Sunday, July 29, 2012


photograph by Sgt. H. Oakes, No. 5 Army Film and Photographic Unit
Imperial War Museum

"Evil is everywhere. Most of all in those who feel horror when they see it, as if they themselves were not capable of it. The lesson of Belsen is simply sin. My own sin."
--William Congdon

The Sabbath of History, with Meditations on Holy Week by Joseph Ratzinger, is a catalog of the work and reflections of painter William Congdon (1912-1998).  Congdon, an Abstract Expressionist and a convert, came to see the crucifix as his one, as the, subject.

In 1961, he observed:

"Our every experience finds it apex, its substance and ultimate meaning in the death and Resurrection of Christ, whose image is the Cross (instinct crossed by the spirit). For this reason, every subject that takes me to paint sooner or later reveals, better still becomes the Cross of Christ....Now, without looking for inspiration elsewhere, I always paint the Crucifix, because in it lies everything I have seen and lived so far until I have painted, and everything I shall ever see in the future; sum of yesterday and prophet of tomorrow: death and Resurrection."

I reflected on this as I contemplated the recent midnight shooting rampage, by a lone gunman, at a cinema in Aurora, Colorado. I thought of the Penitential Rite. I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned...

I have sinned. Not you have sinned, not they have sinned, not I wouldn't sin so much if everyone else acted better. This is no arcane, outdated ritual. It is a firm grounding in reality. It leads to the proper response to evil, which is not shock--the shock, given our profound spiritual hunger and our mania for guns, is that such tragedies don't occur more--but sorrow, contrition, bewilderment, and penance. To recognize my own sin paradoxically gives me hope because if I recognize it I can maybe do something about it. I am doing something by participating in Mass, by examining my conscience, and thus am saved, by my own actions combined with grace, from despair.

Without Christ, the tension of the human condition is too much to bear. Without Christ, tripwires, live grenades, and flak gear seem like logical solutions. "The joy and the peace gained through daily Mass and Communion with Christ released me from tension," Congdon noted. "His love, which transcended my own limited and carnal sentiments, led me to a freedom in which I was constantly renewed in body and in spirit."

On the night of July 20, 2012, twenty-four year old James Eagan Holmes reportedly opened fire, killing twelve people and injuring fifty-eight more. He was dressed in black and wore a gas mask, a load-bearing vest, a ballistic helmet,bullet resistant leggings, a throat protector, a groin protector and tactical gloves. He wore military equipment, in other words. He was dressed for modern war.

Crocefisso No. 90
(Crucifix), 1974
Oil on panel
Of the above painting, Congdon wrote:

"It is all flat squashed by lava flow, but trampled as if the traffic of 'sin' had crossed over it for or since all eternity, until the body, what was body, became a stain. It is the road of Bombay, it is the world that continually tramples Christ under. The tar of the road became Christ who became tar in order to let himself be flattened until he flowed in the fire of love, beyond any boundary. He flows everywhere, and even more in the splinters of the ashes like a bombardment of hate. It is everything: sin without limits. And yet, under and through the 'flow,' his shape remains, the image that redeems."

That movie theater must have been like a stain of tar that night: mayhem, trampled bodies, blood flowing like a river. Survivors say that also in that darkened theater, in a realm beyond space, time, and the reach of any camera, several people threw themselves on top of their companions, sparing the lives of their loved ones and laying down their own.

They weren't "following orders" as we all like to purport to when absolving ourselves of responsibility. They weren't dressed in flak gear or camo.

"I paint on black because painting is not representing a light that is and that's all, but rather participating in the light that is becoming out of the darkness."
The Dark Knight Rises. How ironic that Aurora means dawn.


  1. How eloquently that last photo speaks.

  2. Thanks, Jane, you know, I really agonized about including it. It's a shocking photo, an ugly photo. At first I was going to put up a photo of the people of Aurora holding vigil with their candles in the night. But I felt that would be too easy somehow, too pat. The light shines in darkness but the fact is, as Congdon points out, the darkness is ongoing and without Christ, it is impenetrable.

    The people of Aurora holding vigil with their candles is certainly a beautiful resurrection. But I don't think we get to let ourselves off the hook by thinking, well that was horrible, that evil, nutcase gunman, but look at the good people--MY people--with their candles. I think we have to look at a culture and a political system and a national conscience, or lack of it, that formed that gunman. I think we have to consider how we hunted down bin Laden and gleefully, triumphantly, blew him away. I think we have to look at the message our culture of violence sends to, say, a 24-year-old man, about how we deal with our adversaries in this world, about what we do with our anger, our loneliness, our fear, our hearts. I think we have to ask ourselves how we can be remotely shocked--given the TV, movies, books, talk shows we create, watch, and listen to--that a guy in full riot gear opened fire in a crowded theater. I think we have to look at that Abu Ghraib photo and say this is not an isolated incident. I think we have to look at the delirious lie in a culture that calls itself Christian and instead of loving its enemies, as Christ told us to do, tortures, maims, humiliates, and kills its enemies. I love my country and that very love means I mourn over her. So I think we have to look at that photo and mourn the woman in it, the prisoners, the victims and the perpetrator at Aurora...and we also have to say that on some level, all those people are me...

  3. Again, another powerful post. You always make me THINK. I thank you for that.

  4. This morning's Responsorial Psalm (Dt32)

    You have forgotten God who gave you birth.

    "Since they have provoked me with their 'no-god'
    and angered me with their vain idols,
    I will provoke them with a 'no-people';
    with a foolish nation I will anger them."

    The further we drift away from god the more foolish and senseless our institutions and the people become.

  5. Just as Charles Peguy said, we are the first to come after Christ and to live without Him. This is what it looks like. The pictures you posted are what it looks like.

    Thank you for what you wrote Heather, it was a breath of fresh air.

    You know, when Christ has come and gone, the emptiness is even greater than before. He expanded our hearts.

    What's left to fill the gap that remains after we have forgotten Him and our hearts recede from their true height? What is left to fill the gap that remains when the only answer to the breadth of our desire is torn from our history and passed off as a lie, an opiate?

    We are more wounded than before because now, the attempt to reach those heights no longer remains.

    We are frantic. Though we still search there is nothing to be found. James Eagan Holmes is what "nothing to be found" looks like. It has a face.

    But, this is a post-nihilistic world, where even nihilism is incapable of recognizing itself. Where the sign has no meaning.

    Christ is gone, and we are left with barely enough hope to rebuild our crumbling towers, towers that will never reach high enough. Desperation.

    We are post-desperation. We have resigned to the emptiness that remains when the tomb is truly empty. This is a world without the resurrection and these are the results.

    And yet, when Mary ran back to the temple after losing her Son, he rebuked her. As if we could ever truly loose Him...we must remember this if we are ever to face our sin, to face the nothingness. Because in the end, sin, this kind of sin, is nothing more than turning away from Him.

  6. Heather, that photo was spot on because it underscores everything you say; here, encapsulated in one scene, is my own tendency to blame and to wallow in self-righteousness.

    It is crude and shocking, but it adds the neccessary note of ugliness which we have to face in ourselves and in our culture. Yes, to my mind an image of candle bearers would have been less powerful for the very reasons you say; too easy to identify with,too soft, not challenging at all.

    I can imagine a wonderful lesson being given in some context (some "workshop" ey context) where participants are shown that photo and asked to respond from the gut, and where someone might begin to say, "But I have that in me, too."

    I still find it hard though, to make the connection with Christ. Yes, I am a Christian, and I want to know Christ more and more. Through your blog I am beginning to almost grasp some aspects that were closed to me before. This bigness of Christ; this intensity of loving Him in all things. It is so beautiful in you!

    I struggle with this "them and us" menatality that seems so prevalent in in the Bible. Through your writings, and of others, I begin to be released from this issue - and, I hope, to love my Saviour more. Bless you.

  7. Heather, your reflection and photos go to the heart of the matter, as always. We are all "tares in the wheatfield", though some among us on a truly tragic scale...May they, and we, find forgiveness and peace and "shine like the sun in the Kingdom" of our Father.

  8. Why did you put up the photo of ABU GHIRAB? A few in the military acted badly and they were punished-however it does not relate to the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado.

    Holmes murdered people and severely injured others.
    He is a murderer and he is not insane. What's more disturbing is that he was able to purchase weapons and equipment belong to law enforcement and the military.

    May GOD Bless all those who are suffering.

  9. Your post has given me access to my tears over Aurora... How well you describe the darkness "without Christ". Especially poignant to me, "without Christ, we fail to examine our own shadow and instead project it upon The Other" and I'm left wandering around in the cursed Edenic battleground of good and evil, trying to find my way to the top of the pile.

    This horror in Colorado is the horror of my own soul, I can only bear a glimpse if I dare to look. BUT THEN! The Resurrection of redemption! AMAZING grace!!

    Heather, as always, I'm grateful for your courage and honesty, and, as Jane says, sharing the "bigness of Christ; this intensity of loving Him in all things." and I'm stirred, too, by the dear folk who respond with such depth and thoughtfulness.

    Off now into the day, clinging to the Only Hope...

  10. I, too, am stirred by all the folks here who have responded with such depth and thoughtfulness. The Abu Ghraib photo, I'm thinking, is not a political statement; it's a reflection on metaphysical and existential reality which is what tends to happen when you put too much power, in this case, arms, in the hands of ANY human being.

    This morning I was reflecting: Think of the person I/you love, cherish, treasure most in the world. Then imagine that person had done something wrong--had perhaps hurt someone else you love--and THAT YOU DIDN'T KNOW HIM OR HER. Would you want to put yourself in charge of administering "justice" to that person?

    The point, as Christ amply observed, is that everybody, even "evil" people, are good to those they love. We find it easy to be merciful with the people who can do something for us: friends, family members, fellow citizens. But Christ calls us way higher and to what's way harder--to what's impossible, in fact, without him. We're called to love our enemies and forgive the murderer. Christ forgave his murderers even as they were murdering him. For the rest of us, it's a way longer, way slower, awakening/process. We have to dig deeper, look behind the curtain of concepts like "democracy" and "justice" and "freedom" and "family", and allow ourselves to be appalled. It's both the bad news and the good news: what's behind the curtain is us...


I WELCOME your comments!!!