Blessing of the Animals Service, October 6, 2019. Special thanks to the Albany Times Union for this photo.

Blessing of the Animals Service, October 6, 2019. Special thanks to the Albany Times Union for this photo.

This week the Cathedral of All Saints awaits Dr. Michael Ward to speak on Saturday about C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, with relationship to the Bible. (I must, of course, mention here that you can still get tickets here or at the door.) What follows is from the last paragraph of the Chronicles and if I am not mistaken, it was given to us at the beginning of the a two-year course in spiritual direction, Holy Ground, that I completed last May:

"……. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at least they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before."

I still don’t know exactly why the presenters chose to begin our course with it--I suspect because it points to how a course of seeking and praying to be present to God and others is an adventure that proceeds a greater adventure of being present to God and others. Indeed, “presence” is a word used often in spiritual direction. (It is the name of the foremost interfaith magazine of that trade.)

Something else on my mind is the tour I took last week of the Albany Institute of History and Art where a Van Dyck, recently authenticated by its collector and en route to greater glory, was displayed in the room of Hudson River School paintings. (Sadly, it has left, but you can still go to the Times Union to see it.)

The study of the old man is loosely painted, in contrast to the slick surfaces of the Hudson River paintings behind it. For all its earthy tones, the study shone more brightly to me than any sunset through its frankness of human flesh. The flesh was built from lighter, warmer tones than the relatively cool dark walnut color that covered the panel’s surface. (We now call that color “Van Dyke brown.”)

The model is supposed to represent Saint Jerome, but the man with the ruddy face could have been a day laborer, and any old sinner. My painting teacher used to tell a story about Leonardo Da Vinci’s model for Judas. The model said to Da Vinci when he was done painting him, “Don’t you remember me? You once had me sit for Jesus.” I don’t know if this story is true, but it could be. Jesus, who called himself “the Son of Man” is thought to have had an unremarkable appearance.

Tammis K. Groft, the Albany Insititute of History and Art’s director, pointed out how the man in Van Dyck’s study had impasto on his forehead that caught light. She said that the veins of his arms were one way the painting was authenticated. These are painted with an immediacy of wispy brush strokes, similar to, but less thick than the light on the forehead. Van Dyck likely revisited these areas of the painting when it was almost finished to add light paint. But unlike the Hudson River landscapes, he did not smooth or belabor his work.

Hudson River landscapes are often idealized versions of what the artists actually saw. Industrialization and deforestation were well under way when they were painted, and some artists thought of themselves as environmentalists preserving a disappearing world. But last week, the serene landscapes did not impress me. It was the fleshliness of the Van Dyck painting that has stayed with me as a meditation. I have not been able to forget it though, especially in the Albany Institute and in the Cathedral, I have seen so many interesting things since.

But have I really seen so many things since? In liturgy we hear that Christ makes himself very present to us in the breaking of the bread. But I don’t always feel present there, and seeing, I don’t always see.

I got down on the floor of the Cathedral to see as The Blessing of the Animals service brought dogs into the Cathedral and I drew portraits. I saw flashes of nervousness, fear, and excitement in bodies and faces in ways I would not have if I were not drawing. I tried to allow every view of writhing bodies to imprint on my mind so I could put them together into likenesses. I enjoyed the company of Sally Easterly painting dogs on my left. All of us enjoyed observing the dogs and made portraits of them together through telling stories about them.

Dogs are open-hearted—they are unable to hide what they are. We bless them for that and recognize that they are blessed in being that. Whatever they are is fully present to us. Even if we idealize them, they do not idealize themselves. If there was ever a person so fully willing to be known by us as they are, who gave of himself so freely, we might sense his nature as divine because, however good we humans can be, we find it hard to be fully present to each other.

Perhaps that Narnia’s Christ figure, Aslan, is a lion makes him believable? The picture of our Blessing that appeared in the paper of a brother and sister hugging their golden retriever, with the Dean blessing her, is Narniaesque.

If “liturgy” is the story we have written to help us worship, our assortment of furry and smooth bodies together in the cathedral for the Blessing of the Animals made liturgical sense. It was as though the animals’ ability to be utterly present complemented our ability to articulate hope and love, and that together we offered ourselves to God more fully than we could have done without each other.