Sunday, August 23, 2009

Enlarging the Vision

I mentioned last week that I was going to have some time with Br Adam in New York City, and I've been musing on that time since I got back. As it turned out, the time we had together was a bit different that I was expecting. I had been thinking about some outside stuff - perhaps a Botanical Garden or two, but temperatures close to 90 and the humidity hanging around 100% wasn't very conducive to outdoor explorations. A nice cool museum seemed much more attractive. So we did a couple.

I wasn't prepared for what happened in either place. As it turns out, I spent 2 days being pretty well blown away.

The first place we went to was the Metropolitan Museum for the exhibition of the "Hidden Treasures of Afghanistan". I was mildly interested in going to this show. I had wanted to see it if it turned out to be convenient, and expected that it would be interesting, if not compelling. Afghanistan is not a place from which I expected art of terribly significant import, but it's a place that has always been obscure enough to interest me. I have a fascination with out of the way exotic spots.

Only, during the centuries that the Silk Road was the major connection between Europe and Asia, Afghanistan wasn't at all out of the way. It was, in fact, right in the middle of things. The world came to their doorstep, and it started coming very early. The exhibition began with a single case from a society that almost nothing is known of, the dates being 3,000 - 4,000 BC. The objects in the case were broken bowls - hardly anything new, right? Broken bowls from several thousand years ago. How many of those have you seen in museums?

Only these pieces were pure, radiant gold, figured and worked in a very sophisticated way. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were wandering around the Middle East when these objects were produced by a culture that is still completely unknown, except for these bowls. This part of the world had a rich and varied art, which means a prosperous civilization, when everyone else was just barely getting along. Who were these people? No one knows. Yet.

That was just the beginning. There was a city founded by Alexander the Great on his journey of conquest across the area, which became a center of Greek culture and learning for centuries. It was laid out for us in a computer reconstruction, and I never dreamed anything like this existed. A well-known school of philosophy, skillful colonnades framing courtyards and public spaces. Baths and market places. All in the middle of the desert.

And then, from another era, warehouses full of goods to be sold. Painted glass from Rome, carved ivories from India, magnificent and varied pieces of all sorts, some of which betrayed the influence of Greece and Rome and India and Egypt and China - all in the same work of art! They are still exquisite 2,500 years later.

And next a burial ground from a nomadic culture, obviously wealthy and developed. But they didn't want to settle down like everyone else, so they took their wealth with them - in the form of gold. Rooms full of gold. Carved and beaten and hammered. A crown made to be taken apart, complete with a carrying case. Again, a life I never knew existed. Aren't nomads supposed to be pitifully poor?

I came away feeling that I don't know much about the world at all.

That feeling only increased the next day. We went to the Rubin Museum for an exhibition of Tibetan Mandalas. I know a bit about them - I know something of the symmetry and balance of this art form, and a small amount about the symbolism involved. I also know a bit about the circles within squares within more circles. I was looking forward to learning more of the symbolism and the history of these curious paintings.

What I didn't know was that these mandalas are actually maps: two dimensional maps of a three dimensional picture. They are meant to be unfolded in your mind and expanded into a palace, each piece of which has a rich and deep symbolism. And this palace is....... me! It is my spiritual journey - or the guide to my journey. It is my central space. It is the palace at the center of my being - the "Interior Palace" that St Theresa writes of.

This is all unfolded by computer presentations that are the result of a collaboration of the Tibetan Monastery in Ithaca and the Department of Computer Science at Cornell. These wonderful presentations show how the mandala unfolds to make this interior structure. The spiritual discipline that accompanies these mandalas means having will to follow this path to the inner reality pictured by them. They have obvious connections to a similar, less well-known art form in medieval Christianity known as 'The Cathedral of the Imagination". Who learned what from whom?

My perspective was so altered by this exhibit that by the time I was half-way through it, I couldn't take any more. My mind was already completely occupied and I didn't have any more space for the scores of mandalas laid out for my admiration. That will have to wait for another visit - and I mean to make one. Meanwhile I have some inner realities to attend to.

I came away from these two days feeling enlarged. My boundaries have been stretched. My spirituality has been significantly affected. I am not likely to become an expert in the history of Afghanistan nor a devotee of the path of the mandala (or even of the Cathedral of the Imagination). Inner complexity is not my path. But every time my boundaries get expanded like this I feel my spirit stretching, too. The "space" in which I pray gets larger. My meditation takes place in a larger "room". I'm embracing more of the world, and seeing more of the wisdom of those who have gone before.

I don't believe that I'm mistaken if I think that Jesus takes me this way, too. Investigating paths that are unfamiliar has the potential of surprising me into new insights, and gives me new eyes for the way in which the Christian path also expands my view of living and loving. I meet the Lord of Life everywhere, it seems. Now I just need the willingness to be faithful to those meetings.

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