Pure act(s) for all Christians: dancing, paving and Van Gogh’s The starry night

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Abstract 

In this autoethnographic essay the author reports on his spiritual journey over a period of four years. A friend introduced him to Robert Lax and to his view of God as “pure act” when he sent him one of Lax’s poems, “The juggler”. Reading Michael McGregor’s gripping biography of Lax greatly enhanced the admiration he felt for Lax and filled him with a desire to understand how one should live a life characterised by pure acts. The expression of movement and fluency in the paintings of Vincent van Gogh, especially as seen in The starry night, then made him suspect – on a purely intuitive level – that personal engagement with these might contribute to a better understanding of himself as pure act – naturally under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He argues that we were, after all, according to Genesis 1:26, created in God’s image, to be like the Trinity. A visit to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art to see The starry night and to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in France, where Van Gogh had spent almost a year in an institution for people with mental health problems, followed, and these visits served as artistic and emotional stimuli in his search for the connections between Van Gogh, his paintings and the pure act. But it was only after reading Mary Lane Potter’s excellent reflective essay about the nature and influence of dance in her life that the author arrived at a nourishing and full understanding of the relationship between the Holy Spirit and his acts as a Christian. Potter empowered and energised him, and enabled him to develop what he rather hesitantly ventures to call a personally satisfying understanding, or working model, of how one might, should, and in fact – sometimes, at least ‒ does indeed act under the guidance of the Holy Spirit or in unity with God. He feels greatly indebted to Potter.

The ultimate aim of his essay is stated at the outset, namely to clarify and simplify the concept of pure act and present it as ordinary, everyday experiences or acts that are not only available to all Christians, but which could be, or indeed already are, seamless parts of our lives as we are in the process of living them. At the same time, the author wishes to make it clear that he will not attempt to provide a complete analysis of either God or of people as pure act or, for that matter, of any other theological concepts. In order ultimately to understand and apply the concept for personal spiritual purposes, he wishes rather to focus on how he has deconstructed and reassembled this historical concept, one that has been part of the spiritual landscape(s) for centuries.

During a workshop about aesthetic education at the Lincoln Center in New York the author read an explanation by Henri Matisse about the way he painted: 

Suppose I set out to paint an interior: I have before me a cupboard; it gives me a sensation of bright red ‒ and I put down a red which satisfies me; immediately a relation is established between this red and the white of the canvas. If I put a green near the red, if I paint a yellow floor, there must still be between this green, this yellow and the white of the canvas a relation that will be satisfactory to me ... (Greene 1970:309)

This explanation inspired the author to such an extent that he painted a landscape of himself and God in pure act. He selected yellow to represent God, blue for himself and brown for the earth. These colours were connected by red to represent the energy that flows from and through the universe. He received two positive comments about the painting and it contributed towards a better comprehension of pure act. Since both his father and grandfather were artisans, a random encounter with pavers repairing some broken paving blocks in front of the Lincoln Center triggered his interest in the field of workmanship. The field of workmanship ultimately emerged as a prominent theme of the research. He also viewed Van Gogh’s The starry night in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but the painting failed to elicit his interest at that stage.

The author and his wife then stayed in St Rémy for three days. The first thing they did was to walk the Van Gogh Walk, a one-kilometre walk connecting the centre of the town and the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole nursing hospital for mental health patients, where Van Gogh had lived from May 1880 to May 1890. Along the walk there are 19 reproductions of the artist’s works that had originally been painted in other locations. Applicable quotations from his letters to different people – mainly to his brother, Theo – appear next to the prints. By studying these, and by taking photos of Van Gogh’s room, some landscapes surrounding the asylum and of the asylum itself, the author then observed that Van Gogh had taken some ordinary landscapes and transformed them into extraordinary paintings. He also took some pictures of artisans erecting a roof. He came to realise that Van Gogh himself had been fascinated by ordinary people performing mundane acts, such as sowing and paving, which he painted. 

Reading Potter’s essay then followed. Potter had thought about dancing, and the author then immediately started to think about woodworking, lecturing and paving as the creative transformative movement between chaos and light. Potter described it as a movement that unites space and time, body-heart-mind-spirit, the self with the Whole. To her, dancing, and, in general terms, woodworking/lecturing/paving, became an action in which one’s experiences of an imagined world fused with the ordinary world in such a way that one is changed. A hovering over the waters of life, moving from chaos to light.

Potter then referred to Genesis 1:2, where the Spirit of God hovered over the surface of the waters before God said “Let there be light.” The author looked at the framed poster of The starry night in his office. Then, at last, it struck him like a bolt out of the blue: The starry night is a manifestation, a pulsating picture, of God’s Spirit hovering over the dark earth immediately before He said “Let there be light.” The Spirit of God hovered above the sleeping village, but at the break of day everything changed – as it has been changing for thousands of years since then. People start to act – like God. To be pure act, like God, one has to move and create – until moving and creating become one, almost indivisible act, a singularity. Because as we are moving and creating, we create and repair things: paving, wooden or steel furniture, houses, paintings, motorcycles, lectures, documents. But it is much more than that: we are created. A delighted us. Because God, after creating light saw that the light (time) was good, pleasing, useful. He saw that it was lovely. In Genesis 1 God saw ‒ on no fewer than seven occasions ‒ that what He had created was good. Potter describes this feeling, which is characteristically experienced after something has been created – as “ecstasy”. Even Van Gogh, forever plagued by feelings of despair, also experienced this on occasion. 

The writer then concludes that the trinity of moving-acting-ecstasy represents the essence of what it means to live a life of pure acting. He does warn readers, though, that since God rested on the seventh day we, too, should get enough rest.

Keywords: dancing; God as pure act; paving; The starry night

 

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans

Louter handeling vir alle Christene: dans, plavei en Van Gogh se Die sterrenag

 

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