To Be or Not To Be

Alexander the Great, art, city, Civil War, cognitive maps, Creativity, Faith, Forgiveness, Healing, Holy Spirit, hope, inspiration, Painting, picasso, Reflection, renewal, Spirituality, vision

Hamlet’s famous soliloquy begins with these very words,”To be, or not to be: that is the question.” In seminary I learned one of those big fifty cent words I often had to check my dictionary for its meaning. Ontological is a word we don’t throw around in ordinary conversations. I never used it in a sermon, for its strangeness would have been a stumbling block to folks without similar training. Who am I kidding? It was often a stumbling block when I tripped over it in my reading. I finally understood it after my first year of Greek. I needed to know its meaning fully and completely to comprehend it.

Current events, however, make an auspicious teaching moment for this weird word. Ontology is a branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature and relations of being. Ontology is the the branch of philosophy which deals with abstract entities. It’s concerned with the nature of being or the kinds of things that have existence, but are outside objective experience. It deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space. Our word essence carries the meaning well, for it means “the permanent as contrasted with the accidental elements of being.”

An example of an ontological statement in scripture is the discussion Jesus has in John 8:56-58 with some of the Jews who opposed him:

“Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.”

Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”

Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”

In Shakespeare’s play of the same name, Hamlet’s whole soliloquy is about his existence, and whether he should live or die:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;

Ontology comes from the Greek root ontos, ōn, which is the present participle of einai, of the verb to be. As I’ve watched the unfolding horror of this “Russian special exercise” on Ukrainian soil, I’m struck by the sense of Hamlet’s description of the struggles of life:

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?

“To be” is the ontological insistence for the Ukrainians, for they desire to exist as a free people in a free nation. They resist occupation and occupiers. Dictatorship isn’t in their five year plan, or in their distant future, if they can help it. The surrounding nations have suddenly come alive in their recognition of Russia’s unfortunate foray into this breadbasket of Europe.

Yet even as the Ukrainian people are being killed in their streets, for no reason other than their citizenship; and their homes, hospitals, museums, and public buildings are reduced to smithereens by cluster bombs and artillery fire; they fight for their land and their freedom. I watch for one hour on the evening news, for I believe our world must stand witness to this horror.

Yes, some will turn away, for they have too much trauma in their own lives to bear the pain of others. Others will watch and say this isn’t our problem. If we remember our scripture, the chosen disciples abandoned Jesus in his hour of pain and need, but the women stayed by his side until his last breath. Then they came to dress his dead body’s wounds, but found an empty grave, while the men were holed up in a locked room for fear of the Jews (John 20:19).

Humanity is always our concern and when inhumane acts or conditions prevail, the human responsibility is to bear witness and to share the burden. As Paul writes in Galatians 6:2—

“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Hamlet muses on, dithering as contemplates taking his own life, but he takes no action for fear of what awaits him in the world beyond.

who would fardels (burdens) bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn (boundary)
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

While none of us know with certainty what lies beyond this world, for no one has ever returned with souvenirs, people of faith have trusted God to be always with them, even in the worst of times. As Paul writes in Romans 8:35, 37-39—

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Battle of Issus Mosaic, Detail: Portrait of Alexander the Great

Artists across the centuries have responded to the horrors of war, if they aren’t held in thrall to the purveyors of such deeds. Those who exist to magnify the glories of battle are there as servants of powerful leaders, not as representatives of the fragility of the human condition. Think of Alexander the Great and his route to deification, first as a glorious leader, then as a god.

The Alexander Mosaic depicts a moment of victory in Battle of Issus in which Alexander has broken through to Darius of Persia, whom he defeated and shocked, before Darius was at the verge of fleeing. The mosaic is as great as Alexander himself, for it’s about 9 feet by 17 feet in size and contains over 1.5 million individual blocks of color, or tesserae. This Roman copy of an original Greek fourth century BCE painting dates from the second century BCE and is in the Museo Nazionale, Naples, Italy.

Goya: The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid, or “The Executions”, oil on canvas, 1814, Prado Museum, Spain.

Here we see Goya painting the horrors of war and its impact on humanity. His inspiration comes from the French army’s assassination of a group of Spanish patriots during the 1808 rebellion. The Spanish heroes are illuminated by the intense light, but their faceless enemies aren’t easily visible in the darkness from which they operate. Not only does the design make plain Goya’s feelings, but his psychological understanding of the scene as well.

As Matthew writes in Jesus’ teaching kernel known as “The Sound Eye,”

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (6:22-23)

Picasso: Guernica

Probably the best known war painting of our modern era is Picasso’s Guernica. He painted it in response to the Nazi bombing of Guernica, a Spanish town in the Basque region during the Spanish Civil War. At about 16:30 on Monday, 26 April 1937, warplanes of the German Condor Legion, commanded by Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, bombed Guernica for about two hours. Germany, at this time led by Hitler, had lent material support to the Nationalists and were using the war as an opportunity to test out new weapons and tactics. Later, intense aerial bombardment became a crucial preliminary step in the Blitzkrieg tactic.

Guernica, Picasso’s most important political painting, has remained relevant as a work of art and as a symbol of protest. It has kept the memory of the Basque town’s nightmare alive. While Picasso was living in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II, one German officer allegedly asked him, upon seeing a photo of Guernica in his apartment, “Did you do that?” Picasso responded, “No, you did.”

Käthe Kollwitz, Woman with Dead Child, 1903, etching on paper. Courtesy: © Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Lest we forget, while wars are often started by those in power, it’s the mothers who suffer when young soldiers are killed in action. Some are fortunate enough to have the body of their loved one to hold, but it’s a sad consolation prize. How heart rending it must be for the families whose children were left behind as casualties of war. As the old Cold War era 1985 Sting song about nuclear war reminds us—

There’s no such thing as a winnable war
It’s a lie we don’t believe anymore…
We share the same biology, regardless of ideology
But what might save us, me and you
Is if the Russians love their children too.

The great sadness of this brutal war foisted on the Ukrainian people is while we’re free to see and own the pain inflicted on others, too many of us will turn away. Then again, we often have difficulty acknowledging our own pain and weakness, for we prefer to see ourselves as whole, strong, and unconquerable. All of us have a weak place and we all have an emptiness that needs to be filled. Some of us fill this emptiness by seeking power and control, while others choose various substances or activities to overuse. A few will let God’s Spirit fill us, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:7—

“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”

Cornelia DeLee: Obliterated Ukrainian Landscape, Maxar Satellite Image, Apple Pencil, 2022.

When I see the satellite imagery of the obliterated Ukrainian towns, I recall my childhood memories of the old ones in my family repeating their ancestors’ stories of the troubled times during the Civil War. I can easily imagine in Ukraine, for several generations to come, all the stories of pain, survival, and resilience that will be told as they rebuild their nation from the ground up. In the midst of this ongoing disaster, they’re already thinking “How can we build back better?”

This is a great lesson for all of us. If our life hits a major roadblock, we can either give up, scale the wall, or find a way around the wall. Another option is to make peace with the wall and find a way to be happy there. Since Putin is tearing down all the walls for the Ukrainian people, they’ve decided to double down on being Ukrainian. “To be me” is “to be free” and that means “to be Ukrainian.” As their land lies in ashes about them, those who once also spoke Russian, a similar language to Ukrainian, now find that language dead as ashes in their mouths.

Cornelia DeLee: Ukrainian Town Reduced to Ashes, acrylic on canvas, 2022.

To win friends and influence people requires a gentle hand, not the ham-fist of a dictator. I only wonder if the Russian people will ever understand this. But they may have been slaves of their state for so long, they don’t know the sweet taste of freedom. Perhaps only those who believe in a forgiving God, who allows God’s people the freedom to make mistakes and gives them through the reconciling grace of renewed fellowship, are able to come through such disasters. Those who are “sinners in the hands of an angry god” must think their fate is destiny and accept it.

So the questions remain:

  1. What IS the nature of YOUR God?
  2. How does God’s nature affect your understanding of human nature?
  3. Does your view of humanity reflect your image of God or do you see humanity through “God’s eyes?”
  4. Read the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-30 and answer the questions again

Some days I AM Joy and Peace,
Cornelia

Hamlet, Act III, Scene I [To be, or not to be] by William Shakespeare
https://poets.org/poem/hamlet-act-iii-scene-i-be-or-not-be

Why is the Alexander mosaic significant?
https://www.rampfesthudson.com/why-is-the-alexander-mosaic-significant/

The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid, or “The Executions” – The Collection – Museo Nacional del Prado
https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/the-3rd-of-may-1808-in-madrid-or-the-executions/5e177409-2993-4240-97fb-847a02c6496c

Pablo Picasso: Guernica
https://www.pablopicasso.org/guernica.jsp

Sunflowers and Shadows

adult learning, Alexander the Great, art, Carl Jung, Creativity, Faith, grief, Holy Spirit, Imagination, inspiration, Ministry, Painting, perfection, Plato, Prayer, Socrates, Stress, Ukraine

DeLee 2019, Drying Sunflowers

A sunflower follows the sun. Actually, only young sunflowers track the sun across the sky, while mature sunflowers face east. Why is this? Why do we care? As sunflowers fill our Facebook feeds and social media posts, most of us are looking at flowers so we can ignore the awful consequences of this unprovoked war. Right now, many of us are heartbroken because of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine. I had only a passing knowledge of this country because of its well known naïve artist, Maria Primachenko and her paintings of fantastic imaginative animals in gardens. They have always been a delight to my soul and a joy to my spirit. Many of her works include the sunflower, Ukraine’s national flower. Sunflowers have been grown in Ukraine since the mid 1800’s, and are not only an important export crop, but also a symbol of peace. When Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994, people planted sunflowers as a symbol of the peace they hoped would follow.

Maria Primachenko
A Dove Has Spread Her Wings And Asks For Peace (1982)

Sunflowers, when young, follow the sun on a 24 hour circadian cycle, just as our bodies have a similar cycle keyed to the light and dark. When the flowers are growing, they maximize their time facing the sun, but once they’re mature, they set their face toward the east, since this gives the head maximum warmth. Bees love warmth, so keeping the buzzing crowds near is in the sunflowers’ best interest for pollination and reproduction.

Heat map of sunflowers at different times of the day

Most of us prefer the sunny days. Clouds, storms, and distress aren’t our first choices. After the last few years of pandemic stresses, we’re unprepared for yet another crisis, even if it seems to be on a distant continent. Our own supply chain for reserves of caring and concern have been stretched thin by the nearly million deaths from COVID in our nation alone, not to mention the worldwide death toll of over 6 million. On Friday in Sam’s Club, I met a lady who complimented me on my flowered pants, which I was wearing in honor of the Ukrainian folk painter, whose museum had been bombed by the Russian army.

“I can’t bear to even listen to the news any more. It’s all so awful,” she said.

I should wear this shirt on Friday at Sam’s Club.

“I know. It reminds me too much of domestic violence cases, where the man decides he’ll punish the ex by killing all the children and taking himself out also.”

My blood sugar usually drops low on Friday after art class, before I eat lunch, so I don’t have my usual, civilized filter on my mouth. The look of awareness on her face was the sudden recognition of a truth she had refused to see before. Sometimes we need to face our fears and deal with them. This is the hero journey. None of us can travel it alone, but far too many fail to ever set out on it at all, even with a spiritual companion or guide. My failure to snack at art class upset her comfortable apple cart and caused her distress. She ran out of Sam’s in a heartbeat. I was able to chat with a baby and her mom later on, who was amazed her child wasn’t at all afraid of this stranger. Food is a medicine for my mood and a bridle for my mouth.

Morandi: Still Life of Bottles with Strange Shadow

On a sunny day, we can see our shadow. Most of us are afraid of our own flickering shadows. We don’t want to see the darkness within us, even though we’re ever ready to see the sinister images of others. Like a sunflower, we’ll turn instead to the light and only see the good, the beautiful, and the true.

A story I remember from my classical art studies regards Alexander the Great and the shadows. His father Phillip II, the ancient king of Macedon, had a difficult, high strung horse, which no one had been able to ride. In fact, it was downright vicious and unmanageable, which made it less of a “gift” to the ruler. Alexander, even though a youth, noticed the handsome horse was disturbed by his own shadow, so he turned the animal’s head into the sun, attached the bridle, and was able to mount him. Alexander rode Bucephalus until the horse’s death at the Battle of the Hydaspes in 326 B.C.E. In his honor, Alexander named a local city, Bucephala (sometimes identified with the modern Jhelum, in the Punjab province of Pakistan), after him.

Mosaic of Alexander the Great and Darius in Battle from the House of The Faun, Pompeii, 3rd century BCE

“Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes,” Carl Jung wrote to one Fanny Bowditch, on the eve of his entry into military service during the First World War. Jung believed as long as you looked at other people and projected your own psychology into them, you could never reach harmony with yourself. Jung taught all persons had a shadow side to their personality, or those aspects of ourselves which we’ve repressed. These may be both bad or good aspects, for some of us have yet to realize our own brutal natures, as well as the heroic figures which we’ve also buried inside.

DeLee: Endless Nights of Pain, Ireland, 1973

My old granddaddy was fond of saying, “When you point out another’s failings, you have three fingers pointing back at yourself.” I came to learn I couldn’t recognize the fault in others unless I could claim it also in my own self. This keeps one humble for sure, but it also keeps a person from thinking he or she has any godlike or dictator qualities.

This brings me to another famous shadow story involving Alexander the Great. After his father’s death, he visited Corinth, where Diogenes the Cynic lived in 326 BCE. Diogenes was famous for carrying a lamp in the middle of the day in his “search for an honest man.” In the most famous exchange of this meeting, Alexander asked Diogenes whether there was anything he could do for him. Diogenes, who was enjoying the warmth of the autumn sun, answered, “Stand aside to stop blocking the sun.”

Statue of Diogenes and Alexander

This abrupt response, showing Diogenes’ utter contempt for the power and prestige craved by Alexander, inspired many artists over the years. Although Alexander’s attendants took offense at Diogenes’ rudeness to their king, Alexander himself wasn’t displeased. Leaving, Alexander was said to reply, “If I were not Alexander, I would want to be Diogenes.”

When I brought these delightful images from Maria Primachenko to class, Gail and Mike were amazed at how bright, flat, and clean her designs were. Partly this is due to her use of gouache, an opaque water based color paint. She also uses repeated motifs, symmetry, and clean lines with sharp color contrasts to make her images “pop,” as the decorators say. Mike, who favors textures, was thrilled to see another artist who paints like he does. Gail was glad to process the distressing news through flowers and the yellow and blue of the national flag of Ukraine.

Gail’s Unfinished Painting

Often we don’t feel “safe” speaking about dark or upsetting experiences, preferring instead to bury them deep inside. This is maybe the worst decision we can make, for like a poison or an infection, what we refuse to bring to the light will fester and grow. Then it further sickens the body or the mind until it becomes unrecognizable and unhealthy. Perhaps this is when we move from being rational to irrational. As I always tell folks, “Just because you think the world operates on reason and order, doesn’t make it so.” By this I mean, we live in a world with accidents, change, disease, sociopaths, and greed. In biblical terms, we live in a broken and fallen world, one in which even those of us who are “saved by the blood of Christ” from the wages of sin are “not yet perfected in the love of God and neighbor.”

This is what it means as a Christian to carry the Jungian shadow within us. If we believe keeping a law is the best evidence of our faithfulness, we can overlook the moral quality of the law itself and find ourselves carrying out harm, rather than doing good. As the writer of Hebrews explains in the platonic argument of Christ’s Sacrifice Once for All:

“Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach.” (10:1)

Mike’s unfinished painting

If we want to be law keepers, we can’t be picking and choosing which laws we want to keep, as if the law were a cafeteria or buffet table. Jesus certainly knew what potholes lay ahead of him after his baptism in the Jordan River. A forty day fast in the wilderness is great for getting your head together and dealing with our human nature’s dark side of desire for security, power, and equality with god.

Maria Primachenko
Don’t Feast Your Eye’s On Other People’s Bread (1983)

I post my Artandicon blog on LinkedIn as well as on my various spiritual formation Facebook pages which I manage. I sometimes get a message from folks there. One was from a friend, who mentioned she really wanted to get back into her art, “for it brings her peace.” I tell people, “the process of making art brings satisfaction, but we’re not ever satisfied with the work itself.” If we were ever to be satisfied with the work, if we thought we could reach no higher, or if we thought so highly of ourselves that we’d made the last best artwork for all times, then we’d have to quit and make pancakes, until we’d perfected those. And then we’d find a new obsession.

Cornelia’s Painting with Nuclear Monster Destroying a Church

My favorite monsters are those from the Japanese nuclear monster movies of the 1950’s. They are both kitschy and scary. The sunflowers destroyed by these monsters of war will fall to earth and be reborn once again in ever increasing numbers. If hope is the last to die, it’s also the first to rise again. As long as one has breath, one can hope. As Paul wrote to the believers in Rome long ago,

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (15:13)

Making art is a metaphor for the hero’s journey. Jung believed art was important because often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain. We don’t know what battle or monster awaits, but we also don’t know what divine spirit will come to our aid. Along the fantastic inward journey, we’ll meet the very same creatures who are outside of us. They arise in our dreams, but they were planted in our awakening moments. We may have been turning our faces towards the sun, like the baby sunflowers or the horse Bucephalus, but soon enough we’ll trust the one who guides us and we’ll go wherever it’s necessary.

The journey toward Christian perfection in love is a heroic journey, one which we can only undertake with the help of the Holy Spirit. Along the way, we also travel with others on same road: mystics, saints, and holy persons from yesterday and today. As the old camp song refrain goes,

“And they’ll know we’re Christians by our love, by our love,
They’ll know we’re Christians by our love.”

Maria Primachenko:
May I Give This Ukrainian Bread To All People In This Big Wide World (1982)

The following prayer, Psalm 23, has comforted people for thousands of years in times of trouble and grief. Here in the English Standard Version, if you have fears, trepidations, or trembles, it might help you to calm your spirit. As you speak it aloud to the rhythm of your inhalation and exhalation of breath, remember those who have given up their lives rather than reject their faith: Christian martyrs in the Roman coliseum, Jewish martyrs in the holocaust, and democratic freedom fighters around the world. Let your voice be heard, even as their voice is being silenced:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
forever.

Joy, peace, and sunflowers,

Cornelia

The Mystery Of Why Sunflowers Turn To Follow The Sun — Solved : The Two-Way : NPR
https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/08/05/488891151/the-mystery-of-why-sunflowers-turn-to-follow-the-sun-solved

Alexander and Bucephalus | Department of Classics | University of Colorado Boulder
https://www.colorado.edu/classics/2018/06/19/alexander-and-bucephalus

Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine Is a Sin All Russians Will Bear
https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2022-02-24/putin-s-invasion-of-ukraine-is-a-terrible-sin-that-all-russians-will-bear

Carl Jung: “Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside awakes.” – Carl Jung Depth Psychology
https://carljungdepthpsychologysite.blog/2020/02/08/carl-jung-i-am-afraid-that-the-mere-fact-of-my-presence-takes-you-away-from-yourself/

Carl Jung – Archetypes – Shadow
https://www.carl-jung.net/shadow.html

Carl Jung: “Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.” – Jung Currents
https://jungcurrents.com/jung-hands-intellect-mystery

They’ll Know Are Christians by Our Love
https://www.hymnlyrics.org/newlyrics_t/theyll_know_we_are_christians_by_our_love.php