants (Nephilim). The idea that angels have sexuality is startling to us, since the Abrahamic god, unlike pagan deities, appears to be non-sexual (Kabbala later tried to imagine a divine consort who visits Yahweh on the Sabbath, but this never became mainstream belief). Yet some have argued that if man was created in the image of god, then god too must have genitals and sexuality. This is not something that organized religion, typically sexually repressive, is willing to touch with the proverbial ten-foot pole.)

That reminds me of my own “Angel Envy”:


“What is it,” the nun intones,
“that we envy angels?”
Angel-envying eight-year-olds,
we all shout, “Wings!”

“No, no, no,” the nun chides.
“Think about it: angels can
see God.” We think about it.
We still want wings.

“And what is it,” the nun presses on,
“that holy angels envy us?”
We squirm on the hard benches.
“Angels envy us our bodies.”

We almost stop breathing. 


“Angels are made of aura-like
material,” a New-Age half-nun
gasps in an ancient half-whisper.
“When two angels stand close,

their wings inter-penetrate.”
I think of Milton’s
Easier than Air with Air,
if spirits embrace, total they mix.

That’s what I always wanted –
blind Milton, how did you
divine – beyond the startling
rose of genitals, entirely

entering each other.


If spirits embrace . . . .

But can angels croon Mmmm . . .
Later, can they lazily
disentangle themselves
to get up and go pee?

Virgin nun of my childhood,
many years late I raise my hand.
In your black habit and unloved
black shoes,

how did you know
what the angels crave:
our bodies, soft as regret;
our laughter so much like pain.


While you sleep like Jacob
on his pillow of stone,
I still think about it:
we don’t want to see God.

We want wings.

~ Oriana © 2012



In your poem I love "god is not hard of hearing."

There is much to admire about the original ending. What was the objection to it? Maybe you could combine some of the lines??

Nature and god seem inseparable and mankind has always worshipped god through nature.

He or she seems more accessible and believable in nature. I have witnessed northern lights, green flash, double rainbows, geysers, icebergs, moons and sunsets to name a few and feel blessed by the sightings. Even Nature at its cruelest is astounding. Man's inhumanity is the exception.



The objections to the original ending of “God’s Hearing” were not clear to me. It was more the facial expressions, as if people were disappointed with it. It fell flat – perhaps because it departed from grandmother, god not being of much interest any more, an archaic ghost in a secular age. Maybe the “language of nature” ending made me seem religious and defending god's deafness? As if I were saying – and based purely on the text I can see how strangers might assume that – that god exists and is not hard of hearing, just replies in another language . . .  I guess that sounds weak when we contemplate the atrocities of the camps. When the inmates at Dachau watched the spectacular sunset, they didn’t think that god was trying to console them, or convey a message. But they saw how beautiful the world could be if only we eliminated human cruelty.

Humanity worshipped nature for thousands of years, but monotheism put an end to it. Nature was no longer sacred; man was to have “dominion” over it. The Romantics and Transcendentalists tried to restore the sacredness of nature, but what could they do against industrial capitalism and the kind of fundamentalist religion that sees environmental protection as contrary to the bible (think of Senator Santorum’s attack on environmentalism as a religion not based on the bible).

The insufficiency of nature as an object of worship was noted by Robert Frost in “The Most of It”:

. . . all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree-hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder-broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter-love, original response.
And nothing ever came of what he cried

Nevertheless, the only notion of god that still makes some sense to me is simply equating god with the universe. Yes, nature is amazing, and beyond good and evil. Alternately, I might entertain the possibility of a meta-cosmos, something inherent in the universe that has some attributes that humanity traditionally bestowed on its gods. New Age people speak about “cosmic laws” and “cosmic intelligence” and “the Light” in this manner. They try to cobble together various world religions so that only the best is preserved. But it’s still wishful thinking with no supporting evidence. The Secret is the best-selling New Age bible (outselling Frankl’s book: no surprise).

Still, that “fusion of the East and West” approach had a lot of appeal for me until I went to a lecture on karma and saw the old idea of justice as vengeance, and the old dogmatism (during the Q&A period, questions about the validity of the concept of karma were not permitted), along with blaming the victim. The speaker (an American Jungian psychologist who’d lived in India for a while) seemed taken aback by how much the audience treasured THIS life, rather than being eager to die and experience the wonders of the astral world (I’ll never forget his saying, “The flowers here on earth are nothing compared to how beautiful astral flowers are”).

Re: Viktor Frankl. Is meaning necessary for survival? It helps a lot and it can work wonders (e.g. when I knew why I was working so hard to master English, and could see how exceptional effort leads to outstanding results). But then for almost 20 years I had only a weak and shifting sense of meaning -- and a haunting memory of how wonderful it was to have a strong sense of purpose, a powerful goal.

When I had my perception shift re: depression, I threw myself into work even though it had no meaning for me – practically none. I wanted to be productive rather than stagnate in despair. Productive for what purpose? I had no answer. I decided to do it blindly (e.g. write the blog), without allowing myself to wonder why I'm doing it (and a friend didn’t help by saying, “Enjoy writing your blog. That’s all it’s good for”). Normally people are sustained by meaning, but at that point I did not have a sense of meaning. Meaning emerged later. 

Those first months after closing the door on depression were very exhausting. It was work, work, work. Nothing gave me much pleasure, and my memories of positive experiences were still blocked. But working hard was the only thing I knew how to do. That particular summer was very rich and brought me much writing material, though I couldn't afford to think if anyone would ever want to read what I wrote. I said to myself, work blindly; don't ask why am I doing this, don't ask where am I going. Even though I’m extremely introverted, I managed to establish my no-thinking zones. I had to stop thinking, except in terms of what to do or write next.

So I both agree and disagree with Frankl: it's wonderful to have a meaning, but based on my experience I say that it's possible to survive without a meaning in life, at least for a time, if you throw yourself into work simply to be doing something and kill self-centered cogitation – the answer lies outside. When I focused on what lay outside the suffocating labyrinths of my psyche, I could function quite well. Even such "blind work" (maybe analogous to "blind faith") can be salvation. Meaning doesn't have to precede activity, but can emerge from it, and/or from the healthier state of mind brought about by being active.

Of course I was very lucky to have had the skill and to have forged my own venue. And to have the intelligence and the talent, both mostly genetic. Luck all around!

And that has been one of my life's great surprises: after having regarded myself as unlucky almost as long as I can remember (with two magnificent exceptions: the last year in Warsaw, and the last year in Los Angeles – the beauty of it before loss), I came to perceive myself as exceptionally lucky.


I love that you are an atheist and the title of this blog is GOD’S HEARING. You quoted your grandmother and you are talking about God with love.

Love the portrait of grandmother Veronika, such a beautiful acknowledgement of her.

"The countries where life is most secure have the highest percentage of people who describe themselves as secular. " Yes, but I'd rather have less security and more liberty. Freedom from "security" makes me happy.

So brilliant how every paragraph brings a complete surprise and a different viewpoint. Great blog.


Just this morning I was pondering the idea, foreshadowed by Rilke and picked up by various writers and psychologists, that we each create our own personal god – though not out of nothing. Childhood indoctrination and other cultural influences certainly have a huge impact. So does our secular education, our peers, the books we read, the movies we watch, the popular culture and, to an extent that may be impossible to estimate, our life experiences (are we crying out for help?), and yes, especially in my case, family stories. For me god and Auschwitz were inextricably intertwined, though it wasn’t until adulthood that a thought ran through me, in response to “God will not allow it” – “If god allowed Auschwitz, god will allow anything.”

Hell and Auschwitz (Dachau, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, where one of my aunts died, Treblinka, Majdanek, and scores of other camps) were pretty synonymous: this was the heart of darkness, this was hell. In fact the camps provided more concrete imagery of suffering than paintings and descriptions of hell ever did. Instead of the stench of sulfur, there was the stench of bodies burning in the crematoria, the thick choking smoke that my grandmother saw already from the train. Yes, the camps outdid the depictions of hell, but hell had a special distinction: it had been created by an omnipotent deity, and the torture would last for eternity, non-stop. Pondering this, I knew: a deity that would design hell was not worthy of worship. That would be like worshipping Hitler, except far worse.

An answer to this might be that it’s humans who create hell, and I readily agree. Still, if we say this, we are rejecting the official view – not too clear in the Old Testament, but ingrained in Christianity, where the clergy used hell as their chief weapon of psychological terror. The more we go back in time, the greater the emphasis on hell – with the exception of early Christianity, where there were no images of hell and crucifixion and Last Judgment. In early Christianity, amazingly, we find an emphasis on paradise.

How different the Western culture would be if this emphasis had survived!

That paradise included brotherly love, agape. Many Christians know the word, but attempts to revive it have been few – perhaps it’s too late in history for that, and the figure of the punitive God the Father casts too heavy a shadow, overwhelming the charisma of gentle Jesus – who in any case is supposed to come again as a Judge, in spite of having preached non-judgment and forgiveness.

Only recently the church changed its official definitions of heaven and hell, designating them not as actual places (one in the clouds, the other inside the earth) but as states of mind. I am not sure if this has really registered on the collective psyche. And it’s possible that this comes too late to heal the massive problems that rose from “old-time religion.” At the same time, I can see how religious faith can sustain people in desperate situations. A lot of praying went on in Auschwitz and similar places, contrary to the prediction that the inmates would lose their belief.

But I digress. You are right that here I am, an out-of-the-closet public atheist who frequently writes on religious topics. I certainly am not about to deny that I had a devout grandmother and went through a period of being a devout Catholic myself. Considering my emotional intensity, it’s not all that surprising. The imprint on my psyche can never be fully erased. In some corner of my mind, I fully expect to go to hell because I have dared to think for myself. But that is a small, grimy corner. Love of life dwells elsewhere, in beautiful neural networks that could be called “many mansions.” 



The first thing that I noticed about Poussin's painting is the blue robe of Mary too. She also looks like a nun there.

I love the look of the Cherubs in Raphael's painting, thinking, "To believe or not to believe...."

Love the concept that God needs man.


That’s a fabulous idea that Raphael’s famous cherubs are thinking, “To believe or not to believe . . .”

Yes, the blue is striking, but I couldn't get over the “gimme-gimme” look of baby Jesus stretching his chubby arms upward toward the cross. It was that familiar look of a toddler reaching for something, anything, in the aisle at a grocery market, driving the parent crazy.

What drives me at least slightly crazy was that this mediocre Poussin was the loan in exchange for Timken’s great Rembrandt.

As I say in the post, the ancients took it for granted that the gods needed man because who else was going to offer sacrifices. Christianity was uncomfortable with the idea that god needed anything, even though god’s apparent need for incessant praise is a constant theme in the bible. Naturally, we start thinking how lonely and boring it must have been for god, so perhaps he wanted some fellowship? He’s mentioned literally walking and talking with certain favorite humans. Certainly long chats with Moses on the mountain can easily be imagined. But it took Rilke to say something as radical as, “Once I am gone, you lose your meaning.” Who says poets are wimps. 

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